1902 Encyclopedia > Agriculture > Recent British Agriculture: Remarkable Progress from 1795 to 1815

(Part 6)


Remarkable Progress from 1795 to 1815

The agriculture of the country was thus steadily improving, when suddenly the whole of Europe became involved in the wars of the French Revolution. In 1795, under the joint operation of a deficient harvest, the cutting off of foreign supplies of grain by the policy of Napoleon, the price of wheat, which for the twenty preceding years, has been under 50’s. a quarter, suddenly rose to 81s. 6d., and in the following year reached to 96s. In 1797 the fear of foreign invasion led to a panic and run upon the banks, in which emergency the Bank Restriction Act, suspending cash payment, was passed, and ushered in a system of unlimited credit transaction. Under the unnatural stimulus of these extraordinary events, every branch of industry extended with unexampled rapidity. But in nothing was this so apparent as in agriculture; the high prices of produce holding out great inducement to improve lands then arable to reclaim others that had previously lain waste, and to bring much pasture-land under the plough. Nor did this increased tillage interfere with the increase of live stock, as the green crops of the alternate husbandry more than compensated for the diminished pasturage. This extraordinary state of matters lasted from 1795 to 1814; the process of produce even increasing towards the close of that period. The average price of wheat for the whole period was 89s. 7d. per quarter; but for the last five years it was 107s., and in 1812 is reached to 126s 6d. The agriculture of Great Britain, as a whole, advanced with rapid strides during this period; but nowhere was the change so great as in Scotland. Indeed, its progress there, during these twenty years, is probably without parallel in the history of any other country. This is accounted for by a concurrence of circumstances. Previous to this period, the husbandry of Scotland was still in a backward state as compared with the best districts of England, where may practices, only of recent introduction in the north, had been in general use for generations. This disparity made the subsequent contrast the more striking. The land in Scotland was now, with trifling exceptions,. Let on leases for terms varying from twenty to thirty years, and in farms of sufficient size to employ at the least two or three ploughs. The unlimited issues of Government paper, and the security afforded by these leases, induced the Scotch banks to afford every facility to landlords and tenants to embark capital in the improvement of the land. The substantial education supplied by the parish schools, of which nearly the whole population could then avail themselves, has diffused through all ranks such a measure of intelligence as enabled them promptly to discern, and skillfully and energetically to take advantage of this spring-tide of prosperity, and to profit by the agriculture information now plentifully furnished by means off the Bath and West of England Society, established in 1777, the Highland society, instituted in 1784, and the National Board of Agriculture, in 1793 --- of which, however, more anon. As one proof of the astonishing progress of Scottish husbandry during this period, we may mention that the rental of land, which in 1795 amounted to £2,000,000, had in 1815 risen to £5,278,685, or considerably more than double in twenty years.

But of the causes which have influenced the agriculture of the period under review, none have been so powerful as the extraordinary increase of our population, which, in round numbers, has twice double during the past seventy years. Not only are there four times a s many people requiring to be fed and clad now as there were then, but from the increased which wealth and altered habits of the people, the individual rate of consumption is greater now than formerly. This is particularly apparent in the case of butcher-meat, the consumption of which has increased out all proportion to that of bread-corn. To meet this demand, there behoved to be more green crops and more live stock; and from that has resulted more wool, more manure, and more corn. While this ever-growing improvement, it has also operated in another way. The productiveness of the soil has been greatly increased, and will no doubt be still more so in future; but the area of the country cannot be increased. Land --- the raw material from which food is produced --- being thus limited in amount and in increasing demand, and necessarily risen in price. So much is this the case, that whereas the average price of wheat for the five years preceding 1872 was £2, 15s. per quarter, or £2, 7s. 6d. less than during the five years preceding 1815, the rent of land is much higher now than it was then, The raw material of the food-grower having thus risen in price, his only resource has been to fall upon plans for lowering their amount. To such an extent has he succeeded, that the produce market has been kept full, and prices have decreases. The business of farming has in the main been a less prosperous one than most other branches of national industry, and yet agriculture, as an art and as a science, had made steady progress. We believe it is only in this way that the contemporaneous existence of two things apparently so incompatible as a steady rise in the rent of land. And a steady decrease in the price of its produce, can be satisfactory accounted for.

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