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The British Agricultural Revolution describes a period of development in Britain between the 17th century and the end of the 19th century, which saw a massive increase in agricultural productivity and net output. This in turn supported unprecedented population growth, freeing up a significant percentage of the workforce, and thereby helped drive the Industrial Revolution. How this came about is not entirely clear. In recent decades, enclosure, mechanization, four-field crop rotation, and selective breeding have been highlighted as primary causes, with credit given to relatively few individuals.


Prior to the 18th century, agriculture had been much the same across Europe since the Middle Ages. The open field system was essentially post-feudal, with each farmer subsistence-cropping strips of land in one of three or four large fields held in common and splitting up the products likewise.

Beginning as early as the 12th century, some of the common fields in Britain were enclosed into individually owned fields, and the process rapidly accelerated in the 15th and 16th centuries. This led to farmers losing their land and their grazing rights and left many unemployed. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the practice of enclosure was denounced by the Church, and legislation was drawn up against it; but the developments in agricultural mechanization during the 18th century required large, enclosed fields in order to be workable. This led to a series of government acts, culminating in the General enclosure Act of 1801, which sanctioned large-scale land reform.

While small farmers received compensation for their strips, it was minimal, while the loss of rights for the rural population led to reduction in their diets and an increased dependency on the Poor law. Surveying and legal costs weighed heavily on poor farmers, who sometimes even had to sell their share of the land to pay for its being split up. Only a few found work in the (increasingly mechanized) enclosed farms for good. Many relocated to the cities or colonies to try to find their fortune or work in the emerging factories of the Industrial Revolution.

By the end of the 18th century the process of enclosure was largely complete.


Jethro Tull made early advancements in agricultural technology with his seed drill (1701) — a mechanical seeder which distributed seeds efficiently across a plot of land. It took a century and a half after the publication in 1731 of his Horse hoeing husbandry for farmers to widely adopt the technology. (However, although a pioneer in Europe, Tull was not the first to invent a seed drill; this honour can be traced back thousands of years to the East and Asia.)

Joseph Foljambe's Rotherham plough of 1730, while not the first iron plough, was the first iron plough to have any commercial success in Europe, combining an earlier Dutch design with a number of technological innovations. Its fittings and coulter were made of iron and the mouldboard and share were covered with an iron plate making it lighter to pull and more controllable than previous ploughs. It remained in use in Britain until the development of the tractor. It was followed by John Small of Doncastermarker and Berwickshiremarker in 1763, whose 'Scots Plough' used an improved cast iron share to turn the soil more effectively with less draft, wear, or strain on the ploughing team.
The Leader of the luddites, engraving of 1812
Andrew Meikle's threshing machine of 1786 was the final straw for many farm labourers, and led to the 1830 agricultural rebellion of Captain Swing (a probably mythical character comparable to the Luddite's Ned Ludd).

In the 1850s and '60s John Fowler, an agricultural engineer, pioneered the use of steam engines for ploughing and digging drainage channels.

Three-field crop rotation

During the Middle Ages, the open field system had employed a three year crop rotation, with a different crop in each of two fields, eg. wheat and barley, and with the third field fallow. Over the following two centuries, the regular planting of legumes in the fields which were previously fallow slowly increased the fertility of croplands. The planting of legumes helped to increase plant growth in the empty field due to their ability to fix nitrogen in the soil. Other crops that were occasionally grown were flax and members of the mustard family. The farmers in Flanders (in parts of Francemarker and current day Belgiummarker) discovered a still more effective four-field rotation system, using turnips and clover (a legume) to replace the fallow year. In addition to improving soil fertility, clover was an ideal fodder crop, so the improved grain production simultaneously increased livestock production. Farmers could grow more livestock because there was more food of higher quality, and the manure was an excellent fertilizer, so they could have even more productive crops. Charles Townshend learned the four-field system from Flanders and introduced it to Great Britain in 1730.

Selective breeding

In England, Robert Bakewell and [[Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester of . These methods proved successful in the production of larger and more profitable livestock.

Technology from Flanders

The British Agricultural Revolution was sparked in part by advancements in Flanders, including the aforementioned four-crop rotation. Due to the large and dense population of Flanders, which forced farmers to take advantage of every inch of usable land, the country had become a pioneer in drainage and reclamation technology. Many Flemish experts went to what is now called The Netherlandsmarker (then called Hollandmarker) and reclaimed land there. Finally, Dutch experts like Cornelius Vermuyden brought the technology to Britain. Selectively bred animals were of a better quality than other animals.

Effects on history

The agricultural productivity of Britain grew significantly in the period of the agricultural revolution. It is estimated that the productivity of wheat was about 19 bushels per acre in 1720 and that it has grown to 21-22 bushels in the middle of the eighteenth century. It declined slightly in the decades of 1780 and 1790 but it began to grow again by the end of the century and reached a peak in the 1840s around 30 bushels per acre, stabilising thereafter.

The Agricultural Revolution in Britain proved to be a major turning point in history. The population in 1750 reached the level of 5.7 million. This had happened before: in around 1350 and again in 1650. Each time, either the appropriate agricultural infrastructure to support a population this high was not present or plague or war occurred (which may have been related), a Malthusian Catastrophe occurred, and the population fell. However, by 1750, when the population reached this level again, an onset in agricultural technology and new methods without outside disruption, and also the effects of sugar imports, allowed the population growth to be sustained.

The increase in population led to more demand from the people for goods such as clothing. A new class of landless labourers, products of enclosure, provided the basis for cottage industry, a stepping stone to the Industrial Revolution. To supply continually growing demand, shrewd businessmen began to pioneer new technology to meet demand from the people. This led to the first industrial factories. People who once were farmers moved to large cities to get jobs in the factories. It should be noted that the British Agricultural Revolution not only made the population increase possible, but also increased the yield per agricultural worker, meaning that a larger percentage of the population could no longer work in agriculture but could and/or had to work in these new, post-Agricultural Revolution jobs.

The British Agricultural Revolution was the cause of drastic changes in the lives of British women. Before the Agricultural Revolution, women worked alongside their husbands in the fields and were an active part of farming. The increased efficiency of the new machinery, along with the fact that this new machinery was often heavier and difficult for a woman to work, made this unnecessary and impractical, and women were relegated to other roles in society. To supplement the family's income, many went into cottage industries. Others became domestic servants or were forced into professions such as prostitution. The new, limited roles of women, dubbed by one historian as "this defamation of women workers", (Valenze) fuelled prejudices of women only being fit to work in the home, and also effectively separated them from the new, mechanised areas of work, leading to a divide in the pay between men and women.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the substantial gains in British agricultural productivity were rapidly offset by competition from cheaper imports, made possible by advances in transportation, refrigeration, and many other technologies. From that point, farming in Britain entered a period of economic struggle which continues to the present day.

See also

Agricultural Revolutions:


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