Agriculture in the Industrial Revolution

Heroes of the Industrial Revolution: 'Turnip' Townshend, Robert Bakewell, Coke of Holkham, Arthur Young.

The historian Arnold Toynbee created the idea that between 1750 and 1830, there was an 'Agricultural Revolution'. Toynbee and other historians of the time presented the Revolution as the work of 'heroes':

  • Jethro Tull promoted the use of the seed drill and the use of horses to pull machinery rather than oxen.
  • Charles 'Turnip' Townshend introduced the turnip and the Norfolk four-course rotation of wheat‒turnips‒barley‒clover onto his farm.
  • Robert Bakewell used selective breeding to develop the New Leicester sheep and the Colling brothers promoted the selective breeding of Longhorn cattle.
  • Thomas Coke of Holkham publicised these new ideas by inviting hundreds of people to his 'sheep shearings', ie agricultural shows.
  • Arthur Young wrote about the new methods and spread ideas more widely.
  • The Parliamentary Enclosure Movement was said to have destroyed the old three-field system and created the modern 'patchwork' of enclosed fields.
Illustration of inventor Jethro Tull's seed drill.
Jethro Tull's seed drill

The Agricultural Revolution

During the 1960s, economic historians questioned this view suggesting that the changes were not really the work of this group and that they were just very good self-publicists.

What we do know is that over the period 1700 to 1850 farming output almost doubled.

Recently, historians have suggested, again, that the critical period was 1750-1830. They argue that the increasing use of fodder crops grown for animal food allowed farmers to keep more animals, which meant more meat for market and more manure to put on the fields to increase crop yields.

Consequences of the Agricultural Revolution

  • Without the Agricultural Revolution, the growing population of England would have starved and the Industrial Revolution would have been stifled.
  • It used to be thought that enclosure displaced farm-workers to the towns, but historians now doubt this. In the short term, enclosure needed more labourers to build the farms and the fences.
  • In the long term, however, increased use of machinery meant that fewer farm workers were needed. They left the land and went to the industrial towns of the north of England.

The Agricultural Revolution can therefore be seen as very significant. Historians debate whether or not it is of equal significance to the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution certainly did more for the country’s development but may not have existed without the Agricultural Revolution.