Agricultural Revolution And The 18th Century Life

Published: 2021-07-04 20:50:06
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It is important here to focus on the words “18th Century life,” because – while the effects of the Industrial Revolution were likely more obvious in the 19th century, and were certainly so in the 20th century, in my opinion and in what I believe to be the opinion of John McKay, the impact of the agricultural revolution on life in the 18th century was the more profound. In Chapter 22 of “A history of Western Society,” McKay refers in speaking of the Industrial Revolution to, “…the long-term social changes accompanying the economic transformation,” and says that, “Factory discipline…weighed heavily on working people,” and that, “Improvements in the standard of living came slowly,” but he makes clear that this was in the first decades of the 19th century.
In Chapter 19 of the same book, on the other hand, McKay says that, “…England launched changes that gradually revolutionized agriculture. Plague disappeared and the populations of all countries grew significantly thereby encouraging the growth of wage labor, cottage industries and merchant capitalism. In agriculture and cottage industry…England and its empire proved most successful.”
What facilitated the Industrial Revolution was not the agricultural revolution in general but enclosures in particular. Before I get to that, though, this is a moment to step back and question the term, “agricultural revolution,” because a revolution is usually seen as something that happens over a short period of time and has as its object a definite change in governance – consider the French Revolution and the American Revolution – and that is not what happened during the agricultural revolution. McKay described “changes that GRADUALLY revolutionized agriculture,” (my capitalization) and that is exactly what happened.
Professor Mark Overton describes a process that lasted from about 1500 to about 1850. He refers to the individuals who are credited with transforming British agriculture: Jethro Tull, Lord Townshend, Arthur Young, Bakewell, Coke of Holkham and the Collings; and describes the common ideas that they “triumphed over a conservative mass of country bumpkins” and “single-handedly, in a few years, transformed English agriculture from a peasant subsistence economy to a thriving capitalist agricultural system” as “an enduring myth.” (He points out that “Turnip” Townshend was a boy when turnips were first grown on his estate, and could not have introduced them from Hanover; he also says that Jethro Tull did not design the first seed drill).
Overton goes on to describe the growth in the English population in the 100 years following 1750 from 5.7 million to 16.6 million, and says that improved agriculture – “more food being produced from the same area of land” – made this growth possible. . A convincing argument for the impact of the agricultural revolution on 18th century life is that “as each agricultural worker produced more food, so the proportion of the workforce in agriculture fell.”
And now, the enclosures, which I would argue had the most profound effect on life for the majority of the people in 18th century England and therefore supports my argument that the agricultural revolution had a more profound effect than the industrial revolution on 18th century life. Ellen Roseman says that, “Between 1750 and 1850, approximately 4000 Enclosure Acts were passed converting commonable land into the exclusive private property of large landowners.” . She goes on to say that, “…for the politicized working classes the Enclosure Acts represented a profound trauma, an extended moment in a narrative of dispossession that undergirded resistance to aristocratic power and urbanization.” . There can be little doubt that the creation of a politicized working class represents a very significant impact on public and private life.
As Rosenman points out, pre-enclosure England was by no means an egalitarian paradise but, “…the Enclosure Acts had a significant though not exclusive impact on the massive shift to an industrial, urban society in which agricultural workers lost whatever measure of economic independence they had possessed.”
Enclosures, then, were responsible for the move from an agrarian peasantry to an urban, industrialized proletariat. It would be difficult to argue that any greater impact on 18th century life could have been possible.
In 1999, Robert C Allen, now Professor of Economic History at Oxford University but at that time a professor at the University of British Columbia, contributed an article, “Tracking the Agricultural Revolution in England” to “The Economic History Review.” In it, he argues against the commonly held view that enclosures were what made the Industrial Revolution possible. “…the standard view assigned the (agricultural) revolution to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – during the period of parliamentary enclosures, WHICH WERE SEEN AS ITS CAUSE.” (My capitalization). Allen’s article shows that, in fact, open field farming was much more efficient than has been thought and the main effects of enclosure were:
To enrich landowners by increasing the size of their estates; and
To throw large numbers of people off the land, thus creating the workforce that made the factory system of manufacture possible.
For example, he shows that the increase in value of all crops and livestock raised in the parish of Canham in Lincolnshire increased after enclosure by only 5 per cent (from £3,881 to £4,076). This is further support for my view that the agricultural revolution, of which enclosures were a part, had a greater impact on 18th century life in England than the Industrial Revolution did.
Finally, I turn to Gregory Clark, Professor of Economics at the University of California, Davis, Ca. Professor Clark has done a great deal of research into the figures around 18th and 19th century English agriculture. He points out that, as late as 1861, of the average English farmer’s capital, only 11% was equipment and implements. Livestock was more than five times that, at 60%, and seed, labor, horse and cattle food amounted to 21%. . The figures would have been very different had industrial revolution been the driving force.
So there we have it. The agricultural revolution, at least during the 18th century (and probably for some time into the 19th) was much greater in its impact than its industrial equivalent, for which it may even be said to have been responsible – it is likely that the Industrial Revolution could never have had the impact it did, had the agricultural revolution not also taken place.

Allen, R. C. (1999, May). Tracking the Agricultural Revolution in England. Retrieved from Economic History Society:
Clark, G. (2002, June). The Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution: England, 1500-1912. Retrieved from Economics Faculty, University of California at Davis:
McKay, J. (1999). A History of Western Society. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Overton, M. (2011, February 17). Agricultural Revolution in England 1500 – 1850. Retrieved from BBC History Website:

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