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    Farm Size in England and from Early Victorian Times to


    Wales the Present

    T HE SIZE of farms cannot be said tO be a dominant theme in the agricultural history of modern England and

    Wales; the three essays on agriculture in a recent economic history of modern Britain contain no more than one passing mention of changes in farm size,' whilst the topic does not receive much more notice in agricultural histories of modern England.'- Further, most of the work on farm size in the last half century has been done by agricultural economists rather than agricul- tural historians. There was a time, however, when historians were more concerned with farm size, and much of their interest was aroused by two books published at the beginning of this century. Herman Levy argued that between I75O and r 850 the small farm was largely extinguished by two forces, Parliamentary enclosure and the favourable movement of grain prices rela- tive to livestock prices. J L and Barbara Hammond's book The Villa2e Labourer reinforced the view that enclosure was fatal to the small farmer.3

    No one now believes that the small farmer was totally eliminated between I7oo and 185 r. Sir John Clapham, using the Census

    ' E L Jones, 'Agriculture 17oo-q 8oo', in R Floud and D McCloskey (eds), The Economic Histor), qf Britain since 17oo, vol I, 17oo-186o, Cambridge, 1981, pp 6(:...-86; G Huecke], 'Agriculture during indnstrialisation', op eit, pp 18"-2o3; C O Grfda, 'Agricultural decline 186o-19|4', op eit, vol 2, 186o to the t97os, Cambridge, |981, pp 175-97.

    " C S Orwin and E H Wlletham, History of British Agricuhure ~845- 1914, London, 1964, pp "-84-5; P J Perry, British Farmi,g in the Great Depression 187o-1914: an historical lleqeraph},, Newton Abbot, 1974, pp I o I-o4; Edith H Wbetham. The agrarian histar), of England and Wales, vol VIII, 1914-39, Cambridge, 1978, pl z 44-5; B A Holderness, British agricuhure since 1945, Manchester, 1985, pp 127--8. H Levy, Large al~d Small Holdings: a study q[ English agricultural economics, Cambridge, 1911; J L and Barbara Hammond, The Villaf.e Labourer, London, 191 I.

    returns, was able to show that small farms, of over 5 acres and less than ~oo acres, were 62.5 per cent of all farms in England and Wales in I85I. 4 Since he wrote there has been comparatively little research on farm size in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but it seems agreed that there was a decline in the number of small farms and a growth of larger farms; however whilst Parliamentary enclosure may have often caused the demise of small farms, amalga- mation also went on in areas which had long been enclosed.5

    Prior to the I85I Census and the com- mencement of the agricultural census in 1866 there were no national statistics on the size of farms in England and Wales. On the period since statistics are available adequate statistics on farm size were first collected by the Board of Agriculture in 1885 ~ there have been two divergent views. Levy, writing in IgltI, argued that the agricultural depression of the 188os and I89OS, with its falling cereal prices and relatively favourable prices for livestock products and vegetables, led to the reversal of the long-term trend towards large farms. 6 Some forty years later a number of writers argued that from the I88OS to the I93OS there had been a slow increase in the number of small farms, and a decline in the larger farms; this trend was then reversed, with the large farm increasing and the small farm

    SirJolm Clapham, An economic histo U, of modern Britain:free trade atulstee1185o-1886, Cambridge, 1932, p 264. G E Mingay, 'The size of t;'mns in the eighteenth century', Eeon Hist Ret,,14, ,961-2, pp 469..-88; J R Wordie, 'Social change on the Levenson-Gower estates, 1714-1832' , Econ HistRet,, 2% 1974, pp 569-98;J V Beckctt, 'The debate over farm sizes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England', Agrieuhural Histor),, 68, 1983, pp 308-25,

    ' Levy, op eit, 1911,


  • i8o

    declining, v Others, possibly a majority, emphasized the stability of farm size struc- ture from the ~88os to the ~95os. 8 However since I945 there has been universal agree- ment that the large farm has increased at the expense of the small farm, although because of changes in the definition of a farm in the agricultural census since the I96os, it has been difficult to trace the more recent trends. 9

    It seems worth reviewing the trends in farm size since I85I on a number of counts. First, there are several ways of measuring trends in farm size, and these can give apparently contradictory results. Thus it will be shown that although the large farm now occupies more of the agricultural area of England and Wales than it did in I 8 5 I , the structure of farm size is very little changed. Second, there have been important changes in the way statistics of farm size are collected, and failure to note this may lead to errors of interpretation. Thus some writers have commented on the dramatic decline in the number of small farms in the r96os and I97os without also noting that the Ministry of Agriculture removed more than 50,ooo holdings from the census after I967 .' Third, it should be recalled that

    7 D K Britton, 'Are holdings becoming largcr or smaller?', l:arm Economist, 6, 195o, I-'P 188-97; F W Bateson, 'Farm sizes and layout', in F W Bateson (ed). Tou,ards a Sochllist Agricuhm'e. London. 1946, pp IO&-a3. G P Hirsch, 'The size of farm holdings in England and Wales'. Farnt Econ, 9. 1958, Pp 84-9; M E l~.uthcrtbrd and (; P Hirsch. 'The size oftarm holdings in England and Wales', l:,n'm Econ, 8, 1955, pp 32-41; Sir E J l~,ussen, Agricultlm': today and tomorrow, 1945, p 6; E J Thomas, Introduction to A Eamonffcs, 1949; Viscount Astor and B Seebohm Rowntrce. British Agrictdturc; the principh's ql]lhmre polio'. Harmondsworfll. 19,19.

    '~ 1) K Britton, 'Some explorations in the anah,,sis of king term changes in the structure of agriculture'. Jill A.~Iric l:,'cott. 28, t977, pp ] 97-209; D K Britton, The ch,u(i.g structure qfBrit#h agricMtun', Newton Abbot. 1968; 13 K Britton and K A lngcrscnt. 'Trends in concentration in British agriculture', Jill Agric/z'c0ll, 16, t964, pp 26-52; R C Hint, 'Structural policies and British agriculture', J d A qricEco., 24. 1973, pp 321-9; S A Robson. 'Agriculntrv structure in England and Walcs t955-1966; a quantitative analysis', FaiTh Econ, It, t97o, pp 46o-81; F G Sturrock and H J Gtmn, 'The development of large scale farming', llh'stminster Bank ReI,M+,, February, 1968, pp 59-65.

    ,o R Body, Agriculture: the triullq~h alld the sllame, 1982, p It; l) K Britton, 'Is there a case for titan income support?', in Centre for European Agricultural Studies, Agriclllturc: the triumph atld the shame: an indel~etldellt assessment, Centre tbr Agricultural Strategy, Reading, June, 1983.


    between I885 and I975 there has been a substantial reduction in the area of crops and grass in England and Wales due mainly to urban expansion, and that this in itself would cause a considerable fall in the number of farms even in the absence of amalgamation. ''


    There are various ways of measuring trends in the size of farms or agricultural holdings. One is to trace the changes in the total number o f holdings over time; unfortunately, for a number of reasons, this gives no necessary indication of changes in the total number of firms. Second, the average size of farms can be calculated by dividing the total area occupied by crops and grass on farms by the total number of farms. Again, this has defects: it conceals trends that there may be in different size classes, and exaggerates the importance of the smallest farms which make up a large proportion of all farms but account for a small proportion of the area occupied. A third method is to trace the absolute numbers in each of the size classes published by the Ministry of Agriculture, viz 5-5o acres, 5o--IOO acres, and so on; and a fourth way is to calculate the area occupied by each size class over time. But because there has been a considerable decline in the total area in crops and grass in England and Wales since the I88OS, due to the expansion of non-agricultural land uses, it is necessary to consider the strl:ctm'e of farm size; this can be done by calculating the percentage of the mlmber of holdings in each size class or the percentage of the area occupied by each size class. This distinction is important, for the structure by mmlbers showed little change from Victorian to recent times. On the other hand, there have been major changes in the structure by area.

    By whatever means farm size is measured, the results depend upon the accuracy and

    '~ R H Best, Land and living space, 1981.


    consistency of the statistical sources, which must now be considered.


    The only comprehensive survey of the size of farms in England and Wales was taken at the population censuses of I851, I86I and 1871, when householders who returned their main occupation as farmer or grazier were asked to state the size of their farm. They were instructed to exclude upland hill pastures from the area and presumably it was the area in crops and grass only that was returned, although rough grazing in lowland areas may have been included. Some of the returns are those of retired farmers, thus inflating the numbers. J C Morton, however, believed that retired farmers were no more than 2 per cent of the total, although a later study of Huntingdon- shire put the figure nearer I2 per cent.'-" More important, only those who regarded farming as their major source of livelihood returned themselves as farmers. Yet it is certain that many small farms whose occupi


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