Facets of 18th/19th Century Agricultural Improvements

Mike Davies-Shiel, August 1996

It is well-known that farming improvements are supposed to have begun with the breeding of better livestock in the mid to late 18th century. But, as the politicians would say, the fact of the matter is that it was not so simple as that! It was one thing to invent improvements, quite another to convince farmers that they personally should use them. In recent years open-evening walkabouts have done much, as also the excellent work done through Young Farmers Clubs. But old ways clung on grimly in many places e.g. flails to thresh grain were still in use in parts of Cumbria into the 1920s.

Parallel to the development of new breeds of cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry came machines to speed and get better yields from the crops of the day. The winnowing (blower) machine and the Scotts horse-powered threshing machine were both invented around 1800. The lightweight iron plough came into use only after 1830 and the wheeled plough not until the 1890s. Between these two dates, Westmorland’s inventors made so many improvements that sales of their ploughs enhanced the county’s reputation nationwide.

1836 saw Shorthorn cattle and Leicester sheep into Cumberland and Westmorland, and by 1840 guano (bird droppings from Chile) was largely replacing the old 120 gallon street casks collecting human urine to spray onto fields. Low Furness added seaweed and crushed seashells to the mix..

About the same time, the production on a large scale of field tile-drains from kilns across the area caused a major upset to the long-established watermilling industries. The instant run-off into rivers ruined expected flows, and all river regimes in the future became one of floods and droughts (see Westmorland Gazette Letters for c.1845). From 1838 too came many improved varieties of clover and grass seeds as well as thousands of gross of quickset thorn hedge seedlings demanded due to widespread Enclosure Acts from the 1820s. About this time too a 50-year old practice in Low Furness of sowing turnips as fieldcrops was taken up by farmers elsewhere, particularly those in the Vale of Eden. The upsurge of the sheep population there was spectacular!

The forge and foundry families were quick to spot new product outlets, opening new lines in edge-tool production – scythes, forks, spades and shovels, billhooks, hedgeslashers, ploughshares and the like; also turnip-choppers and chaff-cutters. Cumbria could boast well over 100 edge-tool forges. By 1850, illustrated catalogues showed all manner of tools, kitchenware, dairy goods, mowing machines, reapers, clod-crushers and harrows. Reproduction copies make fascinating reading today. Local waterpowered wiremills made cheaper fencing possible. The dairy industry got better horsedrawn butter churns and cheesepresses. Improved whitesmithing turned out pipes, copper kettles, basins etc. Glass containers of all sizes came from improved coal-fired glassworks. Other goods included wagon and cart-wrighting with leaf springs, blacksmithing and farrier work; also ladders, ropes, hayrakes. Imported fir planks and joists made for better farm buildings.

From c.1840 the process of limeburning was openly discussed in the local newspapers. In fact the first ever diagram in the Westmorland Gazette was of a new type of limekiln perfected in Galloway.

Since government help in the two World Wars (forced upon them by the U-boat threat) we have Atcost farm buildings, fertilizers and pesticides, feedstuffs mills, silage, cattle grids, and a host of other improvements, although today’s tractors at £50,000 a time make profits slim. Bring back the horses and the vet!

(Page created 14/11/12)