Themes and Debates in Modern British Agrarian History

(Peter Dewey)


This course examines the agricultural sector in the British economy since c.1800, with special emphasis on farming developments and on farmers. Much of the interest stems from the highly exceptional nature of the English farming system, which by 1800 had evolved into a tripartite structure - landowner, tenant farmer, and landless labourer. The average farm was large by international standards, and invested heavily in the technology produced by the Industrial Revolution. This system is contrasted with continental European systems, which retained large and relatively unmechanised peasant sectors until after 1945. Debates and topics to be examined include: the reasons for the disappearance of the English peasantry; the degree of success of Victorian farming; the reasons (mostly perennial) for and against having a policy of agricultural protection; the success of agriculture in feeding the nation in the Napoleonic and the two World Wars; whether the British entrepreneurial spirit was sapped by the attractions of investing in landownership; why farming has become such a capital-intensive and large-scale business, especially since the Second World War; why contemporary farmers continue in business in the face of nugatory economic returns and growing environmental pressures.