Kentish Agriculture

Kentish Agriculture from the 16th to the 19th Century

At the end of Chapter Seven on the estates of Christ Church Priory, we saw that by the 16th century agriculture had regained a good deal of its former prosperity. This chapter begins with the 16th century, where Chapter Seven broke off, and gives a survey of Kentish agriculture during the following 300 years. Throughout that period agriculture remained the most important of the county’s industries, but it was carried on, as it still is, in several thousand units differing greatly in size and in efficiency. Changes in crop-rotation, in methods of cultivation and in farm machinery might take several generations to pass from the most progressive to the most backward farm. Moreover, farms vary even more according to the nature of the soil than according to the technical skill of the farmer, and Kent has such a variety of geological formations that even today there is less uniformity about farming than about any other indus­try. In the history of agriculture, to every general trend that can be recorded there must have been numerous exceptions.

Food-production is the main purpose of agriculture, and as a background to the history of these three centuries it is well to remember how much the demand for food was increasing—in other words, how fast the population was increasing. The figure for England and Wales in 1600 was probably about 4 3/4 million; by 1700. it was about a million more and by 1750 it had reached about 6 1/4. This was quite a slow rate of growth—half a million increase each 50 years—but between 1750 and 1800 the population increased by nearly three million, and between 1800 and 1850 it doubled, from 9 millions to 18 millions. By bringing wood- and waste-land into use the total area of agricultural land was somewhat enlarged, but the increase was small compared with the growing number of mouths to be fed. The additional demand was met partly by importing food and partly by improved farming and marketing methods. The extent of the changes which took place between the middle of the 18th century and the middle of the 19th—the period sometimes referred to as the Industrial Revolution—would almost justify the title of the Agricultural Revolution. One of the phenomena of this ‘Revolution’ was the number of books that were written about agriculture at the time, and much of this chapter is based upon information given in two well-known works: Boys’ General View of the Agriculture of the County of Kent (1796 and 1805) and Marshall’s Rural Economy of… Kent, Surrey, Sussex, etc. (1798), as well as one less well known: A Synopsis of Husbandry, being Cursory Observations in the Several Branches of Rural (Economy, by John Banister, gent., of Horton Kirby (published in 1799, but probably written ten or twenty years earlier).

But before coming to Boys, Marshall and Banister, we must see what was being written about Kentish agriculture two hundred years earlier by Lambarde and by Camden. Lambarde, writing in 1570, says:

The Soile is for the most part bountifull, consisting indifferently of arable, pasture, meadow and wood­land, howbeit of these, wood occupieth the greatest portion even till this day, except it bee towardes the East, which coast is more champaigne [i.e. open] than the residue.

It hath Come and Graine, common with other Shyres of the Realme: as Wheat, Rye, Barly or Oats, in good plenty … Neither wanteth Kent such sorts of pulce, as the rest of the Realme yieldeth, namely beanes, peason, tares … The pasture and meadow is not onely sufficient in proportion to the quantitie of the country itselfe for breeding, but is comparable in fertilitie also to any other that is neare it, in so muche that it gayneth by feeding.

In fertile and fruitfull woodes and trees this country is most floryshing also whether you respecte the maste of oke, beeche and chesten for cattail: or the fruit of aples, peares, cherries and ploumes for men … as for orchards of aples, and gardeins of cheries, and those of the most exquisite and delicious kindes that can be, no part of the Realme (that I know) hath them, either in such quantite and number, or with such arte and industrie set and planted ….

Touching domesticall cattel, as horses, mares, oxen, kine and sheepe, Kent differeth not much from others: onely this it challengeth as singular, that it bringeth forth the largest of stature in eche kinde of them.

Camden, who lived about the same time as Lambarde, also comments on the prosperity of the county: ‘Almost the whole county abounds with meadows, pastures and cornfields, is wonderfully fruitful in apples, and also cherries.’ Lambarde’s reference to Kentish cattle of all kinds shows that pastoral as well as arable farming was economically important (incidentally the statement that ‘Kent differeth not much from others’ shows that little progress had been made, by the 16th century, towards breeding types of cattle and sheep particularly fitted to regional conditions), and Camden also refers to the ‘herds of cattle’ that were sent from the remotest parts of England to be fattened on the pastures of Romney Marsh—not only horned cattle but tens of thousands of sheep as well. Sheppey, too (‘sheep-isle’) was renowned for its sheep-rearing marshes.The general picture of a prosperous agriculture which Lambarde and Camden both paint is a true one. Other contemporary writers mention, as an illustration of prosperity, the number of new farmhouses that were being built and the number of houses that had chimneys; previously, in all except the larger houses, there had been no chimney, but only a hole in the roof out of which the smoke found its way. Other evidence that agriculture was flourishing was the number of books written on the subject. Markham, an indefatigable author (or plagiarist) published The Inrichment of the Weald of Kent in 1631, and The Perfect Plat of a Hop-garden, written by Reginald Scot, a man of Kent, first published in 15741 went into a second edition in 1576.

It might have been expected that the custom of Gavelkind, whereby all the Sons equally inherited their father’s land instead of the eldest being the sole heir, would have militated against a prosperous agriculture by fragmenting holdings into units too small to be economic. In other countries partible inheritance has created peasant farming, as for example in some regions of Germany, where there was a proverb ‘Many heirs make small portions’, and in parts of Ireland, where similar tenurial customs have left their mark on the face of the countryside. But Gavelkind seems not to have had this effect in Kent, for a number of reasons. First, it applied only to socage lands, and in the many large estates held by other tenures, such as knight-service or serjeanty, the rule of primogeniture operated. Secondly, a good many large landowners, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries, procured Acts of Parliament disgavelling their lands. Thirdly, if land was inherited by two or more brothers they sometimes arranged that one would buy out the interests of the others or that he would farm it out on behalf of them all; in either case the holding was not broken up. Finally, the statistical chances were against a man being survived by two or more sons of an age to inherit his land, even though by the custom of Gavelkind an heir reached majority at the age of fifteen.*

In practice therefore Gavelkind seems not to have had the disadvantageous effects on Kentish agriculture that might have been expected. On the positive side, there were a number of factors that made for agricultural prosperity. Generally the soil is fertile and the climate is favourable. Another important factor was that the open-field system of the Midlands, under which a man’s holding lay in separate strips in different fields, never prevailed herei Under the open-field or champion system each man had to go at the same pace, and follow the same methods, as the rest of the village. Experiment was difficult, the go-ahead farmer was penalised, and everyone wasted time in getting from one part of his holding to another. Kent was a county of ‘enclosures’, each holding forming a compact area in which the farmer could introduce new methods and new crops as he pleased, without seeking the approval of his neighbours. Moreover, he knew that if he manured his land he would still be in possession of the same land in two, three or five years’ time, so that he would benefit from the expense and trouble. Comparing them with the ‘open’ counties, Thomas Tusser wrote in 1573 ‘enclosed’ counties:

More profit is quieter found
(Where pastures in several be)
Of one silly [i.e. simple] acre of ground
Than champion maketh of three.

More plenty of mutton and beef,
Corn, butter and cheese of the best,
More wealth anywhere, to be brief,
More people, more handsome and pressed.

Kent was not a county of great land-owners, once the monasteries had been dissolved and their estates broken up. The typical farm was perhaps a couple of hundred acres in extent, and the typical farmer the yeoman who owned the land which he cultivated. In such circumstances, there was nothing to discourage the progressive man from planting an apple or cherry orchard, or a hop-garden. ‘Hops, reformation, bays and beer’ according to the old rhyme ‘Came into England all in one year’. The statement is not accurate, but it is quite likely that the Flemish immigrants who brought with them the art of bays-making also introduced the cultivation of the hop. It has flourished in this county since the 16th century usually to the profit, but sometimes to the exasperation, of generations of Kentish growers.

Hops are amongst the crops that are grown not for consumption by the farmer and his family, but for sale off the farm for cash. In Elizabethan and Stuart England cash-cropping was the exception rather than the rule, but in Kent it was a more common practice than in most counties. That was because of the proximity of London and the market which it offered for the agricultural produce of the Home Counties. London was already eight times the size of York, the next most important town, and was called by a contemporary writer ‘the great mouth’: Lambarde refers to the extent to which the county was beholden for its prosperity to the nearness of the ‘populous city’ and its ready means of transport by road and by water. As, however, we shall see in Chapter Sixteen, by no means the whole of the county was well served for roads.

A century later the hop-gardens and orchards were the features which chiefly impressed Celia Fiennes when she made her journey into Kent in 1697. On her way from Sittingbourne to Canterbury ‘we pass by great Hop-yards on both sides of the Road and this year was great quantetyes of that fruite here in Kent’; from Maidstone to Rochester ‘I came by a great many fine hopp-yards where they were at work pulling the hopps’, and ‘from Rochester I went that night to Gravesend which is all by the side of Cherry grounds that are of several acres of grounds and runs quite down to the Thames’ (this must have been an exaggeration by Miss Fiennes for the river is, and was, bordered by marsh) ‘which is convenient for to carry the Cherries to London’. Defoe, surveying the country 20 years later than Celia Fiennes, described the districts around Maidstone and Canterbury as ‘the Mother of Hop Grounds in England’, and he too, referred to the export of fruit to London, from Milton Regis on the Swale ‘that is to say, Apples and Cherries, which are produced in this County, more than in any County in England, especially Cherries’. Perhaps one final literary reference is permissible: Christopher Smart, the poet who was born at Shipbourne and educated at Maidstone Grammar School and who demonstrated in his work and in his life how narrow is the line that divides genius from madness, wrote a long ‘Miltonic’ poem on The Hop-garden which was inspired by Virgil’s Georgics, but based on first-hand knowledge of hop-growing on his father’s farm. This is from his account of hop-picking in the 1740s; some of the practices and customs which he describes survived until recent years:

See! from the great metropolis they rush,

The industrious vulgar! They, like prudent bees In Kent’s wide garden roam, expert to crop

The flow’ry hop, and provident to work,

Ere winter numb their sunburnt hands, and winds Engaol them, murmuring in their gloomy cells …

From these, such as appear the rest t’excel In strength and young agility, select.

These shall support with vigour and address The bin-man’s weighty office; now extract From the sequacious earth the pole, and now Unmarry from the closely clinging vine

One thing remains unsung, a man of faith

And long experience, in whose thundring voice Lives hoarse authority, potent to quell

The frequent frays of the tumultuous crew

[Drying the hops]

On your hair-cloth, eight inches deep, nor more Let the green hops lie lightly…

but more it boots

That charcoal flames burn equally below… Constant and moderate let the heat ascend; When the fourth hour expires, with careful hand The half-bak’d hops turn over.

[Putting the hops into pockets]

When in the bag thy hops the rustic treads, Let him wear heel-less sandals; nor presume Their fragrancy bare-footed to defile.

Hop-gardens and fruit-orchards, being exotic, naturally attracted the attention of travellers and poets, but they were not the basis of the county’s agricultural economy and figure less prominently in the prosaic works of Boys, Marshall and Banister, written at the end of the 18th century. Their books are indicative of the scientific interest which was now being taken in agriculture, following the experiments of Jethro Tull with his ‘horse-hoeing husbandry’, of ‘Turnip’ Townshend with new crops in Norfolk, and of Robert Bakewell of Leicestershire in stock-breeding. Boys farmed at Betteshanger in East Kent, Banister at Horton Kirby in West Kent and Marshall was a visitor with a keen and critical eye, so from their three aceounts it is possible to gain a pretty complete idea of the state of agriculture in the county at the end of the century. Boys’ book was first published in 1796; it went into a second edition in 1805 and the numerous differences between the two editions show how rapidly developments were taking place during the intervening years.

Wheat continued to be largely grown, as it had been in the Middle Ages and as it still is. The area under wheat varied from time to time, depending mainly on the current market price; it was at its greatest during the Napoleonic wars, when the import of foreign corn was difficult. Part of the pasture of Romney Marsh was broken up, just as it was during the last war, and Cobbett, crossing the Marsh in 1823, found the wheat growing five feet high, adding ‘I never saw corn like this before’. Banister refers to the cultivation of wheat on Erith and Plumstead marshes which made such vigorous growth that it was fed ‘not with sheep only and in the early part of the spring, as is the general custom in other places, but with a promiscuous race of horses, cows, sheep and cattle of every kind’. In spite of this treatment the crop flourished.

Except in the Weald, where the soil is unsuitable, barley, too, was very generally grown, for the brewing of beer. The practice at harvest was different in West Kent from that in East Kent. In the eastern part of the county the barley was put into sheaves before it was carried, but in the west it was carried loose into the barn. Farmers in the 18th century suffered at least as seriously from bad weather as the 20th-century farmer, but one indication of differences be­tween conditions existing then and now is that when the barley crop failed in 1782 it was the brewers who went bankrupt!

The acreage under oats increased noticeably between 1760 and 1790. ‘The chief leading cause of the increased culture of this grain’, wrote Banister, ‘is the present luxurious stile of living, so prevalent among every rank of people, which has multiplied the number of horses in a high degree.’ The horse-population of London, in particular, was increasing rapidly and, since practically all the fodder had to be imported from the surrounding countryside, the Kent farmers who sold their oats and hay to London were sure of a good price. Oats were sown, broadcast, at the rate of 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 bushels to the acre, barley 3 to 4 bushels to the acre, and wheat 2 1/2 to 3 bushels to the acre, that is about two-thirds of the quantity of seed which was being used by the monks of Christ

Church Priory on their lands in the 14th century. The rate of yield seems not to have improved much in the intervening 500 years; on the monks’ land, about the year 1300, a bushel of seed could be expected to give a crop of 4 1/2 bushels of wheat,. and in 1800 the average yield in Kent was thought to be about 5 or 6 bushels. However, perhaps this is not a fair comparison, because the standard of the monks’ farming was above the average of their time.

Other crops were pease and beans, grown as cattle fodder; rye, again used as cattle-fodder and for straw, it never being grown in Kent, as it was in some other parts of the country, as a bread-corn; fruit and hops, about which enough has been said already; and nuts, for which Kent was—and is—famous.

The crops so far mentioned were the crops traditional to Kent. But in the latter part of the 18th century several new crops were being introduced. Townshend in Norfolk had been proving, during the 1730s and 1740s, the profitability of turnip-growing; sheep, folded on the turnips, improved the land, especially the lighter soils, and another part of the crop, harvested for winter use, enabled the farmer ‘to keep more stock, to obtain more manure, to enrich the land, to increase its yield … Farming in a circle, unlike arguing, proved a productive process.* The turnip crop made its way into Kent. Boys says (1796): ‘Thirty years ago hardly one farmer in a hundred grew any; and now there are few, especially in the upland parts, that do not grow some every year’. According to Banister, turnip-growing so revolutionised farming on the lighter soils that the value of the land had increased threefold. Here he seems to be letting his enthusiasm for a new crop run away with him; it was true that rents were going up, but there were many reasons for the upward trend, inflation amongst them. Boys estimated that the average rent increased from 15s. to 20s. an acre between 1796 and 1805.

Clover, sanfoin and lucerne were known in England in the 17th century, but seem not to have made much progress in Kent before the 18th. Of lucerne Banister says, ‘It is not till within these thirty years that this grass has been in much repute with the farmer … but now that its virtues are better known there are few farmers that do not chuse to sow some acres of it.’ It was the increase in the number of horses and cattle that made it necessary for farmers to give more attention to the management of their grass. They were also finding that it paid to give more attention to the breeding of cattle, about which Kentish farmers had been casual. In the Weald, cattle of the Sussex breed were used both for the dairy and for pulling the plough. Elsewhere they were mainly Welsh cattle or home-bred ‘of various sorts and shapes’, although a few cows were brought from Alderney and Guernsey towards the end of the century ‘for the use of the dairies of gentlemen’s families’, and one or two enthusiasts were introducing ‘Dutch’ (i.e. Friesian) cattle. A few of the larger graziers were beginning to improve the Kent or Romney Marsh sheep, which had been evolved from the East Kent breed, but a good deal remained to be done before it acquired the qualities which have since made it so popular a breed, overseas as well as in England. By modern standards, or by the standards that prevailed in some other parts of the country, cattle-husbandry in 18th-century Kent was backward.

Two other crops to which we have become so much accustomed that it comes as a surprise to find that in the 1770s and 1780s they were regarded as a new-fangled innovation were cabbages and potatoes. To some extent cabbages had been grown on farms for feeding to cattle, and some market-gardeners raised a few, but it was the great increase in the urban demand for vegetables that caused fanners to begin the large-scale cultivation of cabbages. The same was true of potatoes; until the last twenty or thirty years of the century the potato was not esteemed a food desirable for human consumption, but, says Bannister, ‘their universal and increasing consumption at the tables of every rank, together with the appropriation of them to the fattening of black cattle and swine, hath rendered the demand for them more considerable, and in consequence the price is greatly advanced; hence the farmer has been encouraged to attempt the cultivation of them in the fields’. This revolution in popular taste took place just in time; without the potato it is doubtful whether England could have fed herself during the Napoleonic war, when at times wheat could scarcely be imported.

Two crops which on the other hand were disappearing were woad and madder, both grown for use as dyes. Probably by 1800 not a single field of madder was left, although earlier it had been quite widely grown in the Faversham district, until the Faversham farmers were priced out of the London market by their Dutch rivals. The market for woad was likewise unpredictable; in 1791 it made £23 a load, but two years later would scarcely fetch £6. No wonder farmers were turning their attention to other crops.

Parallel with these changes in crops and in animal husbandry went changes in farming methods. The importance of crop-rotation was better understood and all over the county farmers were experimenting to see which rotation suited their own land best. Consequently so many different practices were being pursued that there could not be said to be, as in some other parts of the country, a county system of management. On the loamy soils of East Kent a three-year rotation, barley, beans and wheat, was found to give good results, but around Maidstone a more usual rotation was turnips, barley, clover, wheat, beans and wheat. Almost everywhere it was the custom to leave the land fallow for one summer in every three, four, five, six or seven, when it would be ploughed and cross-ploughed three or four times to get rid of the weeds and to break down the great clods of clay which formed in a few years of the ordinary cultivations. However, on the rich loam around Faversham it was found that a fallow could be dispensed with at the expense of hand-weeding the crops. With broadcast sowing eradication by hand was the only possible means of dealing with weeds, and the expense was prohibitive on all but the richest lands. Hence the impor­tance of the drill, which enabled the seed to be sown mechanically and in straight lines so that hoeing between the rows, by hand or horse, was possible. Jethro Tull invented a drill early in the 18th century. It was some time before it was perfected, but by the end of the century it was in pretty general use, and Boys could report: ‘It is much to the credit of Kentish farmers, that there are not half the weeds to be seen now on the poor lands that there were twenty years ago. The good lands have always been kept very clean.’

Tull, in his enthusiasm for ‘horse-hoeing husbandry’, believed that, if the farmer kept his land clean, manuring was unnecessary. Kent farmers did not subscribe to this theory, and they had a reputation for their skill in the manage­ment of the dung-yard. Apart from the manure which the farm itself produced, soot, ashes and rags were brought on to the land, London offering a ready source of supply. The heavy clay lands were regularly dressed with chalk, which was exported from Gravesend and Northfleet in considerable quantities to the Whitstable and Herne Bay area, and also across. the river to Essex. Many of the so-called dene-boles in West Kent are simply mines, dug as recently as the early part of the 19th century, to get chalk for dressing the land. Lime was extensively used throughout the county, and was sold by the bushel; ‘but,’ says Boys, ‘the lime burners have their bushel measures made of basket, and these seem annu­ally to diminish in size’. Around the coast, and especially in Thanet, the land was dressed with sea-weed, a practice that had been followed for centuries.

The characteristic farm implement of Kent was the turn-wrest plough, the most noticeable features of which were its size and weight (the main beam, of oak, was 10 ft. long, 5 ins, deep and 4 ins, broad), and the two great cartwheels on which the beam rested. But if these were its most noticeable features, its most important difference from the Midland plough was that the turn-wrest device enabled the ploughman to plough along one furrow and down the next, whereas with the fixed mould-board plough he had to plough around a central ridge; this accounts for the ridge-and-furrow appearance which is so characteristic of old arable land in the Midlands and the North, especially where it has since been put down to grass. Visitors spoke derisively of the heavy, clumsy Kentish plough, Marshall being particularly contemptuous of it. However, the Kentish farmers said that it suited their land better than any other type of plough; this may have been mere conservatism, but they showed a willingness to experiment in other directions, so perhaps we ought to assume that they knew their own business best. In the Weald the wheels were commonly dispensed with and the plough was drawn by a team of up to two horses and 10 oxen. Elsewhere two, three or four horses would usually suffice.

Until the early part of the 19th century reaping and threshing were both generally done by hand. They were expensive operations and to reduce the cost Boys invented a threshing machine which was driven by horses and did the work more cheaply and more quickly. The latter quality proved important in one of the years of scarcity about 1800 when foreign wheat could not be brought into the country; the millers of Deal and Dover were quite out of corn and the bakers quite out of flour and bread. Boys immediately harvested and threshed some of his wheat, it was ground into flour the next night and made into bread the next day. If the threshing had had to be done by hand the good people of Deal and Dover would have gone hungry. But, as we shall see in a later chapter, the introduction of the threshing machine was one of the things that led to labour troubles in the 1830s.

In the 19th century the history of Kentish agriculture becomes part of the history of English agriculture. The depression of the 1810s and 1820s gave way to the growing prosperity of the 1830s and 1840s, and the ‘high farming’ of the 1850s and 1860s. Thereafter, except for dairy-farming, agriculture slumped, as the following figures for Kent demonstrate more forcibly than any words could do:

1867 1887 1906
Acres Acres Acres
Corn 244,000 201,000 142,000
Clover and rotation grasses 56,000 57,000 36,000
Hops 41,000 40,000 29,000
Turnips and swedes 33,000 25,000 17,000
Permanent pasture 288,000 358,000 429,000
Number of cows 25,000 32,000 39,000
Number of sheep 1,063,000 943,000 910,000
Men employed 47,000 40,000 31,000

The reasons for the slump must be sought in the economic history of the country and are not peculiar to Kent. Nor was the ‘Agricultural Revolution’ of 1750-1850 by any means peculiar to Kent, but it is only by examining the farming practices of one county in some detail that the impact of the Revolution becomes apparent.