Agriculture and Society 1750-1850

X Agriculture and Society 1750-1850

The years 1750-1850 saw some of the most striking changes in Lin­colnshire’s history. This was the age of turnpike roads, canals and the first railways; of Methodism; of the conversion of towns like Lincoln and Boston into industrial centres. But it was in agriculture that the – greatest changes took place, transforming the landscape until the county emerged ‘first in rank among the English counties for agricultural development’. Population grew rapidly; it was probably at its highest rate between 1800 and 1850 when it doubled from 200,000 to just over 400,000. The Fens with its common rights, drainage and small farms, and the Kesteven uplands seem to have absorbed most of this increase. Agriculture responded by increasing the amount of land available for cultivation and then by exploiting new agricultural techniques and inceasing output.

Common lands and enclosure

Lincolnshire had for many centuries been primarily a pastoral area, producing meat and wool on its common grazing lands; cattle from Scotland, fattened on the marshes and fens, went to London in droves each week. Enclosures of these commons, either for permanent grass or, to grow fodder crops for winter, had proceeded until by 1600 about a quarter of the county’s open lands had been enclosed, and another : quarter went between 1600 and 1750; It seems to have been the heavy wet soils of the clay vales, more suited to cattle than to corn, which felt this process most.

Common land was of three kinds – the wetlands of fen and marshes, the heathlands, and the cultivated open fields. The latter were in most); cases open at some time of the year to grazing in common, and a mixed economy flourished: Billingborough in 1739 was

environ’d with fertile fields and pleasant meadows … The fields are commonly sown with wheat, barley, peas and beans, all which they bear very good . . . The fields have a good sort of sheep on them . . . but sometimes they are subject to take the rott .  . . Horses thrive and grow fatt in the fenn, of which they have plenty. Ash and willow grow plentifully, but want more planters.

But the need to consolidate scattered holdings into ‘profitable farms [by-which] a great produce is created, cattle and sheep increased and the poor employed’ grew as time went on.

The upland scrub ‘covered with heath, gorse and yielding little or no produce’ (Arthur Young, 1799) and the sandy soils ‘like the deserts of Egypt and Arabie’ (de la Pryme, 1695) were used less. Apart from sheep and cattle, there were rabbits. Warrens of 3-4000 acres (Blankney, Thoresway) and 1000 acres (Withcall near Louth) were the basis of a fur industry ‘it is said that more hands are employed here [Brigg] in dressing rabbit skins than in any other town in the kingdom’. The steep hillsides and wastelands were fenced, guarded against poachers and in places cultivated in rotation – corn, turnips and pasture grass. But rabbits were regarded as ‘nuisances’ and warrens ‘a melancholy scene, more of desolation than culture’.

Warrens, wetlands, wastelands, common lands, open fields all became subject to clearance and cultivation, sometimes by agreement between villagers and landlords, sometimes by Acts of Parliament. Over 360 Enclosure Acts were passed for Lincolnshire, half of them between 1750 and 1780, and a further 165 after 1800. The Wolds and Heath, clay vales and some of the fens were enclosed mostly between 1760 and 1780, the Marsh and other areas between 1790 and 1820. By 1815 all the open fields in south Lincolnshire except Stamford had gone and most of the wastes had been brought into cultivation.

Sleaford is a good example of this process. Here two parishes, New Sleaford with Holdingham and Old Sleaford with Quarrington, were enclosed by an Act of 1794. Each parish had its own system, three great fields. There were some ‘old enclosures’, small fields so long enclosed that no one knew if they had ever been part of the open fields or not. Several persons in the town of Sleaford (only one of them a farmer) had rights of grazing on the fens and heathlands. The earl of Bristol (also bishop of Derry) owned most of the land in both parishes and managed his estate through Edward Waterson, vicar of Sleaford and rector of Quarrington, as well as holder of other lucrative offices and sinecures.

Lord Bristol got the Act passed. Commissioners were appointed, Stanley Marshall, a grazier from Frieston in Holland with experience of drainage, John Parkinson of Asgarby, land agent of Sir Joseph Banks of Revesby and. an experienced enclosure commissioner, and Anthony Peacock of South Kyme, a landowner and deputy lieutenant for the county. The solicitor Benjamin Handley of Sleaford was clerk to the commissioners. There were many men of this type constantly involved in improvement schemes, like John Cragg of Threekingham and Benjamin Smith of Horbling, clerks to navigation companies, turnpike trusts, commissioners of sewers and of enclosure, and J.P.s.

Sleaford after Enclosure

Enclosure was expensive and landlords invested heavily in their estates. The costs of the Act, the expenses of commissioners and surveyors and the new roads and fences were met by the proprietors at anything between 17s and 40s per acre; in cases of exceptional difficulty, when the process took as long as 20 or 30 years to complete, costs could be £7 or even £8 per acre. The Sleaford enclosure cost some £4000; at Barrow (1797-1803) more than £15,000 was paid, and at North Kelsey, a small enclosure which took from 1813 to 1840 to complete, costs were £12,500. Banks came to the rescue; every main market town had its own like the Sleaford Bank established by Peacock and Handley in 1792 which made great profits from schemes like the Slea Navigation, the Deeping Fen enclosure and the Witham improvement. But if the costs of enclosure, building new farmhouses and stocking the farms were high, so were the profits: lord Bristol’s rents rose by £1600 p.a., while at Rauceby nearby the value of the vicarage rose from £30 p.a. before enclosure to £165 p.a.

Out of the six fields, the commons and fens surrounding Sleaford, the commissioners made compact new farms with smaller fields surrounded by hedges. New farmhouses were built. The psychological impact of this location must have been enormous. Sometimes long discussions preceded enclosure; at Ulceby in north Lindsey enclosure was planned five times between 1801 and 1818 and finally agreed in 1823. New farming meant new practices. In the Trent valley warping gave way to the use of marl and manure. Selective breeding of cattle and sheep was now possible. In some areas like Axholme there was an increase in arable; barley was grown on the enclosed heathlands and grain production began to replace the fat beef and mutton which had been the county’s main produce in the 18th century. The ploughing of land quickened during the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) when corn prices were high but after the wars some of this land reverted to pasture. New crops like cole-seed, and turnips were grown and there was an increase in oats, much of it for fodder, in many parts of Lincolnshire the emphasis remained on cattle and sheep.


Lincolnshire produced no great agricultural experimenter of the standing of Coke of Norfolk or Robert Bakewell of Leicestershire Major Cartwright established a Model Farm at Brothertoft and experimented with woad. Sir Joseph Banks of Revesby was a key figure, President of the Royal Society and patron of Cook, supporter of drainage, turnpikes and canals in the county. The most important improvers were perhaps Charles Chaplin at Blankney, Christopher Turner at Paunton and especially the lords Yarborough, father and son, of Brocklesby; they improved their estates, planted trees, built farmhouses and cottages, introduced a wider rotation of crops. Lord Willoughby d’Eresby at Edenham used new machinery like the steam plough which he exhibited at the 1851 Great Exhibition.

The pattern of landlordship in the county still needs further investiga­tion. Owners with more than 3000 acres/1,214ha seem to have been congregated in Kesteven and on the Wolds; the Kesteven landlords formed part of an East Midlands agricultural community in a region bounded by Grantham, Stamford and Leicester, and several were non-resident. Those on the Wolds were fewer and tended to reside on their estates. Here the more numerous gentry with 300-3000 acres/12-1,214ha consolidated their hold on the economy and social life of the area. The smaller owners with less than 300 acres/12ha predominated in the drained lands of Axholme and the Fens. This pattern grew stronger as time passed; in Kesteven the gentry seem to have driven out the smaller holders, while in the Marsh and Fens the break-up of estates by absentee landlords led to an increase in the number of smaller owners.

The predominance of landlords (half of Lincolnshire’s soil was owned by holders of 1000 acres/404ha or more) led to the emergence of the substantial tenant farmer, the most typical character of the county’s social structure at this period. Sometimes radical in a polite sort of way, like the Methodist Cornelius Stovin, but mostly conservative, they were often indistinguish­able from many of the gentry farmer owners like Robert Carr Brackenbury. Fiercely possessive of their lands, although rented, it was these who exper­imented with new agricultural practices. The increase in productivity and profits (enclosed parishes produced more wheat and much more oats and barley per acre than parishes still open) at first went to benefit the landlord but later, especially after 1825 when rents were lowered ‘on Account of the Depression in value of Agricultural Produce’, the tenants took the lion’s share. Those who did not buy their own farms at this time still invested large sums in their holdings. They were protected by ‘tenant-right’, or Lincolnshire Custom, which grew up in the early 19th century, by which a tenant leaving his land received payments for improvements done. They thus put in tile drains, spread lime, chalk, marl and fertilisers like bone and guano, and grew new crops.

Regional differences became less marked and the county’s economy became even more closely interwoven and interdependent. The towns relied for their industry and markets on the farms; upland farmers needed lowland pastures and often held lands far from their home farm. The Marsh provides an example of this network; some of the rich pastures used for fattening and breeding sheep and cattle were held by marshland graziers who bought stock from upland farmers and sold them in the markets of London and elsewhere, but in other parts the upland farmers drove out the graziers, buying up holdings and exploiting them directly, ‘for their own lands were too poor to fatt’ their own stock. There are thus in many parts of the Marsh few large houses and plantations, signs of the wealthy resident farmer-gentleman.

The county was still noted for its stock. Arthur Young commented on the rich cattle (1799), and in 1800 the pastures were ‘the glory of Lincolnshire’. At the end of the 18th century Thomas Turnell of Reasby near Lincoln established the forerunner of the Lincoln Red Shorthorn which William Torr of Aylesby made famous in the 1840s. Torr was a tenant farmer with some 3000 acres/1,214ha; like others he toured England and Ireland extensively offering advice on every subject from stock-breeding to farm cottages. The smaller short-woolled sheep which covered the Wolds and Heath when Defoe visited the county and the long-woolled variety in the Fens and Marsh were replaced by new breeds, the ‘Improved Lincoln’ bred from Bakewell’s ‘New Leicester’ rams and ‘Old Lincoln’ ewes, and later the ‘Lincolnshire Longwools’, for many years one of the most common breeds in England and abroad but now rare. New fodder crops meant that these animals could be pastured in large numbers on the heathlands: Cobbett saw ‘innumerable flocks of those big, long-woolled sheep [in] thirty or forty acre/12 or 16ha fields with four or five or six hundred ewes, each with her own one or two lambs’. Other farm stock were developed: the Lincolnshire Curly Coat pig and the Wildmore ‘Tits’, a hardy fen pony, both had a high reputation, but the breeding of horses declined though horse fairs at Corby and especially Horncastle, the largest in the country, survived for some time.

Labour and machines

The changes in agriculture demanded more not less labour, so that although there was some migration to the towns from about 1821 most of the villages grew. Work seems to have become more seasonal, and women and children, often organised into gangs under a gangmaster, were pressed into service especially on the Heath and Cliff. Later considerable numbers of Irish labourers came in.

The Lincolnshire labourer in the 19th century was very mobile; he often served only one or two years before moving at the annual hiring fair to another farm perhaps no more than two or three miles/3.2 or 4.8km away. This may, it is true, be a sign that the Lincolnshire farmworker was relatively well off, for many at the time held that compared with those in other counties, he was reasonably prosperous; when he was not needed on the land he could find work in the growing river trade, in fishing or catering for holiday­makers on the coast, in the newer quarrying or engineering industries or in occasional labour on the roads, canals and railways. But others commented on the extreme poverty of the village dweller in the early 19th century and pointed to the lack of new industries as in the Midlands and the north. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Certainly agriculture remained the region’s principal employer up to 1851. Indeed the plentiful labour may even have held back the introduc­tion of machinery on the farms: why spend money on machines when men and women can do the job? But another reason for the slow adoption of machinery was the opposition of the labourers. During an outbreak of violence and disorder the Stamford Mercuiy reported (1830):

the panic among the Lincolnshire farmers is universal, particularly such as have threshing machines on their premises. Many have received threatening letters; and the breaking of machines, and conflagration of property, form the unvarying theme of conservation amongst all ranks of society.

One of these letters was sent to Joseph Stevens of Baumber near Horn-castle in 1831:

Steveson, you may think it a great favour that we write before we fire. If you have a machine in your yard, we will set fire to the stacks the first opportunity, and we can do it if you stand by; and you and all the farmers must give better wages to the labourers, or we will fire; and if fire will not do we will dredge poison on your turnip shells. You may warn all the farmers.

Farmers formed a Volunteer Corps and trained in earnest on the Heath. Harsh penalties were meted out to those caught: Priscilla Woodford, aged 15, a servant, was found guilty at Lincoln in 1832 of setting fire to a stack of hay, the property of Isaac Teesdale at Hacconby, and was transported for life.

But the campaign was over by the time machines came to be used extensively on Lincolnshire farms. The second agricultural revolution, fertilisers, new crops, steam engines, came late to the county; hand reaping with scythe English-style and sickle Irish-style was still common in the 1860s. From 1851 population fell in many villages and this has continued with some fluctuations ever since. Whether this fall is caused by or led to the use of machinery on the farms is not clear, but what was described in 1881 as ‘the best farming which England can show’ used less labour than before.