Agriculture in Yorkshire

Agriculture in Yorkshire

Yorkshire was predominantly an agricultural county until well into the 19th century, and even in 1851 more Yorkshire people, especially men, ‘were employed about horses than on the railways, and there were more handicraft blacksmiths than men in great iron works’.

Farming has always been an important occupation and the land in Yorkshire has been farmed since Neolithic times. At first agriculture was a necessary pursuit for almost all the population, and subsistence farming was the rule. Specialisation and the growth of trade in agricultural produce began even before the Norman Conquest, but it became firmly established as a result of the activities of the Cistercian monks in the 12th century. As many of the Cistercian houses were established in upland areas, sheep farming played an important part in their economy. Monks from other orders also became involved in sheep rearing on an extensive scale. At its peak, Fountains Abbey used thousands of acres of land in Craven and owned over 15,000 sheep. Bolton Priory grazed its sheep in Wharfedale and Malhamdale; Sawley Abbey’s lands extended from the Trough of Bowland to Gargrave; and Kirkstall had pasture in Bessacarr for 1,000 sheep and 40 mares. The monasteries were involved in other forms of agriculture—Jervaulx in Wensleydale kept large herds of cattle and was also involved in industry, but their greatest contribution to the economy of the realm was derived from their sheep and from the export trade in wool.

Yorkshire wool was exported throughout Europe, especially to Italy and northern Europe. It is symbolic that the Lord Chancellor still sits on the Woolsack when he presides over the meetings of the House of Lords, a custom which goes back to monastic times when wool was one of the mainstays of the English economy. The drovers’ roads which were used by the monks can still be traced as green tracks across the Pennines and North Yorkshire moors. Later drovers (the Scottish cattlemen) used them, although they also made use of newer routes when they brought their cattle to market in Yorkshire.

Traditional farming was based on the open-field system, by which a local economy was largely dependent on three large arable fields and a common pasture surrounding the village. This was a very inefficient method of farming since usually only two of the arable fields were cultivated each year, with the third lying fallow to allow for the natural restoration of the soil. A three course rotation, of rye or wheat, oats or barley and then fallow, ensured that each field would be used differently each year. In some areas, particularly around Harrogate, the fallow would be every second or third year, with the result that it took longer for the field to recover. A field was kept fallow because of ignorance about methods of manuring the soil. At the same time the selective breeding of animals was severely restricted by the practice of allowing free grazing on the common land, where different breeds intermixed and disease was difficult to control. Farming improve­ments were difficult to achieve because of the need for common agreement among the tenants who held scattered strips of land in the fields. The open-field system brought many social benefits to communal village life but these were outweighed by methods which were becoming increasingly uneconomic. Only by joining strips of land together and enclosing the larger fields with walls and hedges could improvement take place.

Yorkshire agriculture
Yorkshire agriculture

Enclosure had in fact been carried out in a piecemeal fashion for hundreds of years. The decline of the feudal system began long before the Black Death of the 14th century, but the depopulation of the peasantry at that time greatly accelerated the process. Enclosure of open-fields, especially near lowland villages, began on a large scale in Tudor times. Common lands were also enclosed to provide sheep runs, as is evident from the protest of Sir Thomas More in 1517, who wrote of the ‘unsatiable cormarauntes’ who ‘compasse about and inclose many thousand takers of ground’. Great tracts of land in the Vale of Mowbray and in Cleveland had been enclosed well before the enclosure movement of the 18th and early 19th centuries, by which time open-field and enclosure already existed side by side in the East Riding. In Ripon and Harrogate enclosure occurred in the 17th century through the consolidation of various strips of land by purchase and exchange and sometimes the renting of adjacent strips to create a large field. At Knaresborough and Scriven such enclosure was often affected by the right of average, whereby any occupant of the common arable fields could graze cattle over all the land after the harvesting of the cornfields.

Although the expanding industrial areas of the West Riding and elsewhere and the proximity of canal and river transport influenced local agricultural specialisation, the major determining factors were geology and climate. By the late 18th century the marginal lands of the North York Moors and Upper Pennines still supported sheep and little else while the highly cultivated areas of Holderness in the East Riding, where the majority of people were employed in agriculture, produced wheat, barley and exported surplus corn from Hull to London and Europe. The North Riding was famous for horse breeding, including hunters and chargers. In the Vale of York and Vale of Mowbray, cattle were grazed and then moved by drovers southwards and many farmers in the Pennines depended for their livelihood on the rearing of young stock to be fattened on farms in the midlands and the south of the country. Some of the old drovers’ routes are still marked by the names of inns, such as the Drovers Inn at Boroughbridge. There was a mixture of arable and pasture farming throughout much of the West Riding and although some produce was sent to East Lancashire or London, including butter and bacon from Nidderdale, most of the wool, milk, butter, cheese and bacon was sent to local manufacturing towns where demand increased as the populations grew.

An account of the increasing interaction between industry and agriculture can be found in the Board of Agriculture County Reports, compiled by William Marshall, perhaps the most reliable of the late 18th- and early 19th-century travel writers. In the West Riding it was reported that ‘the greatest part of the ground is there occupied by persons who do not consider farming as a business, but regard it only as a matter of convenience. The manufacturer has his enclosure, wherein he keeps milch cows for supporting his family and horses for carrying his goods to market and bringing back raw materials. This will apply to the most part of the land adjoining to the manufacturing towns.’

The greater demands for farm produce created by the rising populations of the manufacturing districts could not be met by local agriculture alone, and production of foodstuffs throughout the county had to increase. Only by enclosing more land could this be achieved. Enclosure often involved the use of a private Act of Parliament, for which a local landowner could petition if he was supported by the owners of three-quarters of the value of the land. This meant that a single large landowner could overcome the opposition of many smaller landowners. In fact, the whole process of enclosure was weighted in favour of the landowner. Many people who were directly affected, such as those who rented cottages with rights of access to the common land, or squatters, had no automatic right to be consulted. Only those who could afford the time and the cost would be able to travel from Yorkshire to London to register a complaint.

In 1793 the Duke of Leeds obtained an Act of Parliament to enclose his land lat Wakefield. Written into the Act was a clause whereby no one could interfere with the Duke’s right to work mines and get minerals. Anyone adversely affected by mining would be compensated, not by the Duke, but by all the allottees of the commons and waste grounds, which would include those whose property might be damaged. Those who held allotments on certain parts of the land were affected by a special clause: ‘They are forbidden to put up any House, Building or Erection of any kind on one part for 20, on another for 40, on another for 60, years unless :the Duke consents’, the object being ‘thereby the more advantageously to enable the said Duke, his Heirs and Assigns, to work his colliery in and upon the same Moor’.

The effects of enclosure were far-reaching. Many of the improvements in agriculture took place in Yorkshire, where great landowners had enough capital to exploit the opportunities for manuring, better crops, selective breeding and new farm implements. One of the improving landlords was the Marquis of Rockingham, who was Prime Minister for a brief period in 1782 and who farmed at Wentworth Woodhouse. Improvements there were such that Arthur Young, who compiled detailed first-hand accounts of agricultural conditions, commented, ‘I never saw the advantages of a great fortune applied more nobly to the improvements of a country … Draining, the general management of grasslands and manures, among other numerous articles are, at Wentworth, carried to the utmost perfection’. One of the implements in use was the Rockingham Drill Plough, similar to the seed drill invented by Jethro Tull in 1701. Another type of seed drill was invented by Dr. Hunter of York in 1790, and before the end of the century horse-drawn threshing machines were being used in the East Riding.

A more famous improver was Sir Christopher Sykes, of Sledmore, whose son, Sir Tatton Sykes, carried on in his father’s footsteps. Sir Tatton erected an inscription in Sledmore village which praised his father who ‘by assiduity and perseverance in building and planting and enclosing the Yorkshire Wolds in the short space of 30 years, set such an example to other owners of land, as has caused what was once a bleak and barren tract of country to become now one of the most productive and best cultivated districts of the county of York’. Miles Smith used a method of stone and turf to drain his land near Driffield around 1790. Twenty years later flat tiles were found to be more efficient in draining land in Holderness. There were also improvements in the selective breeding of animals and some fanners began to specialise in livestock breeding. The East Riding became known for its prize Leicester sheep and short-horn cattle. Rather than adopting scientific breeding methods many farmers improved their herds by a commonsense approach of weeding out the poorer beasts and feeding the better ones well, a method which was not possible when all animals were herded together on a common land under the open-field system.

As more interest was shown in improving farming methods agricultural clubs and societies were formed to encourage better practice. At Malton and at Driffeld, where a Mr. Coates bred a short-horn bull which raised a price of 500 guineas, annual prizes were awarded to the best improvements in stock breeding. In many villages cow clubs encouraged poorer farmers to build up their stock of dairy cows by insuring the animals against an early death.

Methods of improving the quality of the soil varied throughout the county. The Board of Agriculture survey of 1793 reported that up to 20 miles around Sheffield, where the effects of waste bone from the cutlers’ workshops may have been observed, ‘Bones of all kinds are gathered with the greatest industry and even imported  from distant places. They are broke through a mill made for that purpose and sometimes laid on the ground without any mixture’. Rough pasture in the Dales was improved, creating ‘intakes’ by the use of local limestone. Many farmers erected kilns on outcrops of limestone on their land and coal from the local thin coal measures was used for firing. Remains of small limekilns can still be seen in the Yorkshire Dales. Around the river Humber and its tidal tributaries ‘warping’ was used to improve the land. By means of channels and banks built by the farmer the tidal flow, especially the spring tides, deposited a salty mud sediment on the soil. Warping resulted in a very rich soil which was used as pasture and arable, with oats, beans and wheat being considered the best crops.

Although some small farm owners may have suffered as a result of the enclosure movement, the main impact was on squatters and small tenant farmers. Some became casual labourers, working on the hedging and drainage of land. Most agricultural labourers and farm servants were hired for up to a year at a time at hiring fairs or ‘sittings’. In the 18th century many men and women travelled from the North and West Ridings to Malton, where they were hired for a month or more by farmers from the Wolds and Holderness. The annual Martinmas hiring fairs in the East Riding continued to attract thousands of farm servants throughout the 19th century and the practice of hiring and paying farm workers by the year continued into the 1900s.

The wages of farm workers were generally higher in the north than other parts of the country and, with the exception of haymaking and harvesting, the employment of children was not common. Many labourers were able to grow much of their own food on their own allotments and, as we have seen, many smallholders, in the West Riding combined farming with weaving. The manufacturing districts of the West Riding, where there was plenty of work, began to attract farm workers from the surrounding countryside. At the same time the local production of cloth in the more remote dales areas was destroyed by the rapid growth of the urban woollen industry. Lead mining and quarrying also declined and often the only alternative to migrating to Bradford or Leeds and other manufacturing towns was to rely solely on agriculture and associated crafts.

The numbers employed in agriculture steadily declined during the century after 1851, and since the Second World War the numbers have fallen even more rapidly, and now account for under two per cent of the work force. Nevertheless the area of the county devoted to farming has risen compared with the inter-war period; and the volume and value of agricultural production has increased dramatically.

Modern agricultural techniques have made it possible for a smaller number of people to produce more from the land. Although the influence of E.E.C. agricultural policies and fluctuations in market forces have brought in new crops—as, for example, oil seed rape and other fodder crops—the broad geographical distribution of different types of arable farming and animal husbandry has not changed greatly during the last 30 years. This is because the basic factors influencing the types of agriculture practised—soils, climate, slopes, elevation—have remained the same.

Just as Yorkshire’s urban industrial areas began to specialise in the production of different manufactured goods, so the rural areas devel­oped their own particular agricultural produce. Farming in Yorkshire still reflects this speciali­sation, which has been determined by type of soil, climate and marketing opportunities. Sheep graze on the higher limestone pastures, moors and rough fells of the Yorkshire Dales, still one of the most important sheep breeding areas in the country. The hardy Swaledale and Dalesbred breeds are most common and the Swaledale ram, known as a ‘tup’, is the symbol of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Cattle are reared on the lower dales, where about 20 million gallons of milk and over 15 million pounds of beef are produced annually.

Mixed arable farming is found in the lowland areas of the Vales of York and Pickering and also in the Holderness area of the East Riding. Cereal crops of corn, barley and wheat and also vegetables for local markets dominate these areas though cattle for beef and dairy products are also reared. Market gardening is important in most areas, particularly in the East Riding, providing the large conurbations with daily supplies of vegetables, lettuces, tomatoes, and also flowers. The rural population of Yorkshire has steadily declined as people have migrated to towns and cities further afield. However there are still numbers of small farmers to be found and they, like other inhabitants of the rural areas of Yorkshire, particularly the Yorkshire Dales, are rather more concerned about the effects of improved leisure facilities and the increase of tourists than their forbears were.