State of Agriculture 1919

The State of Agriculture after the First World War

In 1919 a Royal Commission on Agriculture was set up. Questionnaires were sent to landowners to enquire into the state of the land and agricultural conditions. The questions covered a wide range of issues from land ownership and management, farming methods, to the effects of taxation and rates. Landowners were urged, but not compelled to complete these; some deferred the task to their agents.

The terms of reference of the Commission were as follows:

“To enquire into the economic prospects of the agricultural industry in Great Britain with special reference to the adjustment of a balance between the prices of agricultural commodities, the costs of production, the remuneration of labour and hours of employment.”

Hugh completed one of these questionnaires, he also summarised for the Commission the responses of others (whether these were all the responses or a portion is not clear). He also provided a detailed set of accounts over 2 years, with explanatory notes, which illustrated the difficulty in determining whether a farm was operating at a profit over just one year.

He was also called to give evidence to the Commission and delivered an address (which was also submitted in writing), summarising the economic state of agriculture, difficulties and prospects for the future. His summary argument on the state of agriculture is posted here separately.

As was illustrated in Hugh’s Wartime Farming diary, Government had imposed fixed prices on many crops and had also intervened in the management of land, by ordering the ploughing out of land farmers would normally have used as either temporary or permanent pasture for their cattle. Additionally, the growing of corn and other crops was ordered without due regard for the need for farmers to practice rotation farming to preserve the quality of the land, and without regard to whether the land was indeed suitable to grow wheat at a profit. Hugh’s work with regard to the Commission shows that he understood the land from the perspective of a practising farmer trying to earn a living, as well as from the perspective of a landowner, wishing to keep his land in good condition and to retain its value.

Some highlights from the responses to the Commission’s questionnaire are as follows:

Soil improvement: Better use of crop rotation could improve land, as would better use of manures .

Insecurity of tenure: this stemmed, not from the nature of tenancy agreements, but from the increasing number of estates which were being put on the market, leaving tenants feeling insecure, not knowing who their landlord might be.

Use of the land for sport: this not a big issue as poorer lands tended to be reserved for game, though it was thought unfair that compensation through game damage was very hard to obtain. Of much greater significance, however, was lack of control of the rabbit population. Efforts to get rid of rabbits are undermined by careless neighbouring owners who allow rabbits to breed uncontrolled in the plantations, ‘from whence they pour forth in hordes to denude the adjoining land.’

Availability of credit: an increasing problem with the amalgamation of the old County banks with larger ones. Lack of credit hindered land development.

Transport: the availability of transport for goods was a crucial factor in the profitability of agriculture.

Whether land was better cultivated by owners or tenants, could not be deduced, experienced tenants being preferred to less informed owners. However, one garrulous correspondent, gave the following views on his landowning neighbours (marked private!):

Lord Grey never goes near his farms or tenants.
Earl of Tankerville, ditto, and is in the hands of his creditors.
Honourable F.W. Lambton, MP, ditto.
J.C. Collingwood Esq., Cornhill is a sporting man.
Lord Joicey, ditto.
J.E.A. Friar does not know his tenants by sight.
C.J. Leyland is a shooting landlord and wants land for sport, and tenants must be accepted with the       land.
Charles Mitchell Esq., Pallinsburn, lives at home and is a good landlord.

Overall there was a need for the encouragement of the retaining of good breeding stock instead of it being sold abroad; there was a great need for improved and serviceable farm buildings as well as houses for farm workers; the increasing burden of rates was noted, with the complaint that rural dwellers didn’t benefit from the services provided; a better system of land valuation, taking into account compensation for both land damage and land improvement end of tenancies.

Aid was needed to encourage the spreading of lime, which was a long term investment, improved drainage systems were needed, assistance for farmers to buy and spread manures and aid for the renewal of farm buildings.

it was difficult to see how farmers could be protected from the ravages of hares and rabbits and, where game is heavily preserved, from an excess of pheasants, but I will leave the last word to the correspondent already quoted above:-

“Rabbits are the worst evil and it would be a good thing if they could be exterminated. They make profitable forestry impossible and are perhaps the most serious impediment to progress in agriculture.”