Two years of research has gone into this work which began in an attempt to understand what life would have been like for my ancestors, who were Essex agricultural labourers. The booklet (44 pages) is available price £1.50 +P&P. Contact me for information.
In the following extract the agricultural depression is explored.
Growing industrialisation abroad meant that by 1875 England was being inundated by cheap grain from overseas, mainly America. There were also a series of bad harvests, especially in 1878 and 1879. Consequently there began an agricultural depression.
Lord Ernle wrote that, “Land deteriorated in condition. The counties which suffered most were the corn-growing districts, in which high farming had won its most signal triumphs. On the heavy clays of Essex, for example, thousands of acres which had formerly yielded great crops and had paid high rents, had passed out of cultivation into ranches of cattle or temporary sheep-runs” [Ernle. English Farming. Past and Present (1936) p382]. These heavy clay soils required ‘three horses’ to plough and were therefore more expensive to cultivate.
During the period 1875 to 1893 the acreage of wheat in Essex fell from 200,670 to 118,187. Farms went out of business and work in rural parishes dwindled.
The price of wheat was especially low in 1894 and 1895 but showed signs of improvement in 1897. It was not until 1907 that the price rose above 30 shillings (£1.50) per quarter but by then the acreage farmed had declined. In Essex in 1904 there was a reduction of over 21,000 acres of wheat (20.9%) against the previous year.
It was observed, “There seems no doubt that corn-growing on heavy clay soil cannot be made to pay under present conditions; the cost of production is too high, and the market value of the produce too low. Dairy farming is the only kind that is really profitable, and yet Essex is far more suited climatically for wheat-growing, being sunny and dry in the summer – too dry for the best pasture” [Victoria County History. Vol II (1907) p341].
Between 1871 and 1901, one-third of the nation’s male agricultural labourers (including foreman and bailiffs) left the land to find employment elsewhere whilst the population rose by 43%. “The townward pressure was relentless” [Ensor. England 1870-1914 (1936) p286]. Agricultural wages between 1871 and 1901 had risen by 20% but the price of wheat had slumped.
In 1907 wages were “13s.9d., and average extra earnings by piecework 3s.2d., so the total amount received per week is 16s.11d. (84p)” [VCH p328]. With the price of wheat lower, the author of Victoria County History commented that, “the labourer’s position is better … than it had ever been before” [Ibid p328].
During the nineteenth century, baptism entries recorded at the parish church of Blackmore exceed the number of burials by a proportion of two to one [ERO T/Z 227/12]. This data suggests a large growth in population. However census returns show the population of Blackmore declined from 709, in 1841, to a low of 571, in 1881 [Victorian County History Vol. II (1977) p345].
Other summary data gives clues to Blackmore’s economic well-being. The Census records the number of households inhabited and uninhabited.
Between 1841 and 1901 the number of dwellings gradually reduced from 158 (in 1841) to 145 (in 1901).
The level of under-occupation is greatest in the 1881 census, attributable to the onset of the agricultural depression from which Blackmore was not immune. (14.7% of properties were uninhabited.) The previous decade shows the greatest fall in population perhaps accelerating markedly towards the end of the period when the depression really started to have an effect.
© Andrew Smith