Changes in agriculture
Between 1500 and 1700, the population of England doubled and the growth of towns and cities created a hungry market for agricultural produce whose prices rose six-fold. Land rents grew even faster forcing farmers to become more efficient. New methods were introduced first to East Anglia by farmers from the Netherlands; they spread to the chalk downlands of southern England. Irrigation was improved: water-meadows along the Meon were managed by sluices and now produced winter hay, making it possible to feed more cattle over winter and increasing their size and yields.
Crop rotation was revolutionised; instead of leaving fields fallow every third year, ‘up-and-down’ husbandry meant alternating the ploughing of fields and laying them down for grass; new fodder crops such as turnips were introduced and ‘artificial grasses’ such as sainfoin, trefoil and clover. Four-course rotation now alternated wheat, then turnips, then barley and finally clover. Farmers learned to use manure more intensively and those near large towns or cities diversified into the production of fruit, vegetables and hops; hops were a new import from the Continent, and their addition converted ‘ale’ into ‘beer’. Climate, too, played a part: drier weather led to increases in barley and wheat crops. Finally, the imported Dutch plough and a move from oxen to horses further increased yields.
There was a boom in the number and the size of buildings. In an attempt to control the proliferation of shanties built by migrant workers, an Act was passed in 1589 ‘against the erecting and maintaining of cottages’; local Justices of the Peace were obliged to prevent the building of any cottage ‘that hath not four acres of land to it’. Brickworks were established in Stroud and the availability of cheaper brick made it possible to replace the open fires of hall houses with fireplaces and chimneys which ducted the smoke to the air outside and greatly improved living conditions. Brick also made it possible to divide the interior spaces more flexibly, which led to a new order, the farm household. Previously, each farmer, serf, villein or freeman, had lived in his own dwelling and worked the lands he rented in the open fields; more prosperous farmers with multiple holdings now employed others to work them and accommodated farm ‘servants’, both male and female, under one roof. Older houses were expanded and new houses built as working units.
For a PDF of a full report on Farm Buildings of East Meon, click here. .