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Mechanisation

During the first decade of the nineteenth century, to help finance the Napoleonic Wars, extra land had been brought under cultivation and farmers had increased their yields of cereal crops; this had led to lower prices for the farmers and discontent among landowners. In 1815 the government introduced Corn Laws which imposed steep import duties and forbade merchants to sell foreign corn until the price of home corn reached 80/- a quarter. This increased the profits of the landowner but raised the price of corn for the consumer.

The population of England and Wales was increasing rapidly and at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, demobbed soldiers returned home and competed for jobs. New machinery and improved methods of farming further threatened the livelihoods of agricultural labourers. Steam power arrived on the farm: a twelve-horsepower steam engine could now thresh out 15 tons of corn a day, compared to 5 tons by a two-horse machine and 0.2 tons by flail; it needed only one man to feed and clean it.z

The march of modernisation continued on farms which could afford to invest their profits from artificially high corn prices in mechanisation and improved husbandry. Mechanical seed drills, harrows and ploughs and clod crushers increased efficiency and reduced the number of labourers needed. Patents were filed for steam machinery for cultivation a ‘portable steam engine’ could drag a wheel plough to and fro across a field. Flock and herd sizes grew, and with them the availability of manure; by the 1830s farmers were also fertilising soils with chalk and lime (and a lime quarry was opened to the south of Lythe Farm); salt, soot, hoofs and marl were also used as was ‘shoddy’ – chopped woollen rag. The new idea, however, was bone. The Manchester Guardian reported in November 1822 that ‘more than a million bushels of human and inhuman bones’ had been shipped during the previous year to the port of Hull; imported bones included those of soldiers who had fallen in the recent battles of Leipzig, Austerlitz and Waterloo.

zIrrigation, too, was improved; for centuries, much of the water falling on the old open fields had been channelled along the parallel, ploughed furrows between the ridges … topsoil and nutrients had been flushed to the field edges. One James Smith of Perthshire had managed to convert a sodden marsh near his home into productive land by the systematic excavation of deep, parallel, stone-filled trenches which he had covered with soil, and then a self-taught mechanic, John Read, produced a cylindrical clay pipe which could be laid beneath fields. These were soon mass-produced. This period also saw the development and increase in the use of water meadows in river valleys. Sheep were grazed on water meadows by day and at night driven up to the arable fields where they were ‘folded’ to manure and improve the poor chalk soils. The farmers who could afford to invest in these new techniques increased the size of their holdings and converted more downland to arable use. Smaller landowners, however, were unable to maintain sheep flocks of sufficient size to provide manure for fields.

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