Wednesday 25 May 2016

Agriculture before WWI

We have something like 3000 books in 'The Library' at home; about half of them forming the floor-to-celing insulation on the North wall of our living room. I know I should de-clutter this resource, see as how all the information is available on Google-books.  Sure the information is there but it's still easier to read a book . . . with pages . . . made of paper . . . preferably acid-free so you can fling it acropss the room in annoyance and not have it explode in a cloud of beige confetti.discard from library. My reluctance to off-load this collection of books is that they have [IMO] value. My collection of short stories by WW Jacobs, for example, delight me but wouldn't get sold at a 25c/book stall in a church fĂȘte.  If they don't get sold there, they get pulped or burned and that's a shock and a shame and a waste. Crivens, even the Cheekpoint Book Exchange must have to clear their uncirculated books out on occasion.

When The Institute's library was stock clearing last year, as well as Mother Tongue by Lancelot Hogben, I acquired "History of British agriculture 1846-1914" [Amazon: a snip at £4.50] by Christabel Orwin and Edith Whetham.  What High Victorian names!  As the book was first published [1964, Longmans] several years after WWII,  it is unlikely that both authors were born in the 19thC. For a textbook, it is racy enough to get the blood boiling as is the gross inequality of contract law between farmer and labourer. A farm-servant unhappy with his situation was threatened with jail if he legged it away; whereas breaking the contract by the employer was only a civil offence.  Similar tension is expressed when dealing with the economics of agricultural improvement.  A field which is weed-free and 'in good heart' is going to be more valuable both to the tenant farmer who raises food by his toil and ingenuity as well as the ultimate, and probably artistocratic, owner of the land who only gets into a lather while watching horse-racing or prize-fighting. If the farm is let on a year-by-year basis, there is no incentive to lime the soil to sweeten it or install subterranean drainage pipes to lighten it.

There were, to be sure, some improving landlords who took to farming as an alternative to collecting race-horses or stamps and pushed innovations on their tenants: some more practical and others more faddy. Drainage was a huge capital investment which was usually beyond the means or interests of the tenant. The dilemma is that more valuable, better drained, fields are more valuable - they command higher rents but may or may not turn out heavier crops.  Farming has changed, changed utterly even in my lifetime.  My first job, sowing spuds and riddling and bagging them for market was on a 40ha mixed farm about 40km NE of London. It was a mixed farm: the fields were not all laid out for potatoes. Barley and beans and beef-cattle were all part of the process. Cow dung was collected through the winter from the stalled cattle and spread out on the fields in turn.  The beans, with nitrogen fixing bacteria in their root nodules, saved a fortune in fertiliser costs.  The rotation of these crops helped to prevent the build-up of viruses that would eat up the profits and the regular ploughing controlled the weeds. Neither Mr Nichols, nor I, nor Alan and Steve his farm-hands, had a clue about the 'good' bacteria in the soil whose equanimity was severely upset each time the plough turned them over. That sentence alone reveals an extraordinary fact: 3 families were supported on a modest 100 acres with enough to spare pocket-money for barely competent chap from across the river.

Another interesting bit of quirkiness is the weights and measures that were used in the 19thC. For those [pretty much everyone nowadays except those in the USA] raised with the metric system, it must be unspeakably confusing and bizarre to deal with Imperial measures.

  • 16 oz [ounce = 28.3g] = 1lb [ libra / pound]
  • 14 lb = 1 st [stone]
  • 8 st = 1 cwt [hundred weight comprising not 100 but 112 lb}
  • 20 cwt = 1 ton [inconveniently 2240 lb]
wtf? every multiplier is different! as if it's deliberately made into a maths puzzle for school-children. And another parallel system 'Troy' was used for precious metals. And it wasn't just the weights. Lengths were weird too and inevitably different-weird.

  • 12 in [inch 2.54 cm] = 1 ft [foot]
  • 3 ft = 1 yd [yard a sort of short meter]
  • 22 yards = 1 ch [chain, the length of a cricket pitch between the stumps]
  • 10 ch = 1 furlong
  • 8 furlongs = 1 mile [which is this 1760 yards or about 5% more than 5000 ft]
again every multiplier is different not only among the lengths but also vis-a-vis weights.  In the agricultural world the stone of 14lb was far too simple.  If you were measuring cheese everyone agreed to use a stone of 24lb while contrariwise mutton was sold as a stone of 8lb!  I say everyone, but it is entirely credible that a stone of mutton was a different size in some of the counties of the United Kingdom.  That was one of the drivers for the metric system in France and later across Napoleonic Europe. It is much easier for tax-collectors and book-keeping if everyone in the country uses 'Paris' measure.  And the centralising government rode as rough-shod over local weights and measures as effectively as they stomped on langue d'oc and the other regional variants of 'french'.

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