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British Agricultural Revolution

The British agricultural revolution is the name ascribed to a series of developments in agricultural practices in Britain over the course of the 18th century.

The agricultural revolution followed directly from seven years of poor harvests, with farmers being particularly keen to capitalise on whatever they could reap.

At its most basic, the agricultural revolution consisted of four key changes in practice:


Prior to the 18th century, agriculture was much the same across Europe, and had been since before the Middle Ages. The system in operation was essentially post-feudal, with each villager subsistance farming their own strips of land in one of three large open fieldss.

From as early as the 12th century, some open fields in Britain were being enclosed into individually owned fields, with the process taking off rapidly in the 15th and 16th centuries as sheep farming grew more profitable. This led to villagers losing their land and grazing rights, and left many unemployed. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the practice of enclosure was denounced by the Church, and legislation was drawn up against it, but the developments in agriculture during the 18th century required large, enclosed fields in order to be workable. This led to a series of government acts, culminating finally in the General Enclosure Act of 1801.

While the villagers received compensation for their strips, it was minimal, and the loss of rights for the rural populous led to an increaded dependency on the Poor Law. Only a few found work in the (increasingly mechanised) enclosed farms. Most were forced to relocate to the cities and find work in the emerging factories, opening the way for the Industrial Revolution.

By the end of the 19th century the process of enclosure was largely complete.


Jethro Tull made the first advancements in agricultural technology with his seed drill (1701) - a mechanical seeder which distributed seeds efficiently across a plot of land.

Joseph Foljambe's Rotherham plough (1730), while not the first iron plough, was the first iron plough to have any commercial success, combining a number of technological innovations in its design, and being lighter than traditional ploughs. It remained in use in Britain until the development of the tractor.

Andrew Meikle's threshing machine of 1786 was the final straw for many farm labourers, and led to the 1830 agricultural rebellion of Captain Swing (a mythical character comparable to the Luddite's Ned Ludd).

Increasing mechanisation improved farming efficiency and reduced costs, not least by making many workers redundant.

Four Field Crop Rotation:

Prior to enclosure, the open field system had employed a three year crop rotation, with a different crop in each of the three fields - eg. wheat and barley in two, with the third fallow.

The Dutch discovered a more effective four year rotation system introducing turnips and clover to replace the fallow year, (with clover essentially being the fallow crop).

The four field system was introduced to Britain from Holland in 1730 by Viscount Charles "Turnip" Townshend. The extra crop was ideal for animal fodder, meaning fatter livestock at market and, consequently, a higher price.

Selective Breeding:

In England, Robert Bakewell and Thomas Coke introduced selective breeding (mating together two animals with particualrly desirable characteristics), and inbreeding (to reduce genetic diversity in desirable animals) programmes from the mid 18th century as methods for producing bigger and more profitable livestock.

See also

agricultural productivity