Farming since 1790

This period has witnessed the greatest change. All remaining open-field land in Leicestershire was enclosed. Other changes include mechanisation, a decline in agricultural employment, an increase in the average size of farms, greater specialisation, changes to farm layouts and buildings, and the impacts of collective marketing and farm subsidies. Market fluctuations also caused changes in the types of crops grown or livestock kept. Governments became more interested in the activities of farmers, to prevent the spread of disease and to encourage (or discourage) certain types of food production. The market for a farmer’s products changed from small individual buyers (butchers, bakers, grocers, direct sales) to (in some cases) large supermarket chains and wholesalers, which has seen margins squeezed. Niche markets have developed alongside, for example for organic products, and new crops have appeared, for example for bio-fuels.

The number of records available multiplies substantially from the 1790s, partly due to better record survival, but also because central government was beginning to pay more attention to the productive capacity of the land. Many of the changes, however, lay hidden from public sources. For changes within living memory, the most informative sources may be the farmers and former farmers themselves.  

Records with Information about Individual Farms

1795 Crop returns: these list the names of farmers and the main arable crops (cereals, peas and beans) they grew on their farm for up to three years ending with the 1795 harvest, giving the acreage and yield for each crop. They will not tell you how large any of the farms were, or where the land was within the parish. The returns were collected by Hundred, and survive for all Leicestershire parishes in Framland Hundred, around half of Sparkenhoe Hundred and about a quarter of the parishes in Guthlaxton Hundred. If you are not sure which Hundred your parish was within, you can find a map of the Hundred boundaries here. The records are held at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland (QS 28/1-164).

Tithe records: tithe maps and apportionments may survive for parishes, or land within parishes, where tithes (a tax to the church) were not extinguished through parliamentary enclosure of the land. These indicate the land attached to each farm, whether it was arable, pasture, meadow or woodland, the overall size of each farm, and the names of the owner and occupier. Tithe files, held at The National Archives, can provide more information about the soils and typical crop rotations in the parish. We have a separate guide to tithe records.

1910 Finance Act records: This Act ordered a full valuation to be made of every property in the country, and created a wealth of material about land ownership, occupation and land use. The three main classes of records which survive are the Duties on Land Values books for a parish or group of parishes, the accompanying annotated maps, and more detailed Field Books. The Duties on Land Value books (DE 2072) and some of the maps are held at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland. A set of maps (with a useful online map finder) and the Field Books are held at The National Archives. The Duties on Land Value books gives the names of the owner and occupier of every property and piece of land (cross-referenced to the maps) and its area. The Field Books give more details about individual properties.

The National Farm Survey of 1941-43: These are the most detailed records of all about individual farms. They are held at The National Archives, where the original accompanying maps are also held, identifying the land within each farm. They record the names of the owner and occupier, the acreage of all crops, meadow and permanent pasture, the numbers of all livestock, the extent of pasture ploughed up and to be ploughed up to help to feed the nation, the quality of the land, the condition of the farm buildings, the capabilities of each farmer, and their other occupation in the case of part-time farms or milk producer/retailers.

Sales Particulars: when a farm was sold an estate agent would often draw up a booklet several pages long with details of the land and buildings, often a map, and by the later 20th century several photographs. The Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland holds many hundreds of sales particulars for farm sales from the late 19th century onwards (and a few earlier ones).

The Decennial Census Schedules of 1841-1911 provide the names of farmers, any live-in employees and may also give details of the acreage and number of employees.

Land Tax Returns from the early 19th century will reveal if a farmer was an owner or tenant. The amount of tax will provide a very approximate idea of the farm’s size. These are held at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland.

Trade directories (many of which are available online) list the names of farmers in a parish, and may indicate if the farm is over a certain size, often 150 acres.

Other records: For a few lucky researchers, there may also be other original sources, such as farm diaries or stock books, or a farmer from the parish might have given evidence to a parliamentary committee, or to one of the agricultural visitors appointed by central government to investigate the state of agriculture around the country. Three such visits were made to Leicestershire between 1790 and 1809, and these reports (listed below) are available online:

William Marshall, The Rural Economy of the Midland Counties: including the Management of Livestock in Leicestershire and its Environs; together with minutes on Agriculture and Planting in the District of the Midland Station (London, 1790)

John Monk, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Leicester, with Observations on the means of their Improvement (London, 1794)

William Pitt, A General View of the Agriculture of the County of Leicester, with Observations on the means of its Improvement (London, 1809)

Records providing an overall view of farming in the parish

1801 crop returns: these record the total acreage of the main crops sown in 1801, on a parish level. Comments were also recorded in many places. The parish totals for each crop were published in article by W.G. Hoskins, ‘The Leicestershire Crop returns of 1801’, Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological Society, volume 24 (1948), pp. 127-153. This was also reprinted in W.G. Hoskins (ed.) Studies in Leicestershire Agrarian History (Leicester, 1949). The article is available online, but does not include the comment section of the form. The full version, including the comments, has been published by the List and Index Society, and the Leicestershire returns are in volume 190.

Annual agricultural returns, 1866-1988: These provide details, at a parish level, of the crops, pasture and livestock on farms, and the labour employed after 1918. The information requested by the Board of Trade and the later Ministry of Agriculture varied over time, with later returns in particular including an immense amount of detail. Using the figures for cattle as an example, in 1887 there were just two separate categories for cattle, but as farming became more specialised, by 1927 there were seven categories for cattle, and a decade later there were nine different categories for dairy cattle and another nine for beef herds. Grassland is also divided into categories, which also change over time. It is useful, even for a basic analysis, to differentiate between permanent grazing and grass grown for cutting as hay. Prisoners of War working on the land and Land Army employees are shown separately during and immediately after World War II.

The amount of information can appear overwhelming, but by focusing on the main crops and livestock, and overall details rather than the age breakdown of, for example, sheep and cows, a broad picture can be obtained. Trends can be identified by recording one year in each decade. Some returns include the number of farms owned and the number rented, or total acres owned and total acres rented. Farm sizes are recorded from 1905. The original documents are held at The National Archives, but the returns for 1866 to 1918 are also available on microfilm at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland (MF 175-178). The reference for each piece is on the microfilm (it will start with MAF 68).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.