The Agricultural Revolution in Britain


Between the 18th century and the end of the 19th century, Britain saw a massive increase in agricultural productivity and net output - The Agricultural Revolution in Britain introduction. This became known as the British Agricultural Revolution. The main features and primary causes of this revolution were identified to be mechanization, enclosure, four-field crop rotation, and selective breeding. Credit was given to relatively few individuals. Mechanization in Britain began in 1701 when Jethro Tull made the first advancements in agricultural technology with his seed drill in 1701.  This seed drill was the first to efficiently distribute seeds  across a plot of land.  The first iron plough to have any commercial success was developed in 1730.  It remained in use until the development of the tractor.

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Andrew Meikle’s threshing machine was invented in 1786, and John Fowler produced a steam-driven engine in the 1850’s and 60’s that could plough farmland more quickly and more economically than horse-drawn ploughs. The four-field rotation was pioneered by farmers in the Waasland region in the 16th century but was popularized by the British agriculturist Charles Townshend in the 18th century.

The system (wheat, barley, turnips, and clover), opened up a fodder crop and grazing crop allowing livestock to be bred year-round.  The four-field crop rotation was a key development in the British Agricultural Revolution. Robert Blakewell and Thomas Coke introduced selective breeding to England in the mid 18th century.  Selective breeding is mating together two animals with particularly desirable characteristics, and inbreeding in order to reduce genetic diversity.  This results were proven successful with the production of larger and more profitable livestock. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the practice of enclosure was denounced by the church. However, developments in mechanization during the 18th century required large, enclosed fields in order to be workable.  This led to numerous government acts culminating in the General Inclosure Act of 1801.

The Agricultural Revolution in Britain was a monumental event in history. The population in 1750 rose to 5.7 million for the third time in Britain’s history. The first two times the appropriate agricultural infrastructure to support a population this high was not present and the population fell. When the population reached this level in 1750, the onset of agricultural technology and modern methodology allowed the population growth to be sustained. This increase in population led to more demand for goods such as clothing.  A new class of landless laborers provided the basis for cottage industry, a stepping stone to the Industrial Revolution.  The first industrial factories were constructed to meet demand from the people.  The key result of the agricultural revolution is the initiation of the Industrial Revolution.

There were many shifts that occurred during the Industrial Revolution.  People who once were farmers moved to the cities to get jobs in the factories. The agricultural revolution increased the yield per agricultural worker, which means that a larger percentage of the population could work in these new industrial jobs.  British women’s lives were changed drastically as women couldn’t work using the new heavier machinery. Women were relegated to other roles in society and often went to work in the cottage industries to supplement the family‘s income.  This fueled prejudices of women only being fit to work in the home and led to a divide in the pay between men and women.

Geographically, the availability of mineral wealth, coal and iron, fueled Britain to become the first industrialized nation.  Natural resources supplied cheap fuel and raw materials.  Britain was also an island and hadn’t been successfully invaded since 1066.  Economically,

communities shifted from agriculture to manufacturing.  Production shifted from their traditional locations in the home and the workshop to factories.  Although the industrial revolution benefited the majority, there has been some negative consequences.  The natural environment has been harmed by factory pollutants and greater land use.  The declination of natural habitats and resources have caused many species to become extinct or endangered.

There were numerous key inventions that revolutionized textile manufacturing.  In 1733, John Kay produced the flying shuttle which produced woven cloth much faster and allowed one person to produce broadloom cloth on his own.  In 1764, James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny which allowed the spinner to produce up to 16 threads at the same time.  In 1769, Arkwright’s water frame was introduced.  It allowed hundreds of threads to be spun at once.  Samuel Crompton invented the spinning mule in 1779.  It was convenient in that it could be operated by women and children which in turn meant cheap unskilled labor.  In 1783, Thomas Bell introduced roller printing which allowed hundreds of meters of cloth an hour to be printed in color.  Finally, in 1785, Edmund Cartwright designed and built the first power loom which were powered by steam engines.  Due to technological problems it didn’t have an immediate impact, but eventually this machine caused poverty and unemployment for hand loom weavers.

For many centuries, the British had converted their iron ores to iron and steel by heating the raw material with charcoal, made from trees. By the mid eighteenth century, however, the nation’s timber supply had largely been used up. Iron and steel manufacturers were forced to look elsewhere for a fuel to use in treating iron ores. The fuel they found was coal. When coal is

heated in the absence of air it turns into coke. Coke proved to be a far superior material for the conversion of iron ore to iron and steel. It was eventually cheaper to produce than charcoal and it could be packed more tightly into a blast furnace, allowing the heating of a larger volume of iron. For nearly half a century, James Watt’s steam engine was so bulky and heavy that it was used only as a stationary power source. The first forms of transport that made use of steam power were developed not in Great Britain, but in France and the United States. In those two nations, inventors constructed the first ships powered by steam engines. In the United States, Robert Fulton’s steam ship Clermont, built in 1807, was among these early successes. During the first two decades of the nineteenth century, a handful of British inventors devised carriage-type vehicles powered by steam engines. In 1803, Richard Trevithick built a “steam carriage” which he carried passengers through the streets of London. A year later, one of his steam-powered locomotives pulled a load of 10 tons for a distance of almost 10 miles at a speed of about 5 miles per hour.

The agricultural revolution had positive and negative effects on the lives of ordinary people.  As the revolution moved forward, their was surpluses and ordinary people were living more healthy lives as they were well nourished.  A more productive English agriculture allowed a smaller number of people to feed the rest of the population. In fact the percentage of those engaged in the agricultural sectors fell from 80% to 40%. This freed up a huge work force for the industrial sector. But that is not the whole point. As well, population increase was sustained without increasing privation, that is, the growing population was adequately fed. Finally, a more fully capitalistic agriculture generated (for landowners) profits which were in part invested in industry and transportations infrastructure (canals and railways).  The revolution actually started with the agriculture. Due to a large availabilty of food (enclosures, new technolog, etc…) there was an unprecedented growth of population. So people migrated to cities in search of work, and cities like Manchester and London became destinations for migrants from the countryside, thus providing labour for the Industrial Revolution.  However there were negative consequences in that many people would eventually be put out of work with the introduction of machinery that could complete the work more efficiently at a faster pace.

The British Agricultural Revolution was the cause of drastic changes in the lives of British women. Before the Agricultural Revolution, women worked alongside their husbands in the fields and were an active part of farming. The increased efficiency of the new machinery, along with the fact that this new machinery was often heavier and difficult for a woman to wield, made this unnecessary and impractical, and women were relegated to other roles in society. To supplement the family’s income, many went into cottage industries. Others became domestic servants or were forced into professions such as prostitution.  The new, limited roles of women, dubbed by one historian as “this defamation of women workers.”  Valenze fueled prejudices of women only being fit to work in the home, and also effectively separated them from the new, mechanized areas of work.





Works Cited

Overton, Mark.  “Agricultural Revolution in England 1500-1850”  19 September 2002

Valenze, Deborah.  The First Industrial Woman  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)    pg. 183

Kagan, Donald.  The Western Heritage  (London: Prentice Hall, 2004) pg. 535-539





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