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Feeding the Nation

By Jonathan Brown
In the first of our three features reflecting the centenary of World War One, we look at how the push for increased agricultural production heralded sweeping changes to the British rural landscape.
The war had been going for two years when the government fell late in 1916. The Somme offensive had not produced the military breakthrough. The harvest had been poor, and, with losses of shipping, concerns were growing about the supply of food. That was before Germany launched its full submarine offensive in February 1917. Something had to be done, and Lloyd George’s new government embarked on new policies to sustain the war effort, including a new direction for food and agriculture. There would be no more reliance on the market to persuade farmers to grow more food. Instead, R. E. Prothero, who took over as President of the Board of Agriculture, launched a ploughing-up campaign to increase the output of cereals and potatoes. A combination of carrots and sticks would achieve that result: there would be the enticement of price guarantees, and local executive committees to exhort – if necessary enforce – compliance.

It is from this time that the war began to have a serious effect on the rural landscape. Prothero set out to reverse the trends of decades with his battle cry ‘Back to the seventies’. What he meant by that was plough up grassland. For 40 years British farming had been taking on a more pastoral aspect, as farmers turned to grass and livestock as better propositions than cereals. Imports of low-priced wheat from the prairies had undermined the market for British-grown grain. The price of wheat in Britain fell by about 50 per cent between the 1870s and the 1890s, when the bottom of the cycle had been reached. The price had risen a bit by 1914, but not enough to effect a turnaround in farmers’ growing patterns. The result of this ‘Great Depression’ in British agriculture was a reduction of the area sown to wheat by nearly 1.5m acres between 1875 and 1900, of arable land by 2.4m acres, and an increase in the acreage of permanent pasture by 3.4m.

With the outbreak of war in 1914 farmers were called upon to grow more food, in particular cereals. There was the need to reduce dependence on imports, while the argument was already being advanced that growing cereals for human consumption gave people more calories directly than were got by feeding grain to livestock. Farmers were encouraged to grow more grain, but they were not told to, any more than men were conscripted into the army. With prices in the market going up, that should be enough.

Sure enough, farmers did respond to the prices by sowing an additional 379,000 acres of wheat during the autumn of 1914.

They grew more oats as well, but what they did not do was plough up the pastures. They reduced the amount of temporary grass sown in the arable rotation a little, but most of wheat’s increase came at the expense of barley. It was the same the following year, except that the process was reversed. Difficult conditions in the autumn of 1915 had restricted sowings of wheat, and land went back to barley the following spring. There was little change again in 1916.

This will have been frustrating to the government. Wheat prices more than two-thirds higher than they were before the war ought to have had greater effect, one might have thought. The farmers would argue that the land they were being asked to plough was quite unsuitable, disregarding the fact that most of the fields in question had grown wheat in the 1870s. More important, they resisted ploughing up grass on the fairly reasonable expectation that war was not going to last for too many years, and would be followed by a return to the status quo. Besides, farmers had become rather attached to grassland and livestock farming. They had adapted to the regime of low prices, achieved a measure of stability in their farming systems, and there was little incentive for them to change now. To do so required capital, and that was in short supply. Change was also likely to add a disproportionate amount to the farmer’s costs, so that he would get better returns by continuing with his existing methods.

So it took a bad harvest, loss of shipping and a new government before the farming scene began to change noticeably. Although the ploughing-up policy took time to get going – it came too late to have any but the slightest effect on the 1917 crops – by the end of the war the effect was apparent. Between 1916 and 1918, nearly 1.5m acres had been added to arable land – of which 661,000 acres were sown with wheat and 245,000 acres with potatoes – while the pasture acreage had come down by 1.6m. Harvests for 1917 and 1918 were much better than 1916. It could be argued – and was, at the time and since – that this achievement was modest, and that more could have been done.

But the changes in acreage were generally at least two-thirds of what the government aimed for, and they were achieved by consent. The amount of land taken over by government committees was minuscule.

The effects of the ploughing-up policy varied widely across the country, differing even between local districts. In Sussex, for example, it was on the Downs that ploughing was most felt. Broadly, there was least impact in the east, where there was a greater proportion of arable already. Land under the plough increased by 8.9 per cent in eastern England between 1916 and 1918, compared with 39.9 per cent in north-west England and 52.2 per cent in Wales. As a result Wales had 287,000 fewer acres under permanent pasture in 1918 than in 1914. The pace of change might seem slight, commented one review of Welsh farming in the 1920s, but, with the small number of tractors available, the achievement was quite considerable. 
Mechanization thus was a key component of ploughing up, in particular the motive power of the tractor. Tractors had hardly made a mark on the agricultural scene before 1914, but war gave them a chance, as the government placed orders for large numbers, mostly of north American manufacture, to be distributed to farmers through the war agricultural executive committees for each county. The programme culminated in an order for 5,000 Fordson tractors placed in 1917.

Established technology had its place too. John Allen, owner of a major steam ploughing business, persuaded the government that steam had a valuable part to play, especially with the limited power of most contemporary tractors. Appointed honorary advisor to the Food Production Committee, he sought out some of the big double-engined steam ploughing sets that had been left derelict after trade declined in the 1880s, and brought them back into fields, especially on heavy soils, to prepare ground  or wheat and potatoes. New steam ploughs were built as well, 70 of them to government order.

Machines were important, but so was labour, and that was in short supply after large numbers of farm labourers had enlisted. To plug the gap, farmers employed irregular forces, such as the ‘village women’ – wives and daughters of local families. Alongside them were ‘industrial women’ drawn from the towns. Soldiers on home leave and prisoners of war were also deployed. Then in 1917 a new mobile force, the Women’s Land Army, was formed, its members mainly from the towns who had to be prepared to go wherever directed. The organisation was envisaged as 10,000 strong, but 30,000 applied, and about 23,000 women were placed in agricultural work between March 1917 and October 1919. Between them these groups made up most of the shortfall in labour on the farm.

‘My heart is broken for Lidcombe,’ commented Lord Wemyss at the felling of woodland near his house at Stanway, Gloucestershire. Britain had been as dependent on imports of timber as of wheat. Demand from the military, mining and industry, and disruption to shipping led to a sudden change, with more British timber felled than had been for decades. It started early in the war, and over its course about 450,000 acres of British woodland were cut, with perhaps more visible impact on the landscape than ploughing up grassland.

As the example of Lidcombe Wood demonstrates, felling timber was one way in which the war came to the country house. Closer to home came the military, who leased houses as barracks and training grounds. They parked their tanks on the lawn – or would have done if they had been available in 1914. As it was, they turned the parkland at Belton, near Grantham into a ‘quagmire of mud’, while Lady Warwick was dismayed at the way the army ignored the paths and trampled over the grounds at Easton Lodge, Essex. Houses that were used as hospitals and convalescent homes – there were many, including Dunham Massey in Cheshire and Chapelwood in Sussex, where Siegfried Sassoon spent a month recuperating – were treated more gently, but even so their gardens and grounds were not always maintained as they had been in peacetime. Even at those houses lived in by the owners it was not possible to keep up all the ways of country-house living. Flower beds were turned over to vegetable growing, as the country emulated townspeople’s new enthusiasm for allotments, and, with much hunting and shooting in abeyance, maintenance of hedges and coverts was neglected by the depleted gamekeeping staff.

Costessey Hall, Norfolk, seat of the Jerningham family, was requisitioned for military use during World War One. Immediately afterwards the parkland was sold in small lots to house workers from Norwich, who built a village of wooden houses and old railway carriages. The hall was left to decay and was gradually demolished. It was one of many examples, for the war was in many ways a precursor to what was to come in the rural landscape. As the farmers of 1914 had expected, government support was not maintained, prices for cereals fell in free markets, and farmland reverted broadly to its pastoral pattern. The war, it might be said, was but an interlude in a longer-term trend. But not entirely: while the steam ploughs were retired again after the war, tractors had come to stay. Impecunious farmers might revert to horses for a while, but with 5,000 Fordsons and several other models left over from the war, arable farming soon took on a more mechanical aspect. Farmsteads and fields were adapted to accommodate the tractors.

The felling of timber prompted a government response in order to protect the supply of pit props and other needs. The Forestry Commission, founded in 1919, set about making good losses of trees. As it grew to become one of the greater landowners of Britain, its impact was one of the most lasting legacies of the war. 

The effect on the structure of landholding was equally lasting. Landowners had been unsettled before the war by the effects of decades of low returns from land, added to which came death duties. Some made sales. A few more sold during the war, sometimes as the result of the loss of heirs to the conflict, such as the sale of the Antrobus estate in 1915. These were as nothing compared with the rush to the market immediately after the war, when it seemed as if there was scarcely a member of the House of Lords without land
for sale. 

Talk of ‘England changing hands’ was exaggerated; even so millions of acres were sold from estates, mostly to the farming tenants. As a result, the proportion of land farmed in owner-occupation in England rose from about 12 per cent in 1914 to 36 per cent in 1927, producing a farming landscape reflecting the choices of a larger number of owners.

Then there were the ‘homes fit for heroes’. Most of the post-war houses were built in suburban estates, but some appeared on the edge of villages and along the roads into the countryside. Their effect on the landscape was one of the concerns of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, founded in 1926 as a new chapter in conservation and planning opened.

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Posted by Sue Beard - July 12th, 2014
excellent article, thank you!

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