Reviews of Books on Farming

Month: September, 2012

William Cobbett, Rural Rides, 1830, 2 volumes

(In print; many used editions available.)

The great champion of the English agricultural labourer and a well ordered countryside.  Marvelous stylist, biting pamphleteer.    Published a two-penny paper, Cobbett’s Political Register, for the working classes for 30 years.  In the 1820’s, began his rural rides, chronicling practices and conditions throughout the countryside.  These reports were published in the Register, and gathered in Rural Rides.  Nobody loves good farming more than Cobbett.

“Gloucester is a fine, clean, beautiful place; and, which is of a vast deal more importance, the labourer’s dwellings looked good…and the girls in the fields (always my standard) are not in rags, with bits of shoes tied on their feet and rags tied round their ankles, as they had in Wiltshire.”

“The custom in Hertfordshire…is to leave a border round the ploughed part of the fields to make hay from, so that, the grass being now made into hay, every corn [grain] field has a closely mowed grass walk about ten feet wide all round it, between the corn and the hedge.   This is most beautiful!  The hedges are now full of the shepherd’s rose, honeysuckles, and all sorts of wild flowers….And thus you go from field to field, on foot or on horseback, the sort of corn, the sort of underwood and timber, the shape and size of the fields, the height of the hedge-rows, all continually varying.  Talk of pleasure grounds, indeed!  This is a profitable system, too, for the ground under the hedges bears little corn, but very good grass.”

“Amongst the laboring people, the first thing you have to look after is, common honesty and refraining from thieving; and to secure these, the labourer must have his belly full and be free from fear; and this belly-full must come to him from out of his wages and not from benevolence of any description.”

“This country, though so open, has its beauties.  The homesteads in the sheltered bottoms with fine lofty trees about the houses and yards form a beautiful contrast with the large open fields.  The little villages, running straggling along the dells are very interesting objects, even in winter.  You feel a sort of satisfaction, when you are out on the bleak hills yourself, at the thought of the shelter in the dwellings in the valleys.”

“…that most interesting of all objects, that which is such an honour to England, and that which distinguishes it from all the rest of the world, namely, those neatly kept and productive little gardens round the labourers’ houses, which are seldom unornamented with more or less of flowers.”

“Little boys and girls shave hop-poles and assist in other coppice work very nicely.  And it is pleasant work, when it is dry overhead.  The woods, bedded with leaves are clean and dry underfoot.  They are warm, too, even in the coldest weather.  When the ground is frozen several inches deep in the open fields, it is scarcely frozen at all in a coppice where the underwood is a good plant, and where it is high enough to cut.  So that the woodman’s is really a pleasant life.  We are apt to think that the birds have a hard time of it in winter.  But we forget the warmth of the woods, which far exceeds anything to be found in farmyards.”

Cobbett also wrote gardening books for England and America, a guide to morals for young men, an English grammar, tracts on England’s religious conflicts.  Served in Parliament at the end of his life.  Produced the precursor of Hansards, the unofficial record of parliamentary debates.  I have many of these, and several biographies, available to borrow.

Chip Planck,


J. M.Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure, and Social Change in England, 1700-1820, Cambridge, 1993

Debate in British historiography on what the enclosure of common agricultural lands and the coming of industrialization meant for standards of living has been described as  “more polemical and vituperative” than that on any other issue.   Because England ceased to have a serf-like peasantry tied to the lord’s land centuries before the rest of Europe, it is often argued that losing the benefits of common rights was insignificant, especially when compared to the greater efficiencies that came from enclosure. English peasants were already “free”.    Neeson argues against this consensus.  She gives a rich picture of what the rural culture was before enclosure, and what was lost with its culmination of common rights in the early 19th century.  Rather than a statistical focus on wages, she emphasizes the loss of economic security and cultural autonomy by the rural poor.   For instance, not being able to graze a cow had huge implications for nutrition and security, which wouldn’t be noticed if that benefit of common rights had already been discounted.

A similar look at the consequences of modernizing agriculture for all aspects of the standard of living is K. D. M. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor, Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660-1900, Cambridge, 1985.

An argument that enclosure didn’t even lead to production efficiencies, effects on rural culture aside, which I haven’t found yet, is R. C. Allen, Enclosure and the Yeoman.

Chip Planck,