Reviews of Books on Farming

Category: History

George Ewart Evans, Where Beards Wag All and other works.


If you can’t get enough of how things were done in the Old Days, George Ewart Evans is the man for you.  Beginning with his best title, Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, 1956, through The Crooked Scythe, 1993, he wrote eleven books of oral history on the farming and rural culture of England, primarily in East Anglia. 

From Tools of Their Trades:

Farming and the Depth of Oral Testimony

The importance of the testimony of the older generation that took part in East Anglian farming prior to the introduction of the self-propelled machine needs no emphasis.  Arable farming has been here the main line of farming since the beginning of the historical period; and farming itself has been both the mother and the nurse of the East Anglian culture.  It has given this culture its individual stamp and is responsible for its remarkable continuity up to the beginning of this century.  The older generation that reached manhood before the First World War are in a true sense historical “documents” in that they can teach us some of the techniques of the age-old farming that mechanization displaced and communicate to us the cultural atmosphere and attitudes within the society which was the old farming’s context.  p. 87

So great was the interest in ploughing a well-finished stretch with mathematically straight furrows…and so keen was the rivalry between horseman that, even after they had spent an autumn day ploughing an acre in the field, they would spend the rest of it ploughing the land over once again in the cosiness of the inn bar.  And on a Sunday morning they walked around the parish inspecting their neighbors’ week of work to see if it measured up to the high claims made for it during the detailed preliminary examination at the bar.   p. 64


From The Farm and the Village:

…farmers used the following practice to control the gleaning….After the farm-workers has cleared a field of the crop they left one sheaf standing on it.  This last sheaf was called the Policeman, and…as soon as the farmer took it away, the gleaners were free to enter.  p. 80

From Where Beards Wag All:

When John Tollemache wanted a new coachman…his own experiences in driving, and possibly his own rather dangerous pretensions, prompted the question he asked each applicant:  ‘How near can you take the carriage to a post without hitting it?’  He got various answers, each designed to illustrate the coachman’s extraordinary skill, for example:  ‘I can stick a match into the side of the post, my Lord, and hit the match without hitting the post.’  But one man gave the answer he had been waiting for:  ‘I don’t know about being near to it, your Lordship.  I reckon to keep as far from the post as I can.’  ‘Right.  You’re then man for the job.’   p. 125

Social relations in “closed” or estate-dominated villages.  These were physically well-ordered and maintained, and the landed proprietor might  at times intervene on behalf of the farm workers in disputes with their farmer employers.

We must beware of ascribing present-day standards of what social relations ought to be to a Suffolk village of a century ago, when a Victorian authoritarianism was the dominant pattern, especially in rural areas.  Possibly some inhabitants did not feel the paternalism of the squire in any way oppressive and would blithely sing of ‘the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate’.  Some, too, would probably feel—as some still do—the cosy warmth of aristocratic contact….Yet there was alongside this an underlying, smouldering resentment whose depth and intensity can be gauged by the fact that it has lasted until the present when the overt conditions which gave rise to it have been to a great extent removed.

‘You were under and you dussn’t say anything.  The old Lord used to come round to look at the house, the garden and the allotment just as he did the farms; and the farmers were as afraid of him as you were.’

‘You had to go to church on Sunday and the farmers had to see that you went, too.’

Herman Biddell, a Suffolk farmer, used to proceed down the aisle at the end of service while the rest of the congregation remained seated.  He cast an experienced eye and if there was a gap in the pew of one of his tenants he leaned over and asked, ‘Where’s Charlie?  How is it he’s not in church this morning?’


Thanks to my friend Taylor Stoehr, I have eight of these titles, and will gladly loan them out.


                                                            Chip Planck, Wheatland Vegetable Farms,


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,

Jerome Blum, The End of the Old Order in Rural Europe, Princeton, 1978

A  comparative analysis of the relations of lord and peasant in early modern Europe and the events leading eventually to emancipation of the serfs, first in Savoy in 1771 and lastly in Romania in 1864.  Wonderfully detailed and discriminating in describing different arrangements and outcomes in the multiple states and regions within them.  An antidote to any inclination to romanticize pre-modern rural life.  It’s also instructive on the deep conservatism of peasant societies, and the extreme rarity of true “improving” (reforming) noble landowners over the centuries.  Reminds one of the truth of Gene Logdson’s statement that progress in agriculture has come more from the “garden” than from routines in the countryside.

Chip Planck