|Myles Birket Foster, 'The Old Watermill'|
The populationThe census of 1871 was the last to show that most of the inhabitants of Great Britain still lived in rural areas or in small towns. In the following ten years, while the urban population increased by over 25 per cent. Buckinghamshire, Huntingdonshire and Oxfordshire lost a quarter of their population. By 1914 only 8 per cent of the British population were employed in agriculture, compared with 27 per cent in Germany and 38 per cent in France. Daily commuting, not just from the suburbs but from the shires and the south coast had become common and rural England was beginning to acquire its role as a place for living and leisure rather than work.
The agricultural depressionA whole combination of adverse circumstances combined to make the period 1877-1895 a dark time for British farmers, especially grain producers.
1. A series of wet summers, culminating in the wettest season in living memory in 1879 meant an alarmingly low yield in successive harvests.
2. Farmers could not raise prices because they could not compete against the produce of the American prairies where the McCormick reaper was cutting labour costs. By the 1870s American technology had advanced to the use of self-binders, while the new railroads and steamships were cutting transport costs.
3. The government refused to reintroduce agricultural protection - this was one of the reasons why Disraeli lost the election of 1880.
4. There was an outbreak of animal diseases: 1879 liver rot, 1880 foot and mouth.
The assault on ‘landlordism’The political consequence was to strain relations between landowners and tenants, which led to widespread criticism of the whole landed order’ This was especially intense in Ireland and Scotland. In 1879 the Irish Land League was founded, its President Michael Davitt, its Secretary Charles Stewart Parnell.
The winter of 1881-2 was particularly severe, and many Highland crofters were so destitute that they could no longer pay their rents. When the factors of the great estates tried to evict them, they retaliated by taking back grazing rights of which they had been deprived and by rent strikes. This escalated into violence at the ‘Battle of the Braes’ on Skye in 1882 when Glasgow policemen clashed with crofters. For the rest of the decade their were disturbances throughout the Highlands and gunboats and marines were sent in to quell them. The Crofters' War was the most severe crisis in the Highlands since the heyday of Jacobitism’. The crofters were supported by the Irish Land League and by a great deal of public opinion in Scotland.
There were similar disturbances in Wales.
|Hubert von Herkomer, 'Hard Times' (1885)|
In retrospect it can be seen that some of the attacks on landlordism were unfair. In the Celtic fringes, the problem was poor soil and an adverse climate, which left the landowners often powerless to effect improvements. Aristocrats such as the dukes of Bedford and Argyll went into print to defend themselves. Others, such as the 9th duke of Marlborough, married American heiresses to revive the family fortunes. But the real point, which was a shift in political power. The widening of the franchise and the agricultural depression struck fatal blows at the aristocracy.
In England there was little rural violence, but the Liberal politician, Joseph Chamberlain delivered celebrated attacks on the aristocracy. On 30 March 1883:
Lord Salisbury constitutes himself the spokesman of a class - of the class to which he himself belongs, who toil not neither do they spin; whose fortunes - as in his case - have originated by grants made in times gone by for services which courtiers rendered kings, have since grown and increased, while they have slept, by levying an increased share on all that other men have done by toil and labour to add to the general wealth and prosperity of the country.
The agricultural workerAgricultural workers were obvious sufferers from the depression and this lay behind much migration to the towns. However, as a group they were becoming more assertive.
In the 1870s they became unionized. At a meeting of Warwickshire labourers, a Primitive Methodist preacher, Joseph Arch, a labourer at Barford, made a revivalist speech calling for a farm workers’ strike, which raised him to the leadership of a movement. The strikers were given considerable publicity in the press, especially the Liberal Daily News, and on 29 March 1872 they founded at Leamington the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union. It spread rapidly and soon became a national union with a membership of nearly 100,000 at the end of 1872. But after a defeat over a Suffolk and Norfolk strike in 1874 membership fell rapidly, and with the decline in agriculture the union lost power.