With the impending crash out of the European Union which supplies us with much of our food, there have been a lot of claims that England cannot feed itself. Some writers claim that we have not been self sufficient for 200 years, and the huge amounts of food that were imported during World War II, but this is largely simplistic and misinformed.
For most of England’s history, it was a net exporter of food, especially of grain. The Romans were fed by these islands, and the Normans had huge sheep runs to provide wool for export as well as establishing weekly markets aimed at being within walking distance of 7 miles apart. This allowed farmers – or more likely, their wives – to sell their surplus, provide variety in their diets, employment for women and there was access to food for all.
The Tudors were still exporting food, but they also triggered a population boom when they closed the monasteries, so the large celibate populations were able to marry. But they claimed the many Pre-Reformation holidays were threatening national starvation, so they reduced them.
In the mid-18th century there were food riots across theWest Country. Most accounts blame crop failures, but the riots were in the autumn, the time of harvests, not at the end of winter, the time of hunger. Colonial wealth had flooded into the country, with rising numbers of absentee landlords. The traditional obligations of lords of the manor to ensure their tenants were fed broke down. This is probably why fox hunting was introduced, to reconnect the tenants with their landlords. Instead of the markets ensuring everyone was fed, speculators were buying up wheat before it got to market.
William Cobbett in his early 19th century Rural Rides wrote passionately about the mismanagement of land; of enclosed commons producing thistles instead of grazing for sheep and cattle. Mantraps used to catch slaves in the colonies were used to prevent trespassing locals. Country people were often poor, but the enclosed land denied them access to foraging: for firewood, mushrooms, fruit, berries, nuts, and fish and game to supplement their diets. Cobbett described some poor people as having no firewood, and only the clothes they stood in.
The 200 years ago brings us to the late 19th century. I was fascinated to learn that many farms converted from growing grain to dairy at this time. The reason is this was when the American railroads were completed, allowing the export of ‘prairie gold’, i.e. cheap wheat. At the same time, Canada, South Africa and Australia were growing wheat that undercut English farms, so many of them converted to livestock instead. England’s rolling hills, its varied landscapes were mostly unsuited to such mass monoculture. Farms were incredibly productive, with crop rotation, and the integration of animal husbandry with arable farming.
This led to the end of the celebration of the traditional harvests, accelerated the depopulation of the countryside, and the Agricultural Workers Union actually funded the emigration of workers to the New World. England could feed itself, it just couldn’t compete on price, and this is important. It also coincides with the recognition that the poor needed help to support themselves, which led to the allotment movement, with poor people renting small plots to grow food and gain access to fresh air and exercise. Such small scale agriculture was recognised as improving the diet and lifestyle of the poor, and providing people with a sense of achievement and independence.
Another factor was the huge quantities of fodder consumed by various beasts of burden. Oxen were popular as they ate mostly grass and were used on heavy soils. But horses sank into soils and were fed grains and produced a lot of dung which required crossing sweepers. Claims were made that dung drifts in cities could be several feet high and in summer could help spread disease.
The next date which looms large in the history is World War II when Britain needed to import lots of food. WW1 had been concentrated in the lowlands of Europe so loss of food growing land there was not disastrous. But WW2 threatened widespread food shortages so Britain was sending food there. But with aerial warfare damaging buildings, a lot of food storage and shipping was attacked, fuelling shortages. Home grown food expanded massively but could not cope with such losses. Wartime always causes food shortages; mass supplies for the military puts stress on local distribution. Many local history books describe how land that was normally left for rough grazing was used for food during the war, so agricultural land did increase at the time, but reverted when peace came. Traditionally, wars were put on pause to allow soldiers to return home to help with the harvests. During the last war, agricultural work was protected, but a lot of land was commandeered for army bases and airfields. The armed forces needed huge quantities of food, and peoples’ calorie intake probably rose. There were also refugees in need of support. Before World War I sheep used to graze on sand banks in Eastern England but they were so frightened by the sound of guns across the channel that they were moved inland and never returned.
The National Trust has recently announced that less than 1/3 of its properties have links with slavery or colonialism. This means that over 2/3 were formerly home to country people, where food was grown. Some landowners demolished homes to declare empty parishes, to remove their responsibility to care for the poor. Huge areas of previously productive farmland in this country is in private hands. But maybe the biggest change will be the need for people to return to the land, to live close to the sources of our food to reduce the need for imports and mass transportation.