Breaking New Ground book outlines a century of Norfolk farming history
PUBLISHED: 06:15 10 December 2016
A severe economic crisis forced government to scrap farm support measures almost a century ago but could history be about to repeat itself? MICHAEL POLLITT, former EDP agricultural editor, has reviewed a book about Norfolk farming in the 20th century, and finds some alarming parallels.
Faced with paying £35m in price guarantees for its flagship Agriculture Act in 1921, the government announced its repeal just six months after it became law.
It was dubbed the “great betrayal” in the House of Commons by newly-elected Norfolk MP and farmworkers’ leader George Edwards as farming was plunged into the most severe depression in the 1920s and early 1930s.
The Treasury saved more than £35m (£1.54bn in 2016 prices) by scrapping long-term guaranteed wheat prices. So could it happen again?
Today, Britain’s farmers receive £3bn in support and environmental payments from Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy, which is guaranteed until 2020. But in a post-Brexit economy, is there a chance that a cash-strapped Treasury might be forced to adopt measures implemented by former bowler-hat wearing colleagues?
Retired grain merchant, Alec Douet, of Aylsham, has charted the history of Norfolk agriculture from 1914 to 1972 in the latest edition of his book, “Breaking New Ground”. He spent more than five years researching for his doctorate at the University of East Anglia and was also assisted by the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association.
The government’s farm support policy was a direct response to looming shortages of cereals and meat after two years of war. A disastrous harvest in 1916 added to the problems.
In December 1916, with four million tons of merchant shipping sunk by the Germans, the new prime minister Lloyd George launched a food production campaign. A special war cabinet meeting in his first week as PM – exactly 100 years ago – concluded that boosting food production was a war priority.
It was the first intervention for decades by a government determined to boost home-grown food production. It was a measure of the official concern that Whitehall decided to act to force farmers to grow more grain and ordered grassland to be ploughed.
Crucially, the Board of Agriculture was then empowered to set minimum prices for wheat – guaranteed until at least 1922 – and wage rates.
However, the problems facing farming in Norfolk were colossal, as Dr Douet, 87 on Tuesday , discovered from hundreds of hours reading the EDP’s files.
It was not just the decades of neglect – to land, soil fertility and buildings. There was a key shortage of labour too – at the outbreak of war, a third of the county’s agricultural workforce was over 45. In the next two years, Norfolk had the highest recruitment rate to the Colours in the eastern counties.
On a mid-Norfolk arable farm in 1916, the average age of 12 men was 59, half of whom averaged nearly 70. Subsequently, Norfolk was to lose a third of all its workers from the land, a higher proportion than any other county.
Even mechanisation did not deliver, hardly surprising when an early tractor ploughed about six or seven acres a week – roughly the same as a ploughman and team of horses.
Whitehall’s demands for more land growing cereals, and even more labour shortages, added to the problem. Faced with 20pc higher wage rates, set by a government which had capped corn prices, hundreds of farmers packed into the Agricultural Hall in Norwich (now Anglia TV’s home) in December 1917 to express their anger.
Then, adding further fuel, three months later weekly wages were increased again to 38 shillings 6d (£1.92). The industry felt that it had been let down as it faced soaring costs but pegged incomes.
As the war was ending, the newly established Norfolk National Farmers’ Union (NFU) was founded – quickly recruiting members at the expense of the Norfolk Chamber of Agriculture.
And farming’s anxiety for the future after the Armistice continued as more than 3,000 met in Norwich in July 1919.
The government’s solution was to set up a Royal Commission. Remarkably, it reported in less than five months in December 1919. Acknowledging farmers’ fears, the majority report recommended guaranteed prices for wheat and barley, with annual increases for higher costs.
In June 1920, legislation was announced by the minister, Sir Arthur Boscawen. It gave price support to wheat but not barley, much to the annoyance of Norfolk barley growers, voiced by Lord Hastings in lengthy debates in the upper house.
The 1921 Agriculture Act was an attempt to support home-grown food production as rationing had been introduced in 1918.
Overall, the newly-formed Norfolk NFU, formed in November 1918, was well satisfied. Its secretary, Jim Wright, said that it was “finest measure of security the British farmer ever had.”
The Agriculture Act became law in January 1921. But as economic retrenchment was looming, the EDP’s influential agricultural correspondent since 1910, Col B B Sapwell, of Sankence, near Aylsham, voiced his fears that the taxpayers would not be happy to support prices. “If the country does pay up to the guarantees there will be such an outcry among the townspeople that (they) will soon be withdrawn.” His warning was eerily accurate just months later.
But the grain market was buoyant throughout that spring and prices at Norwich Corn Hall (next to Jarrolds) were 20pc higher that the minimum. However, around the world, storm clouds were looming.
As grain prices crashed, the Treasury faced paying more than £35m (£1.5 billion) to honour its promise. On June 8, the repeal of the Act – barley months since it had received Royal assent by King George V – was announced.
The impact was immediate across the industry. Wheat prices in Norfolk fell by more than half by the end of the year to less than 10 shillings (50p) a quarter. George Edwards, (later knighted in 1930), told the Commons that repeal was “the basest betrayal any Government ever committed on any class.” It also spawned, indirectly, the great Norfolk farmworkers’ strike in 1923 when prime minister Andrew Bonar Law hosted talks at Downing Street on St Patrick’s Day.
GRIM ON THE LAND
For a variety of reasons, life was grim indeed for those working on the land. The recession had forced rents down.
With 90pc of the county of Norfolk tenanted, landlords were under acute pressure. As a result, the state of housing was dire. On the Blickling estate in 1914, illness was so acute that one farm had 10 regular workers recorded as absent sick for an average 32 days each.
With such poor housing –as a 1906 report revealed widespread evidence of foul drains and privies, damp and poorly-ventilated hovels, beef cattle probably had better living conditions.
It was little wonder that so many drifted to the towns as author and south Norfolk estate owner Rider Haggard, of Ditchingham, noted in 1906.
When pneumatic tyres on bicycles became more available, it gave further impetus to the drift from the land.
For so many tenant farmers, the long-established Norfolk four-course rotation made sense. It was almost self-sufficiency – home-grown fodder crops replaced bought-in cattle cake and manure maintained (just) fertility. But the land suffered – drains became choked, hedges untrimmed and crops infested with weeds – and buildings just fell into rack and ruin.
Publication of a new edition of Dr Alec Douet’s Breaking New Ground has been possible thanks to financial support of agricultural charities.
Morley Agricultural Foundation, the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association, Stalham Farmers’ Club and Aylsham Agricultural Show Association, have helped to fund the latest print run.
Copies of the 220,000-word book, which spans in painstaking detail the industry’s fortunes in four crucial periods – the First World War, the further recession, the second world war and then from the 1947 Agriculture Act, which laid the foundations of a progressive and highly-productive industry.
He also describes in compelling detail the growth of smallholdings and especially Norfolk County Council’s role and also the development of agricultural education over 75 years.
“Breaking New Ground” is privately published by Dr Douet, copies cost £25, and can be obtained from 1, White Hart Street, Aylsham NR11 6HG. (Cheques to A Douet or email firstname.lastname@example.org) or get copies from the RNAA’s showground office.