Progress and Poverty: An Economic and Social History of Britain, 1700-1850

By M. J. Daunton | Go to book overview
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The radicals had a point, but the alternative was not necessarily without its problems. The last serious famine in Britain was in Scotland in 1697-9; in France, there were sixteen nation-wide famines between 1700 and 1789, and a serious subsistence crisis as late as 1819. In nineteenth-century France, the survival of small farms was at the expense of rigid controls on fertility in order to prevent pressure on resources, so that there was virtually no population growth; and food prices were maintained by tariffs. Ricardo was right to suggest that rent formed a rising share of income, and Cobbett was correct in his belief that many small farmers and labourers were better off in the mid-eighteenth century. But could the agrarian system of the early eighteenth century feed a rapidly growing population, and avoid a subsistence crisis such as Malthus feared, without a sizeable increase in rents and a consolidation of farms? Britain achieved high labour productivity in agriculture, allowing it to release labour and feed the rising population, without a disastrous increase in food prices which would lead to a collapse of wages and a 'positive' check on population. Of course, gains in output in the late eighteenth century were hard won, as agriculture hit the ceiling of yields and farming moved to marginal land. But was any other response possible in the face of accelerating population growth at the end of the eighteenth century which threatened prosperity and economic growth? Far from being necessary to provide a work-force for farming and industry, population growth was a potential threat which placed pressure on resources, leading to increased prices and rents; agriculture was able to release labour to meet the needs of industry. Population growth threatened the onset of a 'stationary state', and agriculture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was only able to supply food by dint of great efforts. Its success was that it was able to feed the population without a subsistence crisis or a serious erosion of real wages.


Conclusion

Changes in agrarian society had wide implications. The comparative advantages of light and clay soils affected the location of rural industry, which in turn had demographic consequences, for the emergence of industry in the countryside weakened constraints on the formation of families which were imposed by the need to acquire a holding. In districts where agriculture continued to dominate, the reduction of the population to dependent wage labour could remove any incentive to delay marriage in order to serve an apprenticeship or to acquire a few animals, and so ease constraints on population growth. Agricultural change could weaken restraints upon population growth, which in turn placed pressure on the supply of food. The increased demand for food, to which agriculture was able to respond only sluggishly, meant higher food prices and a check to the

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Progress and Poverty: An Economic and Social History of Britain, 1700-1850
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