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

By M. J. Daunton | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 3 The Rise of the Great Estates and the Decline of the Yeoman

'The distribution of landed property', remarked James Caird in 1878, 'is, by the growing wealth of the country, constantly tending to a reduction in the number of small estates.'1 The increasing concentration of landownership fuelled political controversy in the nineteenth century, and one outcome was the compilation of figures on English landownership in 1873 which defenders of landed society hoped would refute the claim that the countryside was in the grip of a few great magnates. They were disappointed, for the 'new domesday' showed a concentrated pattern of ownership (Table 3.1). At the top were great magnates with 10,000 acres and above, such as the dukes of Bedford or Devonshire with their country seats at Woburn and Chatsworth, and their great London mansions. They shaded into the greater gentry and squires, who were more likely to have local influence than a national role. An estate of about 1,000 acres marked the boundary of a gentry life-style, with three or four tenants and a manor house, although some owners of 300-1,000 acres aspired to gentry society, particularly those who had non-agricultural income and had bought a small estate as an investment or a guarantee of social status. The proportion of land held by genuine 'yeomen' or owner-occupying farmers was probably about 10 per cent in England in 1873.

The survey of 1873 provides an accurate picture of the outcome of two centuries of consolidation, but earlier figures are much less reliable. The estimates for 1790 do suggest that small owners of less than 1,000 acres and owner-occupying farmers or yeomen were more significant, and large estates less dominant. Earlier estimates rest upon Gregory King's figures for 1688, which suggest that landownership was dominated by country gentlemen with 45-50 per cent of land and small owner-occupiers with 25-33 per cent. Over the two centuries, there was a rise in great estates and a decline in peasant proprietors and

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