British Agricultural History Society

By Cavendish, Richard | History Today, April 1993 | Go to article overview

British Agricultural History Society


Cavendish, Richard, History Today


* Nothing is more conductive to pessimism, gloom and outright despair than the regular practice of agriculture. At a recent conference of the British Agricultural History Society (BAHS) it was sepulchrally remarked that, the way things are going in ten years' time there may be nothing left of British agriculture except its history. Fortunately, the subject seems to be in good heart. The society's membership, at about 750, is lower than it was a few years ago, but the number of research students busy ploughing the field and scattering is rising again after dipping in the 1980s.

BAHS is forty years old this month. Formally inaugurated at Reading University in April 1953, it was founded to encourage the study of the history of agriculture and the countryside. The annual subscription in those far-off days was a gentlemanly one guinea. This was at a time when a profound change had overtaken the British countryside. The mechanisation of agriculture, begun long before and spearheaded by the tractor, had gained a formidable momentum during the Second World War, when every scrap of land was used to grow the embattled nation's food at home.

Between 1939 and 1951 the number of tractors on English and Welsh farms soared from 55,000 to 300,000, while the number of agricultural horses fell by 55 per cent, from 549,000 to 248,000. The implements of the horse age were left to rot in the barn or rust in the field. The crafts and industries of pre-tractor days were doomed. The countryside of Hardy and W.H. Hudson was almost as dead as the dodo. The situation gave a powerful impetus to both nostalgia and historical study, and the Museum of English Rural Life was founded by Reading University in 1951.

Its first keeper, John Higgs, was a founder-member of BAHS two years later, as were Edgar Thomas, Professor of Agricultural Economics at Reading, W.G. Hoskins and H.P.R. Finberg, the first editor of the Society's journal. There was a strong influence from Leicester University, but the prime mover was an amateur, George Fussell, the civil servant and pioneering writer on English rural life, who died on New Year's Day 1990, still in harness as almost certainly the oldest practising historian in Europe. It was he who convened a meeting in London in 1952 which led to the formal founding of the Society the following year.

The Society's great strength is its highly respected and handsomely produced journal, the Agricultural History Review, which runs to 100 pages or so an issue, comes out twice a year and is free to members. Interested in all aspects of the history of agriculture and rural society and economy, its articles have ranged over everything from the Aberdeenshire cattle trade in the nineteenth century to Bronze Age farming in Yorkshire and the Zamoyski Archives of Polish landowners. The Review has had only four editors: Herbert Finberg to 1964, Joan Thirsk until 1972 and Gordon Mingay to 1984, followed by Professor John Charters of the School of Business and Economic Studies at Leeds University, who will step down next year.

John Charters says that the Review always focused mainly on Britain and Ireland, with less attention paid to the rest of the world, but this has been changing and he hopes that the Anglocentric approach to the subject will continue to weaken. There has been a growing emphasis on broader aspects of social and economic history at the expense of narrowly technical material on farming and on agricultural archaeology.

At the same time, the Review is now reflecting growing interest in the period after 1914, with perhaps one article in every five or six concerned with the twentieth century. …

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