Too Much Revolution:
Agriculture in the
Industrial Revolution, 1700-1860
The idea that an agricultural revolution accompanied the Industrial Revolution, and indeed contributed more to the overall productivity growth of the British economy in the years 1700 to 1850 than did the revolutionary changes in cotton textiles, still dominates thinking about the Industrial Revolution period. 1Table 4.1 shows, for example, some recent estimates of productivity growth in English agriculture between 1700 and 1850. The authors vary in where exactly they place the productivity growth, but all find productivity more than doubled between 1700 and 1850, just at the time of the Industrial Revolution.
The existence of the agricultural revolution has profound implications for our thinking about the rate of overall economic growth in the Industrial Revolution, the level of industrialization in England before the Industrial Revolution, and about the cause of the Industrial Revolution. Yet it remains a maddeningly elusive event. It is only observed indirectly, through the shadows it casts on other actors. When we get down to the level of what was happening in the fields and the barns during the Industrial revolution period we see little sign of any major changes. This essay argues that that is because there was no agriculture revolution in England in the Industrial Revolution period, or indeed any time between 1600 and 1914. Instead there were modest gains in output, and even smaller gains in measured productivity, all the way from 1600 to 1914 through minor and incremental changes in agriculture. 2 Agriculture is closer to reactionary torpor than to revolutionary excitement____________________