Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Loss Of the Working Horse In Rural England (Part 1)

The horse, a sight common on most farms was phased out on most by 1958 when there were less than one hundred thousand working horses left on farms in Great Britain by 1958[1]. The horse, the source of power on most farms was indispensable, even when steam power arrived to power labour saving machines such as the threshing machine. How else could the land be ploughed, harrowed, rolled, sown and the crop harvested? Horses were used in haytime and all other aspects of heavy work. Tractors, the modern replacement for the horse, once unreliable and expensive became cheap and more reliable as time progressed. Manufacturers such as Massey-Ferguson, Ford and David Brown all made cheap tractors that were not just used for pulling trailed implements. The Little Grey Fergie was the first mass produced tractor equipped with a Power Take Off (PTO) used to implements such as power balers and muckspreaders. The Grey Ferguson was also attired with a hydraulic three point linkage and a front loader could also be fitted. More implements were designed by manufacturers such as Ransome, Sims and Jeffries of Ipswich to fit the tractor, and sales naturally increased as the tractor became more popular. Perhaps one of the most influential reasons for the decline of the horse was the rise in demand for food produced in Great Britain during times of conflict. When Britain was under threat from Germany in 1914-1918, and 1939-1945, it was vital to increase the acreage of crops in Britain, particularly cereals. This in turn led to a post-war government policy of increased production of food.

A common misconception is that the tractor was the sole reason for the demise of the working horse on the farm. This is not entirely the case, the loss of arable land in many areas meant there was simply no need for having as many horses on the farm. Ever since the Great Agricultural Depression of the late nineteenth century farmers were reducing the amount of land that went under the plough[2]. From 1879 onwards, times were financially challenging for many farmers[3]. Many chose more extensive farming methods, such as sheep farming or rearing beef cattle, which required much less labour as compared to arable farming. What is surprising in the period from 1870-1910, the number of horses used in agriculture actually increased from 966,000 to 1,000,137[4].

The tractor in 1914 was still in its development. [5]. Steam ploughs with a single or double engine had some success, but the horse was still providing the most power in the field[6]. Tractors became the focus of many farmers because although the horse was still very numerous, horses, like men were necessary for use by the army. Half the steam ploughs were thought to be laid idle in Great Britain due to the lack of both labour and skills required to use them[7]. Prices of agricultural produce increased due to a higher demand, and the farmer was able to consider investing in modern machinery.
By Jonathan Severs, B.A Hons (York St John).

[1] M.A.F.F, A Century of Agricultural Statistics, Great Britain 1866-1966, p.61.
[2] Ibid, the acreage of wheat in Great Britain fell in the period 1866-1938 from 3,350 000 acres to 1,923,000. Barley in the same period also fell from 2,237 000 acres to 984,000, p.34.
[3] J.Brown, Agriculture in England, A Survey of Farming 1870-1947, p.1.
[4] M.A.F.F, p.129.
[5]In 1925 there were only 14, 565 tractors in England and Wales used for field work. The Agricultural Output of England and Wales 1925, cited in P.E Dewey, British Agriculture In The First World War, p.60
[6] P.E Dewey, British Agriculture in The First World War, p.60.
[7] Ibid, p.61.

The Women's Land Army 1939-1945 - An Interview

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