'''The Great Agricultural Depression c.1870-1914'''

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For a paper that puts this topic into a wider context see here [[1]]

The great collectors before World War I were driven on by a sense of urgency. The members of the Folk Song Society realized that the time was short, and that vigorous efforts at rescue archaeology were needed if the old folk songs were not to be lost forever. The Prospectus of the Folk Song Society, referring to “folk songs, ballads and tunes,” remarked that “great numbers of these exist which have not been noted down, and which therefore are in danger of being lost.” [June 1908. Folk-Lore 19 (2): 147-8 (147).]

The Society’s Leaflet Issued to Clergy continued the theme: “We need hardly point out the historical and antiquarian importance of folk songs, but, in addition to this, their intrinsic musical beauty makes it imperative that they should be preserved. You would do a great national service by helping our search.” [June 1908. Folk-Lore 19 (2): 150-152 (151).]

In the Preface to English County Songs Lucy Broadwood and JA Fuller Maitland wrote:

In all parts of the country, the difficulty of getting the old-fashioned songs out of the people is steadily on the increase, and those who would undertake the task of collecting them ...should lose no time in setting to work. In almost every district, the editors have heard tantalizing rumours of songs that ‘Old So-and-So used to sing, who died a year or two back.’

Fuller Maitland, speaking of Lucy Broadwood, affirmed:

I well remember various experiences in her company, and the fearful job we had to take down these songs, both of us working with pen and pencil as hard as we could go. But it always strikes me that they are in such dreadful danger of disappearing altogether. We hear them always from the very old people in the villages. ...These old people are the great source of folk song; and they are dying out fast! We do not know how many songs we have lost. ...It is like a sort of race against time. ...It does behove everybody to do all they possibly can. [Broadwood, Lucy E. March 1905. “On the Collecting of English Folk Song.” Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association 31: 89-109. Fuller Maitland’s comments, which came in the discussion after Lucy Broadwood had delivered her paper, are on page 108.]

The theme was continued by Cecil Sharp in his One Hundred English Folk-Songs {1916). All were agreed that England’s traditional rural society was dying.

Since before the middle of the eighteenth century rural England had been going through a long process of change and depopulation. Oliver Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village was published in 1770 at the time of the so-called Enclosure Acts. These Acts, promoted by the landed classes, privatised common land and ended public rights to graze animals on it. You can read the poem here: [2]

These are two of its more well-known couplets:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroyed, can never be supplied.

The ills enumerated by the poet include extensive non-cultivated park lands attached to country mansions, abandoned farmsteads, a tavern defunct, the parson and schoolmaster gone, and the former inhabitants lost to the towns, cities and colonies. For a fuller analysis go here[3]

The poem gives an overly romanticised and sanguine account of life in the old village, but it graphically illustrates a phenomenon that went on to destroy both rural society and the rural culture that produced our old folk songs.

The Great Agricultural Depression started in the early 1870s, and, in conjunction with associated factors such as the mechanisation of agriculture, it had, by 1914, largely completed the destruction of the rural society from which our traditional folk songs sprang.

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 influential landed interests were responsible for the passing of the Corn Laws. These imposed high tariffs on imported grain to protect British farming from foreign competition. By the 1830s, however, industrial interests, given added influence by the Great Reform Act of 1832, argued for the repeal of the Corn Laws. The Anti-Corn Law League, headed by John Bright and Richard Cobden, conducted an escalating campaign. In 1846, at the height of the Irish potato famine, the Corn Laws were repealed by the Conservative government of Robert Peel.

This was seen by landed interest Tories as a betrayal and, with Benjamin Disraeli as their most effective spokesman, they brought down Peel’s Conservative administration and ushered in a further period of Whig or Liberal rule.

Landed interests feared that the repeal of the Corn Laws would lead to a flood of cheap food imports. In the short term this did not occur. However, by the early 1870s the development of steam ships and locomotives, especially the building of large steam powered merchant ships, and the construction of transcontinental railways in Canada and the USA, opened up Britain to a flood of agricultural imports, particularly of grain, the staple crop of British farmers. Arable farming suffered a severe decline that lasted until the onset of the First World War and was exacerbated after 1900 when newly invented petrol driven tractors led to massively increased outputs of grain from Canada, the USA, and other countries that had a lot of land and a shortage of labour. The free trade orthodoxy of the British Liberal Party was challenged in the 1906 General Election by the Conservative and Unionist parties, fronted by Joseph Chamberlain. They argued for Imperial preference and for fair trade not free trade. The Liberals, however, with their images of the Big Loaf of free trade as against the Small Loaf of protectionism, won a large parliamentary majority.

The agricultural depression that began around the time of the 1870s has generated a large literature that cannot be adequately summarised or discussed here. The Wikipedia article entitled “Great Depression of British Agriculture” is currently (November 2018) rather brief and inadequate but it cites useful scholarly sources. An old (1937) but still valid treatment can be found in R.C.K. Ensor’s England 1870-1914, a classic text that is now freely downloadable as PDF images from the Internet Archive. Ensor summarises what he refers to [p. 115] as “the disaster to agriculture” from 1870 to 1886. He concludes that “the motto over the door of Dante’s Inferno might have been truthfully posted at the entrance of a typical English village” [p. 118]. (The motto, of course, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”) Then, in the period from 1886 to 1900, continues Ensor [p. 284], “agriculture was ruined a second time over.” Wheat prices plummeted still further and by 1900 the acreage under wheat was little more than half what it had been in 1870. In the early 1890s a Royal Commission on Agriculture generated useful data for the historian but did nothing to solve the problems. In the period from 1901 to 1914 some sectors of agriculture, such, for example, as the rearing of livestock on imported grain, flourished; but agriculture’s percentage share of GDP kept on falling as the industrial revolution continued apace, embracing new technologies and new industries. The rural areas were depopulated and towns and cities grew rapidly. By 1914, concludes Ensor [p. 513],

Farming had ceased to be of any real consequence in the life of the nation, and the days (still so recent) when a good or bad harvest meant a good or bad season for trade in general seemed as dead as Queen Anne.

Ensor might have added that English folk song, lauded by Cecil Sharp, in English Folk Song: Some Conclusions, as "a great peasant art," in its original and traditional manifestation, also died with the society that had produced and supported it.