Agriculture in 1801 and 1949 compared

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This article by G H Dury was first published in the 1951 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

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The agricultural conditions and practices of Jersey were noted by a number of writers in the period from the mid-17th to the mid-19th century. On the basis of these and later accounts, and of statistics available from various sources, it has been possible to outline the agricultural history of the island for some three centuries. The earliest known detailed description has been, until very recently, that of Quayle, whose work appeared in 1815 and dealt with conditions three years previously, ie in the closing stages of the Napoleonic Wars: earlier statistical records have now been brought to light, which it is the object of this paper to examine.

Public Record Office papers

The records are in the form of manuscript papers in the Public Record Office, entitled Replies to the Request of Lord Pelham Secretary of State to Dioceses to Give Acreage Returns, 1801

Crop returns were demanded for every parish, and were to be collected by the local clergy. The need appears to have arisen from concern over increasing shortages and rising prices, especially that of grain, which became more and more keenly felt as the French wars dragged on. Although in some parts of the country the enquiries met considerable opposition, with the result that the returns are incomplete and not uniformly reliable, it is evident that as a whole they are historical documents of the first importance. Those relating to Jersey are grouped with other parish returns for the diocese of Winchester; records for St Ouen, St Peter, St Lawrence, St Saviour, St Clement and Grouville have been located, those for the remaining parishes apparently not having been made or having failed to survrve.

Table 1
Table 2

The picture presented of Jersey agriculture at the beginning of the 19th century is thus incomplete, but is nevertheless of considerable value if the returns can be taken as reasonably accurate. Those for St Ouen are given in round numbers of acres (converted to vergees in the table), and seem likely to be approximate, especially as the proportion of arable under grain is returned as noticeably higher than in the five remaining parishes.

A disparity of this kind would not in itself be suspect, were it not for the fact that in the other five parishes the percentage of tillage under grain is very nearly constant. This constancy, together with the detailed nature of the records, would appear to confirm the reliability of the returns for St Peter, St Lawrence, St Saviour, St Clement and Grouville. Furthermore, the total arable acreage returned for the whole group of six amounts to 24.5 of their combined land area, a proportion precisely comparable with Quayle's estimate of a quarter of the island under the plough in 1812.

Hence it appears likely that the 1801 returns are substantially correct, with some reservation in respect of those for St Ouen, and moreover that they provide a fair sample of the extent and use of arable land at that time.

Effect of war

In order to see this information in perspective, it is desirable to recall that during the wartime period Jersey agriculture was subjected to powerful influences which operated neither before 1793 nor after 1815, and to notice that the developments of the 19th century differed markedly from those of the 18th. It is true that cultivation and breeding for export had made a start before the outbreak of war, and that when peace was re-established they became dominant, but the trends were not continued across the wartime period when conditions were very different from those obtaining either earlier or later.

In the mid-18th century Jersey, although concentrating on arable rather than on pastoral working, suffered a deficiency of grain. Grain crops and pulses dominated such arable as existed, but tillage had decreased for a variety of reasons, including the improvement of navigation and foreign commerce which competed for labour, the fragmentation of holdings, and the conversion of some of the best arable to orchard land. Cider and knitwear were the chief items of export.

There seems little doubt that real want was felt at times: Saunders (1930) records that in 1768 the Chamber of Commerce decided to buy a cargo of barley in France for sale to the poor at prime cost. It seems likely that, if war had not broken out, the shortages might well have been met by import: Jersey was by no means without economic resources, having a considerable trading fleet of its own, connections with the French mainland, an interest in the Newfoundland fisheries and a tobacco manufacture using North American leaf. Although many difficulties were experienced from regulations imposed by Britain, and from the policy of the States, it might have been expected that without the protracted economic disequilibrium of the wars, the island would have abandoned the aim of agricultural self-sufficiency far earlier than it did.

The outbreak of war in 1793 had a profound effect. Existing shortages, already aggravated by the influx of French refugees and by the natural increase of population, were made worse by the posting in of a strong garrison. Overseas trade was endangered by the French, who in two years captured 43 Jersey vessels, and by the loss of labour as men volunteered, or were levied or impressed, for service.

By 1795 there was a great shortage of stores in the island, with little prospect of increased supplies from England. In these circumstances it was inevitable that despite the shortage of labour, efforts should be made to augment home production of basic foodstuffs, to which the emphasis of farming shifted. Fattening became as profitable as dairying, while wheat was cultivated to the greatest possible extent. Inglis (1835) emphasises the great contrast between these conditions and those which followed the peace of 1815, when French produce entered in quantity, when the prices of meat and bread fell sharply, when cattle farming reverted from stock to dairy and when wheat land was put to orchards or potatoes.

1801 returns

The 1801 returns show that, as stated, 24.5% of the combined area of the six parishes was in tillage, with grain crops - barley and wheat for the most part - accounting for 20% of the land area or over 80% of the arable. Not all the parishes were tilled to the same proportionate extent: in the south-east less than one-fifth of the land was under the plough, while in the north-west the fraction was greater than one-quarter. The contrast is no doubt accounted for in part by the wider distribution of sandy soils in the south-east, but may also in part reflect the lighter rainfall in that area.

A comparison of the 1801 figures with those for 1949 shows that in all the six parishes there has been a net increase of arable, which now accounts for 54% of the combined land area against 24.5% in 1801. The disparity in the value of yields must be much greater, even when no account is taken of improved working or of the introduction of new crops: it may be assumed that in 1801 very little land carried more than one crop in a single season, especially since so much was under grain, whereas in modern times the crop acreage is greater than the acreage cultivated by reason of the common practice of second-cropping. This fact should be borne in mind in reading the figures and Table 2, which are based on statistics for first crops only.

The net increases of area tilled show also a change of distribution. Whereas in 1801 tillage was relatively more extensive in the north-west, in 1949 St Saviour, St Clement and Grouville each had relatively more arable than either St Ouen or St Peter. St Lawrence, on the other hand, was the most widely ploughed in 1801 and in 1949 had only a fractional percentage less arable than St Clement, the leading parish in this respect.

The greater net increase in arable in the south-east than in the north-west corresponds to the divergence of practice between farming and growing. In Jersey, as in Guernsey, farming has tended to become restricted to the higher and more remote parts, and has been forced to compete for land with the new crops, potatoes and tomatoes for export. In the south-east there is an extension of potato cultivation on to the low ground, while in St Clement and Grouville together some 54% of arable land was in 1949 devoted to tomatoes.

An analysis of the proportionate distribution of arable land among the various crops in 1801 and 1949 respectively shows that grain has declined to 10.3% of the total arable: the decline has been most marked in Grouville and St Clement. Potatoes, which required only 8.5% of the arable of 1801, now occupy 47.3%, and in the three north-western parishes over half. The cultivation of pulses, which in 1801 were more widely grown than potatoes, has suffered an absolute as well as a great relative decline. Root crops, most extensive on the upland, accounted in 1949 for a much larger proportion of arable than that under turnips and rape in 1801. Tomatoes were unknown at the earlier date.

The principal changes to be noted, then, in addition to the general increase of the area cultivated, are the great reduction of grain-growing, which now occupies only a quarter of its 1801 area, the marked expansion of potato cultivation (in 1949 over eight times the 1801 area) and the introduction of the tomato. The contrast is one between an agrarian economy principally directed to the production of cash crops for export, and the forced economy of a wartime period when the need was of meat and grain to feed the population of the island.

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