Family Farm: The Fruits of Labour
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A Century of Relative Affluence

The nineteenth century began in turmoil. Huge numbers of families in lowland Scotland had been thrust from their traditional close relationship with the land. The old principles of kinship were replaced by profit-making. No longer were tenancies passed from father to son. Many of these families emigrated to Canada where they were able to renew a connection with land -- but this time as landowners. As the 19th century closed, many of these Ontario farm families enjoyed an unsurpassed relative affluence and political might.

However, in this first article under this heading, let's take a quick look at the beginnings of a constitutional crisis in Britain, rooted in agriculture. 

Agricultural Produce, Consumers and the Cost of Living

Mr. Aiton, you are Sheriff-Substitute of Lanarkshire and a vocal Tory supporter. Give us your objective Agricultural Report on the coming growing season in Lanarkshire.

The weather has been more uniformly mild, since the end of last harvest, than the oldest inhabitant remembers to have found it, in almost any former season. There was not more than eight or ten days frost and the ground has scarcely ever been covered with snow during the by-gone winter. The clay soil is of course heavy and stiff, but the frosty mornings during the present month have pulverized it and reduced its tenacity since it was turned up. The weather having been so favourable for out-door labour, the ploughing is far advanced, and with some finished. Many farmers have begun to sow, not only beans but oats; but it may be expected that a more favourable seed time still awaits us; and if it comes on in a week or ten days after this, it will be far better than that which is past.

What about prices of agricultural produce?

Muir sheep and out-lying stock never fared better, nor were in finer plight, at this season of the year. Fodder is abundant and at a low price. The prices of grain, potatoes, & c are low out of all proportion to the rents and expense of cultivation. But those of dairy produce and butcher meat are now at a fair average.

About 50 years ago, when the price of oatmeal was from 9d to 1s per peck, that of butter seldom exceeded 5d per pound of 16 oz. In these times, two pound country weight or three pound English of butter could have been got for one peck of oatmeal. But at present, a peck and the fourth part of a peck of meal can be procured for one pound of butter country weight. This change may be traced to two causes, viz.: greater attention being paid to grain husbandry than to that of the dairy; and the labouring classes being now better paid, can afford to use a much larger proportion of butter and cheese than fell to the lot of their ancestors of that rank. Whenever manufacturers [here, meaning factory workers and weavers] make high wages, the prices of butter and cheese advance in proportion, and vice versa. The recent rise in the wages of the weavers has raised sweet milk cheese from 8s 6d to 12s per stone in a few months; and butter in nearly similar proportion; though the oatmeal has continued to fall in price during the same period, and is now little higher than it was when skim-milk cheese sold at 1 1/2 d and 2d and butter at from 4d to 5d per pound.

How do things look for the farmer?

The uncommon mildness of the season has sprung the fruit trees too far at this early period; and if a smart frost shall come on, even for a night or two, the crop may be hurt or lost. But though the weather has been mild, and the last two crops have been above mediocrity, yet the situation of the farmer is far from being desirable. The great deficiency of crops in 1816-17, and the low price of all sorts of farm produce for several years past, have brought all farmers to the verge and many of them into the gulf of bankruptcy; and if something is not speedily done for their relief, the cultivation of the soil, which is by far the most important of all national improvements, must be in a great measure abandoned.

Agricultural distress has indeed been brought under the consideration of Parliament; and it will be surprising if something is not done to prevent the ruin of the cultivator from being completed; and involving in it, as it would certainly do, the national interest to an incalculable extent. Parliament certainly will no doubt be disposed to do what it conceives to be most for the general interest of the nation.

What do others say about the distress in the farming community?

But when we see one great agriculturist imputing all the evils that have come upon agriculture, to the duty on barley, which grows so abundantly on his own estate in the county he represents; another imputing them to the tax on horses -- the merchants tracing them to commercial restrictions -- the whigs to their exclusion from office, which they would have us believe is the source of all national evils -- the rabble and the democratic press imputing these evils to the corn laws -- and when we see all these clashing interests and contradictory opinions retailed in the House of Commons -- and the House assailed with distresses in other quarters -- the prospect of immediate relief is by no means flattering.

So, you think agriculture is pretty important to the national economy. Is agriculture more important than the manufacturing industry?

The merchant looks to nothing but how to increase his traffic. No matter to him whether he imports and vends articles of general or national interest, or those that are injurious to both -- he cares not whether he imports cordials or poison -- vice or virtue -- provided they bring him sufficient profits. The manufacturer again, and mechanics, care for nothing but how to procure every thing they need at low prices, and to sell those they manufacture high. Like the soutars of Selkirk, who opposed the political interest of the late Mr. Dundas, till he promised to do what he could to procure "cheap leather and dear shoon". The oppositionist again, render his interest, subservient above all things to the ousting of the ministry, defeating every measure they propose, however proper, and placing their own party at the helm of the state. If the agriculturist could give them a hoist towards the treasury bench, the whigs would rant and quibble and divide the House in their behalf fifteen or twenty times in one night. And whatever they do or say, their own Journalists would re-echo and retail as gospel, however absurd it might be.

This is confusing. Correct me if I'm wrong. Estate owners want higher rents from their tenant farmers. Farmers want higher prices for their produce. So estate owners want to keep out cheaper grain imports. Manufacturers want happy employees. The Whigs want lower food prices for the working class consumers. The working class does not like the protectionist Corn Law.  There seems to be a rift between those who favour the agricultural sector and those who favour the manufacturing sector -- quite a constitutional crisis is developing I would say. I gather that the corn law will cause the price of food to rise. Is that what actually happened?

When the corn laws were last before the House, some of the leaders of Opposition were at great pains to make the labouring classes believe that if the Bill passed into a law, oatmeal would never be obtained under from three to five shillings per peck, and the newsmongers who follow the whigs through thick and thin, and some of those whose readers are chiefly of the mercantile and manufacturing orders, repeated these or similar stories till they put the lower orders to their wits-end; and prepared them for riot -- or even for rebellion -- to oppose the Bill. The Bill however was carried into a law; and so far from the hollow and gloomy predictions of these politicians (or of their journalists) being fulfilled or the fears of those they deceived being realized, the price of oatmeal has, since the act passed, vibrated between 14d and 1s 10d per peck.

So you do not agree that the Corn Laws have done any harm to food prices. And you don't seem to like the political tactics of the Whig opposition.

This was what these politicians knew, or might have known at the time. But they were then seeking every opportunity of inflaming the minds of the people against the ministry and against his Majesty's government. And they so far succeeded, for some of those they set agog about the corn bill became leaders of the Radicals in spring 1820.

Yes, the Radical uprising last year was very serious. And you are saying that Whig politicians had deliberately stirred the rabble to rebellion -- all over miscalculated predictions for food prices.

One would expect that statesmen, or even ordinary politicians, who had then calculated upon such erroneous data, or those that knew better but wished to alarm and mislead the population and raise them to acts of violence, would now be ashamed of the part they had acted. But no. Political depravity has now come to such a height that the grossest falsehoods are told and the grossest deceptions used to oppose the government or promote the ends of a party: and those who do so, and are detected and defeated, are not in the least ashamed of what they have attempted or done, and only seek for some other subject where they have a better chance of practising the same arts with success. But if it shall become fashionable to use fraud, falsehood, and deception in politics, and no odium attached to such practices, these scandalous vices will soon extend to every other transaction of life. If the streams of morality are contaminated at their source they can never be again rendered pure.

Hamilton, 29th March, 1821, in the Clydesdale Journal March 30 1821.


Cited in a preliminary draft of Catching Up With the Market Economy (a work in progress)
The Scarboro Heights Record V11 #10