Monday 13 April 1992

Michael Stratton Lecture On Victorian Farming


The guest speaker at the April 1992 meeting of the Warminster History Society, held at Warminster Library, was Mr Michael Stratton, who lives at Stockton. He farms at Manor Farm, Stockton, and East Farm, Codford, in the Wylye Valley.

His lecture was on how English farming changed from centuries of the three-field system to the enclosed farming of the last century.

People in the Middle Ages had used a three-field system. Each parish had three large fields which were divided up into plots, 2 to 3 yards wide but quite long. Each plot was worked by one man and he had to grow the same crop as the others in each third. One large field was wheat, the next was barley, and the last third was left fallow. The crops were rotated each year.

The rotation system worked successfully for hundreds of years. What ended the system was poor fertility, new methods, and the evolution of science to improve the land. And during the 18th and 19th centuries the population increased, which meant much more food was required.

The system was changed by Act of Parliament in the 18th century. The peasantry were dispossessed, common land was enclosed, and large units were formed and these were farmed by one man. New methods came in and these were more economic. There was an eight-year rotation sytem: wheat, barley, turnips, swedes, wheat, barley, and then two years down to grass. This was to help control pests and diseases.

Sheep were used for fertility. The sheep would eat the grass on the downlands during the daytime, and then be brought into the farm fields at night; when their droppings would help to fertilise the land. As a result the downland became very poor in fertility, but this helped the wild flowers grow well.

Up to Christmas the sheep fed on turnips, and then on swedes (which were frost hardy) later in the new year. After the swedes had been eaten the land would be ploughed and sown with spring barley. In May the turnips were sown. June to July was haymaking time. August was corn harvest time. And then the wheat was sown in October to November.

In Victorian times you would expect a yield of one tonne of wheat per acre, but now with modern technology you would expect a yield of 3 tonnes of wheat to the acre.

Michael Stratton concluded by saying that Victorian farming had been very successful.