Agriculture In West Lancashire

Image from the personal collection of Dot Broady-Hawkes

South West Lancashire is a large flat plain sitting along the coast between the River Ribble in the north and the River Mersey in the south. Inland to the east the low hills and ridges of the Western Pennines divide West Lancashire from the east of the county.

Mainly consisting of fields of former peat marsh, reclaimed over time from the 1600s, the long growing season of the area means that there was always potential for the agriculturally progressive landowners to capitalise on their natural resources.

Drainage of the 3,132 acre area known as Martin Mere was begun in the 1690s by Thomas Fleetwood (1661-1717), owner of the Manor of Marton Grange. Two thousand labourers worked on the scheme and the area was successfully drained, becoming productive for 60 years until the sea took over again.

Thirty years later Sir Thomas Eccleston of Scarisbrick Hall restarted the scheme which was finally completed by Sir Peter Fleetwood-Hesketh who inherited the Fleetwood estates.

Sir John Sinclair formed the Board of Agriculture in 1793. Sir John carried out a survey of agriculture in South West Lancashire by sending a questionnaire to landowners and the tenants of the larger farms. The questionnaire was used to gather information on how estates managed their woodland and agricultural land.

South West Lancashire up to and including the early eighteenth century was a flax-growing area in which linens were produced, and many farmer’s inventories record the growing of flax, along with inventories of tools for the processing of raw flax and spinning wheels.

Eighteenth century Lancashire was a county of small farms and this situation remained throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century.

The shortage of labour on West Lancashire farms had become a problem when the cotton mills of Liverpool attracted workers in from the rural districts. This labour shortage led West Lancashire to become an early adopter of mechanised farm machinery – threshing machines in particular were introduced quite early, despite the area producing less corn than other crops.

Most farms grew some cereal crops even if just to feed their own livestock. Other crops were potatoes, turnips, clover, liquorice, rhubarb, chicory, madder (grown to make dye), rutabaga (suede), hemp and flax.

The Sinclair questionnaire gathered information from the estate owners that produced detailed data, from which Sinclair was able to identify good practise, sound management of farming land and woodland and also identify successes and failures. His report of 1793 used a never before heard term for this collection of information, ‘statistics’. Communicating through the Agricultural Society, he was able to advise the Society subscribers on forward planning to ensure higher yield, disease and pest control, profitable markets and watercourse management.

All of this coincided with the Enclosure reform of the late 18th and early 19th century, when the common farming methods of the small farmer were lost to the bigger estates and land owners. This led to many families losing their means of survival and took whole communities into the big cities to find work in the mills.

West Lancashire had several landowners across the district who welcomed the more structured and planned approach to managing their valuable assets. By 1799 there were 120 members of the Agricultural Society from South West Lancashire, including local landowner The Earl of Derby of Knowsley Hall, who owned the vast majority of the land in and around Ormskirk at one time, Other major landowners included Richard Wilbraham-Bootle of the Lathom Estate, the Earl of Sefton (Molyneux Estate) of Croxteth Hall, Crosby Hall Estate (Blundell Estate), Bannister of Bank Hall and Hesketh of Rufford Hall.

The larger fields which came with land reform, coupled with increasingly improved seed quality meant that many fields were changed to cereal crops, with greater access via improved transport to markets beyond the competitive local market, where prices were set from week to week and on a national comparison.

During the early years of the 19th century, corn growing land owners began to feel the financial impact of cheaper imported corn. After almost 20 years of implementing measures to control the prices of home grown corn to safeguard the income of the powerful landowners, The Corn Law was passed in 1815. This put a minimum price on imported corn of 80 shillings a quarter. This meant that landowners and farmers could sell their corn for any price up to 80 shillings. The cost of living in cities and towns was directly impacted by the cost of a loaf of bread. The hold over the economy through the price of corn set so high, was very much by the landed gentry.

The new owners of large mills and factories were unable to pay their workers sufficient wages to cover anything but food and rent. The franchise was determined by land ownership and most MPs in Lancashire were also the owners of the farmland growing the corn and therefore making money from their own laws.

In 1832 after the Reform Bill and the vote being given to small tenant farmers; shopkeepers; house owners and small manufacturing owners the Corn Laws were repealed and the power to set the cost of corn was taken away from the land owning gentry who also represented counties in Government.

The impact of the expansion of towns and cities building bigger mills took many labourers from the fields and this led to the development of an ever widening range of mechanical agricultural machinery. Ironmongers previously manufacturing domestic iron and tin products from oven ranges to tin pots began to design and manufacture their own seed drills, ploughs, hay rakes and this led to bigger implements like threshing machines and rotavators. All labour saving and efficient pieces of machinery and all capable of working larger fields than the existing small fields from the days of enclosures.

Larger field sizes with greater capacity for profit but with less labouring overheads took agriculture in West Lancashire into a mechanised World of the 20th Century, only stalled by the Agricultural Workers Strikes of 1913 and World War One.

Between the wars, intensive farming was needed to produce enough food to make a profit and post WW2 large food production factories very much dictated the type of crop farmers would plant and harvest.

Farming in West Lancashire experienced more major change during the Twentieth Century. Farms were combined, meaning that old farm buildings in their hundreds were sold as ruins and converted to luxury homes. A number of fields were also turned over to housing to meet the demands of a growing population.

Farmers diversified and tried many other ways of keeping going. Farm shops and leisure and educational facilities changed the market for the farmer. Less and less agricultural labourers were employed all the year round, the traditional ‘tied cottage’ for farm workers became a thing of the past, with less need for workers to be living close to the farm.

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