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Welsh agriculture in 1800

Menai Straits
Menai Straits - card posted 1908

Down to the middle of the nineteenth century Wales was almost entirely an agricultural country. Towns were few and served mainly as markets for the produce of the neighbouring countryside. The population of the country was thin and fairly evenly distributed. Much of the land was waste and open although most of the farmed arable land had been fenced in. Welsh holdings were traditionally small and scattered: according to Gwallter Mechain they averaged some fifty or sixty acres.

Welsh farmers tended to be ignorant of even the most elementary principles of agriculture and ran their farms according to age-old methods handed on to them by their fathers. The improvements of Townshend, Bakewell, and Coke had not benefited Wales.

Gwallter Mechain describes the agriculture of Wales in his General View of the Agriculture and Domestic Economy of North Wales and South Wales and says of South Wales:

'Till of recent times, the corn culture of South Wales was on a small scale, just as much as supplied its little home markets. No Great Works with their attendant markets had yet appeared in the country. The iron-works were not opened; the tin and copper works were not yet established; the collieries were on a diminutive scale, for mere home supply; there were no great demands for corn from Bristol, or any other great English market. The chief business of farming with most, and the whole with many, was dairying and rearing of stock, and tillage was carried on by most with a view to the improvement of pastures, more than to any great advantages or profits that could be derived from corn. With such views, no grass-lands were ever broken up without such quantities and qualities of manures in readiness as would be adequate for the purpose of improving as much as possible of its future agriculture.'

Wheat was confined to the southern coastal plain and to Anglesey. Barley (haidd) was more commonly grown, together with oats (ceirch), and rye (rhyg). The chief vegetables were: peas, beans, potatoes, turnips, cabbages, together with vetches and mangels. These crops were grown for subsistence and local consumption only as there were few means of transport for any trade in cereals. At the same time, lime, because of the prohibitive cost of transport, was not obtainable in inaccessible districts. In 1768, Arthur Young had described Welsh mountain roads as 'mere rocky lanes, full of hugeous stones as big as one's horse.' The advent of the Turnpike Trusts, however, improved the condition of the roads immensely but made travel expensive because of the tolls.

Agricultural tools were primitive and extremely inefficient. The old Welsh plough was in common use during the eighteenth century although by 1800 it was being replaced by the Rotherham swing-plow. Gwallter Mechain quotes a contemporary's description of the old plough:

The Welsh plough is in common use; and perhaps a more awkward, unmeaning tool is not to be found in any civilised country. It is not calculated to cut a furrow, but to tear it open by main force. The share is like a long wedge; the coulter comes before the point of the share sometimes and sometimes stands above it; the earth-borad is a thing never to be thought of, but a stick is fastened from the right side of the heel of the share, and extends to the hind part of the plough; this is intended to turn the furrow, which it sometimes performs, sometimes not, so that a field ploughed with this machine looks as if a drove of swine had been rolling in it.'

There was a great variety of harrows but many were useless. Their bad design made sure that they did not pulverise the soil properly.

Most of the carts were without wheels as they had to be used in steep, mountainous districts where wheeled vehicles could not be used.


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