In the early Middle Ages most families earned a living farming a customary bovate or carucate of 10 to 15 acres of arable land with grazing and other rights on the commons. A few wealthier families had managed to accumulate a number of such holdings, and at the opposite end of the social scale an increasing number of cottagers had to struggle to survive with less than 5 acres of land. The shortage of land ended with the Black Death, after which a wealthier peasantry with larger holdings emerged. See engrossing.
The renewed growth of †population in the Tudor and early Stuart period again produced a situation where smallholdings were characteristic of most areas, but cottages were becoming numerous. Copyhold tenure was increasingly converted to leasehold at this time. After the Restoration large landowners began to build considerable estates through marriage, purchase, and the application of strict rules of inheritance. They favoured the letting of farms in much larger units than before. This process gathered pace in much of southern and eastern England during the 18th and 19th centuries, as leases fell in. Nevertheless, smallholdings remained characteristic of other parts of Britain.
It was once held that parliamentary enclosure was a major cause of the decline of the smallholder, but this picture has been radically revised. Studies of the estate records of great landowners have shown that even before 1750 the general trend towards larger units was evident, and that this trend continued in corn‐growing regions whether or not a particular parish was enclosed or remained under the open‐field system. Other studies have demonstrated the remarkable persistence of smallholdings elsewhere.
Large farms of 500 acres or more became the usual type of holding in Northumberland and Norfolk, the chalklands of southern England, and the chalk and limestone districts of the midlands and the East Riding of Yorkshire. Farms were much smaller on the heavy soils of the midlands, in north‐west England, in Devon and Cornwall, close to London, and in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. The contrasts were marked between different pays within certain counties; for example, in Lincolnshire small farmers survived in the fens and marshlands, but some very large farms were created on the Wolds. In Wiltshire during the 19th century small owners declined rapidly in chalk areas but continued to predominate in cheese districts. Even Norfolk and Northumberland, which were famous for their large farms and progressive husbandry, also had numerous smallholdings on heavier soils and in infertile areas.
David Grigg, ‘Farm Size in England and Wales, from Early Victorian Times to the Present’, Agricultural History Review, 35/2 (1987), shows that before the 1870s larger farms were formed at the expense of smaller ones but that this pattern was reversed in the 1880s, and until the 1920s smaller farms increased absolutely and proportionately while larger farms declined. Since then larger farms have again been formed, though it was not until the mid‐1960s that farms of 300 acres or more occupied the same proportion of crops and grass as they had in 1851. By 1983, 13 per cent of holdings accounted for over half the total land occupied by farms in England and Wales. Despite the concentration of land in fewer and fewer hands during the 20th century, however, in certain districts, e.g. the Pennines, smallholdings remain the characteristic farm unit.