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decline of smallholders


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The decline, and in many places the disappearance, of smallholders has been hotly debated since the early years of the 20th century, when Gilbert Slater, The English Peasantry and the Enclosure of the Common Fields (1907), A. H. Johnson, The Disappearance of the Small Landowner (1909), and John and Barbara Hammond, The Village Labourer (1911), argued that enclosure was fatal to the small farmer, the cottager, and the squatter because of their loss of rights on the commons. Much of the argument was based on analyses of land tax assessments which have since been shown to be a flawed source. E. Davies, ‘The Small Landowner, 1780–1832, in the Light of the Land Tax Assessments’, Economic History Review, 1/1 (1927), was the first to revise the conclusions of Slater, Johnson, and the Hammonds, arguing that enclosure did not adversely affect the small landowner and tenant farmer, whose numbers actually rose in many regions during the period of enclosure. See also J. A. Yelling, Common Field and Enclosure in England, 1450–1850 (1977), and G. E. Mingay, Enclosure and the Small Farmer in the Age of the Industrial Revolution (1976). The debate has been reopened by J. M. Neeson, Commoners: Common Right, Enclosure and Social Change in England, 1700–1820 (1993).

Recent arguments over the effects of enclosure have tended to concentrate on the agricultural labourer and cottager rather than the small owner–occupier. The terms ‘yeoman’ and ‘husbandman’ gradually disappeared and the 19th century saw an increasing polarization between the larger owner–occupiers and the very small ones. Studies from Warwickshire, Lincolnshire, Westmorland, Suffolk, and Wiltshire confirm the widening gap between large and small tenant farmers during the late 18th and 19th centuries (see also villages, close; villages, open). In old‐enclosed parishes, especially those converted to pasture, the owner–occupier had almost ceased to exist by the late 18th century. However, many families continued to farm a smallholding, often with the assistance of another occupation (see dual economy). Indeed, hill farmers and their lowland counterparts in the fens continued to farm smallholdings in the traditional manner. See Adrian Hall, Fenland Worker–Peasants: The Economy of Smallholders at Rippingale, Lincolnshire, 1791–1871 (Agricultural History Review, suppl. 1 (1992).

Historians now stress the variety of the small owners’ experience. The position of the smallholder weakened as the trend of the modern period has been towards large units, but in many parts of the British Isles the decline has not been such that he has disappeared. See Alun Howkins, ‘Peasants, Servants and Labourers: The Marginal Workforce in British Agriculture, c.1870–1914’, Agricultural History Review, 42/1 (1994).

Subjects: History.


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