Stepping back through history Essex Countryside
PUBLISHED: 13:18 06 October 2013 | UPDATED: 13:18 06 October 2013
Despite the focus on the metropolitan suburbs of the south of the county and the declaration of Chelmsford as the county’s first city, Essex is a very rural county. As a result, huge expanses of land are devoted to farming and historically, local villages would be very dependent upon the farms nearby for both food and employment. Outside of the gruelling agricultural life, wealthy landowners could find other uses for the land and many entertainments in which to partake, while the 20th century saw the slow breakdown of the village community and more intrusion from the outside world. The countryside became a desirable place to live and commuters have since flocked back into the small villages, leaving farming the responsibility of the few rather than the many.
Village life, until the second half of the 20th century, was largely insular. Much of the village had a stake in farming, from the farmer himself down to schoolchildren who were taken out of their lessons to help with pea-picking, gleaning or collecting in the harvest. Industry within the village, such as the blacksmith, was reliant upon local farms for work too. Local farms would provide the food for the village, with very little coming in from outside, and as a consequence many farms grew a much wider variety of produce, selling any extra in the local market town. Money from the sale would then be ploughed back into the farm, in the hope of producing more in the next harvest.
By the 20th century, improvements in technology meant that the number of agricultural labourers began to fall, as less work became available. Most parishes now had a school and the education of children was ordered by law, so those children would go on to seek different work in the towns. They were replaced by new residents with no interest in farming, who often commuted to places of work from their homes in the countryside. Food started to be purchased not from the local farm, grocer or butcher, but from supermarkets, and village life became much and less focussed on the local fields.
Traditional farming involved much of the village, with the farmer often leasing the land from a local landowner and employing a few specialist, permanent staff. However, at peak times, such as the harvest or shearing time, agricultural labourers were employed on a seasonal basis to carry out farm work, providing the majority of employment in the countryside. Although farms were fairly diverse, needing to feed the entire local community, but Essex became famous for its cereal production. Wheat, oats and corn were transported on barges to the growing city of London, leading to the suggestion that East Anglia was the ‘granary of England’ – oil seed rape is a relatively new introduction.
Farmers would also keep animals, particularly in the south of the county where the soil was poorer and the land was broken by more hills and waterways, making it more difficult to plant large fields of crops. In the 19th century, an attempt to diversify into fruit (and famously jam in Tiptree) saw some profits, but eventually land was turned over to monoculture.
Mechanisation was inevitable, and happened rapidly in the 19th and again in the 20th century. Hundreds of years of manual work, with the majority of people in the countryside fulfilling the role of agricultural labourers, were undermined by the new machinery. The 1870s saw universal education, which took children from their family’s fields, but they were replaced by the binder and the threshing machine which meant that the harvest required significantly less manpower than previously. In the 20th century, particularly after the war, mechanisation went even further with tractors replacing the horse-drawn plough, electronic feeders and even automatic milking machines. Of course, this innovation saw the loss of employment, and slowly the village changed from revolving around local farms and the harvest with former labourers forced to look further afield for work, using the better road and rail systems to commute.
The decrease in the number of farm workers, and eventually farmers, saw the remainder expand their operations. Farms were sold at low prices when problems made farming unprofitable and were bought by larger, more stable landowners. They would then plant large fields of a single crop, making the most use of new fields to gain the greatest efficiency.
The Essex countryside saw the proliferation of hunting, initially as a way of keeping fox numbers down but more latterly as a sport. Hunting has a centuries-old history, and the first fox hunts took place in the 16th century. These were carried out by farmers as a form of pest control, but slowly grew in popularity. The Essex Hunt was founded in 1785 to hunt for sport, but hunting became very popular in the 19th century as people moved to the cities and road networks made the countryside open to all. Hunting as a sport was continued until 2004, when legislation sought to place limitations on the ways in which foxes could be hunted.