A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 2. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1907.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.

'Agriculture', in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 2, (London, 1907) pp. 279-292. British History Online [accessed 12 April 2024]


IN dealing with Oxford from an agricultural point of view it is necessary to treat of the various methods of culture which result from its varying soils. As the county is almost fifty miles long, and contains close on 480,000 acres of land, it is not surprising to find that the soils vary to a very large extent, and that consequently there is no fixed rule or custom of farming general to the shire. Compare for instance the high stonebrash land extending from Witney to Burford, Chipping Norton, Charlbury and Woodstock, which is easily cultivated and carries sheep more or less all through the year, with the heavy plough-land extending roughly from Bicester to Merton, White Cross Green, and indeed nearly to Oxford along the banks of the River Ray. Or again, compare the upper chalk and flint of the Chiltern districts from Goring to Henley with the fertile meadows of Waterstock and the deep meadow-lands of Water Eaton. So many varieties of soil necessitate correspondingly different modes of farming and stocking the land, each applicable to the peculiarities of soil and climate of its own locality.

Oxfordshire may be roughly divided into the following districts:—

1. 80,000 acres of red land lying towards Banbury, Wardington, Hook Norton, Adderbury, Bodicote, Wigginton, &c.

2. 166,000 acres of stonebrash round Blenheim, Black Bourton, Chesterton, from Witney to Burford, towards North Aston, Charlbury, &c.

3. 66,000 acres of flinty-covered ground about the Chiltern district.

4. 168,000 acres of miscellaneous soil, such for instance as that about Stadhampton, Culham, Warborough, Nuneham, Forest Hill, Kidlington, Chiselhampton, Sandford, Great Haseley, &c.

1. The red land has for the last century been spoken of as sound responsive land, neither too light nor yet too strong, but with staple enough to withstand the extremes of either wet or dry seasons. The rent of such land varies only from 25s. to 30s. an acre, 27s. being a fair average.

2. The stonebrash is excellent land for sheep and barley, but requires a wet day once a week. So healthy is it considered for sheep that lambing pens are erected upon it, and the Oxfordshire sheep are bred, kept and fattened on the arable land. The excellent barley grown on this soil finds much favour with the Burton brewers. One serious drawback however in the cultivation of this land is the constant presence of charlock, which no agriculturist up to the present time has successfully combated. Ninety years ago stonebrash is said to have let for 20s. to 25s. an acre, but from 15s. to 20s. an acre is nearer its market value at the present time.

3. The Chiltern district is very variable, but the sub-soil may be safely said to be of chalk, and although some fields are covered with brown flints they are worth much more an acre than a stranger would suppose. Along the banks of the Thames towards Reading, excellent flat arable fields are to be found, which in wet seasons are very productive, but in hot, dry summers get terribly burnt up. It is fair to put the rents of this district at from 12s. to 15s. an acre.

4. The miscellaneous district is the most difficult division to describe agriculturally, for, as its name implies, it comprises many kinds of soil, such as light gravel, deep clay, rich grazing and milking pastures. It would be tedious to describe at length the localities and varieties of soil found in this division, and it is sufficient to state that its value may be fairly estimated as second only to the red-land district. Its variety commends itself to those farmers around Thame and elsewhere who wish to produce shire horses, to those in such districts as Water Eaton who make a speciality of dairy work, and to those who adhere to the general opinion that sheep are to Oxfordshire farmers what Hereford, shorthorn, and Welsh bullocks are to the Northamptonshire graziers. The rent of these lands may be reckoned at 20s. to 22s. 6d. an acre.

Between forty and fifty years ago, when prices of corn were high and there was apparently no sign of labour becoming scarce, many acres of woodland were grubbed up. Such lands have, however, gradually fallen in value and owners have sustained a heavy loss from the conversion.

Poultry-farming has considerably increased during the last ten years in consequence of the general use of movable poultry houses, by means of which the health of the fowls is improved and their productiveness increased.

The method of cropping and cultivating land in Oxfordshire deserves special notice. Although the four-course rotation (i.e. roots, barley or oats, seeds, wheat) forms the basis of nearly all the systems, yet there are several variations of it, due mostly to the large head of sheep kept on the arable land, especially on the red soil in the north, the stonebrash in the middle, and the chalk and gravel soils of the south. To provide keep for sheep a system of catch cropping prevails, and as the soils enumerated occupy the bulk of the county, the four-course rotation is constantly being broken in upon. Instead of mixed seeds, clover, and beans or peas, many farmers grow a quarter roots, a quarter barley or oats, an eighth clover, an eighth beans or peas, and a quarter wheat; the clover, and beans or peas, as the case may be, being reversed, so that clover comes but once in eight years.

In the autumn, rye and winter vetches are sown on land intended for roots; these green crops, together with Italian rye grass (sown the previous spring with a corn crop), early spring-planted vetches, and winter-planted cabbages, are eaten on the ground by sheep. Immediately the crop is consumed the ground is ploughed; several harrowings are sometimes followed by a slight turn with the cultivator, the soil is then pressed, and swedes, turnips or rape, and sometimes thousand-headed kale are sown on the flat; if it is too late for these, mustard is planted; thus two green crops are grown in succession, both being eaten on the ground by sheep. It will easily be seen that when the land has been first dunged and has then received about 3 cwt. of superphosphates per acre drilled in with the seed, this system tends to enrich the soil to a very marked extent, especially when it has been supplemented by cake and corn fed to the sheep. The good effect also of the treading of this light class of soil must not be lost sight of. After this treatment many farmers take two corn crops in succession: first oats, then barley, sown out with clover or mixed seeds. Should the weather be very dry about the month of April, when the last swedes of the main crop are being eaten off, some farmers, rather than risk the failure of late drilled corn, drill roots again, as the danger of finger-and-toe is small, owing to the abundance of lime in the soil. This is found to be a much better system than risking a miserable late corn crop abounding with annual weeds. Many landlords now allow their tenants to cross-crop as much as is necessary, provided they maintain the fertility of the soil and keep the land free from weeds; others, so long as the tenant crops one quarter of the arable land with roots, insist on no rule as to the cropping of the remainder, whilst a few still hold their tenants to the rigid four-course rotation, which received a fresh lease of life after the publication of Arthur Young's Agriculture of Oxfordshire in 1813. The rigid four-course rotation is known to succeed in counties with a deeper sub-soil and a more humid summer climate, but in Oxfordshire it will break more farmers than it will make. Under favourable conditions as many as three crops may sometimes be seen in one year, namely, winter vetches or rye, followed by rape or mustard, then turnips. Again there are occasionally crops in rotation of winter vetches, rape and mustard, which are eaten on the ground by sheep; then wheat is sown and this often shows well in the drill in November; thus we have actually four different crops occupying the ground in the same year. These winter crops help to retain in the soil the more soluble constituents of the manure, which on light or 'hungry' soils are very liable to be washed down by winter rains into the porous subsoil. Bare fallowing does not enrich these soils, as it does clay lands, but rather the reverse. Heavy clay soils are still summer-fallowed to about as great an extent as they were in the middle of the nineteenth century. For this class of soil the common rotation, with slight modifications, is an eighth bare fallow, an eighth clover, a quarter wheat, an eighth roots, an eighth beans, a quarter barley and oats. Few sheep are kept on the clay soils and the roots are mostly drawn off; those left are eaten early in the season so that the ground can be ploughed up and exposed to the winter frosts.

The wheat grown in Oxfordshire at the present time is principally red wheat, red-chaff square-head being the favourite. Arthur Young, in 1813, estimated the yield for the county at 24 bushels an acre; Clare Sewell Read, in 1854, at 26 bushels an acre; and taking the average yield from the Agricultural Returns for the ten years 1894–1903, we have 29½ bushels an acre. This is not so satisfactory as may appear at first sight; for considering that the acreage under wheat in 1867 was 59, 146 acres, and in 1904 only 28, 845 acres, and remembering that the worst yielding land always goes out of cultivation first, we do not seem to grow any more wheat per acre than we did half a century ago. This is very disappointing, especially when we bear in mind how much cheaper artificial manures are now than they were in 1855. The average price of wheat in 1854 was 72s. 5d. a quarter against an average for 1904 of 28s. 4d., while in 1813 the general opinion of those persons best able to judge was that wheat should make 7s. 6d. a bushel or 60s. a quarter to pay, as it was said the expenses had of late years risen so greatly. It is strange to look back a hundred years and note that even with the enormous rise in taxation, both local and imperial, it is now considered possible to grow wheat to a profit at 4s. 6d. a bushel, and this too, when we receive some 28,000,000 quarters of wheat, together with flour, which may be fairly classed as wheat, from outside our own country.

As regards the sowing of wheat and every other description of Englishgrown grain, it is universally admitted that drilling is the best and most sure system to adopt, sowing broadcast being only very slightly practised, and dibbling being now a custom unknown. Early in the nineteenth century the then marquis of Blandford, a great farmer himself, wrote, that in his opinion corn should be sown broadcast or dibbled, especially considering the fact that employment was required for the poor. It is rather interesting to note the varying prices of wheat for the 100 years ending in 1885. In 1785 the average price of wheat was 48s. 7d., and in 1885 39s. 9d., whilst our population has increased from twelve to thirty-six millions during the century.

'Chevalier barley' is the kind mostly grown in Oxfordshire, and is preferred by brewers and maltsters to any other. Arthur Young, in 1813, estimated the yield for the county at 32 bushels an acre; Clare Sewell Read's estimate in 1854 was 36 bushels an acre; taking the average yield for the ten years 1894–1903 we have 31½ bushels. The acreage under barley in 1867 was 52,069 acres, and in 1904 had gone down to 36,356 acres. Here we not only have a large decrease in the acreage under this cereal, but also a lower average yield per acre. We must bear in mind, however, that neither Arthur Young nor Clare Sewell Read could have had nearly as good data from which to form an estimate as we have in the agricultural returns of to-day. We must also note that it has become more common to take barley after another white crop, especially where the two-green-crop system before mentioned prevails. Farmers find there is less likelihood of the barley lodging, and though the quantity is lessened, the quality is better, so that 8s. to 10s. a quarter more for quality fully makes up for the loss in quantity. The average price of barley in 1854 was 36s. a quarter against an average for 1904 of 22s. 4d. Whereas early in the nineteenth century barley was sown from about 10 March to 10 April, an earlier date is now considered better, much of this grain being put in as early as February if the season is propitious.

The oats chiefly grown are black and white tartars, but of late years a good many different sorts, both black and white, have been introduced, such as 'Abundance,' 'Newmarket,' 'Waverley,' 'Potato Oats,' black and grey winter oats, &c. Oats are perhaps the most adaptable of all the cereals, and are grown in Oxfordshire after roots, after clover and seeds, and sometimes very successfully after old sainfoin; in fact, provided that the land is in fairly good condition, they succeed after any sort of crop. Arthur Young, in 1813, put the yield for the county at 40 bushels an acre; Clare Sewell Read, in 1854, put it at about 56 bushels; the average from the Agricultural Returns for the ten years 1894–1903 is 40 bushels. The acreage under oats in 1867 was 22,862 acres, and in 1904 had gone up to 35,645 acres; here, in marked contrast to wheat and barley, we have a large increase in the acreage under oats. It will be noticed that Arthur Young's estimate at the beginning of the nineteenth century and the average for the end of it are the same. Whether the yield given for the middle of the century shows the result of seasons better than those occurring in the period dealt with by Mr. Young, or whether Mr. Read visited and took his statistics from the better class of farms only, it would be difficult to tell; but 56 bushels an acre, the figure given by Mr. Read, seems too high an average. The average price of oats in 1854 was 27s. 11d. a quarter against an average in 1904 of 16s. 4d.

Beans are still grown to a fair extent in Oxfordshire, especially on the heavier soils, but the average has shrunk from 17,071 acres in 1867 to 5,392 acres in 1904. Some farmers favour the winter variety, and others the spring, but there is little difference between the two, the winter sort being perhaps less liable to blight, and yielding on an average rather more bushels to the acre. Beans are always drilled, and along with clover, precede wheat. The average yield is about 28 bushels an acre.

The pea crop takes much the same place on light soils as the bean crop takes on strong soils, but with peas as with beans there has been a great reduction in the acreage sown since 1867. In that year 8,591 acres were under peas, whereas in 1904 the acreage was 3,565. Provided they are not grown too often on the same ground, peas may be relied upon as a fairly sure and useful crop; if well harvested the straw is useful as fodder, either for ewes or beasts, and as they harvest early they can be followed by stubbleturnips or mustard. The average yield is about 30 bushels an acre.

Rye is not much grown in the county, but where grown it is the first green crop on which sheep are penned when taken off the swedes in April. It is seldom allowed to stand as a corn crop.

Vetches are largely grown, two plantings in the autumn and one or two in the spring forming a succession of sheep-feed. Only occasionally are some allowed to seed.

Turnips and swedes are still largely grown in Oxfordshire; indeed, without these two root crops farming arable land would be an impossibility. The number of sheep and cattle a farm can keep almost entirely depends on these two crops, and if they are good, the succeeding crops in the rotation are all likely to be the same. As a rule quite three-quarters of the crop is consumed on the spot by sheep, together with corn, cake and hay, and this treatment tends much to the enrichment of the soil. The purple-top swedes are the most largely sown, with a fair proportion of the green-top variety; the latter, though of a more hardy nature, are not such big croppers. A few yellow-fleshed turnips are sown, but as a rule the soil and climate are too dry for them, consequently they suffer much from mildew. The white turnip answers best, and is largely grown, followed by a quick-growing stubbleturnip for later sowing. Swedes are mostly drilled on the flat, but an increasing number of farmers are in favour of baulking, as the crops can be horse-hoed as soon as they are through, and the horse-hoeing can be continued to a later date; the thinning is also made easier. In a very dry season, however, roots grown on baulks suffer more from drought than those grown on the flat, so that should the roots be allowed to remain in the ground through the winter for ewes and lambs, those on the flat suffer less from frost because they grow deeper into the soil.

The valuable mangold roots are now largely grown, being much more appreciated and understood than formerly. On account of their keeping qualities, mangolds are highly valued by flock-masters, and are fed to sheep together with rye, vetches, &c., all through the summer and even into September. The mode of cultivation is similar to that practised for swedes, though mangolds are if possible sown as early as April, and must be stored in clumps before frost sets in. They respond freely to heavy manuring and stand drought better than swedes or turnips; for in dry weather, when other root crops are languishing for moisture, mangolds are frequently to be seen standing out fresh and green. The yellow-globe, and tankard varieties, as well as the intermediate, are the sorts mostly grown in this county, and extraordinarily heavy crops of over 60 tons per acre are frequently obtained. The descriptive names given to the various roots do not always indicate uniformity of quality. Care should be taken to obtain the best strains of the respective kinds.

Of cabbages, kohl rabi and rape are grown for sheep-feed, and thousandheaded kale to a smaller extent.

Potatoes are now more largely planted than formerly, for the acreage has doubled within the last forty years, but it is difficult to understand why even a greater acreage is not grown, seeing that much of the soil of the county is well adapted for the production of good cooking potatoes, especially the second early, and late or main-crop varieties; the cold winds in spring and night frosts make the growth of early sorts precarious. The average yield is five tons an acre. Though potatoes are considered by many an exhausting crop, they are not more so than any other crop sold off the farm, and the potato quarter is at any rate always clean and free from weeds.

Carrots are grown on a small scale for horses and cows.

Lucerne is sometimes included in rotation grasses, but in summer time, when it shoots up ahead of the other grasses, it is most unsightly. The late Mr. James Mason, of Eynsham Hall (Oxon) (fn. 1) carried out field experiments on a large scale with lucerne, growing it as a full crop: he laid down several hundred acres, but with the exception of two fields, one of 35 and the other of 11¾ acres, it does not seem to have been a financial success. Mr. Mason wished to test the theory of Hellriegel and Wilfarth that leguminous plants gather nitrogen from the atmosphere; and having failed, by sowing it too frequently, to obtain a satisfactory growth of clover, he was driven to try lucerne, a crop hitherto unknown on the Oxford clay. The experiments showed beyond doubt that lucerne was able to fix nitrogen in the soil quite as well as any other leguminous plant. A plot near to the farmyard is most valuable for cutting green. Provided that the ground is well manured every year and weeds kept out, it will produce four and five cuttings a year, and being a very deep-rooted plant it grows well in dry weather. Very generally the soil of this county suits it well.

Sainfoin is still largely grown, especially on the shallow stonebrash and chalk soils. The kind chiefly cultivated is the common sainfoin, which lasts longer than the giant variety, and is sown with the barley crop. In the first year it is cut twice for hay; after that it is cut once for hay and then fed over with sheep; as a rule at the end of the fifth year the worn-out sainfoin is ploughed up and a crop of mustard is sown; this is ploughed in green, or fed off; wheat is then planted, or the ground if very foul is thoroughly broken up and cleaned for roots, or perhaps ploughed during the winter for spring oats. The hay from sainfoin if cut young and well got is excellent, and is highly valued by flock-masters for its feeding properties. The Board of Agriculture apparently appreciate the value of lucerne (medicago sativa), and endeavour to encourage its further cultivation, for according to the agricultural returns the acreage has increased since 1899 from 32,000 to 53,000 acres.

Red, or broad-leaved, clover is largely grown, as being the most valuable of all clovers for one year's ley, and it is either cut twice for hay, or cut once and then fed with sheep, or perhaps it is cut once for hay and the second crop is left to ripen for seed; it is also recognized by farmers to be the best preparation for a wheat crop.

Perennial red clover, commonly called cow-grass, is also fairly extensively grown, and is treated in much the same way as red or broad-leaved clover; it is of a more durable nature than the latter, and is for this reason included by preference in permanent grass mixtures. Perennial red clover, however, should not be mistaken for the true cow-grass, which is the red clover found in very old pastures, recognizable by its zigzag stems; this clover seeds so sparingly that no seed of the true cow-grass is sold by seedsmen. The other varieties, such as alsike, white and trefoil, are included in the different mixtures for temporary and permanent pastures.

The acreage of land laid down to permanent pasture increases year by year, and has increased from 130,772 acres in 1867 to 203,694 acres in 1904. Several causes have combined to bring this about, such as the low price of corn, the increased cost of labour, and the diminished capital of agriculturists. Many landowners have been laying down land to permanent pasture every year, as farms with a large proportion of grass are in much greater demand and are more easily let than those with a large proportion of arable.

It would be impossible for any thinking man to view the question of excessive hay-selling in any other than a serious manner. For years Oxfordshire has supplied London and other markets with meadow hay, clover hay and sainfoin in far too great quantities—that is if the natural fertility of the soil is to be maintained. Farmers who are short of capital, and who practically live from hand to mouth, dispose of clover hay almost before the 'sweat' is out of the stack and, so far as one can observe, fail to replace at all adequately the valuable matter which they too hastily hurry off to market. The fact that high-class farmers as a rule sell little or no hay and straw is proof positive that the produce of a farm should be consumed upon it. There are exceptional occasions, no doubt, and no wise landlord or agent could object to considerable sales taking place if hay realized say £5 a ton and straw £3, but thousands of tons of both commodities find their way to market when the former realizes only 50s. to 60s. and the latter 30s. to 35s. a ton.

Looking back fifty years it is quite clear that the former fertility of the soil in Oxfordshire was largely due to the absence of railways and other means of transport, and it is to be regretted that easy and cheap railway facilities, whilst benefiting agriculturists in many ways, have much to answer for in robbing the land of excellent and considerable quantities of farm-yard manure and reducing the stock-keeping capabilities of many holdings.

Considering the many different manures now at the command of the agriculturist, farmers in this county, as in others, can easily apply the necessary nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potash in different forms. Farm-yard manure (dung) still holds a high place in their estimation and on the whole this is better managed than it used to be. Covered yards are now more common, and when the dung in these is thrown up into a heap drainage and excessive fermentation are guarded against. On many farms, were it not for the seeds of grasses and weeds in the meadow hay, dung would only be allowed to ferment to a slight degree, and would be applied to the land in a fresh state. There is still, however, too much of the valuable perfect manure wasted by having its most soluble constituents washed away and damaged by throwing it up into loose heaps and allowing fermentation to go on unchecked for too long a period.

Mineral superphosphates are largely used with the greatest success. This artificial manure, as a source of phosphoric acid, seems to suit the soils of the county better than anything else, and seeing that the cost is only one half of what it was fifty years ago, and less per unit than any other phosphatic manure, it is well entitled to its popularity. Potash is used principally in the form of kainit and sulphate of potash. This manure is less understood in Oxfordshire than any of the others and is not used half enough, especially in the light soils. Where used along with superphosphates for the root crop the effect is very noticeable, not only on the roots and barley, but especially on the clover following. Nitrate of soda is chiefly used by those wishing to apply nitrogen to their crops, although some prefer sulphate of ammonia.

Green manuring is practised to a fairly large extent, mustard being the principal crop grown for this purpose. It is ploughed in when quite green, and that this plan has great merit is shown by its marked effect on the succeeding crops. The following is the average system of manuring the principal crops in the county:—

If dung is applied wheat land generally receives from ten to sixteen loads per acre, and in the spring it is top-dressed with nitrate of soda at the rate of from 1 to 2 cwt. per acre, but if planted after clover no dung is given.

Following a root crop which has been fed off by sheep receiving cake &c., barley and oats are not as a rule top-dressed, but when following another corn crop these receive about 3 cwt. of superphosphates per acre, and 1 cwt. of nitrate; if a good sample of malting barley is required the nitrate of soda will be omitted.

Swedes and turnips usually receive a dressing of from ten to sixteen loads of dung, together with 3 to 4 cwt. of superphosphates per acre, and in some cases 1 cwt. of sulphate of potash, or 2 cwt. of kainit.

The dressing for a mangold crop is usually from fifteen to twenty-five loads of dung per acre, 3 cwt. of superphosphates, and 2 cwt. of nitrate of soda, and, as a top-dressing after the plants are set out, from 1 to 2 cwt. of nitrate of soda is given again. Many also sow 2 cwt. of sulphate of potash, and others sow 3 to 4 cwt. of salt per acre before the land is cultivated.

Where rotation grasses are top-dressed they receive from 1 to 2 cwt. of nitrate of soda and about 3 cwt. of superphosphates per acre. When permanent pasture is top-dressed to produce a crop of hay, it has the same manure as rotation grasses applied to it; but where manured to improve the pasture then about fifteen loads of dung is applied. On light soils, if dung cannot be had, 4 cwt. of superphosphates and 4 cwt. of kainit makes an excellent topdressing. Clay lands receive from 6 to 10 cwt. of basic slag per acre, but the best way to improve permanent pasture is to keep on it plenty of stock well fed with linseed and cotton cakes.

The University College, Reading, has since 1894 carried out in Oxfordshire field trials and experiments, of which the results are published every year, and the information derived from these reports as to the suitability of different manures for different crops and soils is most valuable. The college also analyses at a very cheap rate manures, feeding stuffs, milk &c., and gives advice upon any subject which the farmer is unable to deal with himself. From the Report for 1905, farmers will do well to note how careful they ought to be in buying mixed manures, compound cakes, and mixed meals.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Arthur Young visited Oxfordshire, all the ploughs in use were made of wood and were drawn by three or four horses. Now, the two-wheeled plough, made of iron with steel mould-board and drawn by two horses, is in common use, though on the clay soils three horses are often required. On the light soils, double-furrow ploughs, drawn by three horses abreast, are becoming more numerous every year, and are a great saving of horse labour. Special-purpose ploughs, such as the ridging plough, the digging plough, and the potato-raising plough, are also in use. Ploughing is now universally done by horse and steam power. During the middle of the last century and up to recent years bullocks were worked on the land, but scarcely a team of these animals can now be found. Steam cultivation immediately after harvest, as well as in the spring and during the summer months in cases of through-fallows, is adopted on all hands. Harrows, which are on the zig-zag principle, are made of iron, in sizes for three horses, two, and one. Chain-harrows are used principally for gathering couch and for harrowing pastures. Several forms of curve-tined drag-harrows are in use; these are most useful in making a good tilth and for dragging out couch. The spring-tooth cultivator, which is now largely used, has its frame-work carried on wheels, so that it can be set to the desired depth; the shaking of the spring-teeth make it an excellent implement for breaking up the soil and for clearing itself from couch and other weeds. Rollers and pressers are extensively used to make a good tilth and to consolidate the land. Both for corn and manure drills are used all over the county and it is the exception to see seed of any kind sown as it commonly was fifty years ago by hand. Horse-hoes are to-day common enough, and whereas Arthur Young only saw two during his travels through the county, it is a small farm indeed that does not now possess at least that number. Chiefly used for carrying purposes is the Woodstock wagon, though other types of wagon and the two-wheeled cart are also largely in use throughout the county.

All the grass and clover intended for hay is cut by mowing machines, and the scythe is only used where it is impossible for a mowing machine to work. During late years many improvements and additions have been made to hay-making machinery, such as tedders, swath-turners, horse-rakes, tedrakes, hay-loaders, hay-sweeps &c., and in several parts of the county the hay may be seen being conveyed to the elevator at the side of the rick without a single pitchfork having been used.

The corn crop is almost entirely cut by the binder, a machine which has attained to a high state of efficiency. The fagging-hook is still used to cut peas and badly-laid corn crops. Corn winnowing machines are to be seen in all barns, often accompanied by a corn screen, such as the 'Boby' and the adjustable rotary screen. Nearly all farms of any consequence are equipped with steam or oil-driven grist mills, bruising and chaff-cutting machinery.

Looking back ninety years we cannot fail to be struck with the difference between the thrashing machine of then and now. It is recorded that about the year 1813 the bishop of Durham, who then farmed in Oxfordshire, had a thrashing mill built worked by only two horses, and that this thrashed five quarters in a day of eight hours, and that the then Lord Macclesfield had a similar machine erected at a cost of £120, whilst a Mr. Knapp of Kidlington had one costing only fifty guineas, which with two horses thrashed six quarters of wheat in a day. At the present time steam traction-engines draw about from farm to farm a thrashing-box which, at a charge of 25s. to 27s. 6d. a day (the owner finding coal), can thrash thirty to fifty quarters of corn. It is perfectly certain that in a few years more the cost will be still further reduced by the more general use of the suction gas-engine now finding its way into farms and manufactories. By this invention motive power is being produced at from 10d. to 1s. a day for a 10 brake-horse-power engine, as against 10s. a day, which is a fair estimate, for the cost of steam. The most practical way of appreciating the saving effected by the use of modern machinery is to realize that agriculture could not now be carried on without the binder, the tedder, the elevator and the modern thrashing-machine.

Having spoken at considerable length on the methods of farming and cropping, on the application of manures and the use of good machinery, we now come to the all-important question of stocking the land. With the one exception of sheep the livestock of Oxfordshire calls for no particular remark. The working horses are, taken generally, rather light in substance, but during the last fifteen years the introduction of heavy and active shire stallions has done much to improve the breed of the farm horse. Many farmers are now members of the Shire Horse Society, and have their best mares registered. The demand for heavy geldings has been very considerable up to within the last few years, but it is to be feared that the further introduction of steam and other motive powers will before long act detrimentally on the horse-breeding industry. The shorthorn is the beast of the county, and no horned animal can ever hope to supersede it for producing beef and milk. Though a good many Irish polled cattle now find their way to Oxford, but few of this breed are produced in the county. The Oxfordshire or sandy pig, a cross betwixt a Tamworth and a Berkshire, is considered the pig of the county, and except that he feeds rather slowly, is a most profitable, hardy and reliable animal.

No account of Oxfordshire farming could be written without describing the breed of sheep reared to such a state of perfection in the county, namely, the 'Oxford Down.' This now famous and profitable breed, for many years known as the 'Down Cotswold,' originated in the county, and was a cross in the first instance between a Cotswold and a Hampshire; but although the excellence of the breed was well known, it was not till the year 1862 that the Royal Agricultural Society of England recognized it and awarded prizes. At the show of that year the judges objected to the want of uniformity, and this adverse criticism was repeated in the years 1865–8, but in the years 1870–2 both type and quality were highly spoken of, and since then the improvement has been more than maintained. For rent payers these sheep cannot be beaten, and their robust constitutions and early maturity make them highly esteemed for crossing purposes all over the British Isles. They feed readily and are by far the heaviest wool-producers of Down type known to the British agriculturist.

The prices quoted below bear practical testimony to the great merit of the breed. In the local markets at Oxford, Woodstock and Thame, Oxford Down tegs, born in the same year, realized by public auction in October, November and December, 1904, 66s. 6d., 63s., and 71s. 6d. respectively, and in October and December, 1905, 70s. and 78s. It would be safe to assume that no pure-bred, or indeed cross-bred tegs in the British Isles could show such satisfactory results as are here recorded, and not only recorded but authenticated.

C. S. Read, writing of Oxford Down sheep in 1854, says:

But the present 'Glory of the County,' the most profitable sheep to the producer, the butcher and the consumer, are the half-breds; a more intelligent name for this class of sheep and one that might generally be used would be the Down Cotswold.

He speaks of them making 9 stone, or say 54s., and clipping 7 to 8 lbs. of wool. It is thus clear that from a mutton-producing point of view the breed has greatly improved.

Not only are Oxford Downs valuable to the breeder from a feeding point of view, but thousands of rams and ram lambs are bred every year to be sold for crossing purposes, many finding their way up to Scotland where they are used with the greatest success on the cross-bred and Border-Leicester ewes. Lincoln, Northampton and Warwick farmers are good customers for this justly popular 'Down.' It may be interesting to know that the first O. D. F. book was published in 1889. Whilst speaking in such glowing terms of the Oxford Down it is not cheering to note that according to the Agricultural Returns of 1905 the number of sheep in the county is small and compares badly with the numbers in Hereford, Kent, Leicester, Lincoln, Devon, Dorset, Sussex, Wilts, Northants, Northumberland, Denbigh, Brecon and Glamorgan. Whilst Oxfordshire only counts one sheep for every two acres of land under cultivation, several of the counties enumerated above have over a sheep per acre, whilst others reckon close upon one and a half sheep for every two acres.

Sheep-breeders would do well to study a special report which has been prepared for the American Wool and Cotton Manufacturers' Association by Mr. Frank Bennett of Boston. This report contains some interesting figures pointing to a general dwindling of the world's sheep, and expressing the opinion that no early decline in the prevailing high prices of wool is to be feared in consequence of sheep-breeding on a large scale being restricted to Australia, the Argentine and South Africa. The total figures for the world show that in 1895 the estimated number of sheep amounted to 526,867,135 as against 455,046,906 in 1905; the decline in Europe alone amounting to 11,312,233 head.

Tenancies commence generally from Michaelmas Day. As long ago as 1815 long leases were not favoured in Oxfordshire by either landlord or tenant. In 1855 the landlords appear to have again agreed as in 1815 that 'To grant long leases is to give away your estate; it is to bind yourself and leave your tenant free; it gives him a knowledge of the exact time at which he can begin to depreciate without injury to himself.' In 1815 Young said: 'The year to year system retains great power in the hands of the landlords, but it is the most expensive folly they can be guilty of.' In 1854 C. S. Read said: 'A bad tenant with a lease is a great burden on an estate;' 'If leases are discarded as objectionable, compensation clauses for unexhausted improvements might be appended to every agreement. Proper covenants of this nature and 12 months' notice to quit are perhaps better than long leases.' These latter sentiments are to-day, after fifty-one years, in accord with the opinions of most landlords and agents, especially so now that both the conditions spoken of by Read are compulsory and have become law. At the present time leases are the exception, as most landlords object to grant leases to tenants who at any time might become bankrupts and so have to dispose of the lease.

Farm buildings have been much improved since the fifties, but much remains to be done. Many steadings are not well arranged either for economic working or as regards aspect, neither are they spouted in an efficient manner. This latter fact has been brought home to owners and occupiers of high-lying farms during the last few dry seasons. Hundreds of farmers cart water for at least three months of the year, whilst their landlords from ignorance or poverty allow long ranges of buildings to collect and then waste millions of gallons of valuable water. Few open yards are surrounded by spouted sheds and few farms have any rainwater cisterns, consequently the manure is wasted by wet, the cattle do badly because of their water-logged lair, and there is neither reserve of water for preservation of the homesteads from fire nor a supply for stock during the summer months. It would be impossible to point to a more glaring instance of waste. Covered yards and more frequently covered rick-steads are springing up, but such improvements are few and far between.

It would be safe to say that the size of farms has not altered very much since Young's time. In the best farming districts they vary from 100 to 450 acres, but round villages and where the land is more enclosed a farm of from 50 to 200 acres is more usual.

The covenants between in-coming and out-going tenants are by no means satisfactory. The in-coming tenant may enter the wheat lands in August and has certain stabling allowed him, whilst the out-going tenant has the use of stables, barns, &c., up to March, to thrash and deliver his corn, and has the right to spend his straw and cavings in the yards, leaving the manure for the new tenant. Surely nothing can be more unsatisfactory than this over lapping and joint occupancy of land and buildings. By another very unsatisfactory arrangement the outgoing tenant is paid by valuation for all the operations he has performed in producing the root crop, the turnips being valued by the number of ploughings, scarifyings, harrowings, rollings, and cost of manurings, and not by the value of the crop. Fallows are paid for in the same way, so that the land is often ploughed when too wet, whilst little attempt is made to clean it properly because the price will depend on what has been done rather than on the manner in which the work has been carried out. This however is the custom of the county, and there appears to be no desire or wish on the part of either landlord, tenant, or valuer, to alter a system which would be much disapproved of by farmers and others north of the Humber.

In arriving at the figures for valuation of. acts of husbandry, the allowance per acre is made on some such basis as the following:—For ploughing, from 10s. to 13s.; dragging, 1s. 6d. to 2s. 6d.; carting dung and spreading (from 10 to 12 loads per acre), 10s. to 15s.; harrowing, 6d. to 1s.; cultivating (Massey Harris), 1s. 9d. to 2s. 6d.; rolling, 9d. to 1s. 3d.; pressing (with Cambridge roller), 1s. to 2s.; drilling (dry), 2s. to 2s. 6d.; drilling (with water drill), 4s. to 5s.; horse hoeing, 2s.; hand hoeing, 5s. to 8s.; barrowing and harrowing small seeds in, 1s. 6d. to 2s.

The valuation for unexhausted manures and feeding stuffs used on a holding is taken at a third of the cost of such articles, and a set-off is generally made by the valuer for the incoming tenant in respect of dilapidations, such as cross cropping, neglect of hedges, ditches, gates, &c.

With regard to the hiring of agricultural labour, the custom of Oxfordshire varies very much from that of, say, the East Riding of Yorkshire. In the latter young farm hands are hired for the year and boarded in the hirer's house, but there is no such custom in Oxfordshire, where the labourers receive from 12s. to 14s. a week, and cowmen, shepherds, and horsemen, who work seven days a week, generally have their cottages rent free. They have some potato land found for them on the farm, and at harvest take the harvest work at so much an acre to cut, generally carrying the corn and stacking it by contract. This custom only holds good on large farms. Where the holdings are small extra allowance is made for beer and extra wages paid for overtime. The general hours of work are from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., with an hour off for dinner. The wages are low, the cottages often very miserable, and the general aspect of the labourer inferior to that of the north country farm hand.

The following quotation will show that over eighty years ago landlords and farmers were confronted with just such difficulties as have to be faced at the present time:—

The practice of employing roundsmen for agricultural purposes, and making up their wages in proportion to their families from the parish rates, having totally destroyed all inducement to industry among the labouring poor and swelled the assessment to an enormous extent, a special vestry is appointed and the farmers undertake to find piecework at a fair price for a certain number of men in consideration of Sir G. O. P. Turner, Bart. agreeing to extend his works and employ the remainder of the labourers belonging to Bicester parish in a similar way at Blackthorns Hill. The result is, the rates are immediately reduced one half, and a letter of thanks signed by the Overseers and Churchwardens transmitted to the Baronet, with whom the plan originated. (fn. 2)

Consequent upon the low wages mentioned above, the food of the Oxfordshire labourers has for years been insufficient in quantity and inferior in quality. It is therefore not to be wondered at that they have not grown up with such constitutions and physique as are to be met with in districts where for some generations wages have been higher, and consequently the necessities of life more easily obtained. Youths are now kept at school till they are fourteen years old, when they go on to the farms at from 4s. to 9s. a week.

The question of proper housing of the agricultural labourer has received far less consideration than it deserves both at the hand of landlord and tenant. It is fair and reasonable to assume that a farm should have one cottage to every 100 acres of land attached to it. Each cottage should have a good-sized garden, and be so situated that whilst the workman is close to his work, the cowman, carter, and other stockmen can easily cultivate the garden during spare moments. In Oxfordshire, speaking generally, the labourers live in villages away from the farms, so that the farmer's loss in labour is considerable during the course of a year, and the wear and tear on the men's energies is unnecessarily increased.

It would be incomplete to close these remarks on matters agricultural without saying one word as to the County Agricultural Society, one of the oldest in the kingdom. The Oxfordshire Agricultural Society was founded in the year 1811, or ninety-five years ago, and from 1876, when the society had only £102 in hand, to the present time close on £2,000 have been invested as a reserve fund. The society has done much towards improving the stock of the farm, and in consequence has met with very great support and help from landlord and tenant farmers.

Oxfordshire agriculture suffers from the same cause that has considerably reduced all farming profits in other counties, namely, the cost of distribution, for it frequently costs about half as much to put the article on the market as to produce it. It has been said that the yearly expenditure on food, clothing, and furniture in the United Kingdom amounts to £720,000,000, and that 33 per cent. of this huge sum, namely £240,000,000, is spent in distribution. If these figures are correct the outlook is most serious, and urgently demands that most energetic attempts be made to bring the Oxfordshire agricultural producer and the world's consumers into closer relationship.


  • 1. The Result of the Agricultural Experiments of the Late Mr. James Mason, Eynsham Hall, on Clay Soils, by Mr. A. D. Hall, M.A., will well repay careful reading.
  • 2. Dunkin, Bullingdon and Ploughly (1823), ii. This work contains a most interesting account of the agricultural labour question.