Agriculture has changed dramatically over the years. In medieval times, families generally worked on the land. They were allotted strips of land which they cultivated for food to feed themselves and paid rent in the form of food to the Lord of the Manor and to the Church. Families normally had a single strip. Continual ploughing led to the centre of the strip being raised with a shallow ditch between adjacent strips. This was known as Ridge and Furrow or “Rig and Furrow”. This method of farming operated from soon after the Romans left up to the 17th or 18th century. Some Rig and Furrow land can still be seen today, for example the field on the south side of York Road adjacent to Old Brewery Gardens.
The majority of the population were involved in agriculture or supporting the growing, moving, and processing of produce. The main crop grown in Tadcaster seems to have been wheat, although there are some references to rye, oats and rape. Root crops like turnips, were beginning to be grown by 1700s.
The earliest map showing details of the land around Tadcaster is one created for the Lord of the Manor, Henry Percy, the Ninth Earl of Northumberland, in 1611. This clearly shows the strips still in existence. There were a few areas of Waste or Common Land, notably High Moor around Toulston and Low Moor around Islington. There were some smaller areas of waste land on the river banks. These were available to those living in the town to grow crops and keep animals.
The administration of the Percy estates was recorded in the Manor Court Rolls. The Manor Court Rolls for the period of the 16th and 17th centuries are held in the Percy estate archive at Petworth House in Sussex. They are written in Latin but have been translated by members of our Society. When the Manor Courts were held, all sorts of grievances and misdemeanours were discussed and fines and punishments delivered. There are instances of people allowing pigs to escape and cause damage, fences being broken, brawling in the street being punished and lots more besides.
There was a massive change in the town with the coming of the Enclosures in 1798. The land, principally the common land, was allocated to various townsfolk and was fenced. At the time, this caused considerable grief to some who found themselves without land to grow their own food. With hindsight, this was to improve prosperity as food could be produced more economically and people who had spent most of their time looking after their own plot were able to develop trades. The document allocating the land is to be found in the Document Archive in this website.
An agricultural revolution was beginning. Jethro Tull in 1701 had invented the horse drawn seed drill. This saved labour and reduced waste. Other improvements were also taking place. Between 1700 and 1850, the quantity of wheat grown per acre doubled.
As recently as the 1841 Census, we can see that agriculture was still a major form of employment. For West Tadcaster of the 1817 entries in the Census, 809 entries show occupations, the others mostly being wives and children. The three most common occupations are Agricultural Labourer – 97, Army – 95, and Female Servant – 93. With the 14 farmers recorded, more than 15% of those in employment were working on the land. This assumes that the 42 labelled “Labourer” were not working on the land.
The 1851 Census does not suggest a great change with 20% employed on the land. Variations between the two Census records could be due to the way in which the recording was done.
Probably the next great change was as a result of the First World War. With men going off to the war and horses being requisitioned, there was a crisis in agriculture. This led to mechanisation as soon as it was possible. The numbers employed on the land was reduced accordingly. The Board School logbook suggests that school children were used at particular times for potato picking and pea picking.
An early development was mechanisation of ploughing. An early example of this was ploughing using steam engines and cables, drawing a plough across the field between them. Later the tractor was to become dominant.