FEUDAL COUNTY: Under the provocative title of The Last Feudal County! Estates and Estate Management in 19th Century Northumberland, Glendale Local History Society enjoyed an excellent talk given by Dr Ian Roberts.
Dr Roberts is an agricultural historian who took us on an historical journey from the Napoleonic Wars to the First World War.
The high point of this period occurred from 1860 when Britain saw what Dr Roberts called the era of high Victorian farming.
After the Black Death in the 14th century, Britain’s population fell drastically. Much land lay uncultivated and only came into use again in the 16th century.
By that time the Reformation had taken place and much monastic land had been sold off to finance the wars with France. Adventuring buccaneers such as Drake and Raleigh made themselves wealthy and bought vast acreages, which came under the control of family dynasties.
By 1760, Britain’s population was growing and the demand for food was increasing. Again war with France was the stimulus for much change. More hitherto permanent pasture land came under the plough.
Britain was also on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. A large working class began to grow up followed later in the century by an ever-burgeoning middle class. Again, all these people needed feeding.
After Waterloo much of the army was disbanded and came home. These unemployed soldiers swelled a hungry underclass. Encouraged by the writings of radical pamphleteers like Tom Paine and William Cobbett people began to question the concept of land ownership.
This discontent rumbled on, so in 1866 the Government decided for the first time since the Domesday Book to survey the whole country in order to determine who owned what.
Contrary to popular opinion, the largest acreages under cultivation across the entire country turned out to be owned, not by the aristocracy, but by private individuals.
Northumberland was truly the last feudal county with a group of peers and great landowners owning 65 per cent of the land area, led by the Duke of Northumberland with 181,616 acres, while the few lowly cottagers who owned land only possessed an average of one seventh of an acre each.
Another significant difference in Northumberland was that the actual working of the land was done mostly by tenant farmers and their families (as it is today) who rented the farms from the local nobility. Their rents were collected by a person on behalf of the landlord and this gave rise to the land agent.
Some land agents were involved in the collection of tithes on behalf of the church. So land agents became persons of some status living on the estate in a style that befitted their station and farming themselves.
Very large estates divided their land into bailiwicks with each bailiff or agent reporting to the chief commissioner of the estate.