Project Purley

The Local History Society for Purley on Thames

Farming Since WW1

Until the First World War farming remained very much the same over the centuries. There had been the movement away from Common Fields during the Enclosures which had turned small farmers into near unemployed farm labourers and improvements in transport had made it possible to market farm produce over a much wider area leading to more intensive farming. But apart from the improvements made by Jethro Tull and his like the methods remained much the same and were very labour intensive.

The First World War

The First World War was a watershed in British agriculture. The semi-feudal methods which had persisted through the enclosures began to be questioned as the technology that had been invented towards the end of the nineteenth Century was developed into practical machines which had great application on the land.

By the start of the war steam power was at its zenith on the farm. Most large farmers either had their own traction engine or would rent one as required but the internal combustion engine was just beginning to make its mark.

Hitherto the government had generally kept out of farming. That was a matter for the landowners and apart from trying to regulate prices and generally encourage good husbandry, agriculture was not seen as a matter for government to interfere with. The impact of the U-boat campaign and the consequent food shortages, brought home to the government how vital the industry was and thereafter they took a great deal of interest.

The efforts of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in the 19th century to form a Trade Union for agricultural workers had gradually begun to pay dividends. There were sill a large number of people employed on the land but working conditions and pay had definitely improved. The shortage of labour caused by the needs of the military saw both wages improve and women come into their own as farm workers.


The introduction of mechanisation boosted by advances in WW1 however changed all that. It took another fifty years before tractors completely eliminated horses for ploughing and nearly one hundred years before tractors could be guided by GPS and the planting of seed specialised by the quality of soil in particular parts of a field. Combine harvesters eliminated the need for all the schoolchildren to turn out to help with the harvest and on the dairy side there were enormous advances in milking parlours and the detailed control of feeding.

The End of Mixed Farming

Up to the first world war most farms were mixed, in that they kept animals for a variety of purposes and grew crops both to feed animals and as cash crops. The trends established in the 19th century,due to the development of a transport infrastructure began to be more apparant. Gradually the need to grow crops to feed animals, or to use animals to manure the ground lessened and farmers began to concentrate more on what they and their land was best at.

Farming began to be seen more as a business and less of a way of life, farm workers through their Unions were asserting their rights to decent wages and living conditions and the general rise in living standards was creating more and more demand for food. Essentially this meant greatly increasing the yield from the land and improving worker productivity.

Another trend was the move from a tenant/squire relationship to an owner farmer situation. This happened both as the former squires decided to farm the land directly themselves and employ to labour; and as the old squires died and their estates were broken up and sold to professional farmers.In both cases there was a recognition that farming had to be taken seriously and there was little room left for the amateur.This in its turn led to more and more specialisation. Arable farming was concentrated in the eastern parts of the country, in East Anglia and Kent and in those areas where there were sheltered plains such as in the Severn Valley. For the most part the south and west of England became the place fordairy and beef farming, sheep and pig farming.

The Second World War

The extent to which farms had become non-arable over vast parts of the country came as a shock to the government when the Second World war broke out. The realisation hit home that if Britain was to be self sufficient or at least to be less reliant on imported foodstuffs, then an enormous acreage would have to be put back to the plough. This meant two things, first farmers needed both incentive and direction and second they needed to invest in machinery and labour. The first major step was an immense expansion of the Ministry of Food and Agriculture.

Farms now tend to specialise, especially in animal husbandry with dairy cows, beef cattle, sheep and pigs generally kept well apart. European regulations and subsidies distorted the market and methods and the Green movement, often enforced by Europe, objected to the use of pesticides and antibiotics.

Purley's Farms

Insofar as Purley is concerned we began the period with four large and a couple of smaller ones; but we are now down to two large farms and very different land use. These themes will be followed through articles on each of our farms:-

Home Farm Purley (old)

Home Farm Purley (new)

Home Farm Sulham

Marsh Farm

Kirtons Farm

Kingsland Farm

Scraces Farm

Westbury Farm

Westbury Vineyard

Other smaller enterprises are covered in Small Holdings

Ken Mercer specialised in selling insurance to farms and the like. His recollections are in Farming Memories

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