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More change in the village: Farming in the early 20th century


Looking across the field behind my house, everything looks much as it might have done eighty years ago –  gently sloping land for grazing cattle gives way to the hills behind, the field fringed by native hedgerow. This landscape seems worth preserving because there’s something seemingly unchanging about the countryside. But even in this tiny patch, we can uncover the uneven pace of change.

There’s a long low dip in the corner of the field where there was once a pond, and which fills now only in a wet winter. Fifty years ago there were six dairy farms in our village; now there are two. Old Ordnance Survey maps show that a smithy occupied a space close to here, a school served the villages, a now lost lane ran across one of the higher fields, the church doesn’t appear in the 1811 ‘Old Series’: built in the 1870s it is now closed. These small cartographic additions and deletions are evidence of how we have lived on the land. At the heart of any rural community is agriculture, providing income for the people and lending character to the landscape – as farming necessarily adapts, bringing mechanisation, pesticides or new crops, the essential nature of the countryside changes, for good or for bad. Agriculture is not just a matter of tradition – it’s not immune from the world, in turn it exerts a powerful force on the land.

A. G. Street (1892-1966) lived and farmed in southern Wiltshire; his first and best-known book Farmer’s Glory (1932) is a down-to-earth account of agriculture in the first thirty years of the twentieth century. It’s a supremely vivid portrait of rural life and of the huge global forces acting upon it. A photograph of the author in later life gives the impression of a true ‘countryman’, steady and avuncular, a character type that he later gave full throat to as a popular radio panellist. But one doesn’t start as a ‘humble tenant farmer’ as he described himself, and end up as a well-loved author, journalist and broadcaster without impetus and great personal dynamism.

It was the Great Depression of the late twenties that prompted the writing of the book, but slow change had marched across the landscape for a century or more. Generations had abandoned a hard life working the land and flooded to the cities where the industrial revolution had taken firm root, the Enclosure Acts changed ownership and land use for ever, and from the 1870s a long agrarian decline reduced the great estates and the position of the land-owning aristocracy. But to Street, who left school in 1907 to work on his father’s farm, agriculture before the First World War was a period of relative calm. Farmer’s Glory’s first section is entitled The Spacious Days, recalling a settled life of relative ease. Indeed, Street admits he didn’t work hard, his father having ‘a crowd of men about the farm’ and except for lambing, harvesting and haymaking times, he was able to rise late – Street’s book is full of disarming honesty and self-deprecation. It’s peopled with extraordinary characters – most notably the farm workers, for whom Street has much affection and admiration. There’s humour in the book, some of it at their expense, and he recreates their Wiltshire dialect brilliantly, but these people knew how to work the land, had a strong adherence to ‘the duty of the soil’, and knew that simpler methods were often best. As James Rebanks, the author of The Shepherd’s Life, says in his introduction to this new edition, the book has an elegiac quality, a feeling for a world lost, or being lost. Street was quite content to admit his own farming failings and defeats in the book; while the tone is occasionally mournful and he doesn’t shy from the hardships, the sometimes brutal realities of farming and avoids obvious nostalgia, he remains a human and appealing guide to the period.

An argument with his father was predictable - Street was ‘most certainly an insufferable young pup in so many ways’, and so he found himself on a boat to Canada to escape. This interlude was a rite of passage for the young man. Farming in Winnipeg was half a world away, physically and metaphorically – on a vast stretch of land reclaimed from wilderness for arable farming. The environment was unforgiving, his accommodation rudimentary but his few human companions were hospitable and kind. Street was tenacious and stoic, in this huge and brilliantly rendered landscape he found he was not unhappy ‘in spite of the loneliness’ although ‘one gets a bit fed up with snow after five months of it.’ This middle section of the book is alive with the many tiny details that make up a life – not just the work and weather, but the recreation and the social interactions.

He loved to learn – his grand-daughter Miranda McCormick, the author of Farming, Fighting and Family stresses the self-reliance he exhibited throughout his life, and he was reluctant to leave. Nevertheless, his homecoming, as the first world war loomed, is described beautifully, almost in terms of a refuge found again:

I forget which land we first sighted. It may have been Ireland, or it may have been Wales. But it was green. That seemed wonderful, for I had left a white world. I do not think I shall ever forget that first sight of British coasts. England, when I landed, seemed strange and crowded. There were people everywhere, and I felt an alien in my fur coat. And if Liverpool seemed crowded, London was a black, dirty hive. There were soldiers everywhere, and all the talk was of war. I taxied across London to Waterloo station where a girl presented me with a white feather. This England seemed a very strange country, and I preferred Canada. But when, on my arrival at my home station, I could see Tommy and the trap outside, and found my father beaming on the platform, I knew that I was home at last.

This respite was temporary. When the Great Crash came in 1929, its effects were felt across the world. Street, ever resourceful, turned to writing to supplement a dwindling income from farming. Encouraged by the writer and socialite Edith Olivier, Farmer’s Glory was an immediate success. Throughout the rest of his life he wrote journalism, many other books and was a regular panellist on the radio programme Any Questions?, where his pithy contributions won many admirers. His working life and his writing teaches us, not only about the hardships and joys of farming in these early decades, but also offers parallels with our own times. James Rebanks finds these echoes in his own life and in the book’s ongoing ‘gently revolutionary’ spirit.

It offers the rural life of his childhood as a counterpoint to the modernity crashing out of control in the 1930s. It raises questions about what kind of farming we might want, what kind of society, and what constitutes a good life. It asks whether economic change, in an earlier age of growing globalisation, is inevitable like some force of nature, or something that can be shaped and tamed.

Street’s book raises profound questions about how we should live and how we should think about the land. Written at a time when farming was changing for ever, it captures these years with nuance and balance, but it’s also supremely human – we slip easily into those years in his company, feeling our way, uncertain as ever about the future.

By Jon Woolcott, Little Toller Books

Farmer’s Glory by A. G. Street is published by Little Toller Books (£12 PB), with the original wood engravings by Gwen Raverat and an introduction by James Rebanks

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