Mid-Victorian ProsperityCategory: 19th century
The unparalleled expansion of British manufactures and commerce between 1848 and 1866 was no doubt due, to a great extent, to the removal of protective duties on food and raw materials. But not entirely. Other important changes took place simultaneously and helped it on. The above years comprise the discovery and working of the Californian and Australian gold-fields which increased so immensely the circulating medium of the world. They mark the final victory of steam over all other means of transport. On the ocean steamers superseded sailing vessels. On land in all civilized countries, the railroad took the first place, the macadamized road the second. Transport became four times quicker and four times cheaper.
The effects of Corn Law repeal upon agriculture were surprising. The mere threat of foreign competition led to a number of improvements in technique. As compensation for their loss of the Corn Laws the landowners in Parliament advanced themselves money for improvements at a very low rate of interest, thus enabling themselves to add to the value of their land and make a handsome profit out of the farmers who were charged for the improvements at a considerably higher rate.
A machine for pipe making, invented in 1845, made land drainage possible on a large scale. This added greatly to the productivity of the heavy wheat-growing land, made it more workable, and made the use of artificial manures profitable. Nitrates, guano and bone manure all came into common use at this time. Much new machinery was introduced, so that at the Royal Agricultural Society’s Show in 1853 about 2,000 implements were exhibited.
A more direct stimulus to the use of machinery was given by the increase in the wages of farm workers which took place between 1845 and 1859 as the result of the great demand for labour in mines, in the construction of railways, etc. In time, this increase in the use of machinery led to a reduction in the number of labourers employed, although the area under cultivation had increased by half a million acres and the total agricultural production had increased far more in proportion.
The size of farms increased considerably due to the greater application of capital to agriculture. Between 1851 and 1871 farms of all sizes below 100 acres decreased in number while farms of 300 acres and over increased from 11,000 to 13,000, the greatest proportional increase being in those over 500 acres.
This period of prosperity in agriculture lasted till the end of the short boom which followed the Franco-Prussian War. It then ended abruptly and a long depression set in with the arrival of American wheat and Australian wool in bulk. The improvement in the condition of the labourers ended much earlier when the rise in prices produced by the influx of Californian and Australian gold brought about a steady decline in real wages