Cornish Farming

Throughout Cornwall's history, farming has played an important part although the land is of variable quality, with granite uplands, heavy clays in the east, and free-draining loams, all of which make farming a particularly demanding occupation; but the climate can be generous, with longer than usual growing seasons and fewer spring frosts.

The growing of crops and keeping of animals was practiced by Celts in the Iron Age.     Fields were small and square and surrounded with granite or slate hedges, or earth banks and ditches.  Within them oats, rye, pillas or wheat were grown.    Fallow fields provided winter hay for the animals.    By medieval times this field system was complemented in some areas around newer settlements by the Saxon one of strips.     Grain stores grew larger and the market trading of animals began.    By the 1600s Cornish farmers were investing most heavily in cattle and sheep for the profit in meat and milk, but also in bones and hides.     

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Cornish sheep had produced poor quality wool before the 1600s but selective breeding prompted a healthy wool industry.    William Marshall wrote in 1817 in reviewing the Board of Agriculture's reports (see below), that "...Cornwall comprises a greater proportion of inarable lands, than any other English County."    

Horses gradually replaced oxen for ploughing and more winter fodder was grown.   Around 1800 growing turnips was a popular means of enriching the soil's nitrogen content, but they depleted the lime and they were less frequently used in Cornwall.    Potatoes became essential to the diet of the poor.    Riots resulted from scarcity of corn after bad harvests and the effects of the French Wars on trade. 

By the late 19th century Cornish farms had a very high proportion of cattle in comparison with England and Wales, and relatively more pigs and sheep per acre.    Farms remained mainly small, however [and even one hundred years on they are mostly less than 100 acres].    By this time, too, the market garden industry had begun to develop, especially in west Cornwall.   Crops of spring cabbages, onions, carrots, lettuce, and early potatoes all benefited from the coming of the railways.     A healthy Scillonian flower industry spurred growers in Mounts Bay to follow suit, providing daffodils and narcissi from November on. 

Since the First World War the County Council has sought to encourage the industry by offering tenancies on its 11,400 acres of farmland - the County Farms Service.

In a ten year period from 1984, Common Market agricultural policy to restrict milk production drastically reduced dairy herds (-14% 1984-94) and prompted shifts to beef (+63%) and sheep production (+25%);    poultry farming decreased (-22%) but revived somewhat, and pig farming declined (-30%).   The subsequent damaging effects of the BSE and Foot & Mouth crises need quantifying.   The most evident change (1984-1994) was in the growth of horticultural activity (+67%) and while cereal crops reduced, much larger crops of sugar beet, field beans and dry peas, oilseed rape, maize and other crops have been grown.   

A one-page summary is, perforce, a very truncated account of farming in Cornwall.    There are numerous source works which contain a chapter or two, or statistical data, academic papers, theses, and so on, but the full history of Cornwall's farming activity is still awaiting an author.  

The Cornish Studies Library has a wealth of information for the interested enquirer to begin with.     
Among the most important early works are:

  • Fraser, R   'General view of the County of Cornwall' [C MacRae, printer, 1794].   Produced for the Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement
  • Karkeek, W F 'The report of the farming of Cornwall' [Royal Agricultural Society of England, 1846]    Published in the Society's Journal, vol. 6, part 2.
  • Marshall, W   'Marshall's rural economy of the West of England in 2 volumes' [David & Charles Reprints, 1970, ISBN 0715347632].   First published in 1796.
  • Worgan, G B  'General view of the agriculture of the County of Cornwall' [B McMillan, printer, 1811].   Produced for The Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement.

More recent insights into farming life are:

  • Hanson, J & P   'To clothe the fields with plenty':  farming in Cornwall at the end of the 18th century, viewed through the life and times of George Wilce of St Kew [Landfall Publications, 1997, ISBN 1873443315].
  • Riddle, C   'So useful an undertaking':  a history of the Royal Cornwall Show 1793-1993 [Royal Cornwall Agricultural Association, 1993,  ISBN 0952103702].
  • Rowe, J   'Changing times and fortunes:  a Cornish farmer's life 1828-1904' [Cornish Hillside, 1996, ISBN 1900147025]. 
  • Stevens, J   'A Cornish farmer's diary: selections from the diary of James Stevens of Zennor and Sancreed, (1847-1918)'.   [P A S Pool, 1977, ISBN 0950559601].
  • Symons, A   'Tremedda days:  a view of Zennor, 1900-1940'.   [Tabb House, 1992, ISBN 0907018831].
  • Tucker, J E.   'A Cornish farmer's boy' .   [Brewin Books, 1993, ISBN 1858580234].

For the local historian a useful introduction to what records to look for is:

  • Edwards, P   'Farming:  sources for local historians' [Batsford, 1991, ISBN 0713451165].

Property-based records of ownership, taxation etc., will often provide relevant information.    So from its collection of published works the Cornwall Centre can offer trades directories, indexed transcriptions of selected muster rolls, subsidy rolls, etc., and trades directories;   indexes of wills and inventories;  microfilm copies of tithe apportionments and censuses.

Cornwall Record Office (CRO) holds a wealth of relevant records, many of which are included on the online catalogue