In my latest Radwinter book which I’m about halfway through, my character Thomas is investigating the family tree of a mega-wealthy family called the de Robespierres – totally fictitious and not based on any real people with a similar name. He comes across the reason for their wealth, from village blacksmiths they rose to become major industrialists making agricultural machinery in the middle of the nineteenth century, just when the world in every sense was changing at a hectic and unstoppable rate.
This an excerpt – a very rough first draft:
Right, nineteenth century agricultural machinery…
I had to be strict with myself not to become too interested, but what I was beginning to see in this family’s history was the agricultural revolution writ small. When Izaak R. the first person in the tree, was labouring away, although there had been many innovations over the centuries, basically he was doing the same as had always been done. If he was a ploughman, he’d guided horses across a field pulling a plough; he’d sown the seed by hand, throwing it from a sack or basket, he’d laboured on the land. When it was harvest time he went out with other men and women and using a scythe and rakes, gathered in the wheat or the oats or the barley – lots of barley for brewing beer, the only safe way to drink water.
Of course there had been innovations in ploughing, such as increasing the number of furrows, or adjusting it for different types of ploughing and the type of soil being ploughed. There was also how it actually worked, how it was applied to the ground it was breaking; there was the subsoil plough, and the type of plough such as the turn-wrest plough, and then what is was made from. From ancient times it was made of wood, of course, and then the new metal-working technology changed it. The great innovation of the double furrow plough – which was really not invented to make work easier and more efficient, came about because through necessity – there were fewer people to do the work as society changed, as factories drew rural workers into towns and cities. There was a critical shortage of labour, especially of skilled ploughmen, in the middle of the nineteenth century.
I came across one lovely sentence about how the nineteenth century could be thought notable for the steam plough, just as the twentieth century is notable for the tractor plough. Hello the de Robespierres and their agricultural machinery, in 1867 it was estimated that 2 acres out of every 120 acres of arable were steam tilled.
Ditto to for ploughs – drills! Not drills for making holes in wood or masonry, but the implements for sowing seeds. It’s all very well having a basket of grain and walking along tossing it everywhere, but planting in rows for more product and easier harvesting must have been every farmer’s dream. This applied to other crops, not just grain, but root vegetables and legumes.
I think many philosophers must have realised that some sort of mechanisation would liberate the labourers from drudgery – and be more profitable for land owners (it seems to me philanthropy is always balanced by profit) Lots of drills were invented, including by the famous engineer, Jethro Tull, named after the 1960’s rock band (joke!) however it seems farmers weren’t that keen on using, them, preferring the old ways no doubt.
© Lois Elsden 2019
To catch up with the previous Thomas Radwinter books, here’s a link: