Melvyn Bragg’s two recent programmes on the industrial revolution were entertaining, informative and thought-provoking.

Entertaining because Melvyn going full-tilt for one of his guests is always a pleasure, and Pat Hudson gave as good as she got. Was Britain, especially in the north, away from the impractical doodlings of the Royal Society, a hotbed of genius? Probably less so than Melvyn thought and more so than Pat was prepared to concede, which is nice.

Informative because, well, experts talking with passion about their subjects is always sure to throw up stuff that is simply Good To Know. Like that among the first to suffer from the mechanisation of processes were the 75% of rural married women who spun wool in their homes. Which leads on to ...

Thought-provoking because although Melvyn and his guests did consider the role of agriculture in literally feeding the industrial revolution, and the ways in which the industrial revolution affected rural life,1 there wasn't all that much discussion of the revolution(s) in agriculture.2 So on the one hand, people were forced from the countryside to labour in the new factories of the cities, where their life may or may not have been appreciably better. And on the other changes in agriculture and the rural way of life were such that many labourers were destitute and sought salvation in the cities and factories.

One of the points made repeatedly during both programmes was that the industrial revolution saw change replace stasis as a way most people viewed the future. Improved agriculture seems to have been in large measure a driving force.

[A]n expanding population from [1750] on was largely fed by home production. In 1750 English population stood at about 5.7 million. It had probably reached this level before, in the Roman period, then around 1300, and again in 1650. But at each of these periods the population ceased to grow, essentially because agriculture could not respond to the pressure of feeding extra people. Contrary to expectation, however, population grew to unprecedented levels after 1750, reaching 16.6 million in 1850, and agricultural output expanded with it.

That's from a BBC page about the agricultural revolution by Professor Mark Overton, who puts some effort into debunking the idea that the agricultural revolution, like the industrial revolution, was the product of the heroic agricultural improvers of legend. I’d like to understand more about the recent history of agriculture, and would welcome suggestions of a single book that will give me a good oversight. Overton’s own book might be a good start, although there are surely others.

More than that, though, I wonder if there’s a readable and accurate history of rise of industrial food, which is surely a second revolution with possibly more far-reaching consequences. It’s a long time since I read Reay Tannahill’s Food in History but my recollection is that she doesn’t do much on the modern transformation of ingredients into food. Nor do people like Margaret Visser or Harold McGee, except tangentially. Polemicists aside, any suggestions?

  1. Vide supra, as my learned colleagues might say. 

  2. Dare I hope that this could be the topic for a future programme? 

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