The Impact of Agricultural Depression and Land Ownership Change on the County of Hertfordshire, c.1870-1914
The focus of this research has been on how the county of Hertfordshire negotiated the economic, social and political changes of the late nineteenth century. A rural county sitting within just twenty miles of the nation’s capital, Hertfordshire experienced agricultural depression and a falling rural population, whilst at the same time seeing the arrival of growing numbers of wealthy, professional people whose economic focus was on London but who sought their own little patch of the rural experience. The question of just what constituted that rural experience was played out in the local newspapers and these give a valuable insight into how the farmers of the county sought to establish their own claim to be at the heart of the rural, in the face of an alternative interpretation which was grounded in urban assumptions of the social value of the countryside as the stable heart of the nation. The widening of the franchise, increased levels of food imports and fears over the depopulation of the villages reduced the influence of farmers in directing the debate over the future of the countryside. This study is unusual in that it builds a comprehensive picture of how agricultural depression was experienced in one farming community, before considering how farmers’ attempts to claim ownership of the ‘special’ place of the rural were unsuccessful economically, socially and politically. Hertfordshire had a long tradition of attracting the newly wealthy looking to own a country estate. Historians have suggested that in the late nineteenth century there was a shift in how such men understood ownership of these estates, showing little enthusiasm for the traditional paternalistic responsibilities; in the face of a declining political and social premium attached to landownership, their interest lay purely in the leisure and sporting opportunities of the rural. However, as this research will show, the newly wealthy were not immune to that wider concern with social stability, and they engaged with their local environment in meaningful ways, using their energies and wealth to fund a range of social improvements. This research extends our understanding of just how the rhetoric of the rural was experienced by the residents of a county which so many saw as incorporating the best of the ‘south country’. In so doing, it makes a significant contribution to our knowledge of how this period of agricultural depression was interpreted by the wider nation, and the impact on social and cultural understanding of the place of the countryside within the national identity.