restricted access 1. Railways and Agriculture in France and Great Britain, 1850–1914
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4 Railways and Agriculture in France and Great Britain, 1850–1914 Robert M. Schwartz and Thomas Thevenin one Losses year after year and increasing competition indicate that the crops now grown are not sufficient to support the farmer. When he endeavors, however, to vary his method of culture, and to introduce something new, he is met at the outset by two great difficulties. . . . The first [is] the extraordinary tithe . . . ; the second is really even more important – it is the deficiency of transit. . . . It is not too much to say that three parts of England are quite as much in need of opening up as the backwoods of America. When a new railroad track is pushed over [American] prairie and through primeval woods, settlements spring up beside it. When road trains [in Britain] run through remote hamlets, those remote hamlets will awake to a new life. Richard Jefferies, “Steam on Country Roads,” 18841 After reflecting on American agriculture and railroads, Richard Jefferies, an agricultural journalist, saw one thing clearly: Britain must catch up. Goods trains in agrarian America, he wrote, stopped not merely at stations but virtually anywhere along the line where there were grain and produce to pick up. The British farmer, alas, enjoyed no such convenience. To get crops and produce to market was a struggle. Railways and Agriculture in France and Great Britain 5 First, he had to cart them to a railway station – a slow journey of up to ten miles. Then, at the station, he faced a long wait, eventually surrendering “to the middleman to get his goods to market.”2 British trains went from town to town, but they needed to go to the farms and the crops. “Road trains,” Jefferies argued, were the solution. These redesigned steam-powered trains would run not along rails but on country roads, stopping at each farm and “loading at the gate of the field.”3 Railways, he granted, would still be essential for long-haul shipments, but the road trains would bring much-desired change. With speedy transit at hand, farmers, he continued, would plant perishable fruits and vegetables on unused plots, the rural population would grow, and British farmers would recapture revenue that was going to the Continent and America for imports. To break open rural isolation, daily road trains for passengers would connect villages with market towns. Remote hamlets would spring to life. Casting his eye across the Channel at old rival France was no consolation . France was moving ahead of Britain, too: “We have lately seen the French devote an enormous sum to the laying down of rails in agricultural districts, to the making of canals, and generally to the improvement of internal communication in provinces but thinly populated. The industrious French have recognized that old countries, whose area is limited, can only compete with America, whose area is almost unlimited , by rendering transit easy and cheap. We in England shall ultimately have to apply the same fact.”4 Jefferies’s lament takes us back to a period of crisis and adjustment in the international division of labor and sets the scene for something new: a comparative spatial history that bridges the gap between two research areas typically treated in isolation from one another, one on railways and the other on agriculture. What we discover is a better understanding of change over space and time between rail transport and agricultural production. Although rural rail service was a boon to farming by opening distant urban markets, it also pinched farmers where it hurt,bringingintensifyinginternationalcompetitioninfoodstuffstothe farm gate. Still, even as competition grew and the agrarian depression of the 1880s and 1890s struck agrarian economies, accessible rail transport 6 Robert M. Schwartz and Thomas Thevenin often helped farmers adapt to the new market conditions of the globalizing world of the late nineteenth century. Jefferies was unable to see this, even though he accurately depicted the general crisis of confidence in European farming. Historical GIS and Spatial History Farmers of the period knew very well that their fortunes increasingly depended upon railways and their freight charges. Today, few scholars doubtthatrailwaysandagriculturewerelinkedandinterdependent,and yet historians concern themselves almost exclusively with one or the other subject. Rare exceptions to this offer valuable insights that we can improveuponinseveralways.GIS andspatialanalysismakeitpossibleto study larger and more complex bodies of evidence at different scales and overtime.Here,ourgeoreferencedevidencecomesfromlargedatabases on railways, population, and agriculture for Great Britain and France from the 1830s to the 1930s. Another improvement is our use of a comparative approach to investigate patterns...


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