The Fens - Industrial agriculture in Britain

This page is to compliment my "Fens" series, low-lying and Denver sluice. It explains the purpose.

The Fens is where industrial agriculture began in Britain and still takes its most unrestricted form.

In the drained flat lands of the Fens, newly-created fields were level, rectangular and huge by British standards, so introducing mechanised agriculture was a wide-open invitation of circumstances.

Ploughing with steam ploughing engines came to the Fens in the 1860's. These machines were huge by just about any standard, weighing-in at between 17tonnes and 22tonnes. These sizes/weights are not approached today in current "tractors" anywhere, as excessive weight compacts and damages the soil. The "ploughing engines" hauled the plough over the field with a steel rope, so engine weight is not an issue. They worked in pairs, running along a headland at each end of the field, and hauled the plough, a lightweight steel frame but with several plough "blades", back and forth, taking it in turns to pull. See the pictures in the linked pages and you can see how it works. The following is one of these

<> Image of ploughing using steam ploughing engine <>

A contributing reason for the huge size and weight of these engines is, with little penalty for weight but working in East Anglia where there is no coal, they had features to reduce fuel consumption (particularly "compounding" - expanding the steam in two stages through two cylinders) which virtually no railway locomotives bothered to have.

These machines took their final form by 1870 and worked the Fens for the next 80years, until cheaply mass-produced Diesel-engined tractors ended their time.

Well, I don't have any pictures myself, either historical or ploughing demonstrations at museums or steam-fairs, but here's a dedicated site which is full of information and great pictures.
and information from the site "home"

Bit of background comment on agriculture in Britain

In much of Britain effort is made to try to retain the rural aspect and the traditional appearance formed over centuries. Every part of the landscape in Britain is a managed landscape, but much is very pleasing to see. It's amicable - farmers live the life they know and city dwellers can get some respite by going hiking in the county. This doesn't apply to the Fens (there is a bit of preserved flooded fen at Wicken Fen). It's industrial-age farming. This is the point of the Fens - it is a huge food-producing area. The price of agricultural products (vegetables, grain) fell in the 1870's, I read, reducing the income to hereditary landed families and leaving them in financial trouble - hence the influx of American heiresses to marry various Lords and Dukes (Winston Churchill's mother was American, for instance). The growing cities benefited from the supply of food. That the Fens became highly mechanised by the 1870's is probably linked to this change, though I have never seen this stated.