Reported This Week 280 Years Ago (Jan 1739): A plea to farmers in favour of Tillage

Belfast News Letter front page from December 22 1738, which is equivalent to January 2 1739 in the modern calendar. The new year then began in March
Belfast News Letter front page from December 22 1738, which is equivalent to January 2 1739 in the modern calendar. The new year then began in March

From the fourth surviving Belfast News Letter. The edition is dated Dec 22 1738 but that is Jan 2 in the modern calendar. The paper was founded in Sep 1737 but the first year is lost:

This is a crucial, early snapshot of the struggle to introduce improved agricultural production techniques on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, which began later in the 1700s. There was resistance to technological change, and while we cannot know the content of the earlier articles to which this un-named author refers, because the papers are lost, a later News Letter prints a farmer’s sceptical response to such advice:



GIVE me Leave to transgress once more upon your Readers, and detain them on Week longer from the Instructions you design for them. ‘Tis of so much Importance to this Kingdom, to remove the Prejudices against Tillage — that I can’t forbrear resuming the Argument in my last Letter. To suit myself to the Dimensions of your Paper, I was oblig’d to conclude abruptly, to crowd my Reasons into a narrow Compass, and hint them rather than express them. In the latter part especially, I could do little more than direct the Readers to the Premises from which the Conclusion might be drawn, that Numbers, as in other Places, are also Riches in this Country. Had it never been disputed, one could hardly suspect it should be so: The Experience of all Ages testifies, without Exception, that the most populous Countries are the richest. And that it should be so is so natural a Consequence of that first Principle in Politicks, that Industry is equally the Parent of private and of publick Wealth, that to prove it, were I believe, lost Labour in any Country but our own. However, since it is pretended from some Circumstances peculiar to ourselves, that we are the single Instance to the contrary, it may be of some Importance to consider it distinctly, and I hope to be indulged in doing it at large.

To proceed in the clearest Matter.— Let is suppose Five Thousand Hands, the Number wanted to enlarge our Tillage in the Proportion mentioned in my last — Let us suppose these Hands brought over not meerly (sic) for the present Turn, but to become Inhabitants, and properly distributed to answer the Purposes of Husbandry —Would be Losers, or collectively taken, Gainers by this sudden Addition to our Numbers. Losers, say the Advocates of Pasture, by their Additional Consumption — Gainers, I beg Leave to say, by the additional Labour of so many: And if there Labour is more than an Equivalent for their Consumption I am certainly right in saying so — This therefore is the single Point to be debated, and upon that the whole Argument must rest.

I think nothing can be plainer, than that every kind of Labour must be an Equivalent at least for the Consumption of the Labourer — Men must live, and it is a manifest Absurdity to say that any Man can work for less than will maintain him. So much therefore as will supply the necessary hands with the Requisites of Life, must be laid upon all Commodities whatever — And’ tis, strictly speaking, impossible they should be had, if this unavoidable Condition be not previously complied with — Nothing there can be lost by Numbers, if they be usefully employed. Suppose the Consumption what you will, the produce of the Labour must balance it at least — I do not mean, that indifferently in every Country every kind of Labour will compensate the Consumption — ‘Tis possible from the Dearness of Provisions in some Places, That a peculiar kind of business cannot there be carried on — But, wherever it is carried on in fact — That there the whole Consumption of the Labourer at least is charged on the Commodity, is a truth not to be disputed. I have said at least because the Wages of a Labourer are always greater than meerly to answer his Consumption; and it is his Wages that are charged on the Commodity.

Besides, therefore the natural Produce of the Land, the Seed, the Maintenance or Hire of his Castle, and the wear and tear of necessary Tools. — The Husbandman who deals in Artificial Crops, must charge the Wages of his Labourers, upon the total Price of the Commodity. This total Price estimated in this Manner, and arising from these several Articles together, the Buyer necessarily pays. And therefore when we purchase Corn in the Markets, on the other Side of the Water, we are so far from saving the Consumption of so many Hands at home, as may be requisite to raise on, that we actually maintain that Number at a higher Allowance by the Head. ‘Tis a Manifest Mistake to think that by having fewer Hands at Home, our Consumption is any thing the less. We pay the Consumption of the Labourer in England, as effectually as if he lived among us.— The Buyer always pays t, and in the Nature of the thing, ‘tis strictly impossible he should not. If the Price of Labour were the same in England and in Ireland, it would still be our Advantage to encourage the Increase of Numbers, and to till our Grounds with our own Hands— The Consumption of a Workman is always, more or less, below his Wages; and whatever the Difference between them, so much is real Riches to the Nation ... Besides in his Consumption something is the price of Labour, and that Portion of his personal Expence, is in the National Account, to be deducted — It costs the Country nothing.

To estimate these two Articles exactly, would require tedious Comparisons — And Suppositions in this Case would probably be disputed. I shall therefore let the Argument rest in general Terms as I have stated it.— and observe, that independently of these less considerable Advantages, there is a visible and obvious one in employing our own People, from the different Price of Labour in England and in Ireland.

Taking the different Rates paid in the two Kingdoms at a Medium. Sixpence is the standing Hire of a Day Labourer in Ireland — Thirteen Pence in England— By employing English Hands, we therefore pay double Wages out of Wantoness, and raise our Corn by the dearest Tillage we can think of—In the obvious Way of sowing it at Home, half the Expence of Labour would be saved — In the modish one of doing it abroad, every Article is charg’d with double Cost.

I believe it were unnecessary to draw a regular Conclusion from the Reflections in this Paper— The Reader may be trusted with it. One Thing only give me Leave to add, that if the Arguments made use of are applied to Manufacturers —They conclude with additional Strength for Numbers. —Besides, the Price of meer bodily Labour, there is a an Allowance made for Skill in all Employments that require it — An equitable Compensation for the Time and Application, the Diligence and Industry which have been bestow’d in attaining that Dexterity. Hence the Manufacturer earns more than his Consumption in a greater Proportion still than the common Labourer. The National Gains, which depend upon that Difference, are enlarg’d as that encreaseth — and the Benefit of Numbers becomes more considerable, and more visible.

The Dimensions of your Paper won’t give me Leave to bring the several Points together which lie disputed in three Letters — They would gain some additional Advantage by being placed close and in one View, in that natural Dependance which they have upon each other — I must desire the Readers to supply this Deficiency themselves, and particularly to consider this whole Letter, as an Enlargement only of the last Paragraph in the foregoing one—where they will find the Substance and the Force of it collected in a narrower Compass.

I am, & c.

[The author is a letter writer on behalf of the Dublin Society, founded a few years before in 1731 and which would later become the Royal Dublin Society, an organisation which most people today associate with its famous annual Horse Show. In those days it was promoting agriculture and industry. According to the letter, the labourer’s average daily wage of six pence in Ireland and thirteen pence in England is about £5 and £12 in today’s money]