1. Why use this guide?
This guide will explain which kinds of agricultural statistics are held at The National Archives and help you to identify those relevant to your research.
The earliest agricultural statistics were collected on a relatively ad-hoc basis by the Home Office.
The first time was during mid-1790s when Britain suffered numerous poor harvests and was attempting to calculate the ability of the country to provide sufficient foodstuffs.
A second attempt to collect crop production data was made in 1800. The return designed at this time used pre-printed questions (some were copied out by hand) to force a greater degree of comparable information from those compiling the information. The returns (of varying levels of statistical detail and free text data) are in HO 42/52-55.
In 1801 another crop census was undertaken alongside the first 'people' census as the government sought to compare the two sets of data. Both the mid-1790s and 1801 crop returns are catalogued and searchable online - see below for details. The 1800 returns are presently being catalogued.
From 1866 the Board of Trade began collecting and printing agricultural statistics in annual volumes called 'Agricultural Statistics, England and Wales'. You can access these online via Parliamentary Papers (subscription site).
An additional volume, Century of Agricultural Statistics 1866-1966, was printed in 1967.
From 1899 returns of acreage and livestock were made to the newly established Board of Agriculture.
Returns were known as 'parish summaries' even when, during the 20th century, the parish was often replaced by other local administrative units.
Until 1917 returns were made on a voluntary basis, but from that date it became compulsory and the figures are thought to be more accurate.
3. Finding records
Search Discovery, our catalogue using keywords such as:
- agricultural statistics
- parish summaries
- agricultural returns
You can refine your search results by year. Alternatively, use the following record series references to narrow down your search:
- HO 42 - returns from mid-1790s and 1800
- HO 67 - returns from 1801
- MAF 68 - parish summaries for England and Wales between 1866 and 1988
- MAF 410 - county summaries from 1993
- MAF 408 - parish summaries from 1989
A complete transcript of the 1801 returns together with references to the 1790s returns has been published by the List and Index Society. You can find a copy of Home Office Acreage Returns Lists and Analysis in List and Index Society volumes 189, 190 and 195, in The National Archives' Library.
Summaries for Scottish parishes are held by the National Archives of Scotland.
4. What information will I find?
The earliest statistics were gathered in an unstructured format and the detail given in returns is not consistent.
Later surveys used a standard template for returns but this did not guarantee accurate responses, as those completing the forms suspected their answers might result in further taxation.
The parish summaries give the numbers of livestock and the acreage of crops in each parish but not the names of owners or other details of individual holdings.
They are arranged and listed year by year and then by county.
After 1917 the information on the surveys was given in confidence. To access it you will need to complete a Form of Undertaking, agreeing not to extract any details which relate to an area comprising less than a group of three holdings.
Parish Summaries datasets are closed for 30 years.
Parish and County lookup tables are closed until 2020 (when the first of the Parish Summaries datasets will become available).
A key to the parish numbers for the more modern returns is available at The National Archives.
6. National Farm Survey
A national farm survey was conducted between 1940 and 1943. It covered every farm and holding of five acres and more, including those of market gardeners, horticulturists, and poultry-keepers. See our research guide on National Farm Surveys 1941-1943 for more information.
Holdings of one to five acres representing less than one per cent of the total area of crops and grass, were subject to a separate survey carried out by the horticultural sub-committees of the County War Agricultural Executive Committees.
7. Further reading
W E Minchinton, 'Agricultural returns and the government during the Napoleonic Wars' in Agricultural History Review, vol. 1 (1953) p. 29