When the Second World War began in September 1939, Britain was faced with an urgent need to increase home food production, as imports of food and fertilisers were drastically cut. The area of land under cultivation had to be increased significantly and quickly. Under Defence (General) Regulation 49 the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries was empowered to set up County War Agricultural Executive Committees ('County War Ags') to which the authority to increase food production was delegated. The Committees had powers to direct what was grown, to take possession of land, to terminate tenancies, to inspect property, and to organise mobile groups of farm workers. Much of the day-to-day work of the Committees was executed by district committees and sub-committees while the Executive Committee itself maintained a general supervisory role.
One of the first responsibilities of the County War Ags was to direct a ploughing-up campaign under which large expanses of grassland (in some areas land that had not seen the plough since medieval or even prehistoric times) were prepared for cultivation. To assist in this campaign, in June 1940 a farm survey was initiated with the immediate purpose of increasing food production. Farms were classified in terms of their productive state, A, B, or C; these categories related more to the physical condition of the land than to the managerial efficiency (or otherwise) of the farmer. However, it was also vital to assess the ability of each farmer to play his part in the national food production plan, and in cases of gross inefficiency or dereliction, land was taken into the control of the Committees and labour organised accordingly. Between June 1940 and the early months of 1941 some 85% of the agricultural area was surveyed - all but the smallest farms.
Once the short-term objective of increasing food production had been met, thought was given to implementing a more general National Farm Survey with a longer-term purpose of providing data that would form the basis of post-war planning. Such a survey was seen at the time as a 'Second Domesday Book', a 'permanent and comprehensive record of the conditions on the farms of England and Wales', the ultimate destination for which was the national archive, the Public Record Office. Contemporary press releases issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries included historical notes on the original Domesday Survey and on other land surveys that had been carried out over the centuries.
As a source for local and family historians the records of the National Farm Survey are of great value, and for the historical geographer these records present an enormous database of land ownership and land usage in mid-20th century Britain.
2. The National Farm Survey, 1941-1943
In April 1941 the County War Agricultural Executive Committees received a Circular Letter from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries setting out the scope and purpose of the more extended Survey. This would consist of three components :
- A Primary Farm Record for each farm providing information on conditions of tenure and occupation; and on the natural state of the farm, including its fertility, the adequacy of its equipment and of its water and electricity supplies, the degree of infestation with weeds or pests, and the management condition of the farm.
- The complete 1941 (4 June) census return for the farm including statistics of crop acreages and livestock numbers and information on rent and length of occupancy.
- A map of the farm showing its boundaries and the fields contained in it.
Every farm and holding of five acres and more was to be surveyed, including those of market gardeners, horticulturists, and poultry-keepers. 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.
The National Farm Survey was begun in the spring of 1941 and largely completed by the end of 1943. It was undertaken by the district committees made up largely of experienced, practical farmers who visited and inspected each farm and interviewed the farmer. The notes and rough plan compiled in the field were later completed in the Committees' offices and formed the Primary Farm Record. Eleven Provincial Agricultural Advisory Centres also played a significant part in the Survey. These were responsible for checking the records obtained by the Committees and matching them with the 1941 (4 June) agricultural returns that formed the second component of the Survey. They also arranged and filed the records. Later they began the huge task of the statistical analysis of the data obtained, a summary report of which was published in 1946. Some 300,000 farms and other holdings were involved in the Survey. The cost was £20,000.
3. The records
The individual farm records of the National Farm Survey, 1941-1943 form the record series MAF 32. The maps, which serve as a graphic index to the farm records, are in the series MAF 73. For further information on these series and their means of reference, see below.
Minutes of the County War Ags and of their various sub-committees are held in MAF 80: some volumes have detailed indexes that include farm names. These records are subject to a closure period of 50 years, but all pieces may be seen by readers signing an undertaking form.
Records of the planning and implementation of the two surveys of 1940 and of 1941-1943 are in the record series MAF 38: the appropriate pieces are MAF 38/206-217, MAF 38/469-473 , and MAF 38/865-867. Summarised reports by county of the 1940 survey are in MAF 38/213: no individual farm records of this survey appear to survive. A proof copy of the National Farm Survey, England & Wales (1941-1943): a Summary Report (HMSO, 1946), together with copies of press releases, is in MAF 38/216. Statistical analyses of the National Farm Survey arranged by county are in MAF 38/852-863.
An abridged report on the equivalent, but more limited farm survey carried out in Scotland, 1941-1943 is in MAF 38/217. The National Records of Scotland, holds Farm Boundary Maps and records of the Scottish Agricultural Executive Committees.
5. How to find individual farm records
Individual farm records are found in MAF 32.
The records are arranged by county (the series list includes an index to the counties) and then alphabetically by parish within each county. The code number given to the parish by the Survey is also shown in the series list (this is the same system of code numbers as used for the Parish Summaries of Agricultural Returns - MAF 68).
If you know the parish for the farm whose record you are seeking, search for the name of the parish in Discovery, our catalogue. For instance, to find the farm records for Wennington in Lancashire, enter Wennington AND "MAF 32" into the search box.
If you do not know the parish of your farm, or it is a very large parish and you want to obtain the individual farm number that it was accorded by the Survey, see sections 7-9 about identifying and using the maps (MAF 73).
The farm records for each parish are contained loose within large envelopes or folders, which are labelled with the parish name and the parish code number (in some cases a district code number precedes the parish number). The various forms (see below) used for the separate parts of the Survey are grouped together and each part is arranged by the numerical sequence of farm numbers.
When looking at the documents please do not alter the order in which you find the documents: if any appear to be out of order, then inform an officer in the reading room.
Each part of the farm record contains the name of the farm and of the farmer and his address and so can be identified by that information. It also shows the code unique to that farm, normally in three parts, for example WD 19/37 - firstly, the abbreviation for the county (Westmorland), followed by the parish number (Beetham), and then the individual farm number. Sometimes there is a fourth part to the reference, a district code, for example 57, added to the reference as the first number. If you have used the maps to identify your farm, it will be this farm code that you will have taken from the map and be seeking on the farm record.
6. The nature of the record
The individual farm record is made up of four forms:
- A return of 4 June 1941 showing details of small fruit, vegetables, and stocks of hay and straw. (This return was completed and mailed by the farmer himself).
- A return of 4 June with respect to agricultural land (returned as above).
- The Farm Survey - the 'primary survey' that was obtained in the field by inspection and interview. This has two dates: when the inspection was carried out and when the record was completed in the office.
- A further return of 4 June (returned as (1) and (2)) showing labour, motive power, rent, and length of occupancy.
One of the most controversial parts of the Survey, and the one for which the Survey is often remembered, lies under section D, 'Management', of the Primary Farm Survey. It was here that the recorder had to classify the farm as A, B, or C, and if B or C were due to 'personal failings' he was also obliged to supply additional details.
There was a change in emphasis from the A, B, and C classification of the 1940 survey (see previously) which had related primarily to the physical condition of the farm. The classification now referred much more to the management condition of the farm, i.e. how a farmer managed his resources - well (A); fairly (B); or badly (C). Of the 300,000 farms and holdings classified by the Survey, 58% were A, 37% B, and 5% C.
It was quite possible to have a farmer of A capabilities managing a farm where productivity was low because of poor soils; in this case, his classification would be A and not B or C.
B or C categories could be given for reasons of old age and lack of capital. If accorded for reasons of personal failings, then these might be amplified as due to (a) physical incapacity brought about by poor health, loss of limbs, or the decease of a farmer leaving his widow to carry on; (b) mental imperfections, such as lack of ambition, stupidity, laziness, and ignorance; and (c) weaknesses of the flesh, such as drunkenness.
The author Henry Williamson farmed in Norfolk from 1937 and throughout the war years. He recounted his struggle to improve the condition of his farm in The Story of a Norfolk Farm, published in 1941. The farm and its inspection for the National Farm Survey is also described in his autobiographical novel, Lucifer Before Sunrise. He was immensely proud of his 'A' classification accorded by the 'New Domesday scribe'. The code for Henry Williamson's farm in Stiffkey, Norfolk is NK 531/7 and the record is in MAF 32/739/531.
7. National Farm Survey maps (MAF 73)
Many of the County War Ags experienced difficulties in completing the requirement of the Survey to produce a set of plans that showed the boundaries and fields of each farm and holding within their counties. This work was done using the Ordnance Survey 25-inch sheets (reduced to half-size at approximately twelve and a half inches to the mile - 1:5000) or the six-inch sheets (1:10560). The map sheets themselves were in short supply, the photographic reduction work took a great deal of time, and the transference of the farm areas and boundaries, with their references, to the maps was work of the most exacting nature. Consequently, for many counties this was the last component of the National Farm Survey to be completed.
The work was done to greatly differing standards. At best, each farm is identified by different colour washes, sometimes a full wash over the whole area of the farm but often just the boundaries highlighted Its code reference is shown in black ink, together with cross referencing to additional land holdings of the particular farm and the map sheets on which these appear. If six-inch sheets were used, the Survey required that each Ordnance Survey parcel number be taken from a 25-inch sheet and added to the six-inch sheets in manuscript. This often led to a cluttering of information, with the farm codes in danger of being confused with the OS parcel numbers. To guard against this the Committee draughtsmen would sometimes use the margins of a six-inch sheet to show by a series of colour codes the land holdings and their code numbers, so that the actual surface of the map could be left free for the OS parcel numbers to be added. However, not all six-inch map sheets were completed to these high standards.
The Ministry instructed the Committees not to allow the map sheets to be taken into the field: they were meant as record sheets rather than working maps. In some cases, however, it appears that these instructions were ignored and a number of pencilled notes can be found on certain map sheets. Sometimes, the names of farms and of land owners and their addresses are added and details of land usage.
8. How to find and use the maps
- If you do not know the name of a farm or its code number, but just the approximate area where it lay (many farms, of course, will have long since disappeared under urban expansion), then consult the volume of index sheets that has the reference MAF 73/64, which is on open access in the reading rooms at The National Archives. This contains in county alphabetical order for England, then Wales, index maps that provide the references of Ordnance Survey sheets at the 25-inch and 6-inch scales. The index sheets have a grid superimposed upon them that enables this information to be found (see below). The sheets show topographical detail to help you identify the area you require and they include parish boundaries and names.
- When you have found the location you are seeking, note the large stamped number added to the index sheet at its right hand corner. This number forms the second component of the document reference you will need to order your map (the first being that of the series), for example MAF 73/31... (for Northumberland).
- Next, note the number in the centre of the large grid rectangle in which your area falls, for example 69. This provides the third component, MAF 73/31/69 which is the full reference to order the set of maps relating to that numbered rectangle for Northumberland.
If the County War Agricultural Executive Committee was using reduced sheets of the 25-inch scale, then there should be sixteen sheets making up the set (each large numbered rectangle is divided by sixteen, as shown on the grid index sheets). You may like to note the exact sheet number/s you require if you can pinpoint the area as precisely as this:-
Count the small rectangles from the top left hand corner of the large rectangle, left to right along the rows. The number you obtain (from 1 to 16) is the sheet reference at the 25-inch scale you require, for example 69.5 (only to be exact with the Ordnance Survey's map referencing system of that period you should now convert the large rectangle number to Roman numerals, viz. LXIX.5).
If the six-inch sheets were used, then each large numbered rectangle is divided into four according to the compass, ie NW, NE, SW, and SE, so the sheet at the 6-inch scale of which the area of LXIX.5 would have formed a part is LXIX NW - sheet 5 falls into the NW sector.
When you receive the folder of maps that you have ordered, you will see that the maps are arranged in numerical order 1-16 (if 25-inch) or from NW to SE (if six-inch). PLEASE BE CAREFUL to replace the maps that you have used in this order. The farm you are seeking will be identified on the map by its code reference, generally the parish and farm number, eg 722/12. Any other lands relating to this farm or holding on adjacent map sheets will normally be indicated as well by the appropriate Ordnance Survey map reference. If two or more holdings are in common ownership but were being treated by the Survey as separate units, then the reference codes of the additional holding/s are often added to the map.
When you obtained the reference code to your farm, you should also have found from the map, or the index sheet, the parish in which it lies. With this information you can turn next to the MAF 32 series list and find the piece number containing the farm records for that parish (see sections 5-7 describing the Individual Farm Records ( MAF 32)). If you cannot find the parish name, you will need to search the series list for MAF 32 under the particular county until you find the parish which accords with the parish code number you have obtained from the map.
9. The MAF 73 series list
The series list for MAF 73 can be used to see the counties set out with their piece numbers and the number-ranges of the Ordnance Survey sheets for each county. The list shows where the sheets for complete numbered rectangles are 'wanting': in certain cases the mapping was never completed or the maps have been lost before transference to the Public Record Office. It will also be found that other sheets are 'wanting' from within the large numbered rectangle sets. No maps, of course, were included for central urban areas with no agricultural land, and these are the numbers marked 'not used' in the series-list. The inside flap of the folders containing the maps is stamped with an index grid for the particular rectangle showing which maps are included.
10. Further reading
Search The National Archives' Library to see what is available to consult at Kew.
Brian Short, Charles Watkins, William Foot and Phil Kinsman, The National Farm Survey 1941-1943: State surveillance and the countryside in England and Wales in the Second World War (1999)
G Beech and R Mitchell, Maps for family and local history (The National Archives, 2004)