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Country Life: British Rural Society 1750-1925

Second Year Module

Module Leader: Dr Harvey Osborne

This module will examine British rural society from 1750 to 1925 and offers an opportunity to further develop knowledge and interests accrued in earlier modules of the History programme. It investigates a period in which agricultural structures across Britain were subject to epochal transformation, from which no area was immune, and will consequently employ a strongly comparative approach to the experience of locality, region and nation across England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland. This period began and ended with concern about the productivity and profitability of agriculture and the condition of those whose fortunes were tied to the land. While agricultural improvement is widely perceived as progressive and essential, it is also accepted that its consequences were not always positive for all groups in rural society. Allied demographic pressures, and also in some areas ecological catastrophe, had grim consequences for the rural poor, chiefly apparent in the first half of our period, and most particularly for parts of Ireland and Highland Scotland. Structural change also had a range of consequences for those who owned and occupied land. Population growth and increased demand for food generated new opportunities and wealth for many farmers and landowners, albeit that exposure to international competition dealt a blow to some sectors of the agricultural economy in the latter part of this period with significant consequences for power-relations in the countryside, not least in terms of the influence and prestige of the landowning elite. The changing structure of agriculture and rural society also wrought change beyond the shores of the British Isles. This module will also explore how the problems of rural Britain, as expressed through mass outmigration and emigration, not only helped to create the New World in the modern era, but stamped an indelible mark on it.

This module will examine the experience of British rural society between 1750 and 1925, a period associated with the transformation of agricultural and related social structures, focusing particularly on the fortunes of those who worked and lived on the land. Students will explore distinctions between an oft idealised vision of the countryside and the reality of existence for those who laboured and lived in it. Social, economic, political and cultural perspectives will be employed to engage with a range of topics including the imagined countryside, agricultural and social structures, population growth, rural poverty and responses to it, the causes of famine and clearance in Ireland and Scotland. The module will also examine standards of living for the rural poor, the role of women and children in the rural economy, crime and protest in the countryside, aspects of popular culture, sport and leisure, outmigration and emigration, and the fortunes of farmers and landowners. Throughout the module students will explore parallels as well as the diversity sometimes apparent in the experience of different parts of rural Britain while also assessing the reality of the rural-urban divide. Students will also be encouraged to develop an international perspective in order to consider connections between the issues of British rural society in this period and the development of the New World.


Learning and Teaching Strategies:

This module will be delivered through weekly lectures andseminars plus tutorial support. Where appropriate supporting resources will also be made available online. Seminar sessions will be designed to encourage student participation and will support students in strengthening their skills of presentation, discussion, argument and debate, and in evaluating, interpreting and using secondary and primary sources.





Weighting %


Submission date

Country Life: British Rural Society, 1750-1925


Group presentation


10-20 minutes with hand-outs of not less than 2 sides of A4

As scheduled




2,000 words

Week 10



2 hours

End of semester (examination period)


Recommended introductory reading:

B.Reay, Rural Englands, (Basingstoke, 2004)

E.Richards, The Highland Clearances, (London, 2005)

C.Toiban & D.Ferriter, The Irish Famine: A Documentary, (London, 2004)

M.Winstanley, 'Agriculture and Rural Society' in C.Williams (ed.), A Companion to nineteenth-century Britain, (Oxford, 2007) (A short summary chapter in an edited volume and the best place to start).


Further Reading:

N.B. A full reading list is included in a module handbook which will be provided in the first week of teaching.

D.Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, (London, 2005)

E.J.T.Collins, (ed.), The Agrarian history of England and Wales, Vol. VII: 1850-1914, Pts. I & II, (Cambridge, 2000)

T.M.Devine, Clanship to Crofters' War, (Manchester, 1994)

T.M.Devine, Clearance and Improvement, Land, Power and People in Scotland, 1700-1900, (London, 2006)

P.Duffy, The Killing of Major Denis Mahon: A Mystery of Old Ireland, (New York, 2011) , (New York, 2011)

C.Griffin, The Rural War: Captain Swing and the politics of protest, (Manchester, 2012), (Manchester, 2012)

A.Howkins, Reshaping Rural England: A Social History 1850-1925, (London, 1981)

C.Kinealy, This Great Calamity, (London, 2007)

C.Kinealy, The Great Irish Famine: Impact, Ideology and Rebellion, (London, 2001)

G.E.Mingay, (ed.), The Victorian Countryside, 2 Vols., (London, 1981)

G.E.Mingay, (ed.), The Agrarian History of England and Wales VI: 1750-1850, (Cambridge, 1989)

M.Overton, Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy 1500-1850, (Cambridge, 1996)

C.OGrada, IrelandsGreat Famine, Interdisciplinary Perspectives, (Dublin, 2005)

C.O'Murchadha, The Great Famine: Ireland's Agony 1845-1852, (London, 2011)

E.Richards, Debating the Highland Clearance, (Edinburgh, 2007)

E.Richards, Britannias Children, Emigration from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland since 1600, (London, 2004)

K.D.M.Snell, Parish and Belonging, (Cambridge, 2009

W.E.Vaughan, A New History of Ireland: Ireland under the Union 1800-1870, (Oxford, 2010)

N.Verdon, Rural Women Workers in Nineteenth-century England: Gender, Work and Wages, (Woodbridge, 2002)

M.Winstanley, Agriculture and Rural Society in C.Williams (ed.), A Companion to nineteenth-century Britain, (Oxford, 2007)