Cultivation of Lands Orders World War One

AEC 21 and 24 from Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies

By Anne Davis

These papers date from 1917 to 1921, concerning Cultivation of Lands Orders issued to farms and land owners during World War One.  

The first Cultivation of Lands Order was passed by Parliament on January 19th 1917 as it became clear that the U-Boat threat could drive the country to starvation by destroying merchant shipping. The Orders were served on owners and occupiers, using plans and maps, specifying fields to be ploughed and sown with corn, with a time limit for the work to be completed. Local committees were also empowered to take possession of the whole or part of a badly maintained farm, or to specify any other remedial action to be taken. This happened in the case of Mr Kinch of High Street Farm, Chandlers Cross when he was evicted from his tenancy in 1918.

However, the cultivation order initiative frequently failed since farmers had no choice over which fields they were to break up and plough with a particular crop and such enforcements were resented. Each set of papers usually gives details of the land owner, tenant, farm, fields concerned and any additional information such as details of ditches to be cleared or legal wrangling over the actions of the farmer or committee.

Most landowners and tenants in these papers appear to have complied with the Order, although some raised objections, citing the unsuitability of the land, their lack of experience with arable farming, or the lack of manpower and machinery to accomplish the work. There was no choice for those receiving the Orders and non-compliance could result in heavy fines, imprisonment or eviction from their land. However, some did claim for compensation due to losses incurred when the crop failed due to late ploughing / sowing or use of unsuitable land. Some landowners were also criticized for lack of care for their land and were issued with a ‘notice to improve’ or to clear land of rabbits, weeds or other pests. Where landowners had insufficient manpower or machinery, the Ministry could arrange for a team of Government-employed workers to work on the land for ploughing and sowing. However, they did not always arrive in time to complete the work at the appropriate time of year, and this again led to crop failures and claims for compensation. When claims were made, examiners and arbitrators were sent to the farms to assess the validity of the claims. One report, written in 1919, ends with the comment: ‘This is yet another claim from the wet clays in South Herts which should never have been ploughed.’ After the farmer, Mr. Metcalf of Denham Farm, Totteridge, rejected the original offer of compensation, the examiner advised the Committee: ‘If the matter is allowed to go to arbitration and Mr. Metcalf places his case in the hands of a good Valuer, I am perfectly certain that he would be awarded practically every item named in his original claim. I should be sorry to see this done, as all the other Farmers in South Herts whom I have got to agree to a very reasonable settlement would be upset.’  

In May 1919, Mr Albert Barrett of Totteridge Park Farm, Totteridge wrote an impassioned letter about lack of manpower, saying; ‘There is a pair horse vehicle loaded with German prisoners which comes into Totteridge every morning, and I believe go to Mr. Craze, but what they do, I do not know. I consider I am being treated very unfairly.’ He eventually received compensation of £150 for damage caused to his land and loss of income from the poor harvest.

In 1917, Mr Hughes of Ledgmore Farm, Great Gaddesden, objected to the Order, stating: ‘ These meadows were laid down many years ago and now produce heavy crops of good quality hay. The farm lies a long way from sources of manure and is in a district which has been stripped of practically all the men of military age and other labour is very scarce.’ This request was rejected and Mr Hughes waited until June 1920 to receive £50 compensation.

Captain Soames, on the General Staff, 58th Division BEF, was on active duty when he received his Order to Cultivate. His reply, in May 1917, states: ‘I have no labour available for the work. I had three male employees – two enlisted for immediate service and one (my gardener, married) under the group system. When his group was called up, I appealed in vain. I stated the full facts of the case to the Prime Minister, and applied for the release of my gardener. I was offered instead a “released soldier”. I have practised the profession of arms long enough now myself to appreciate the peace of mind which my wife would enjoy under those conditions.’ The next document, in June 1917, mentions that Captain Soames was now in hospital in London. A further letter from Captain Soames in December 1917 continues the story. ‘ Unless I can procure somebody to do the work for me (which your Committee endeavoured, at my request, to do, and have so far failed) the order is totally incapable of being carried out, as my sole labour now consists of one woman gardener, and my military duties prevent my carrying out the work myself, even if I had the implements, which I have not.’ Captain Soames eventually arranged for a neighbour to take over the tenancy and to undertake the work. He apparently survived the war as the last document is dated at the end of 1918.

Mr Lloyd of Astwick Manor, Hatfield found himself with a different problem – he complied with the Order, ploughed and sowed the field but had to erect fencing to protect the crop from ‘people and cattle trampling on it’. He was then ordered by Hatfield Parish Council to remove the fence as it interfered with a footpath. The Committee’s reply states: (The Committee) are of the opinion that they are in no way concerned with regard to the question of the Footpath.’ There is no further information as to how the problem was resolved.

Mr Capon of Waterend Farm, Wheathampstead was obviously a forward thinker, as his claim was for a licence for the purchase of 20 gallons of petrol for his motor plough.

Oxhey Golf Course in Watford allowed some sheep to graze the course in the first few years of the war. In 1918, they were required to allow cattle to be grazed a well, but objected that this would involve the closure of the course. They were overruled.      

The situation continued well after 1918 as shown in this brief reply from the Ministry to a farmer, written in June 1921. ‘The Cultivation of Lands Order remains in force until the end of the War; the end of the War being a date to befixed by Order in Council, which has not yet been done.’

This page was added on 14/03/2014.

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