Farming in World War 1

By Jennifer Ayto

Although farmers had been encouraged to grow more grain and potatoes, by 1917 the situation was becoming critical.  In January of that year the county War Agricultural Councils were supplemented with smaller executive committees with powers to issue orders on what might be grown on farms, to take possession of land, end the tenancy where the land was being poorly managed and commandeer machinery for ploughing up grassland.  Records of their reports on Hertfordshire are at HALS (HALS AEC 1 – 35).  AEC 27, for example, contains their views (and orders) on estates and farms in east Hertfordshire and examples of unpopular and difficult decisions made.[1]

On 4 June 1917 Mr W Hale wrote from Tewin Hill Farm:-

I consider it not in the National Interests to plough up any grass land on this farm.  A lot of this grassland is not suitable for corn growing owing in some cases to the natural poor quality of the soil, hilly fields, small size of fields, lying under the woods and being overrun with rabbits and game besides being needed to maintain 50 head of cows and heifers 54 other stock and horses.”

However the Defence of the Realm Act was brought into play and under “The cultivation of Lands Order”  he was instructed on 8 August 1917 “To plough up before 30 Nov 1917, cultivate and sow with corn for the harvest of 1918 fields known as “Rye Hills” Longfield and Appletons“.

Colonel Abel Smith, owner of Chelsings Farm, Ware, was informed by the Committee

We viewed this farm on the 23rd of February 1917 and beg to report as follows.  That in our opinion the farm is being very badly farmed….. and advise that a new tenant be obtained as soon as possible”.  Colonel Abel Smith wrote that “As owner I agree generally with this report and undertake that steps will be taken to carry out recommendations”.

Some leniency was shown towards Bishop’s Stortford Golf Links.  They received an order to plough up forthwith, cultivate and sow with corn for the harvest of 1918, 50 acres of land forming a portion of the northern section of course lying between the Great Eastern Railway and the Dunmow road.  It was recognised that “In view of the time and cost incurred in preparing the 9 “Greens” we think that they may be preserved and the small clumps of trees but about 25 of the bunkers and obstacles should be levelled in order to give reasonable opportunity for proper cultivation“.  No action was proposed on the 9 holes next to the club house which were still in use.

The largest estate in this set of papers was Lord Desborough’s Panshanger estate with land and some twenty farms including Attimore Hall Farm and Upper and Lower Handside Farms.  The farms have gone but the names are remembered in Welwyn Garden City.

Welwyn Garden City




The names of the occupiers of the farms on the Panshanger estate in 1917 can be found in Hertfordshire Names Online

Enter Panshanger as the keyword and the names are in the Miscellaneous category.




[1] Further information on farming in WW1 can be found in “Land Improvement and Reclamation: The Experiences of the First World War in England and Wales” by John Sheail, The Agricultural History Review, Vol 24, No 2 (1975), pp. 110 – 125.

This page was added on 22/12/2015.

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  • matches my grandfather’s record : ‘whilst employed in agricultural work in Her’ (Heo) dated 4/6/17.
    guessing it is abreviation for Hertfordshire.
    Prior he was in 14th station hospital Bolougne-sur-Mer, so possible transfer to agricultural on recovery.

    By Chris Tomlinson (12/03/2021)
  • Hi, Chris,
    Yes, there were soldiers working on Hertfordshire farms in 1917.
    The County War Agricultural Committee Minutes (AEC1) have a note in June 1917 that 500 soldiers were currently employed in the county. The furlough (there’s a familiar word) for all except the Class A soldiers had been extended until mid-July.

    By Julie Moore (12/03/2021)
  • Did the military occupy or have soldiers working in agriculture around 1917 in Hertfordshire?

    By Chris Tomlinson (11/03/2021)