My new novel, The Covenant, which will published in August (available to pre-order now!) is set in the late 19th/early 20th century in West Wales, which was, and still is, relentlessly rural, centred around small market towns and railway halts.
Not the agriculture you find in the east, broad rolling acres of golden grain around spacious farmhouses with cathedral-sized barns, but a web of tiny fields, their banks and hedges probably dating back to the Bronze Age, supporting cows and sheep and a few sparse crops, around cramped, isolated cottages with a couple of sheds and maybe a pigsty. The high hills are windswept unfenced commons where sheep and wild ponies roam among crags and standing stones. The valleys are deep, with steeply wooded sides, their flood-plain floors only suitable for meadows, not valuable crops. This was never a rich area, but in the past it got by. Just.
In the past, of course, Britain was almost entirely agricultural, and land was the only recognised currency of wealth. Even when commerce and manufacturing became the real mainstay of the economy, true wealth and the prestige it conferred continued to be seen in terms of land ownership. Millionaire merchants and entrepreneurs all dreamed of a country estate and being elevated to the rank of landed gentry. Their aim was to sit in their country mansions, living off the income of the land and occupying themselves with balls and hunts and an occasional sally to Westminster to run the country.
Their status however was doomed. The age of the country house was coming to an end. Death duties in the 20th century have been blamed, but the real culprit was the 1846 ending of the protectionist corn laws which had kept the price of grain artificially high – great for the landowners who got the profit, but not great at all for those simply trying to buy bread to keep their families alive.
The abolition of the corn laws didn’t have an immediate catastrophic effect but by the time the USA began to open up the West with its vast prairies, and ships had become so much faster, bigger and better, the influx of cheap grain brought about a major agricultural depression in Britain that lasted from 1873 to 1896 and even then left the industry on its knees until the Great War, when the urgent need for home-grown food brought a temporary reprieve.
Estates were doomed but so too were the peasant farmers who had once made up 95% of the population. Born on the land, knowing only farm work, their one goal was a secure tenure of a patch of land they could call their own, even if they paid extortionate rent for it. The arrival of mechanisation helped the well-off, but the poorest farmers were left with their scythes and their milking stools, clinging on to their acres for as long as they could. To be landless was to be at the bottom of the pile, to have no option but to head for the factories and leave the rural communities behind.
Land is the holy grail in The Covenant. Cwmderwen consists of 24 acres, 1 rood and 8 perches. (A rood is 1/4 of an acre and there are 40 perches to a rood, a perch of course being one square rod).Today it would barely rank as a smallholding, especially when the steep slopes of scrub oak are deducted from its productive worth.
I based it on the “farm” attached to the cottage where I now live. All I have, today, is a modest garden, but up until the 1950s its land amounted to 20 acres, 1 rood and 26 perches, as defined on the old tithe maps. Even in the 19th century, farmers would have struggled to get by on so little. Most would have supplemented their income by labouring on larger farms or pursuing crafts. The owner of my farm was a shoe-maker as well as farmer. In The Covenant, Thomas Owen is also a carpenter. But for him, all that really mattered, all that gave him meaning and status and proved Divine grace was his 24 acres, 1 rood and 8 perches, to be defended to the death.