THE Industrial Revolution goes back to the first use of fire and the wheel. But common usage has applied the wordsto the mechanical and social changes which began in theeighteenth century, and of which the use of steam was the central factor. The Revolution is, in fact, still in progress; it reached a " plateau " in the middle nineteenth century, however, and its first phase was completed during the reigns of George III. and his sons (1760-1837). During the same period the old agricultural system disappeared. The English village community had for ten centuries cultivated as a rule three great fields in common: one field lay fallow each year, and the villagers had each a varying number of strips scattered about the cultivated fields. There was no chance of improving methods under these conditions. The lord of the manor might possess an enclosed estate, but the rest were tied together in a traditional system of co-operative farming; and there was a general unimproved " waste" of pasture and woodland. Most villages had squatters who had settled on the waste land, but had no rights. The yield of land was low, the quality of cattle poor, the standard of living miserable, but the villagers had independence and a livelihood.
In the early eighteenth century agriculture was a paying industry, and great landowners devoted their energies to agricultural development. In the course of the century they improved the breed of sheep and cattle and vastly increased the productivity even of poor land. Agriculture was further stimulated, extensively rather than intensively, by the shortage of foreign wheat during the wars of 1793-1815.
It is only natural that the persons who were best fitted to exploit land should covet the large tracts which were being misused, as it seemed, by every village community. The acquisitiveness of the bigger landowners had been satiated during the earlier centuries by monastery lands, Irish tribal lands, and the transferences of estates caused by the Civil War.
In the eighteenth century the appropriation of village lands grew common, and reached its climax about 1800. A few years later practically all village lands had been enclosed. The enclosure process, covered by private Acts of Parliament or by the general Enclosure Act, meant that the village lands were pooled and divided. Even if done with accuracy, it left the smaller villager with a patch which was useless to him because he could not afford to fence or drain it. He generally sold it, spent the small proceeds, and became a hired labourer, or, if young and energetic, migrated to a town. Probably the apportionment was not always accurate, and if it was not it erred in favour of the big landowner. He frequently annexed much of the waste land, and the squatters, who had no legal status, were turned out.
These changes increased productivity considerably, but they handed over the land of England to a smaller number of owners, proportionately, than is found in any other European country, and they separated the agricultural labourer from ownership of the soil he tilled, thus removing the chief incentive to industry and permanence. The drift towards the towns and overseas has been an inevitable consequence.