Frankenstein’s Sheep: The Story of Stockbreeding – Part Two

So this post is a continuation of an earlier post on my dissertation, found here. It has been months since I wrote anything on this topic but having now completed my dissertation it seems about time. It has only been a few weeks after I stopped writing on sheep, reading about sheep and learning all I can about sheep, but now I am back on my blog writing about sheep. Maybe if I write a little more about here, then I’ll stop…?
So! I wanted to know more about the English Agricultural Revolution. A period when output increases at a staggering rate, allowing for the Industrial Revolution of England and the birth of an Empire. However, how this happened, when this happened and in some way, if this agricultural revolution even did happen, are greatly debated issues. We know an incredible amount about the Industrial Revolution but less-so about what preceded it.

So I started researching various forms of production, the amount of corn and barley people are making, the amount of beef people are eating and so on. Though after a while I found one food product rarely mentioned, this being mutton. Writers appear to typically look towards beef, probably as beef is the current meat of choice. But this was not always the case it seems.

‘The roast beef of Old England was always a myth’ – Peter Mathias 1969, 69

( 2016)

It seems, mutton was the more common meat amongst the English around the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. So despite a whole society with a current obsession with beef and a strange patriotism towards the eating of a certain animal, we beefeaters, for most of our recent history, have been mutton-eaters. In fact the term beefeaters was a slang word for the English in general, and has been used by the French as a derogatory term for the English, though the joke seems lost on us.

So! This is important because if there are any changes in the output of mutton then this is surely a better way of judging changes in output at the time, and attempting to judge when, how and if the Agricultural Revolution happened than judging beef output, as is the case with many current writers.

A Revolution in Sheep’s Clothing

Over a long and lonely period of time in various libraries, I collected a huge number of estimates from the time period on the number of sheep in the country. I hoped then this would give me quite a clear picture of when the increase in output took place and answer all the previous questions. And after all this work, I got this…


Absolute nonsense. Unless the number of sheep increases then decreases in the millions, with sheep being bred in huge numbers and then massacred, often the following year, then something is wrong. So I started to take apart these estimates and see what I got, something that ended up taking a few weeks.

And wallah! A correlation. My work was saved. I reviewed all the data sources and assessed the reliability of each piece of data. That’s the short edition anyway. In the actual dissertation I have about ten to fifteen pages reviewing this data thoroughly. So! Given sheep are a constant in the recent economic history of England, the industry can act as a microcosmic look into the changing agricultural system as a whole. It is interlaced into the archaeological record, and so it tells us about the food source (mutton), clothing (wool), skin (parchment and leather) and tallow (fat used for candles). By understanding this market we can begin to understand a wide range of agricultural sectors.

Next, I reviewed the changes in sheep size and product prices and from this was able to make claims as to if the agricultural revolution occurred, and if so, when and why…



Mathias, P. (1969). The First Industrial Nation. London: Methuen & Co Ltd. (2016). Porter Design [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Jun. 2016].