Pondering on potatoes

There’s some potato harvesting going on nearby. A bit different from the 18th century however. Now heavily mechanised, then it would have been labour intensive, the fields full of people rather than a few lumbering tractors and their associated gizmos.

Potato cultivation was widespread in Cornwall by the 1750s. An observer in the early 1800s wrote that it was the ‘blessing of the poor … cheap, wholesome and nutritious’. As in Ireland, it helped to feed a rapidly growing population. Unlike Ireland, in Cornwall the labouring poor also had resort to salted pilchards. So the effect of the potato blight in 1845, although helping to trigger the last occasion of widespread food rioting in 1847, was not disastrous.

The 1790s and war with France made grain imports difficult and resulted in high prices. The period saw an extension of potato production as a result. This was mainly by small farmers for the market and smallholders in the mining districts for their own consumption. According to the Cornish historian Samuel Drew, writing in the early 1820s, farmers in west Cornwall were planting two crops of potatoes a year. Kidney potatoes were planted in December and taken up in May. The second crop of potatoes went in at the end of April or beginning of May and might be harvested as late as December.

The spring crop was the forerunner of the early potato trade. Farmers in the Penzance district began to grow potatoes with an eye on upcountry markets. As early as 1808 it was reported that Cornish farmers were supplying potatoes to Plymouth, Portsmouth and London. That early potato trade really began to get under way with the introduction of steamers in 1837 when boats from Hayle and Falmouth began to pick up potatoes from Mounts Bay and deliver to the London market. After the 1850s of course, the railway took over.

Potato harvesting at Gulval, early 20th century