Rural and Environmental History Group

Social organisation of rural life in Gelderland, 1880-1920

During the late nineteenth century, the role of gentlemen in Dutch agriculture and rural society diminished. New farmer’s organisations and co-operatives took the lead in the modernisation process of the Dutch countryside. These changes must have especially been felt in the Achterhoek region in Gelderland. A considerable part of the land in the region belonged to large estates and several of the most active gentlemen came from Achterhoek. From c. 1820 to 1880 these landlords put their stamp on the development of agriculture in Achterhoek. They introduced new farming methods, were engaged in reclamation and afforestation and were the leaders of the provincial farmer’s organisation, the Agricultural Society Gelderland (Geldersche Maatschappij van Landbouw,GMvL).

From the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, landlords lost their prominent position in Achterhoek agriculture and society. They no longer engaged in reclamation but left this to the farmers themselves. They also lost their leadership of the GMvL to ‘ordinary’ farmers, especially at the local level. One reason for this shift is clear: the weakening economic situation of estate owners. Agricultural land and forests no longer provided sufficient income to maintain the costly castles and parks, especially on smaller estates.

Another cause may have been that landlords lost interest in agriculture and the countryside. In the industrialising and urbanising Netherlands of the late nineteenth century agriculture became less interesting for the elite. For Friesland it has been shown that the regional aristocracy and high bourgeoisie left this rural province, for instance for The Hague to pursue a career in national politics. It is likely that such a development occurred in Achterhoek as well.

Finally, the farmers are to be considered. The shift in power was not only caused by gentlemen giving up power, but also by the farming population taking power. In this part of Achterhoek this was not accompanied by the formation of farmer’s organisations based on religious affiliation. The majority of the farmers in this region belonged to the moderate wing of the Dutch Reformed Church, which was not actively engaged in the formation of farmer’s organisations. The pillarisation process did not influence the moderate reformed people very strongly. Here, farmers became members of the liberal GMvL and also of the local committees of this organisation, thus making it more a farmer’s than a gentleman’s organisation. Farmers also founded co-operative dairy factories and co-operatives to purchase artificial fertilisers and fodder.

Since the catholic or orthodox protestant clergy did not stimulate the farmers in this part of Achterhoek, much of these initiatives must have originated spontaneously from the farming population itself. This is somewhat surprising, because historians and sociologists have often depicted the Achterhoek farmers as conservative and lacking initiative as a result of centuries of subjection to the rule of noble landlords. Maybe, however, liberal landlords helped to dig their own graves by stimulating the emancipation of their tenants.

These developments will be researched for the municipalities of Gorssel, Hengelo Laren, Lochem, Ruurlo and Vorden. These municipalities formed the core of the ‘estate area’ of Achterhoek, where in the nineteenth century some forty-percent of the land belonged to estates. Power shifts will be researched by analysing the changes in the membership of municipal councils, the water board (created in 1882) and of the GMvL and its local committees. Also the foundation of new organisations, such as village associations, co-operatives and the water board – Waterschap van de Berkel – and the persons behind these initiatives will be studied. Much attention will be given to the period preceding the founding of these organisations, to find out who were the driving forces behind it and what their motives were.

The part the gentlemen still played in this period and the causes of its decline will be analysed by studying the archives of estates and their owners. Special attention will be paid to Cornelis Jacob Sickesz (1839-1904), owner of an estate near Lochem and one of the last of the reforming gentlemen in the Dutch countryside. He was active at the local level, as mayor of Laren and improving agriculture on his estate. He was also president of the GMvL and of the water board. Later he turned his attention to national politics, became a liberal member of parliament and from 1898-1901 he was the first director-general of agriculture.

A very important part of this project will be the analysis of the behaviour of the farmers. They took over the leading role of the modernisation process from the gentlemen, but it seems they were not induced to do this by the church. They seem to have internalised the goals of the modernisation movement, maybe with some help of the liberal gentlemen. The archives of the GMvL, co-operatives, other local organisations and maybe some ego documents will have to provide an answer.