Cambridgeshire Land Girls farming 1941

300,000 WWII Farm Records to be Digitalised

The National Archives’ initiative to digitise the 1941 National Farm Survey of England and Wales is propelled by a £2.13 million grant from the Lund Trust. This project, aimed for completion by March 2027, will make over 300,000 farm records from the WWII era accessible online, starting from March 2026. These records, which include farm details, land use, and ownership, are among the most sought after at The National Archives. The digitisation will enhance research into agricultural history and genealogy, with the digital database available for free online.

The digitisation process will initially focus on individual farm records, identified as MAF 32, with plans to subsequently digitise the associated survey maps, referred to as MAF 73.

Jeff James, CEO & Keeper of The National Archives said: “This is a unique opportunity to realise the potential of what was seen as a ‘Second Domesday Book’, a ‘permanent and comprehensive record of the conditions on the farms of England and Wales’. Thanks to this partnership, the National Farm Survey, an enormous database of land ownership and land usage in mid-20th century Britain, will be freely available online to researchers in the UK and globally.” 

The origins of the 1941 National Farm Survey

The 1941 National Farm Survey was conceived against the backdrop of World War II, at a time when Britain faced significant food shortages due to blockades and the disruption of agricultural production. The survey aimed to assess the productivity and capabilities of farmland across England and Wales, providing a comprehensive overview of agricultural resources and the implementation of food rationing.

British Troops 1941 Farming
Assistance provided by members of the Army and the Women’s Land Army.

This initiative was critical for planning and increasing food production to support the war effort. It involved collecting detailed information on over 300,000 farms, including land use, farming practices, and the condition of buildings and machinery. The data collected offered invaluable insights into the state of British agriculture during the war, informing government policies and strategies to enhance food security. This survey not only played a pivotal role in wartime resource management but also left a lasting legacy in agricultural and historical research.

Farm Records (MAF 32)

(MAF) Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries – These records, meticulously compiled by surveyors, encapsulated the essence of wartime agriculture, detailing the size of farms, types of crops grown, livestock numbers, labor forces, and farming practices. Beyond their immediate utility during the war, these documents now serve as a historical archive, providing insights into mid-20th-century agricultural practices, rural economy, land use, and management strategies.

The 1941 National Farm Survey’s individual farm records comprised four forms, covering agricultural details, fruit and vegetable cultivation, labor and tenancy, and a comprehensive farm survey conducted via inspection. Notably, the survey included a management classification section (Section D), where farms were graded based on management quality, leading to its historical significance and some controversy over these classifications.

Section D, “Management,” of the survey sparked significant debate for its classification of farms into ‘A’ (well managed), ‘B’ (fairly managed), or ‘C’ (poorly managed) categories, based not on farm conditions but on the farmer’s management skills. This section gained notoriety for requiring further explanations for ‘B’ or ‘C’ ratings if attributed to the farmer’s personal shortcomings. Out of the 300,000 farms assessed, 58% were rated ‘A’, 37% ‘B’, and 5% ‘C’.

Maf 32 Form
MAF 32 form – Picture credit: The National Archives

The significance of MAF 32 extends into various research domains, including historical agriculture, genealogy, environmental studies, and rural history. For genealogists, these records are invaluable for tracing ancestors’ occupations, living conditions, and economic circumstances. Historians and environmental researchers delve into MAF 32 to understand land use changes, agricultural evolution, and the socio-economic fabric of rural England and Wales during the war.

The forthcoming digitisation of these records underlines their importance, not only preserving them but also democratising access. This initiative will enable family history researchers, educators, students, and the general public to explore the intricate details of wartime rural life, understand the challenges faced by farmers, and appreciate the agricultural heritage that shaped the modern landscape.

In essence, the Individual Farm Records (MAF 32) are more than mere documents; they are a testament to the resilience, innovation, and contribution of the agricultural sector during one of history’s most tumultuous periods. Their preservation and accessibility ensure that future generations can learn from the past, acknowledging the pivotal role of agriculture in national survival and prosperity.

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