In most of the 18th century, before the introduction of the mechanical seed-drill, there were only two ways of sowing crops. Wheat and barley, turnips and beans were either broadcast (scattered on the land) or ‘dibbled’ into separate holes. Broadcasting was always the more common and the only one possible on heavier, clay lands in a large parts of England, it was simple and well understood, and people had sowed seeds this way for thousands of years.
It did have drawbacks. It was wasteful of seed, unless it was done skilfully. It created haphazard patterns. Too many seeds might fall in one area and none in another. Since the seed lay on the surface, much of it could be eaten by birds before there was time to provide a covering of earth. Even what did grow might well be choked by weeds and the only way to remove weeds was by hand—a daunting prospect with many acres to cover.
How Dibbling Worked
In the simplest form of dibbling, a man took a pointed metal stake in each hand and walked backwards in a straight line, pushing the sticks into the soil on both sides of him to make long rows of holes. As he did so, others, following behind, dropped seeds into each hole. It was usual for this second group to be made up of women and children, thus providing much-needed employment and extra income to local labourers’ families. Finally, a rake or even bundles of brushwood would be run over the surface of the soil to fill the holes in.
Dibbling only worked on light soils. On heavy soils, the hole was likely to fill with water and cause the seed to rot. The soils of East Anglia were predominantly light and sandy, so dibbling quickly became the preferred way of sowing. It made weeding easier too, since a hoe could be used between the straight rows of growing plants. It also used less seed, although, , as the old rhyme tells us, it was still wasteful by modern standards. Four seeds had to be sowed for every one that survived.
“One to rot and one to grow,
One for the Devil and one for the crow.”
It wasn’t only the birds and the weeds which caused problems. The labourers, and their wives and children, were often suspected of holding seed back for themselves. One writer of the time wrote that “… innovation was required to circumvent labourers’ incompetence and dishonesty.” Even the adoption of the threshing machine was said to be aided because it avoided pilfering of corn by “labourers and other vermin”!
Jethro Tull in 1733 was still more vitriolic.
… the Thing that is most detrimental to perpetual Crops of Wheat, is the Deceit and Idleness of the Weeders … their Tongues are much nimbler than their Hands; and unless the Owner, or some Person who faithfully represents him, (and is hard to be found) works constantly amongst them, they’ll get their Heads together half a Dozen in a Cluster, regarding their Prattle more than the Weeds; a great part of their Time they spend in Play, except a few of them who bring their own Work with them, some their Sewing, some their Knitting, and these must be paid for doing their own Work upon my Land: This Wrong I have seen done both to myself and my Neighbours; and it has put me upon endeavouring to find a Way of disappointing the Weeders… 
Arthur Young, writing in 1804, made a similar observation.
Mr Burton, of Langley, remarked, that good as this practice was in some respects for the poor, there are inconveniences flowing from it. Girls, old enough for [domestic] service are kept at home by it. Gleaning is their employment in harvest, which gives them idle habits in the fields, then dibbling follows; and the girls lying about under the hedges with men, produces the natural consequences on their manners; bastardy flourishes, and maidservants are uncommonly scarce.
Mr Johnson, of Thurning, makes the same observation on the ill effects of dibbling as Mr Burton. The great [i.e. older] girls do not drop [the seeds into the holes] so well as children, nor is the work so well done as formerly: they now drop between the forefinger and the thumb, which is much inferior to doing it between the fore and the middle finger.
Innovation, might well improve agricultural efficiency, but nothing , it seemed, would prevent human nature from interfering to counteract many of the benefits!
- Jethro Tull, Horse-Hoeing Husbandry, 1733, Notes. p 226. ↩