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Abstract Spanish land reform, involving the breakup of the large southern estates, was a central issue during the first decades of the twentieth century, and was justified on economic and political grounds. This article employs new provincial data on landless workers, land prices, and agrarian wages to consider whether government intervention was needed because of the failure of the free action of markets to redistribute land. Our evidence shows that the relative number of landless workers decreased significantly from 1860 to 1930, before the approval of the 1932 Land reform during the Second Republic (1931-6). This was due to two interrelated market forces: the falling ratio between land prices and rural wages, which made plots of land cheaper for landless workers to rent and buy; and structural change that drained the rural population from the countryside Given that shifts in factor prices were already helping workers gain access to land by the 1930s, the economic arguments for introducing reform at that time remain unclear.