Arthur Young, Agriculturalist

I first came across Arthur Young (1741–1820) a very long time ago when I was involved in the production of Cambridge’s Agrarian History of England and Wales, volumes 5 and 6. The works used Arthur Young’s remarkable surveys of British agriculture as sources for agricultural practice and also as a record of change during the so-called Agrarian Revolution: at least as significant for the future of Britain as the more celebrated Industrial Revolution.

I next struck him in the context of women’s writing. The novelist and travel writer Matilda Betham Edwards (1836–1919) took a great interest in Young, and edited abridged versions of two of his works: Travels in France (originally published in 1792) in 1889, and his previously unpublished autobiography in 1898: she was herself a Suffolk farmer’s daughter with a great interest in France, so there were presumably synergies.

The autobiography ‘with selections from his correspondence’ is quite extraordinary. Did Young intend it to be published? Betham Edwards says that: ‘In his desire to be perfectly frank, the writer has laid upon his editor the obligation of many curtailments, the Memoirs … being already much too long. From seven packets of MS. and twelve folio volumes of correspondence I have put together all that a busy public will probably care to know of Arthur Young – his strength and weakness, his one success and innumerable failures, his fireside and his friends.’ But, ‘The Memoirs, while necessarily abridged and arranged, are given precisely as they were written – that is to say, although it has been necessary to omit much, not a word has been added or altered.’

Young begins at his own beginning: he was born at Whitehall, London, where his family lived because his father was chaplain to the legendary Speaker of the House of Commons, Arthur Onslow, who held the post from 1728 to 1761, and who was one of our Arthur’s godfathers (the other being the bishop of Rochester). His father (another Arthur) was also rector of the Suffolk parish of Bradfield Combust (within 30 miles of Cambridge), where Bradfield Hall had been in the family since 1620, coming to the Youngs by marriage in 1672.

The church at Bradfield Combust today

The church at Bradfield Combust today, with Arthur Young’s grave in the foreground

Bradfield Hall today: it was rebuilt in brick and flint in 1857

Bradfield Hall today: it was rebuilt in brick and flint in 1857.

In this context, one of Young’s obsessions appears: his constant lack of money, at odds with his gentlemanly status. ‘I am a poor little gentleman, and Sir Martin Folkes [descendant of a humble land steward who had arranged the 1620 sale on behalf of his master Lord Jermyn] owner of an estate not far short of 10,000l. a year.’

Arthur Young, from the frontispiece of the 'Autobiography'

Arthur Young, from the frontispiece of the ‘Autobiography’

Martha Young, nicknamed 'Bobbin', who died in 1797, aged 14

Martha Young, nicknamed ‘Bobbin’, who died in 1797, aged 14.

Over and over again his yearly income, carefully noted, fails to catch up with his expenditure, and to a greater degree than Mr Micawber would have thought appropriate. In 1797, ‘Receipts, £901, debts, Dec. 31, £986.’ And heart-breakingly, as his youngest and favourite daughter was dying, she asked for ‘a nice writing-box to hold pens, ink, paper, all my letters, &c.’ as a birthday present. He responded: ‘I have looked at a great many… but find none under £1.5s., and £1.11.6d, but I hear there are good ones to be had at 15s.’ And later, ‘I cannot read half your mother’s letter, but enough to see she is very angry … I am not paid, and have nothing to send.’

The relative lack of references to his wife hints (though both Young and his editor are fairly non-explicit) that his marriage was not a happy one. The ODNB says: ‘No doubt Young’s frequent absences from home, his flirtations [he frequently refers to attractive females he encounters], and his expenditure on agricultural tours and experiments contributed to her hostility. She appears to have suffered mental deterioration and her surviving letters reveal confusion of mind and, at one time, an almost pathological dislike of Bradfield.’

And of course he visited all these charming ladies in London society, and at the country estates of the aristocratic agricultural improvers for whom he acted as a guru. He had a long and loving relationship with Betsy Oakes, née Plampin, a former belle of Suffolk, with whom (and whose husband) he spent a lot of time in town and in the country. In London, he frequented Mrs Montagu’s salon, was a great friend of Dr Burney (whose cheerfully cynical letters are a delight), and was acquainted with Dr Johnson, Edmund Burke and Jeremy Bentham. Martha Young, née Allen, might well have resented being stuck in deepest Suffolk.

The amount of travelling he did both in Britain and abroad, and his tireless work for the Board of Agriculture (including severe frustration at the politicking and incompetence of its government-appointed presidents) are remarkable, but are not discussed in any detail here, and his various publications are chiefly referred to in terms of the amount of trouble (and money) they cost him. But the whole work shifts into another mode when in 1797 his daughter ‘Bobbin’ dies, and at the same time he comes into the sphere of William Wilberforce and experiences a religious conversion.

The journal entries become more sporadic, and much more inward-looking: self-examination, concern at his own worldly thoughts, and disgust at the frivolous life of most of his contemporaries predominate. He records occasions when he and his books are praised, but upbraids himself for vanity immediately afterwards; he admires the duchess of Grafton, with her innocence and virtue, her plain and unaffected way of living, her attendance at church, her bringing up of her children, her good heart and her amiable temper, yet ‘I do and will pray to God that He will give her His grace’ to acquire a ‘sense or feeling of real religion’.

He clearly wrestles, sometimes almost comically, with the problem of the well-meaning and benevolent aristocrats with whom he has been familiarly acquainted for years, earnest agricultural improvers and strivers for the good of their tenants and dependent poor, but whom he regards as doomed because they lack ‘real religion’. The fifth duke of Bedford ‘died with what is called perfect courage, collectedness and resolution that is perfectly hardened in insensibility. A most tremendous, awful, horrible case! But very difficult to separate affection for the amiable temper and useful life from a just condemnation of his utter want of religion and piety.’

He also had to avoid accidental contamination by worldliness: a friend lent him a book which he believed to be a biography, but after he was well absorbed in it, he discovered it was ‘a romance’: ‘it has unhinged me and broken my attention to better things, which shows strongly how pernicious this sort of reading is…’. A squib by Sydney Smith in the Edinburgh Review is ‘Wretched stuff; false and frivolous, reasoning on cards, assemblies, plays, etc.’ And there is frequent, lacerating self-rebuke: ‘Oh, could I sufficiently hate and abhor myself!!’

Towards the end of his life, Young lost his sight (a botched cataract operation seems to have made things worse). He employed a reader (who had to be ready to start work at 4 a.m. like him), and later a Miss Marianne Francis, a Burney relative and a friend of Wilberforce, who acted as his secretary and assisted with the continuing work on agriculture and on the ‘Elements of Christianity’. Mrs Young died in 1815; she gets a passing mention, unlike his ‘dear friend’ Betsy Oakes, whose long illness and death in 1811 are described in some detail.

The journal ends in 1818; Young died in London in April 1820 and was buried at Bradfield. There seems to be no doubt that his influence on agricultural practice across Europe was enormous, and some of the themes are fascinating – for example, he and many of his friends seemed convinced that a resumption of war with France in 1803 would lead to popular uprisings by the starving poor, which is a useful corrective to the gung-ho approach of the likes of the Naval Chronicle. But what I found most striking was the great sadness underlying a life of tremendous activity and undoubted achievement.


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