Emma could not help laughing as she answered, “Upon my word, I believe you know her quite as well as I do. But, Mr. Knightley, are you perfectly sure that she has absolutely and downright accepted him. I could suppose she might in time, but can she already? Did not you misunderstand him? You were both talking of other things; of business, shows of cattle, or new drills; and might not you, in the confusion of so many subjects, mistake him? It was not Harriet’s hand that he was certain of — it was the dimensions of some famous ox.”

Emma, Chapter 54

Emma is probably the most domestic and also the most agriculturally concerned of all Jane Austen’s novels.

Reading it we are given an insight into the world not only of the well- ( or lesser) to- do villager of southern England in the early 19th century but also that of early 19th century  farmers-great and small.

The relationship between Mr Knightley, owner of the established and grand Donwell Abbey estate and his young tenant Robert Martin of Abbey Mill Farm is that of almost equals. It is one of two professional farmers constantly  looking to improve their land and yields and being interested in all things modern, swapping forward-looking information in the realm of husbandry and and livestock.

And of course at this time in the early 19th century, when improvements in the feeding and breeding of livestock was of great national import, it would have been inevitable that intelligent men like Mr Knightley and Robert Martin would, on every meeting, have been keen to compare recorded findings of the Agricultural Reports( of which more later) and to discuss every new development.

So, when Emma jokes with Mr Knightley -above- that he may have misunderstood when Robert Martin was telling him the news of his engagement (at last!) to Harriet Smith, it is really only half a joke,  the reality was ( and still is, in my experience) that when two farmers get together the subject inevitably turns to the weather, breeds and yields.

So what is this famous Ox Emma mentions?

The answer is that it most probably was a reference to  this magnificent  animal, as here depicted by George Stubbs.

The Lincolnshire Ox was a Shorthorn prize bull,  bred at the village of Gedney in Lincolnshire by John Bough in November 1782 and subsequently owned by John Gibbons of Long Sutton, Lincolnshire, a neighbouring village.

The Ox was to put it quite simply…massive.

It was 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 205 ½  stone-some 2,880 lbs.  Having grown to this enormous size in Lincolnshire where his fame began to spread by repute, the ox was taken to London where it was put on show to paying spectators from February 1790 , first at  the Lyceum in the Strand and then briefly at the Duke of Gloucester’s riding stables in Hyde Park. This royal interest in the ox earned it the title ‘The Royal Lincolnshire Ox . A handbill advertising the ox on show at the Lyceum stated:

This uncommon Animal was bred at GEDNEY, in the county of LINCOLN, in November 1782, and fed (without oil-cake) by Mr JOHN GIBBONs of Long Sutton, in the said county: all judges agree, that he is much the LARGEST and FATTEST ever seen in England; being 19 hands high, and 3 feet 4 inches across the hips; his beef and tallow are computed to weigh 2800lb. He is so remarkably docile, that great numbers of Ladies view him every day.

It was finally slaughtered in April 1791. And even after the ox was sold for slaughter the proud purchasers -London butchers-continued to exhibit parts of the beast.

The great public curiosity shown in this mammoth ox was typical of the contemporary interest in agricultural improvements , as reflected in the conversation between Mr Knightley and Emma.

Even though the Lincolnshire Ox was an exceptional animal, its weight of over a ton was a dramatic improvement on the average  400 lbs meat yield of cattle a century before. It was, therefore, living proof of the power of progress in feeding and breeding techniques.

Mr Gibbons, the proud owner, prior to the beasts demise and on advice taken from Sir Joseph Banks- another Lincolnshire landowner and of course one of the foremost men of natural science in the late 18th/early 19th century- commissioned George Stubbs, England’s leading painter of animals, to paint the ox in March 1790.

The portrait  of the ox, incidentally one of the earliest exhibition animals to be painted, includes the ox’s owner, Mr Gibbons,  and a fighting cock.  This was also probably owned by Mr Gibbons and is thought to have won him the ox in the first instance: the ox being the  prize in a cock-fight.

The fame of the ox was spread further by the distribution of prints of the painting. George Townly Stubbs engraved the print of the painting, which sold approximately 500 copies selling at half a guinea a print. Among the names on the subscription list were members of the royal family, the Duke of Orléans and several members of the British aristocracy. This fame had certainly spread to Surrey-and Hampshire by the time JAne Austen was writing Emma.

So there you are, Emma’s  famous Ox, a tribute to the good husbandry of the improving farmers of  late 18th/ early 19th century England. Typically though it was a famous beast- famous enough for Emma to recall hearing about it , or perhaps seeing a print of it-  it did not register enough on her conciousness for her to recall it was a Lincolnshire ox.Of course once she became a farmers wife ( albeit a rather grand one) and Mistress of Donwell, her interest in matters agricultural might have improved ;-)