You were both talking of other things; of business, shows of cattle, or new drills;

Emma Chapter 54

Mr Knightly is portrayed by Jane Austen as a very concerned landlord, eager to share with his tenant new developments in agricultural practices.

And well he might for the late 18th /early 19th century was a time of great improvement in and change in the British countryside. Let see why Our Hero is so concerned with innovations in Agriculture and what it says about him and his character.

Prior to the 18th century Britain was farmed mainly on the strip field system, a system that had prevailed since the medieval period. More than half the countryside was in fact uncultivated- being open commons, moorland and heaths.

The introduction of the Enclosure Acts in the early 18th century began to change this rapidly, and the change became even more pronounced after 1760,and the beginning of the reign of George III.

As a result of enclosures, large areas of land could be cultivated by a single landowner, and this led to the emphasis being on achieving higher and better yields of crops. The introduction of the seed drill by Jethro Tull and crop rotation system and fodder crops  -wheat, barley, turnips and clover -by Charles “Turnip” Townshend, the second Viscount Townshend of Norfolk improved the efficiency of sowing crops. The improvements and ready availability of fodder crops meant that animals could now survive winter in a far healthier state than previously.

Robert Bakewell a Leicestershire farmer also began to improve livestock through selective breeding. His aim was to provide enough meat to feed every household in the kingdom with meat. The population of Britain over the course of the 18rhy century rose to 10 million so this was  a timely intervention. The outbreak of war with France in 1803 added further serious impetus to agricultural improvements: home production of food became ever and vitally important, and this led to a massive expansion of British farming until the defeat of Napoleon in 1815.

The encouragement to improve all matters agricultural was lead from the highest levels in society. George III had serious examples of model farms at Windsor, Kew and Mortlake and contributed  articles to the Annals of Agriculture under the non de plume of Ralph Richardson. As Arthur Young the journalist and proprietor of the Annals of Agriculture, wrote

We are all farmers now from the Duke to the apprentice.

And indeed as is shown in Emma the common interest in improving agricultural mater was a great social  leveler: Robert Martin is thought of as a friend by the great landowner in the  area, Mr Knightley.

This serious involvement of the great and the good was on public display at the great sheep-shearing events held in the summer  on the great estates around the country, the most famous being those held by Thomas Coke of Norfolk (seen here with his prized Southdown sheep on his estate at Holkham)

and the 5th duke of Bedford at Woburn.

The sheep shearings were held over a period of 3-4 days and  combined an opportunity for framers, grand and small, to meet “on common ground” in order  share new methods of husbandry of both animals and  crops.

This is a picture of the Woburn Sheepshearing by George Garrad circa 1804. The range of social classes present and participating in these events is sown by some sketches made by the artists of individuals attending the event:

Arthur Young

Lord Winchelsea

Samuel Whitbread, the fabulously rich brewing heir and M.P.

Sir Joseph Banks, of Kew gardens

And Holland, the Shepherd.

These sheep shearings were the forerunners of the great agricultural shows that are still held today during the summer in Britain. The American Ambassador to Britain, William Rush, attending the shearing at Holkham in 1819  was impressed by the informal atmosphere and how  Thomas Coke  led the

Informal discussion and explanation on everything connected with agriculture in the broadest sense on his grounds at the dinner table and even more impressively on horseback…he plays the part of the old English country gentleman as he rides  from field to field  attended by friends who are also mounted

At the same time as a result of the interest in matters agricultural , agricultural societies were also formed on nearly every county as forum where interested parties could meet and discuss innovations in this sphere. These societies were also encouraged by the highest in society:

Thomas Coke encouraged improvements in land by giving a piece of silver plate to the value of five guineas  to the  Norfolk Agricultural Society, to be awarded

To such person as shall convert the greatest area of waste or unimproved meadows in the most complete manner

Sometimes the sheep shearings were not to everyone’s tastes. Arthur Young eventually gave up attending them In 1806 he wrote to Thomas Coke refusing an invitation to attend a follows:

There is not one feature that would carry a Christian there for pleasure, but a thousand to repel him and this is so much the case with all public meetings that are odious. The Norfolk farmer are rich and profligate; coarse oaths and profanities salute the ear at every turn; and the gentlemen and great when they are without ladies are too apt to be as bad as the mob and many of them much worse…much as I love agriculture I can renounce it with more pleasure than I can partake of it thus contaminated

Seems to me that he and the unreconstructed Emma might get on…….

Back to why this was all connected for the good with Mr Knightley. As Susanna Wade Martins writes in her fabulous biography of Thomas Coke( more on that later) :

One of the first duties of a patriot was the improvement of his estate, seen as a moral obligation by the middle of the eighteenth century….By the time Thomas Coke inherited (Holkham in 1776-jfw) the roles of landlord and tenant in the business of commercial farming had become established. It was the duty of the landlord to provide the fixed capital in the form of fields, farm roads and buildings and the tenant the working capital such as seed, stock and implements for the farm. In times of farming prosperity when prospective tenants were numerous the landowner could try and pass on to the tenant some responsibilities such as the hedging of fields …Similarly in times of agricultural depression when tenants were more difficult to find and retain the landlord might have to take some of  these responsibilities back…The responsibilities of the landlord had been fully understood by Cokes predecessors and were ones that they had taken very seriously.

So, Mr Knightley, portrayed as  concerned about his tenants welfare and well-being and being interested in all matters agricultural was being also portrayed as a great patriot, not only caring for those immediately around him but for the prosperity and survival of the country as a whole in time of war.

Jane Austen clearly viewed absentee landlords with contempt: see her portrayal of another Norfolk man, Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park who is content to let his agent  run his estate there even though he knows he is not of the highest character. Pity his poor tenants in that case.

Mr Kinightley’s tenants have no such fears.

As Lord Kames wrote in The Gentleman Farmer (1787):

Every gentleman farmer must of course be a patriot…in fact if there be any remaining patriotism in the nation it is to be found among that class of men.

No wonder  Emma adores him…..