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Arthur Young (1741-1820)

This article was written by Henry Higgs and was published in 1900

Young, Arthur , agriculturist and author of ‘Travels in France,’ born at Whitehall, in London, on 11 September 1741, was younger son of Arthur Young (1693-1759), rector of Bradfield, Suffolk, and chaplain to Speaker Onslow. His mother, Anna Lucretia, daughter of John Coussmaker, brought her husband a sufficient dowry to require that Bradfield Hall, manor and lands, the small estate which the Youngs had owned since 1672, should be settled upon herself.

The speaker and the bishop of Rochester were his godfathers. In 1748 he was sent to school at Lavenham, where he received more indulgence than instruction. At the age of twelve he went to London, saw Garrick, heard the ‘Messiah,’ went to Ranelagh, and met John Wilkes ‘more than once.’ A letter from his sister, dated 1755, shows the precocity of his intelligence. She writes to him of home and foreign politics and society gossip as if he were already a man of the world. In 1758 he left school, and was apprenticed to Messrs. Robertson of Lynn, with a view to his subsequent employment in Messrs. Tomlinson's counting-house. The same year he visited his sister in London, shortly before her death. ‘My mother,’ he says, ‘grieved so much for her loss that she could never be persuaded to go out of mourning, but mourned till her own death [in 1785], nor did she ever recover her cheerfulness. This had one good effect, and that a very important one for me: she never afterwards looked into any book but on the subject of religion, and her only constant companion was her bible, herein copying the example of her father.’ Arthur Young was destined in time to follow the same example under the influence of a similar shock.

While still at school he began to write a history of England, had fallen in love, and cultivated the art of dancing. At Lynn his gallantry and his dancing alike continued, and his ‘great foppery in dress for the balls’ deprived him of the means he required for the purchase of books. He accordingly compiled political pamphlets, beginning in 1758 with ‘The Theatre of the Present War in North America,’ London, 8vo, for which he received £10 in books. He also wrote four novels, ‘The Fair American,’ ‘Sir Charles Beaufort,’ ‘Lucy Watson,’ and ‘Julia Benson, or the Innocent Sufferer.’ In 1759 appeared his ‘Reflections on the present State of Affairs at Home and Abroad’. The same year his father died, much in debt. Young now left Lynn ‘without education, profession, or employment.’ The death of Mrs. Tomlinson had upset the scheme of his entering upon a mercantile career, and in 1761 he betook himself to London, went into society, and started at his own expense a monthly magazine, ‘The Universal Museum,’ in January 1762. Dr. Johnson refused to write for it, and advised him to give up a scheme which was certain to fail ‘if the booksellers have not the property.’ After five months of experiment he found this advice sound; and, persuading the booksellers ‘to take the whole scheme upon themselves,’ he abandoned it to a luckless fate.

In 1763 he broke a blood-vessel, and was ordered to the Hotwells at Bristol, where he met Sir Charles Howard, who offered him a commission in his own cavalry regiment, but Young's mother vetoed the proposal. Returning home to Bradfield, he found his sole resources to consist of a copyhold farm of twenty acres, worth about £20 a year. His mother proposed that he should take one of her own farms of eighty acres at Bradfield and farm it. He had no idea of farming, but accepted the offer, took yet another farm, and applied himself to agriculture from 1763 to 1766.

In 1765 he married Martha Allen of Lynn, and, after a brief residence at that place, removed with his wife to Bradfield. The marriage was unhappy from the outset. In a very short time we find him complaining of his wife's intractable temper. A loving son, a devoted father, Young was an indifferent husband. The faults were perhaps not all on his wife's side. His letters to Mrs. Oakes from 1785 to her death in 1811, full of playfulness and deep affection, and the references to Mrs. Oakes in his diary are in painful contrast to the references to his wife. The only tribute Young paid to his wife when she died in 1815 was to record on a tablet in Bradfield church that she was ‘the great-grand-daughter of John Allen, esq., of Lyng House in the county of Norfolk, the first person, according to the Comte de Boulainvilliers, who there used marl.’ In February 1766 Walter Harte wrote to thank Young for his letters to the ‘Museum Rusticum’ in praise of Harte's ‘Essays.’ This laid the foundation of a lifelong friendship. Harte advised him to publish his contributions to the ‘Museum Rusticum’ with additions in a separate volume, ‘which might be entitled “Sylvæ, or occasional Tracts on Husbandry and Rural Economics.”’ In 1767 Young followed this advice. He had hardly in four years gained sufficient experience to realise his ignorance. ‘The circumstance,’ he writes, ‘which perhaps of all others in my life I most deeply regretted and considered as a sin of the blackest dye, was the publishing the result of my experience during these four years, which, speaking as a farmer, was nothing but ignorance, folly, presumption, and rascality.’ The publication was ‘The Farmer's Letters to the People of England,’ which appeared anonymously in 1767, the ‘Museum’ papers being appended under the title ‘Sylvæ, or occasional Tracts,’ as suggested by Harte.

In 1766 his daughter Mary was born. ‘Finding a mixture of families inconsistent with comfortable living,’ writes Young, ‘I determined to quit Bradfield, and advertised in the London papers for such a house and farm as would suit my views and fortune, that is to say, £1,000 which I received with my wife, the remainder being settled upon her.’ He took ‘a very fine farm’ of three hundred acres in Essex, called Samford Hall, tried experiments, lost money, and paid £100 to a farmer to take it off his hands. His successor ‘made a fortune’ out of the place. Young was at this time in great straits. He advertised for new farms, and, as a result of viewing several, collected the notes of his first tour, ‘A Six Weeks' Tour through the Southern Counties of England and Wales’, in which ‘for the first time the facts and principles of Norfolk husbandry were laid before the public.’

He now took a farm of a hundred acres at North Mimms in Hertfordshire, the only one he could find with a suitable house. It was, he says, not merely sterile land. ‘A hungry, vitriolic gravel. I occupied for nine years the jaws of a wolf. A nabob's fortune would sink in the attempt to raise a good arable crop upon any extent in such a country.’ This year (1768) his daughter Bessy was born, and the following year his only son, Arthur. In 1769 he published ‘Letters concerning the present State of the French Nation’; ‘Essay on the Management of Hogs’; and ‘The Expediency of a Free Exportation of Corn at this time’ — the last warmly praised by the king. His bookseller and his friends called for more tours. In 1770 appeared a ‘Six Months' Tour through the North of England’; ‘The Farmer's Guide in Hiring and Stocking Farms’; ‘Rural Economy’; and ‘A Course of Experimental Agriculture’, which he subsequently attempted to suppress as inaccurate and lacking thoroughness. In 1771 came from his pen the ‘Farmer's Tour through the East of England’; ‘The Farmer's Calendar’, of which Dr. Paris mentions as many as ten editions; and ‘Proposals to the Legislature for numbering the People’, a suggestion not adopted till the census of 1801.

His receipts from his books were considerable, yet we find him recording ‘No carthorse ever laboured as I did at this period (1770), spending like an idiot, always in debt, in spite of what I earned with the sweat of my brow, and almost my heart's blood ... the year's receipts £1,167’ In 1772 he published ‘Political Essays concerning the present State of the British Empire’. ‘At this time,’ writes Young, ‘I was so distressed that I had serious thoughts of quitting the kingdom and going to America.’ The following year he undertook to report the debates in parliament for the ‘Morning Post’ at five guineas a week, walking home seventeen miles to North Mimms every Saturday, and back on the Monday morning. In 1773 he wrote ‘Observations on the present State of the Waste Lands of Great Britain’, and in 1774 ‘Political Arithmetic’, ‘one of my best works, which was immediately translated into many languages and highly commended in many parts of Europe.’ He was this year elected a fellow of the Royal Society. Summing up his vexations and anxieties about this time, he says: ‘What would not a sensible, quiet, prudent wife have done for me? But had I so behaved to God as to merit such a gift?’

In 1776 he went to Ireland and kept a journal of his tour; but, owing to the rascality of a servant who stole his trunk on the way back from Bath to London, the journal was lost, with all the specimens of soils and minerals which he had collected throughout the whole kingdom. In 1777 Lord Kingsborough invited Young to become his agent in co. Cork at £500 a year, with a house at Mitchelstown, and a retaining fee of £500. Young gave up his farm in Hertfordshire and moved with Mrs. Young to Ireland, but, owing to dissensions with the Kingsborough family, returned in 1779 with an annuity of £72 in lieu of arrears. He again thought of going to America, but was dissuaded by his mother, and once more took a farm near home. In 1780 appeared his ‘Tour in Ireland’. This volume, lacking the incidents and anecdotes which had enlivened the lost diary, did not attain to a second edition; but the author's attack upon the bounty on land carriage of corn to Dublin was almost immediately successful, half the bounty being abolished in the next session of parliament.

In 1783 was born his youngest child, Martha Ann, who called herself Robin (which she pronounced Bobbin), and was the light of her father's eyes. In his letters and journals he strikes a note of enthusiasm whenever his ‘lovely Bobbin’ is concerned. She grew up a delightful child, bright, affectionate, and intelligent beyond her years.

In 1784 Young commenced his ‘Annals of Agriculture,’ a monthly publication, one third or one fourth of which came from his own pen. Forty-six volumes appeared continuously until 1809, and detached instalments of the volume left incomplete in that year were published in 1812 and 1815. Other contributors were George III (under the name of Ralph Robinson, his Windsor shepherd), Lord Orford, Dr. Symonds, Jeremy Bentham, Sir F. Eden, Harte, Balsamo, Coke of Holkham, Priestley, Thomas Ruggles, Lord Bristol, and Lord Townshend.

About this time came to England M. de Lazowski with his two pupils, the Counts de la Rochefoucauld, sons of the Duc de Liancourt. Lazowski had already made the tour of France with these lads, travelling over most of the kingdom on horseback, and brought them to England to acquire the language. The tutor had ‘given some attention to agriculture, and particularly to political economy.’ On his arrival he sought out Young, and this led to an acquaintance with the duke and to the subsequent tour in France. In 1785 Young's mother died, and Bradfield became his property. The same year he ‘went on a farming journey to the Bakewells,’ the famous agriculturists who improved so greatly the breed of British stock. This year Young was consulted by Pitt upon his Irish proposals and upon a labourer's consumption of taxed commodities. Early in 1787 Lazowski wrote from Paris to say that he was going with the Count de la Rochefoucauld to the Pyrenees, and to propose that Young should be of the party. ‘This,’ says Young, ‘was touching a string tremendous to vibrate.’ He had already crossed over to Calais for a few days in 1784, ‘just to enable him to say that he had been in France.’ In the survey of agriculture which he had taken in England and Ireland of about seven thousand miles he ‘had calculated from facts the rent, produce, and resources of those kingdoms, and had often reflected on the importance of knowing the real situation of France, the effect of government, the states of the farmers, of the poor, the state and extent of their manufactures, with a hundred other inquiries certainly of political importance.’ Yet he could not find this in any French book written from actual observation. Accordingly he crossed from Dover with his mare on 15 May 1787, and returned in November, concluding his journal with the words ‘Have more pleasure in giving my little girl a French doll than in viewing Versailles.’ Soon after his return Sir J. Sinclair persuaded him to try the experiment of clothing shorn sheep with a covering of oilskin and canvas. He maliciously records: ‘I did so, and the rest of the flock took them, I suppose, for beasts of prey and fled in all directions till the clothed sheep, jumping hedges and ditches, soon derobed themselves.’

Early in 1788 Young was deputed by the wool-growers of Suffolk to support a petition against the wool bill. Sir Joseph Banks was associated with him as a deputy for Lincoln. Young saw Fox on the subject, was examined at the bar of both houses, and published two pamphlets on the bill, ‘The Question of Wool truly stated’. But the bill passed, and Young was burned in effigy at Norwich by its supporters. This business enabled him to hear the speeches at the trial of Warren Hastings. On 30 July he set out for a second journey in France. After travelling a hundred miles his mare fell blind, but he persevered and brought her safely back to Bradfield at the end of October. After riding her three thousand seven hundred miles ‘humanity did not allow him to sell her.’ He brought back from Lyons some chicory seed, which he sowed at Bradfield, and ultimately grew over a hundred acres of it.

In 1789 he made his third and last journey to France, this time in a postchaise to carry remarkable soils, manufactures, wools, &c., and pushed on to Italy — Turin, Milan, Lodi, Bergamo, Verona, Vicenza, Padua, Bologna, Florence — returning home over Mont Cenis and via Lyons, 30 January 1790. He was an eye-witness at Paris and Versailles of the moving scenes which ushered in the French revolution, and describes them vividly. His letters from France to Bobbin (some six years old) show a remarkable estimate of her intelligence, e.g.: ‘Moulins, Aug. 7, 1789 ... What do you think of the French at such a moment as this with a free press? Yet in this capital of a great province there is not (publickly) one newspaper to be seen; at a coffee-house where twenty tables for company not one! What blessed ignorance! The Paris m—— have done the whole, and are the only enlightened part of the k——.’

In October 1790, when he was preparing his French travels for the press, a violent fever brought him to the brink of death. On his recovery he wrote what he calls ‘a melancholy review of his past life’ in the ‘Annals,’ (1791). In these ‘memoirs of the last 30 years of the editor's farming life’ he states that the ‘Annals’ are ‘greatly praised but not bought. ... Still I have not lost by it.’ There was a regular sale of three hundred and fifty. But he concludes sadly that he is being driven out of England by taxation, and must go to France or America to live. ‘Men of large fortunes and the poor have reason to think the government of this country the first in the world. The middle classes bear the brunt.’ As to his tour in France, the manuscript when finished will, he expects, find no bookseller to purchase it, and will ‘rest on the shelf.’

In 1791 Washington and Lafayette entered into correspondence with him, and the king presented him with a Spanish merino ram. In 1792 appeared the ‘Travels in France during the Years 1787, 1788, and 1789’. Young had abridged his manuscript by one-half, but had not entirely sacrificed the ‘personal incidents’ and enlivening gossip, the loss of which had been felt in his Irish tour. In May of this year he proposed to ‘arm the property of the kingdom in a sort of horse militia.’ He repeated the suggestion in the ‘Annals,’ (1792), and embodied it in his ‘Example of France a Warning to Britain, which gave great comfort to Pitt and his party and to Burke, and speedily ran through four large editions. He promptly set an example by enrolling himself in a yeomanry corps at Bury. On a hint of Lord Loughborough he now bought four thousand four hundred acres of Yorkshire moor, but almost immediately after this (1793) Pitt created the board of agriculture and appointed Young secretary at a salary of £400 a year and a house. He at once advertised his Yorkshire estate for sale, and after twelve months found a purchaser. We soon find him complaining of the patronising and thwarting conduct of Sir John Sinclair , president of the board, and of his inept and precipitate appointments of incompetent persons to write the reports of agriculture in several counties. Young did not himself write a ‘General View of the Agriculture of the County of Sussex’, often attributed to him instead of to his son, Arthur Young; but he was responsible for the ‘General View of the Agriculture of the County of Suffolk’.

In 1794 he founded the Farmers' Club. His daughter Elizabeth, who had married the Rev. John Hoole, died in the same year. In 1795 he published ‘The Constitution Safe without Reform’ and ‘An Idea of the Present State of France’. In 1796 he had another interview with Pitt, and sounded him on the ‘propriety of regulation by parliament of the price of labour.’ He found Pitt, like Burke, as was to be expected in students of Adam Smith, hostile to the idea. This year he made a tour in Devonshire and Cornwall, returning by Somerset, and published an account of it in the ‘Annals.’

In 1797 he wrote ‘National Danger and the Means of Safety’ but the current of his thoughts was soon to change. The black year of his life was now come. Bobbin died in her fourteenth year. Her correspondence with her father is very touching. ‘One of the sweetest tempers,’ he writes, ‘and, for her years, one of the best understandings that I ever met with. ... I buried her in my pew, fixing the coffin so that when I kneel it will be between her head and her dear heart. This I did as a means of preserving the grief I feel, and hope to feel while the breath is in my body. It turns all my views to an hereafter.... ’

From this time Young was a broken man. Like his mother and his grandfather, he carried his bereavement ever with him. A settled gloom deepened into religious fanaticism. He gave up society, abridged his correspondence, left his journal blank for four months, and brooded over sermons, to which his thoughts and reading almost exclusively turned. He continued, however, to prosecute his duties at the board of agriculture, where Sinclair was superseded as president by Lord Somerville in 1798. Young printed a letter to his friend William Wilberforce, entitled ‘Enquiry into the State of the Public Mind amongst the Lower Classes’ (1798), and published ‘General View of the Agriculture of the County of Lincoln’ (1799); ‘The Question of Scarcity plainly stated’ (1800); ‘Inquiry into the Propriety of applying Waste Lands to the Better Maintenance and Support of the Poor’ (1801); ‘Essay on Manures’ (1804); ‘General View of the Agriculture of Hertfordshire’ (1804); ‘General View of the Agriculture of Norfolk’ (1804); ‘General View of the Agriculture of the County of Essex’ (1807); ‘General Report on Inclosures’ (1807); and a paper ‘On the Advantages which have resulted from the Establishment of the Board of Agriculture’ (1809).

His ‘View of the Agriculture of Oxfordshire’ (1809) was to be almost the last of his official writings, for his eyesight, long failing, now almost entirely deserted him. In 1811 he was couched for cataract. A week after the operation Wilberforce came to his darkened bedside, told him of the death of the Duke of Grafton, and painted so vivid a picture of the loss sustained by agriculture that Young burst into tears and destroyed the last hope of recovering the use of his eyes. It is only necessary to mention his few subsequent publications: ‘On the Husbandry of the Three Celebrated Farmers, Bakewell, Arbuthnot, and Ducket’ (1811); ‘Inquiry into the Progressive Value of Money’ (1812); ‘Inquiry into the Rise of Prices in Europe’ (1815).

He died of the stone at his official residence in Sackville Street, London, on 20 April 1820, and was buried at Bradfield. His family became extinct on the death at Bradfield in 1896 of his grandson, Mr. Arthur Young, only son of the Rev. Arthur Young, the son of the great agriculturist.

As a writer Young contributed nothing of permanent importance towards the advancement of political economy; but he remains the greatest of English writers on agriculture. The English landlords of his time were the least imaginative section of an unimaginative people. As Mr. Leslie Stephen has remarked, Young carried into agriculture ‘the spirit which we generally associate with the great revolution of manufactures, as applied to the contemporary development of agriculture.’ He was indefatigable in observation, inquiries, researches, and experiments, collecting by hand the seeds of artificial grasses and sowing them himself, pointing out to the country as a whole practices which were successful in particular neighbourhoods at home and abroad, endeavouring, with the aid of Priestley, to discover the chemistry of soils and to apply science to practice, incessantly attempting new methods, new rotations of crops, and stirring up a widespread and intelligent interest in the development of agricultural science. He thought the most useful feature of his tours was his teaching upon the correct courses of crops.

His works were much esteemed at home and abroad, and especially in the two great agricultural countries of Europe — France and Russia. In 1801, by order of the Directoire, his works were translated into French, and published at Paris in eighteen octavo volumes under the title ‘Le Cultivateur Anglois.’ A set of the volumes was sent to Young by Carnot. The Empress Catherine sent him a gold snuff-box, with ermine cloaks for his wife and daughter. In 1804 Count Rostopchin, governor of Moscow, sent him a snuff-box studded with diamonds, inscribed ‘from a pupil to his master.’ His principal works were translated into Russian and German.

Breakfasting at Bradfield on one occasion, the Duke of Bedford found him surrounded by pupils from Russia, France, America, Naples, Poland, Sicily, and Portugal. He was an honorary member of countless societies at home and abroad. His correspondents included all the celebrated men of his time. His letters from Washington were published in 1803. Other correspondents were Lafayette, the prince bishop of Wilna, Haller, Arbuthnot, Priestley, Bakewell, Howlett, Thomas Ruggles, Wilberforce, John Howard, Sir H. Davy, Coke of Holkham, Malthus, Boswell, Pitt, Burke, Sir J. Sinclair, Edwin Wakefield, his brother-in-law Dr. Burney and Fanny Burney (Mme. d'Arblay), Lord Shelburne, Lord Kames, Lord Sheffield, Lord Eden, and half the peerage.

We detect a little vanity in the care with which he preserved the most trifling notes and invitations from dukes and earls. The king flattered him greatly. ‘Mr. Young,’ he once said to him, ‘I conceive myself more indebted to you than to any man in my dominions,’ and he never travelled without the ‘Annals’ in the royal carriage. Young was a great favourite in society. Vivacious, high-spirited, and well informed, he was an agreeable companion. His characteristics are abundantly manifested in his writings, and there is no lack of material for forming a mental picture of his personality. His tall slim figure, thin features, aquiline nose, and hawk eyes are in keeping with the restless activity of his character. He rose at 5 a.m., bathed in the open air; on one occasion — undaunted experimentalist — he broke the ice in the pond to bathe, and rolled his body in the snow to test the effect. Vivacity is the chief charm of his writings. His racy downright English is one of many points of resemblance between him and Cobbett.

Like the contemporary French economists, the pivot of his principles was to promote the maximum net produce of agriculture. Absentee landlords, antiquated methods of cultivation, wastes and commons, small holdings were his pet aversions, and he headed the intemperate crusade in favour of enclosures. But it is almost always possible to contradict him out of his own mouth. Some of the statements in his ‘Tour in France’ suggested that he was in sympathy with the impending revolution. But he defended his consistency by declaring that ‘the revolution before the 10th of August was as different from the revolution after that day as light from darkness.’ In home politics he was opposed to colonial extension. The loss of the American colonies, ‘north of tobacco,’ he thought ‘a good thing.’ Canada and Nova Scotia were not worth colonising. ‘If they continue poor, they will be no markets. If rich, they will revolt; and that perhaps is the best thing they can do for our interest.’ The loss of India ‘must come. It ought to come.’

Various causes contributed to render classical his ‘Travels in France.’ His fidelity as a practised and observant traveller is attested by Miss Edgeworth, who declares his ‘Irish Tour’ to contain the most faithful portraiture of the Irish peasantry that had yet appeared. He carried the same good faith and shrewd intelligence to France, which became during the Napoleonic wars a country of supreme interest to Englishmen no longer able to travel freely about it. The first part is a sprightly diary of travel; the second a sober study of agriculture, and facts and figures of cultivation of the soil in France, Spain, and Italy. His descriptions of scenery and people, his vignettes of peasant life — the old woman gathering grass by the roadside for her cow, the absence of shoes and stockings among the poor, the farmers sleeping over their horses or cattle for the sake of warmth, the life of the inns — his felicitous phrasing (‘the magic of property turns sand into gold’), his authoritative record of the condition of the people in detail hitherto unattempted, the price of provisions, the mode of living, housing, clothing, social customs, pictures, churches, famous men, and pretty women, combine to make his work one of the permanent sources of history; while the spontaneity of his personal feeling lends to his journal the kind of interest which we take in a sympathetic romance.

Witness his exclamation on absentee seigneurs: ‘If I were king of France for one day how I would make the great lords skip again!’ Or his trip to Chambéry to see the home of Mme. de Warens, and of the ‘sublime,’ ‘immortal, and splendid genius,’ Rousseau. In later years an anonymous correspondent wrote to reproach him for his praise of an atheist who had exercised so nefarious an influence on the human mind. Young notes upon her letter a recantation and an expression of regret for meriting this ‘just rebuke.’ But the Young who gathered the peasants together at Bradfield Hall on Sunday evenings to read them church services and exhort them with enthusiasm — turning his back upon them till his attendant faced his sightless eyes in the proper direction — was not the Young who wrote the travels. The ‘errors and absurdities’ which he deplores in his writings are sometimes those we should be least willing to lose. ‘I met to-day,’ he says in his first ‘Tour in France,’ ‘with an instance of ignorance in a well-dressed French merchant that surprised me. He had plagued me with abundance of tiresome, foolish questions, and then asked for the third or fourth time what country I was of. I told him I was a Chinese. How far off is that country? I replied two hundred leagues. “Deux cents lieues! Diable, c'est un grand chemin!” The other day a Frenchman asked me, after telling him I was an Englishman, If we had trees in England? — I replied, that we had a few. Had we any rivers? — Oh, none at all. “Ah, ma foi, c'est bien triste!” This incredible ignorance, when compared with the knowledge so universally disseminated in England, is to be attributed, like everything else, to government.’ Probably in his last days Young regarded these ‘absurdities’ as reprehensible falsehoods.

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