'Farmer George'? Notes on Agriculture

James Fisher, PhD candidate, History Department, King’s College London

During his reign King George III acquired the nickname of “Farmer George”, in part due to his agricultural interests and in part as a playful pun – a nod toward nominative determinism given that the name George derived from the Greek word geōrgos (γεωργός) meaning “farmer, earthworker”. However, the extent to which this popular name arose from his reputation as an agriculturalist has been debated. The anecdotes and caricatures from the 1780s and 1790s tended to depict a friendly, homespun country gentleman rather than a progressive, experimenting improver. The “farmer” characterisation captured both his reportedly simple domestic life and his traditional paternalistic role as the nation’s father as much as his zeal for the theory and practice of agriculture. Further, it is difficult to reconstruct an accurate portrait of his engagements with farming from the accounts of contemporaries, whose compliments and stories are partly attributable to the honour owed to a patron and a King.[i]

‘Farmer George and His Wife’. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

The survival of private papers therefore offers one of the best opportunities to assess the character and extent of George’s agricultural interests. Here we will focus on a set of notes George made on seven agricultural books published between 1762 and 1775 (part of the series GEO/ADD/32/5). These are mostly copied extracts from the texts George was reading, rather than notes of his own ideas, although the selection and choices taken in summarising or paraphrasing can be revealing.
In 1760, at the beginning of George’s reign, agriculture was still the dominant sector in the British economy, particularly in terms of the number of people earning a livelihood from agriculture.[ii] The long period of George’s kingship (1760-1820) coincided with the era traditionally identified with an “agricultural revolution” and more recently “agricultural enlightenment”[iii]– of unprecedented growth in output stimulated by increased knowledge – although there is a lack of consensus among scholars and a tendency to favour a view of longer-term, uneven series of developments that slowly transformed agriculture.
From the mid-seventeenth century English (and later Scottish) gentlemen developed a new enthusiasm for agriculture as part a culture of “improvement”, driven by the belief that methods could be advanced to increase private and public wealth. The desire for improvement helped spawn a growth in agricultural manuals and treatises that aimed to publicise the best theory and practice. The number of books on agriculture rose gradually from the early eighteenth century but the 1760s saw a remarkable doubling of new publications from the previous decade. Hence the start of George’s reign coincided with a new surge in agricultural publishing, such that by 1776 Lord Kames was moved to open his treatise with a joke about the flood of texts: ‘Behold another volume on husbandry!’
It is, therefore, not entirely surprising that in the 1760s and 1770s a monarch concerned with the wealth of his kingdom and curious about the arts and sciences would collect and read books on agriculture. Indeed, George’s intellectual interest can be considered typical of many British gentlemen landowners at the time. Moreover, the surviving papers on agriculture form only a small proportion of the total number in the collection of George’s essays (around 1-2%). We should therefore resist the temptation offered by his nickname to over-interpret the significance of the notes on agriculture.
The first point to make about George’s notes is that they are mostly taken from books published over a relatively short period, 1762-1771. This may only be an effect of what survives, but it indicates George was concerned with the latest ideas and debates, and it is not unreasonable to assume that his notes were made within a relatively short number of years following a book’s publication. The exceptions are a short note on a book of 1775 and notes from volumes the periodicals Annals of Agriculture and Transactions of the Society of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce from the 1780s.
We can roughly divide the surviving notes George made into three general themes: the political economy of agriculture, the merits of “old” versus “new” husbandry methods, and the cultivation of specific crops.
a) Political Economy
George made a long series of extended notes on Arthur Young’s The Farmer’s Letters to the People of England (1767) concerning the wealth of the nation. The notes contain selected extracts from Letter I (documents 2019, 2020, 2022, 2037), Letter II (2023) and Letter III (2024, 2025, 2026, 2027, 2028) of Young’s first book. The notes on Letter I asserted the priority of agriculture over manufactures and argued for the conversion of ‘sheep walks’ or ‘wastes’ to arable land, partly on the basis that it employed a ‘greater number of hands’. Each folio shows an alternative attempt at summarising the argument, indicating George was compiling his notes for a purpose beyond a simple record – whether to get the argument clear in his head, prepare for a speech, or develop into an independent essay. Letter II defended the bounty on exported corn against the objection that it raised the price of wheat, while Letter III argued that large farmers were far more useful for the state than small farmers, from which George copied tables estimating numbers of horses and hands for different acreage of farms. These notes show George getting to grips with the relatively new way of conceptualising an abstract economy and ideas of how Britain could best exploit natural resources to extract wealth.
The notes on Arthur Young’s The Rural Oeconomy (1770) are taken from Essay I (2038, 2042), Essay II (2041), and Essay III (2040), and concerned the management of a farm, including the proportion of arable to grass land, the rotation of crops, detailed allocation of acres for certain crops and calculations of the required labour. While the notes largely attend to the management of individual farms they can be seen in the larger framework of political economy, given that the profitability of individual farmers was viewed as the concern of the state, since the wealth of the nation ultimately depended on their success. The notes (in French) on the 1763 French work Le Socrates Rustique (or the ‘Rural Socrates’) (see 2051) can be seen in similar terms, which told the story of an idealised Swiss peasant praised as a model for rural subjects and extolled the virtues of industriousness and thrift in a simple, wholesome and natural country life.
b) Old vs New Husbandry
Two further sets of notes can be united under a concern with one of the central debates in agricultural literature of the time: the advantages and disadvantages of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ husbandry. The ‘old’ husbandry referred to the traditional methods established in Britain by the eighteenth century and the ‘new’ husbandry stood for the methods advocated by Jethro Tull in his book The Horse-Hoing Husbandry (1733). Tullian husbandry rejected the need for manure and fallowing (both central to ‘old’ husbandry), and advocated sowing seeds in rows using the seed-drill followed by repeated hoeing to eliminate weeds. George showed a great interest in the competing merits, by copying a passage and table estimating the expenses and profits of the two systems from the editors’ preface to the 1762 edition of Tull’s book (see 2031). Further, he copied passages from a chapter on ‘The advantages of the old and new Husbandry’ (see 2033, 2034, 2035, 2036) from David Henry’s The Complete English Farmer (1771), carefully selecting from pages 163-170 of a 471-page treatise. In these notes, George freely re-phrased the arguments of David Henry on a few occasions, although without deviating from the author’s meaning. This suggests he shared Henry’s sympathetic judgement that Tull’s basic ideas contained an element of truth, even if many of his conclusions did not follow.
c) New Crops
The final theme of the notes concerns specific crops, namely sainfoin and cabbage, part of a collection of many ‘forage’ (or ‘fodder’) crops (along with clover, lucerne and turnips) that provided abundant food for cattle and could be planted on arable land to replenish soil in the place of fallowing. Many of them only began to be introduced into English agriculture and written about from the mid-seventeenth century, but Tull notably used sainfoin extensively in the early eighteenth. Writings on these crops were part of an increasing application of botanical knowledge to agriculture during the eighteenth century and a key aspect of “improvement”.
George copied detailed passages (see 2029) from a long entry on sainfoin (or ‘saint foin’, initially referred to as ‘French grass’) from a huge dictionary called The Complete Farmer (1766). He also made some fragmentary notes (see 2030, a sheet labelled ‘Memorandum’ on one side) on sainfoin from page 204 of a later text, The improved culture of three principal grasses, lucerne, sainfoin, and burnet (1775).
Similarly, George’s notes on cabbage reveal a precise effort to gather information. He used the second edition of Arthur Young’s A six months tour through the North of England (1771), which contained all kinds of observations on agriculture, specifically for reports about the cultivation of cabbage varieties on farms Young visited or heard about (see 2017-2018), carefully marking the specific page numbers from which he made notes. Later notes from the periodical Transactions of the Society of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce around 1783-84 also concerned the turnip-rooted cabbage (see 2044).
The notes George decided to extract from the agricultural books he read, possibly in the late 1760s and early 1770s, show a King interested in the role of agriculture in the wealth of the nation, the opportunities for employment, the profitability of new methods of farming and specifically the use of forage crops to increase produce. While we cannot know what notes have been lost, it is worth considering some of the absent themes that were common in the wider literature: for example, celebratory accounts of the ancient Greeks and Romans; new instruments or new designs of traditional tools; or debates about the theory of plant nutrition and the application of principles from chemistry.
Although an interest in books on agriculture was not unusual for the aristocracy of this period, the fact that George took notes on select themes from different texts, perhaps over many years, suggests a reader with a clear sense of their own particular interests. Moreover, George’s tendency to heavily re-phrase and re-order passages from books indicates an attentive and purposeful reader. However, there is equally a noticeable absence of George’s own commentary upon the texts he is reading: he makes no independent remarks or assessments of the text and never seems to deviate from the argument in front of him. To get a deeper sense of his own thoughts requires a close reading of selections and an analysis of the essays he wrote under the pseudonym of “Ralph Robinson” for the Annals of Agriculture in the late 1780s (see 2012-2015, 2016).
[i] Rachel Crawford, ‘English Georgic and British Nationhood’, ELH, 65:1 (Spring 1998), pp. 123-158
[ii] Estimate proportion of male population working in agriculture in 1755 is 44%. S.N. Broadberry et al, British Economic Growth 1270-1870 (Cambridge, 2015).
[iii] Peter Jones, Agricultural Enlightenment: Knowledge, Technology, and Nature, 1750-1840 (Oxford, 2016)

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