Monday, May 23, 2011

Norfolk Agrarians

'May 23 [1828].—I breakfasted with Chantrey, and met the celebrated Coke of Norfolk, a very pleasing man, who gave me some account of his plantations. I understand from him that, like every wise man, he planted land that would not let for 5s. per acre, but which now produces £3000 a year in wood. He talked of the trees which he had planted as being so thick that a man could not fathom them. Withers, he said, was never employed save upon one or two small jobs of about twenty acres on which every expense was bestowed with a view to early growth. So much for Withers. I shall have a rod in pickle for him if worth while...'

Sir Walter Scott is in England during the spring of 1828, when he meets Earl of Leicester, Thomas Coke.  Coke of Norfolk and the William Withers mentioned in Scott's Journal entry of May 23rd, 1828, both had estates in Norfolk, England. Coke in particular is thought of as having been a leading part of the British agricultural revolution. 


Withers published a letter criticizing Sir Walter Scott's Essay on Planting Waste Lands, which Scott published in the Quarterly Review of October 1827.  The essay is lengthy, and the first couple of paragraphs are here:

'Education has been often compared to the planting and training up of vegetable productions, and the parallel holds true in this remarkable particular, amongst others, that numerous systems are recommended and practised in both cases which are totally contradictory of each other, and most of which can, nevertheless, be supported by an appeal to the fruits they have brought forth. It would seem to follow that the oak is more easily taught to grow, and the young idea how to shoot, than is generally allowed by the warm assertors of particular systems, and that nature will even in cases of neglect or mismanagement do a great deal to supply the errors of carelessness whether of the preceptor or the forester. It would be wasting words, to set about proving that in both departments there are certain rules which greatly assist Nature in her operations, and bring the tree, or the youth, to an earlier and higher degree of maturity than either would otherwise have obtained. But we think it equally plain, that the rules which are found most effectual are of a very general character, and, when put into practice, must be modified according to the circumstances of each individual case; from which it results, that an exclusive attachment to the minutise of particular systems will, in many instances, be found worse than unnecessary.
To apply this maxim to the art of planting, we would remark that there are certain general principles respecting planting, pruning, thinning, and so forth, without which no plantation will be found eminently successful, even in the most advantageous situations; and, which being carefully followed in less favourable circumstances, will make up for many deficiencies of soil and climate. But on the other hand, there are many peculiar modes of treating plantations which, succeeding extremely well in one situation, will in another impede, rather than advance, the progress of the wood. Yet it frequently happens, that these very varieties, or peculiarities of practice, are insisted upon, by those who build systems, as the indispensable requisites for success in every case, This leads to empirical doctrines of all sorts, which, perhaps, prevail more among planters than in any other department of rural practice. Such are, violent and exclusive prepossessions entertained in favour of any particular kind of tree, how valuable soever; such are also the differences eagerly and obstinately maintained respecting particular modes of preparing the ground, and the precise season of putting in the plants, Such, also, are some particular doctrines held concerning pruning. Upon all these points we find practical men entertain and express very opposite opinions, with as much pertinacity as if they had been handed down, in direct tradition, from the first of men and of foresters. The feuds arising from these differences of opinion have, as in the case of religion itself, been unfavourable to the progress of the good cause; and one of the most important of national improvements has been, in a great measure, neglected, because men could not make up their minds concerning the very best possible mode of conducting it.
We are far, very far, from supposing ourselves capable of filling up, by a general sketch, a summary of rules which may be useful to the planter, yet we claim some knowledge of the subject, from sixteen years undeviating attention to the raising young plantations of considerable extent, upon lands, which may be, in general, termed waste and unimproved. Indeed, to lay aside for a moment our impersonality, the author of this article having, in the course of that time, seen reason to change his opinion on many important points, and particularly upon those in which the expense of planting is chiefly concerned, takes the freedom to consider Mr. Monteath's useful and interesting treatise with reference to his own experince, and the facts which that experience has suggested…’

Aside from Coke's comments on Withers, recorded by Scott in his Journal, Sir Henry Steuart, who published "The Instant Landscape" responded to Withers' open letter to Scott.  Steuart's response is covered in the Journal of Agriculture in 1831:


'The next essay of our author is in the form of a letter to Sir Walter Scott, controverting certain opinions expressed by the latter in a very pleasing essay on planting, which all planters ought to read, contained in the Quarterly Review. We do not certainly propose to take up the gauntlet for the Author of Waverley. The task of replying to Mr Withers has already been performed by Sir Henry Steuart, who, in a note to the second edition of his own work, disposes of some of the opinions of that gentleman, though, in doing so, we cannot help thinking, that the ingenious Baronet falls himself into certain errors, quite as great as those which he endeavours to controvert....
The scientific principles on which the process should be conducted, and my anxiety to impress them on the minds of planters, are sufficiently shown in the present section and notes, whether for arboricultural or agricultural purposes, to which Mr Withers's able pamphlet may serve as a practical commentary…
"There is one thing, with which I have been rather surprised in Mr Withers's pamphlet, and which cannot be passed over without notice by any person of intelligence, and that is, his denominating the ordinary or pitting method of planting, as every where practised, without any previous deepening of the soil, 'The Scotch System and for no other alleged reason that I can discover, on the most attentive perusal of his publication, than that some Scotch contractors had executed about forty acres of plantation for Admiral Windham, according to this method, and that the thing had turned out 'a total failure.'
"It is certainly very candid in Mr Withers to inform us, that he knows nothing of Scotland or Ireland, and that his observations on wood, and his practice in raising it, are wholly confined to Norfolk. His pamphlet as clearly informs us, that he knows nothing of general planting, or of its history and progress in Britain, and the rest of Europe; and that the anatomy of plants and vegetable physiology have not come within the range of his studies…’

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