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Primer: Agriculture, the Royal Institution, and the Spirit of Improvement April 7, 2011

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Since my interest in agricultural research focuses on the activities of the 20th-century British state, I didn’t really expect to return to Britain’s original Board of Agriculture (1793-1820).  But then the head of our Centre here at Imperial, Andy Mendelsohn, showed up in my office a couple of weeks ago with Morris Berman’s Social Change and Scientific Organization: The Royal Institution, 1799-1844 (1978), which he thought might interest me.  Not only is there some good agriculture-related material, but it intersects a number of different interests on this blog.  The book is actually in itself an interesting case to study from a historiographical point of view, which will be the subject of a separate post.

In his 1803 will, Edward Goat referred to the Royal Institution as the “New Society of Husbandry &c lately established in Albermarle Street”

Berman shows quite nicely that the foundation of the Royal Institution (RI) in 1799 was part and parcel of the late 18th-century enthusiasm for estate improvement and philanthropy.  As he argues, “It is not customary to see the RI, the SBCP [Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, est. 1796], and the Board of Agriculture as a triad, but it was the same set of social and economic developments that brought them into being and gave them a similar, if not common agenda; and it was roughly the same group of men who sat on their governing boards” (2).

In this period agricultural improvement was inseparable from other aspects of estate development, such as canal and bridge building and mining, which attended the enclosure of lands.  Further, improving landlords often paired their interest with estate development with interests in useful invention, scientific research, and political, economic, and moral thought.  Making estates more productive was understood to be a good way not only to enrich landowners, but, by creating more food and wealth, it was also expected to alleviate rural poverty.  Alleviating rural poverty was also the objective of offering land allotments to tenant farmers, and, as Berman points out, “No less than eight of the first nineteen governors of the RI were either directly involved in allotment or making studies of allotment experiments” (6).

Circa 1800, thinking about rural economy remained central to thinking about political economy in general.  Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) began publishing his well-known Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, which anchored population growth to land productivity.  Mary Morgan, a historian of economics at LSE, has written an excellent working paper linking David Ricardo’s (1772-1823) development of his theory of rent (as published in his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, 1817) to his learning about estate management as a novice landowner in the 1810s.  The Corn Laws, which levied tariffs on grain imports, were, of course, to be one of the defining issues of British politics in the first half of the nineteenth century.

To give a sense of the breadth of the web of interests (intellectual, political, and financial) that were tangled up around the time of the foundation of the RI, here are some key figures:

John Sinclair (1754-1835), politician, established an experimental farm, the first President of the Board of Agriculture, RI proprietor, compiler of the Statistical Account of Scotland.

George Finch, the Earl of Winchilsea (1752-1826), first President of the RI (1799-1813), member of the Board of Agriculture, improving landlord, and apparently an important figure in the history of cricket

George John Spencer, Earl Spencer (1758-1834), Whig politician, First Lord of the Admiralty (1794-1801), experimental farmer, canal sponsor, member of the Board of Agriculture, a proprietor of the RI and its second President (1813-1825).  His son would later become Chancellor of the Exchequer and establish the Royal Agricultural Society.

James Gillray, “The Generae of Patriotism, or The Bloomsbury Farmer planting Bedfordshire Wheat” (1796) depicting the Duke of Bedford; click for detailed description at the British Museum website.

Francis Russell, Duke of Bedford (1765-1802), Whig politician, member of the Board of Agriculture, RI proprietor

Francis Egerton, Duke of Bridgewater (1736-1803), leader in canal building, offered the presidency of the RI, but opted instead to become a proprietor.

Shute Barrington, Bishop of Durham (1734-1826), President of the SBCP, promoter of coal mining, RI proprietor.

Thomas Bernard (1750-1818), Editor of the Reports of the SBCP, a founder of the RI.

Joseph Banks (1743-1820), powerful President of the Royal Society (1778-1820), improving farmer and sheep breeder, member of the Board of Agriculture, supporter of industry, and a key figure in shaping the RI’s agenda.

Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford (1753-1814), American inventor, writer, workhouse founder, and inveterate hobnobber — often considered the key figure in the establishment of the RI, though Berman argues his personal role was incidental to the movement.

Patrick Colquhoun (1745-1820), SBCP member, founder of the RI, a founder of the Thames River Police, Benthamite

Arthur Young (1741-1820), publisher of the Annals of Agriculture (1784-1815), first secretary of the Board of Agriculture, key figure in the history of agricultural science, also well-known as a political and statistical writer.

Among this group, experimental science needs to be understood as one aspect of the overall spirit of improvement — something that could be expected to lead directly to new techniques; but also a fashionable cause for wealthy patrons to support, not unlike art or poor relief.  The RI was envisioned as the research wing of this movement, and the proprietors of the RI expected that hired lecturers would devote themselves to researching and lecturing on topics of practical interest.

Humphry Davy (1778-1829) was appointed lecturer in 1801, and was expected to research and lecture on tanning techniques, mineralogy, and agricultural chemistry, and to conduct tasks such as the analysis of soil samples.  In this position he fostered a close relationship with the Board of Agriculture, which in 1803 began providing him with a supplementary salary as a Professor of Chemical Agriculture.  Although it was clear that many agricultural processes were chemical, the expectation that chemical research would lead to substantial improvements in agricultural practice seems to have been something of a matter of faith in the tradition of eudiometry, which had had its heyday in the 1770s.  Davy’s work ultimately led to the publication of Elements of Agricultural Chemistry, in a Course of Lectures for the Board of Agriculture in 1813, which was well received by those enthusiastic for a scientific approach to agriculture, though the book seems to have had little practical use.

Now, when last this blog left Davy, it was with Jan Golinski’s observation that when Davy left the countryside, he left behind the links between natural philosophy and radical politics, controversial experiments with nitrous oxide, and a commitment (echoing Joseph Priestley’s) to fostering a shared rational understanding through the public performance of experiment.  When Davy arrived at the RI in conservative London, he committed himself to entertaining lectures and experimentation using expensive apparatuses such as the voltaic pile, which he employed to dissociate chemical compounds, fostering his reputation as a figure at the vanguard of chemistry.

Although it does seem that at the RI Davy evidently preferred to consider deeper problems of chemical knowledge, he was continually drawn into the problems of practical chemistry that occupied the thoughts of the RI’s governors.  Although the scientific research itself did not extend into political philosophy, its conduct was part of a deeply political project that was connected to contentious debates about the land, its productivity, its owners’ ambitions, and the plight of the poor.  The prospect of a disjoint between a natural-political philosophy complex and a research-political economy tandem presents a variety of questions about how thought was configured circa 1800, beginning with: to what extent was there really a disjoint?  Happily, the question should be answerable through a combination of empirical historical research and further historiographical reflection.



1. Morris Berman - April 7, 2011

Dear Will,

I guess this comment falls into the tempus fugit category, or perhaps the plus ca change dept., but it was nice to see a review of my book on the RI after 33 years. A bit of a shock to learn that people are still reading it, actually. It was the first book I wrote; the tenth is coming out this autumn, and has a long chapter on the ideological role of technology in American culture and history. (“Why America Failed,” being publ. by Wiley & Sons) In any case, your review was an interesting walk down memory lane, and I thank you for it.

With kind regards,

Morris Berman

Will Thomas - April 8, 2011

Dear Morris,

Thanks for the very kind comment. Your book on the RI stands up with the great social-institutional histories of the ’70s and early ’80s (I’m thinking of Roger Hahn on the French Royal Academy of Sciences, and Morrell and Thackray on the British Association). I hope it’s still seriously read by students studying this era in the history of science. I didn’t address the third chapter on the colonial interest and the British Institution — of which I was ridiculously unaware! — but everyone should know that that material is very important and informative as well.

Since I was planning to address this point in my follow-up post, just so it doesn’t come out of the blue I should say now that I’m not as much taken with arguments about the “ideology of science and technology” insofar as they prefer to use the ideology to explain evils and failures, rather than to investigate the content of the ideology in detail. So, although the latter half of the book is also very useful — in particular, excellent use of prosopography, as in the first chapters — I’m not fully satisfied with the characterization of the RI’s turn to a Utilitarian ideology.

But this anti-anti-technocracy argument is a common theme on this blog, and it has sort of become my historiographical war horse. You might also be interested in (and will probably disagree with) my take on Stephen Toulmin’s arguments about the end of “cosmology”.

Again, though, I was very pleased to see your comment, and I do very much admire the book — age has not diminished it,

Best regards,


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