Nostalgia: Ryedale’s rural polymath

Beck Isle Museum, Pickering, the former home of William Marshall.
Beck Isle Museum, Pickering, the former home of William Marshall.

Though deservedly the best reported, Sir George Cayley of Brompton was not the only resident genius in Ryedale during the lifetime of Jane Austen. This year, 2018, marks the bi-centenary of the death of William Marshall, the prolific author of millions of words on farming.

William was born in Sinnington in 1745, the younger son of a prosperous yeoman. Like most men of that time, place and occupation, he would have been expected to follow in his family’s business, as his elder brother, John, did. Exceptionally, however, he spent much of his adult life travelling widely outside Yorkshire. Not even his better known and bitter rival, Arthur Young, journeyed as far and wrote as accurately and honestly as he did; and no county in England, or even the Highlands of Scotland, escaped William’s close, critical and objective inspection. Anyone today interested in the lives and livelihoods of his/her rural ancestors would be more fruitfully employed reading one of his numerous volumes than the novels of Jane Austen.

Two centuries ago England was still overwhelmingly rural. Half the workforce was employed directly in agriculture. Though Ryedale was relatively affluent and benefited from seasonal visitors from Scarborough’s “company”, by urban standards its inhabitants were mainly peasants. [Marshall objected strongly to the term “peasantry” when used to describe contemporary farm labourers, arguing that it applied only to Russia’s unfree “serfs”].

Nevertheless, William acknowledged that the farming community in North Yorkshire still practised customs that were medieval in origin. One such tradition was that the father of a bride-to-be provided her with a “bride-wain”, a cart-load of furniture and utensils for her new home. The wain was pulled by pairs of oxen and also contained gifts from neighbours as it trundled past their cottages.

Other surviving customs included “riding the stang”, a way of shaming and punishing a husband who ill-treated his wife. If the husband failed to improve his behaviour, his neighbours were known to duck him in the village pond.

Twelve days after Christmas, Plough Day or “Fond Plufe” was celebrated by local boys pulling a heavy plough through their village, collecting money. Householders who refused to contribute risked an unwelcome deep furrow through their gardens or allotments. Each ploughboy party was led by “Mab” and his “wife”, both dressed like harlequins with blackened faces.

In fact, Marshall had little sympathy for what he described as the ignorance and immorality of the labouring poor. Though he lived through years of high inflation, especially of bread prices, he regarded most working men and women as naturally untrustworthy, dishonest, lazy and amenable only to harsh discipline. They were corrupted by drudgery and poverty.

Though an advocate and pioneer of “scientific” reform and “improved” farming, William did not approve of all the new ways. He still preferred oxen to draught horses and designed a special collar for the former. To those who argued that horses were more manageable, he replied: “A rung ox is as passive as a spaniel and leads like a cur.”

Unless they were locations of major agricultural fairs and markets, such as Malton and York, towns and particularly industrial towns, were of little interest to him. For example, he was pleased that the best of local produce, butter, found its way to London, but also that the inferior kind, which locals called “grease”, was sent to the West Riding’s Leeds and Bradford!

Each village or cluster of adjacent villages in Ryedale were for the most part self-sufficient, closely-knit communities. They had their own resident blacksmiths, carpenters, brewers, shoemakers, farriers, spinners and weavers. In every cottage bread was baked, bacon cured, milk turned into butter and cheese and barley saved for home-brewing. It was a do-it-yourself world for basic existence. Marriages within the same localities were normal. William’s own mother came from Middleton and so did his wife.

Marshall’s own career was extraordinary. At 15 he had been apprenticed to a London linen-draper, but soon tired of the work. For a time he tried insurance in the City until a legacy of £500 allowed him to begin a life-long study of farming throughout the whole country, mainly by first-hand observation but also by reading in the library of the British Museum.

He poured scorn on “amateur” observers who had nothing that was practical or useful to tell their readers. However distinguished, none of his predecessors or contemporaries, escaped his satirical eye. As a self-taught “landscape gardener”, he challenged the views of “Capability” Brown; as agent to Lord Sheffield in Norfolk, he described him as “a kind of rustic despot”; and of John Tuke, who published an account of the agriculture of the North Riding, he wrote that he was no more than “a land surveyor” who merely plagiarised others!

William understood keenly that there could be no fundamental improvement to farming methods and food production without detailed, accurate and thorough investigation of existing practices. He was aware that after centuries of stagnation there was now a revolutionary growth in population. At his birth, in England and Wales, there were probably fewer than six million inhabitants, but at his death, 70 years later, about double that number. In 1798, the publication of an essay on population by Thomas Malthus and three years later the first national census alerted the nation to the potential consequences of overpopulation at a time when the number of farmers was in decline. In the event, prophecies of famine and civil riots were much exaggerated, but Marshall was one of a few to appreciate that “the art of agriculture”, as he called it, was crucial to sustain a rapidly increasing urban and industrial population. Accordingly, he gave his well-informed, experienced support to the many ways that farmers might raise their yields of cereals and meat, such as field enclosures, innovative crop rotations and “scientific” breeding of cattle and sheep.

William Marshall was buried in the same grave as his wife at Middleton church. They had no children and he left no will, but his estate was valued at £6,600. He had spent the last years of his long life in his home at Beck Isle house in Pickering, which he had hoped would become the country’s first agricultural college. The memorial to him in Pickering church, which he shares with his brother John, described him as “a mechanic” with “considerable knowledge” of “Philology, Botany and Chemistry” as well as the rural economy.