David R. Stead, University of York
Arthur Young (1741-1820) was widely regarded by his contemporaries as the leading agricultural writer of the time. Born in London, he was the youngest child of the Suffolk gentry landowners Anne and the Reverend Arthur. Young was educated at Lavenham Grammar School, and after abortive attempts to become a merchant and then army officer, in 1763 took a farm on his mother’s estate at Bradfield, although he had little knowledge of farming. Nevertheless he conducted a variety of agricultural experiments and continued his early interest in writing by publishing his first major agricultural work, The Farmer’s Letters, in 1767. Young’s subsequent output was prolific. Most famous are his Tours of England, Ireland and France, which mixed travel diaries with facts, figures and critical commentary on farming practices. In 1784 he founded the periodical Annals of Agriculture, and edited the forty-six volumes published as well as contributing a large proportion of their content. Young was somewhat controversially appointed Secretary of the Board of Agriculture (a state-sponsored body promoting improved farming standards) in 1793, a position he held until his death. He also wrote six of the Board’s surveys of English counties.
Young was a vigorous advocate of agrarian improvements, especially enclosures and long leases, and his statistics and lively prose must have helped publicize and diffuse the innovations in farming practices that were taking place. He was consulted by agriculturists and politicians at home and abroad, including George Washington, and received numerous honors. His marriage to Martha Allen from 1765 was unhappy, though, with faults seemingly on both sides. The youngest of the couple’s four children died in 1797, triggering the melancholia and religious fervor that characterised Young in his later years. His prodigious work rate slowed after about 1805 on account of deteriorating vision, and ultimately blindness.
Some contemporary rivals, notably William Marshall, were fiercely critical of Young’s abilities as a farmer and accurate observer: the judgment of historians remains divided. Young certainly never made a financial success of farming, but this was partly because he expended large sums on agricultural experiments and was frequently absent from his farm writing or travelling. Allegations that Young’s enquiries were based on alehouse gossip, or conducted too hastily, are perhaps not without some truth, but his sample survey investigative procedure undoubtedly represented a pioneering scientific approach to agricultural research. Ironically, historians’ analysis of Youngs facts and figures has produced results that do not always support his original conclusions. For example, enclosures turn out to be not as important in increasing farm output as Young maintained.
Brunt, Liam. “The Advent of the Sample Survey in the Social Sciences.” The Statistician 50 (2001): 179-89.
Brunt, Liam. “Rehabilitating Arthur Young.” Economic History Review 56 (2003): 265-99.
Gazley, John G. The Life of Arthur Young, 1741-1820. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1973.
Kerridge, Eric. “Arthur Young and William Marshall.” History Studies 1 (1968): 43-53.
Mingay, G. E., editor. Arthur Young and His Times. London: Macmillan, 1975.