David R. Stead, University of York
William Marshall (1745-1818) was one of the two leading writers on eighteenth century English agriculture, the other and far better known being his great rival Arthur Young. The younger son of William and Alice, yeoman farmers in Sinnington, in the North Riding of Yorkshire, Marshall spent the first fourteen years of his working life employed in commerce in London and the West Indies. After what he considered was a miraculous recovery from illness, Marshall decided to devote himself to the study of agriculture, which he had already been pursuing in his spare time. His method of research differed from the contemporary procedure, exemplified by Young, which was to investigate farming practices by briefly touring a county and interviewing the inhabitants. Marshall thought that the appropriate unit of analysis was the natural agricultural district rather than the regions somewhat artificially demarcated by county boundaries. He also believed that at least twelve months’ personal observation and experience of farming in an area was required before a proper assessment could be made.
Accordingly, in 1774 Marshall took a farm near Croydon, Surrey, and four years later published an account of his experiences there. In 1780 he applied for a grant from the Society of Arts to conduct his residential research elsewhere, but the committee – which included Young – rejected his request. Marshall instead funded himself by finding employment as an estate manager in Norfolk and then Staffordshire. In later years he resided and worked in a number of places throughout the country, and in 1798 finally completed his ambitious twelve-volume study of England’s Rural Economy. He was also intermittently employed as a landscape gardener, writing three books on the practice.
Marshall was a proponent of the establishment of a state-sponsored body to promote improved farming standards, but when the Board of Agriculture was created in 1793 the post of Secretary went to Young. Marshall disliked the Board’s decision to rapidly compile surveys of counties, but nevertheless contributed the report covering the central Highlands of Scotland. By the time he married Elizabeth Hodgson in 1807, Marshall was pursuing his second ambitious project, a Review and Abstract of the Board’s county surveys. His Review, which ran to five volumes published over ten years, was sharply critical of the quality of the reports, with Young being compared to ‘superficial charlatans.’ Marshall certainly lacked Young’s vigorous writing style and contemporary status as an internationally renowned agricultural expert, but historians continue to debate who was the more accurate and pioneering investigator. When he died, Marshall was acting upon his long-standing proposal for an agricultural college by building one at his home in Pickering, in his native county of Yorkshire.
Kerridge, Eric. “Arthur Young and William Marshall.” History Studies 1 (1968): 43-53.