- Matthew and George Culley: Farming Letters, 1798–1804
The poet John Clare complained that his fellow villagers were "insensible to every thing but toiling & talking & that to no purpose" (Letters, ed. Mark Storey [Oxford, 1985], 230). The volume under review consists entirely of talk about toil, but vividly demonstrates how what might irritate a young poet—small talk about weather and livestock and the price of sheep and corn—might be both historically informative and interesting to read. As Clare well knew, one of the most ambitious of all eighteenth-century poems, John Dyer's The Fleece (1757), [End Page 329] was entirely concerned with toil and talk, following the progress of wool from the sheep's back to the four corners of the earth.
George and Matthew Culley represent the northern English arm of the sheep-breeding revolution that had inspired Dyer, by producing the agriculturally important Border Leicester sheep for which they became famous (it was initially known as "the Culley breed"). Like their correspondent and early tutor George Bakewell, the Culley brothers employed such progressive (and, in their native Northumberland, pioneering) agricultural techniques as embankment and field drainage, a four-course crop rotation adapted from the Norfolk system, and artificial field-flooding to improve and extend grass and crop yields. They were, in short, energetic, productive, and improving farmers, and they farmed, mainly as tenants, on a large scale and over a very wide area of Northumberland. Their ambitious scale is the raison d'être of this collection of letters. For their agricultural enterprise to succeed, even at a basic profit-and-loss level, they needed constantly to communicate with their chief steward, John Welch. In an age where the postal system was uncertain, and the high price of postage made it a luxury item (a fact that also dismayed poet Clare), the Culleys were unswerving in their ardor to communicate a constant flow of ideas and advice on agricultural best practice. "Never let us mind postage," as George Culley declared to his steward, Welch, in 1802, "in these matters of importance" (280). They wrote constantly and encouraged Welch also to make letter-writing a continuous activity, advising him to "begin a fresh one as soon as you have finished the last, and write as things occur to you so that it becomes a kind of journal of your proceedings" (52).
How did they make their revolution? As Anne Orde explains in an illuminating introduction to the letters, they did it by living frugally but spending generously on "improvements, hedging and hiring tups [i.e., rams] in a way that frightened their neighbours" (xxiv). All the more reason, then, for them to brief their steward on the need to fall in with customary ways of working with fellow farmers and shepherds. They may have been thrusting entrepreneurs, but they also needed the friendly cooperation of those who might be fearful of their methods, especially when their steward was farming a far southern outpost of their empire. "My brother and I agreed to it as a thing customary in that country, to get a few neighbors' ploughs to help some day to plow your fallows, and give them a piece of beef and an ancker of ale," George sensibly advises (7). Sometimes subtler skills in social interaction are called for, such as that of keeping lines of communication open with everyone in the business—even butchers and stock-jobbers of whom one might disapprove, but who could be useful: "But John the Claytons are usefull as prickers or pushers of the other jobbers, and although I don't admire them, yet it may be right to sell them a lot sometimes" (279). The circulation of social energies on display is sometimes a little less calculating, as witnessed in Matthew's paternalistic concern for a man who has fallen on hard times: "Pray what is done about Peacock's brother? I fear his family may suffer. You must consult Joseph Hodgson and Tod, and not...