As part of our ‘pioneers in agriculture’ series we take a look at Joseph Elkington: the man who transformed the agricultural landscape through his work in land drainage.
‘Pioneer of Land Drainage’ is the phrase found on the modest monument to Joseph Elkington that stands in All Saints’ churchyard in the Warwickshire village of Stretton-on-Dunsmore.
The monument bears no statue; indeed, few today even remember the man’s name. In his own lifetime, however, Elkington was a legendary – if somewhat mysterious – figure who literally transformed the British agricultural landscape.
Poor drainage hampers healthy crop growth and brings parasites and diseases to livestock. This was as well known in ancient times as it is today. And efforts to dry out wetlands like those of the eastern Fens appear to date back to the Roman occupation; while the successful drainage of Romney Marsh on the south coast was achieved by the thirteenth century.
By the eighteenth century, though, drainage technology was scarcely more advanced than it had been in medieval times.
Cylindrical clay drainage pipes, for example, were not manufactured until the Victorian age (only after 1845, thanks to Thomas Scragg’s extruding machine, would they become widely accessible). Before then, simple surface ditches and subsurface trenches were the norm – the latter filled with gravel or straw for water to flow through, sometimes overlaid with tiles.
Early drainage systems were limited more fundamentally, however, by an almost completely undeveloped understanding of how water really moved through deep ground; of how it interacted with the geological structure of the environment.
It was such an understanding that Joseph Elkington would pioneer.
He was born into a middle-class farming family in 1739, in the very Warwickshire parish where his memorial now stands. When not yet twenty, and on the death of his father, he inherited the family farm; and he soon enough began to scrutinise the condition of the land.
It was boggy – to a degree that had cost his father the loss of several hundred sheep to liver rot. One pasture in particular bothered young Joseph: a large expanse of clayey ground that sloped down from a turnip field at the crest of a hill, and on which the Elkingtons traditionally kept sheep. Springs were visibly releasing water down into the ground from the top bank.
Joseph did what any farmer at the time would have done: he dug a four-foot-deep trench below the line of spring activity. It made no difference: the pasture below the trench remained as sodden as before. However, rather than write the ground off (as any other farmer at the time would have done), Joseph, on a hunch, tried something different.
One of his employees was on that day walking past with a crowbar, the kind used for making holes in the ground for fence poles. Joseph borrowed the bar and drove it deep into the bottom of his dug out trench – by a further four feet. Instantly the ditch flooded with water.
It was Elkington’s eureka moment. Suddenly, all became clear: the natural subsidence of water through porous ground was sometimes blocked by the obstruction of hidden, impervious strata of clay. And water could be made to drain successfully from any land simply by opening up the right passage.
It was a simple enough principle but, in practice, a complicated reality. Redirecting the natural flow of water through earth, across appreciable distances, could only be done on the basis of a clear picture of which strata of ground were porous and which were not; and of situating, sizing, angling and safeguarding the drainage canals so as to achieve a permanent, steady flow.
Elkington developed the required skill-set. He learned how to get an idea of local geology from mines and quarries and river beds; and to interpret the tell-tale signs of an area’s vegetation. He mastered the measurement of inclinations through the use of spirit-level, staff and telescope. And he traded that crowbar for a trusty, ground-boring auger.
Before long he had dried out not only the whole of his own farm (so that no sheep would ever again be afflicted by rot) but those of his neighbours too. And, over the next thirty years, as his fame spread, so too did his burden of work. By the 1790s Elkington is thought to have been personally responsible for the conversion of thousands of acres of useless English bogland into fertile crop fields and pastures.
His ability was thought uncanny, almost miraculous. His spring-tapping reminded one Midlands farmer of Moses striking the rock to bring forth gushing water.
But it was, of course, an early expression of the wholly scientific discipline of land-drainage engineering. And when word of Elkington’s work reached the Board of Agriculture (not a government department but a private society for the promotion of good farming practice) they knew they had to act.
Joseph Elkington was never a self-promoter; never the type to give lectures or write books. The Board of Agriculture therefore paid a young Edinburgh surveyor by the name of John Johnstone the considerable sum of £1000 to shadow Elkington through the summer of 1796; and to record his method of working for the instruction of all.
The resulting publication – An Account of the Mode of Draining Land, According to the System Practised by Mr Joseph Elkington – was published the following year; and regularly republished into the next century.
Johnstone’s Account makes it clear that Elkington’s particular skill was in draining bogs, particularly those caused by confined groundwater. Routine field underdrainage would not occur until the nineteenth century; and advances in understanding how to combat problems like compaction not until the soil sciences of our own times.
But the vast quantity of land reclaimed for farming by bog-draining in the eighteenth century contributed significantly to the great Agricultural Revolution of that era – which saw farming output soar as never before, not just keeping pace with the requirements of an exploding population but outstripping them.
Shortly before his sixtieth birthday, Joseph Elkington retired with his wife Sarah to a 500 acre farm in Staffordshire. He remained to the end a modest man – though the proud wearer, too, of a gold ring given him by George III in grateful recognition of his extraordinary services to the land.