On the desk in front of me is a modest looking book measuring approximately 24.5 cm x 15cm x 5cm. It appears to have been rebound at some stage of its life. It has pasteboard covers and quarter cover binding in brown leather. What may have been the original title lettering, in gold, on red leather, has been retained, cut out from the former covering and attached to the spine.
The pagination indicates that the book contains several pages of introduction, 520 pages of main text and an additional 16 pages advertising other publications. Interestingly, pages 9 to 16 of this latter section are uncut – the folded sheets of paper have been sewn into the book but were never cut open during the binding process. As was fashionable at the time, the pages are untrimmed and have uneven or ‘deckled’ edges.
The book also features a coloured fold out map of the county of Hampshire and Isle of Wight, as well as fold out pages of data tables and several plates featuring images of agricultural equipment. It seems that one or more of the book’s earlier users may have been so taken with the image plates of two ploughs and a Patent Hampshire waggon, that they cut or tore out the pages containing them. However, if we look carefully at the bottom of the page, below the text describing the waggon we can see a palimpsest or ghost image of a spoked waggon wheel.
A printer’s note to potential binders with directions for where within the text to incorporate the image plates is an interesting reminder to us that the notion of buying a book ready-bound from a bookshop is comparatively recent. The original purchaser of this book in 1813 would have bought the bundle of pages unbound and taken them to a bookbinder to select a binding style according to taste and budget.The content
The 1813 edition of the General View of the Agriculture of Hampshire including the Isle of Wight
, contains an introduction written in Brockenhurst in March 1809. By the time he came to write about the state of agriculture in Hampshire, James Vancouver had already been involved in the production of agricultural surveys of Cambridgeshire, Essex, and Devon as part of a series of reports on the state of agriculture in English counties commissioned by the then recently established Board of Agriculture (1793).
The book’s scope is extensive. Vancouver explores the condition of buildings, agriculture implements used, crop types, gardens and orchards, methods of soil improvement and crop production, animals, woods and plantations, agricultural labour, transport links and the fairs and markets in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.
To modern eyes some passages of the text may appear quaint, archaic, and longwinded and evoke an image of a bygone rural idyl. For instance, Vancouver conveys a concern with ‘dry weather during the autumnal months’ (much like we have recently experienced) which, he worries, ‘will have left more strong beer than water within the boundaries of a parish
Describing cob walls, Vancouver notes their ‘rough-cast or white-washed’ appearance, with ‘a neat coping of thatch’ and ‘having neither a mean or deforming character, but on the side of a verdant lawn, or partly concealed in the skirting woods or pleasure ground, serve much to vary the verdure, and harmonize vary agreeably in such places’.
Mr St Barbe’s large red brick wall near Lymington was picked out for special praise by Charles Vancouver who described it as ‘very neat’ and of a ‘waving character’, six feet in height above its foundations and ‘75 yards in length’. The cost of the wall came to 5l 12 s ‘per perch’, (5 1/2 yards) including materials and workmanship’. This walling can still be seen in Lymington today. (p.287)
Yet, these passages also tell us much about contemporary concerns with aesthetics – how gardens appeared, and how buildings affected the local neighbourhood and environment – at least for the privileged wealthy people of early 19th
century Hampshire. Vancouver notes, for instance, that ‘Colonel Mitford, of Exbury, has also erected several new and convenient cottages. In placing these buildings, the Colonel has had it no less in view to prevent the appearance of any nuisance from the street’ (p73).
Vancouver points out that Hampshire ‘seem[ed] generally to be much better supplied with comfortable dwellings for the peasantry’ (p.70) and cites examples of landowners building dwellings for labourers and their families using techniques and materials (including recycled ships’ planking) to limit damp and unpleasant conditions. Nevertheless, when Vancouver refers to ‘cottages built for a superior class of labourer’ it is a sharp and uncomfortable reminder to us of the social hierarchy and inequality in rural England at the beginning of the 19th
Many of the issues that gave rise to this book are echoed in concerns today. At the time this book was published there was deep concern about national security – England was embroiled in a global conflict with France (the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), at war with the very young United States (1812-1815); the country was experiencing deep social division, unrest and uncertainty, which culminated, a few years after this book was written, in the Peterloo Massacre (1819); and there were widespread concerns over resources and national economic sustainability.
Vancouver’s agricultural survey of Hampshire also provides telling insight into contemporary attitudes towards nature and the environment and describes agricultural practices that have played a key part in shaping the local landscapes we live in today.
James Vancouver’s younger brother, George was a protégé of James Cook and led an expedition to the Pacific northwest coast in the 1790s’s. George Vancouver is remembered by the island and city in modern British Columbia, Canada, that bear his name.
George’s professional and personal life was not without difficulties, and these may be behind James Gillray’s 1796 cartoon entitled ‘Caneing in Conduit Street’ (the street in which George lived in London). The cartoon is now in the collections of the National Portrait Gallery. Gillray’s cartoon features George, seemingly involved in a lively dispute with Thomas Pitt (2nd Baron Camelford), but most intriguingly for us perhaps, is that Gillray’s cartoon seems to feature a picture of Charles Vancouver – a rare if not unique image of the author of General View of the Agriculture of Hampshire, including the Isle of Wight. James is thought to be the figure standing between the two protagonists.
But perhaps most remarkable of all is that this book object has travelled across time and geographical space, transcended historical categories and human life spans, enabling us opportunities not only to read it over two hundred years after it was written but, to share in the experiences of the book’s original users who would held it, felt its heft, the texture of its pages, smelled the odour of its paper, and the sound of its pages being turned, just as we can today.