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Most people binge on television shows. I binge on reading eighteenth-century travel diaries — especially when they tell me fascinating new things about the inventors of the time.
One that especially caught my eye this week was a kind of pilgrimage to Leicestershire in 1785 by two young Frenchmen, Alexandre and Francois de La Rochefoucauld — the sons of a duke — to visit a man famous for his cattle.1 They went to Dishley, just a couple of miles from Loughborough, to the 500-acre farm rented by Robert Bakewell.
Bakewell’s story could have been an unremarkable one. He was born, farmed, and died at Dishley, much like his father before him. But Bakewell, unlike most people, caught the improving mentality, or attitude — the one thing all inventors, both then and now, have in common — which had him viewing everything around him in terms of its capacity for betterment. The improving mentality was a reframing the status quo as a problem to solve. A habit of optimisation. A compulsion to perfect.
It is unclear where exactly Bakewell picked up the improving mentality. His father’s and then his own landlord, Sir William Gordon, appears to have been an agricultural improver. He conducted a tour of the West Country at some point in his youth, presumably coming into contact with more improvers — though I suspect he was already motivated to travel by having already caught the improving bug. When starting his own experiments with cattle, he drew his original stocks from some of the better-known improvers of cows and sheep.
Regardless of how Bakewell picked up the improving mentality, however, he definitely had it. As the young French aristocrats put it, after spending just a little time with him, “he showed us how well, beneath a heavy and rough exterior, he had been making observations, and studying how to bring into being his fine breed of animals with as much care as one would put into the study of mathematics or any of the sciences.”
Bakewell’s core objective, in improving cattle, was to make them as profitable as possible. His core insight was that you could divide a cow with two horizontal lines, with butchers paying the most for the topmost meat on cows’ backs, fit for roasting — “gentlemen’s meat” of the sirloin and fillet. The middle section was less valuable. And the lowest, generally boiled, was “only fit for the army”. Over the course of decades he thus selectively bred cows with the largest possible backs — where the most valuable meat was — and the leanest possible lower parts, their bellies forming a sort of triangle.
This strategy was not just about maximising the price of the cows when sold for meat, but about making them as efficient as possible when it came to feeding them. The less feed spent on developing muscle in the lower, less valuable parts, the better. Bakewell ended up doing similar for his sheep, “so plump that we have measured several of them and found them broader than they are tall … having on each side a great lump of fat which the farmer called cloven flank”. In sheep he selected for smaller bones — it was all about their fat and meat. And he improved horses — used for pulling ploughs, driving mills and hauling carts — developing a breed that was short, had low joints, and a broad chest, “strong enough to pull a house along”.
As one of his French admirers put it, “little by little, by dint of trials and the coupling of what he discovered to be the best animals, he came in the end to create the most superb breed of animals I have ever seen.”2 This was not just by trial and error: Bakewell separated a his farm into many hedge-enclosed fields of just 6-10 acres, in which he conducted controlled trials, for example buying a particular county’s typical sheep and turning it out onto the same kinds of fields with the same feed and upbringing, to see how his own breeds differed. This had the added advantage of being highly effective advertising for his own breeds: “he demonstrates the comparison to everyone who visits his farm, and it is undeniable that the others are thin and lean compared with his”.
Bakewell’s cows and sheep became extraordinarily valuable when sold for meat, though he soon discovered he could make even more money by leasing out the young males of his breeds to other farmers so that they could improve their own — “but never as good as that of Mr Bakewell who has both the male and the female”. Recognising how essential it was that he not lose his competitive advantage, he even set up his own abattoir and sold only dead meat, for fear that an unscrupulous butcher might be tempted to breed from the live animals sent to slaughter.
One of his French visitors judged that “he has the glory of being the only man in England, perhaps in the world, who has reached such great perfection in cattle, sheep and horses. I think he has reached the point he was aiming at and no longer seeks to improve them, only to lease them out.”
But perfecting the breed was still not enough. The improving mentality was a compulsion — there was and is always a way to optimise, to tweak and finetune. Bakewell thus perfected the way his cattle were raised. The agricultural writer Arthur Young was astonished at the cows’ extraordinary docility, so that “by a little swish”, even a young boy could gently direct them wherever they wanted, being “accustomed to this method from being calves.”3 That docility meant they were less likely to harm one another and get into accidents too.
Bakewell even conducted a cost-benefit analysis of whether to let the cattle roam free or have them tethered nearer to their stalls. Letting them roam free had the advantage that they would manure the land, meaning that he would not have to pay people to cart the dung out onto the field, and to harvest hay from the fields and bring it to the stalls. But he worked out that letting them roam free would also require spending more on people to watch them, that they would only manure the fields unevenly anyway, and the cattle often tended to trample what they were supposed to eat. Having them tethered meant that “nothing is lost, all is eaten, and the manure is better rotted.”
Bakewell even configured the layout of his farm so that “all is in tremendous order, everything arranged to avoid wasting time in carting from one place to another”. If it could be optimised, it was. Despite the fact that he rented his farm rather than owning it, Bakewell even had a network of wooden aqueducts and about ten miles of canal dug across his lands in order to irrigate them. He even told his French visitors in 1785 that he planned to make the canals navigable by boat, so that he could float heavy loads of grain or turnips from one side of the farm to the other.
The irrigation was essential for yet another task, which was to make every acre of the farm count in terms of fodder for his cattle. He showed his French visitors that he could get almost seven times as much hay from an acre of carefully manured and watered meadow than from one that was not. Naturally, he experimented continually on getting it exactly right. To the improver, there was always something else to be improved.
With such attention to detail, it’s no wonder that the English became such prodigious meat eaters in general. Our same French visitors in 1785 commented throughout their journey at the extraordinary diets enjoyed by everyone, even working people down mines or in factories. Indeed, they noted a peculiarly “English drowsiness that immediately follows a meal”, characterised by a roundly extended belly, though it came also came at a cost: “much breaking of wind, which the English generally take no trouble to control.”
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Norman Scarfe, Innocent Espionage: The La Rochefoucauld Brothers’ Tour of England in 1785 (The Boydell Press, 1995), pp.30-5
Incidentally there’s a great piece on this aspect by Gwern (which, funnily enough, was inspired by a talk I gave some years ago - so we’re coming full circle in some respect): https://gwern.net/review/bakewell
Arthur Young, The farmer’s tour through the east of England, Vol.1 (W. Strahan: 1771), p.113