Experiments in Land and Society, 1793-1833

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: School of English


My project explores the cultural history of environmental change amid the Industrial Revolution in Britain, from the 1790s to the 1830s. I study poets, politicians and philosophers of the Romantic period who were also first-hand participants in experimental schemes to change the physical landscape around them. The writers who feature in this project drained marshlands, managed estates, designed industrial villages, or - on a smaller but still significant scale - gardened, farmed or planned utopian communities. Their social and artistic ideals influenced their land reform enterprises. In turn, the successes and failures of those enterprises changed their ideas about society and art. Studying these writers reveals the interactions between nature, politics and imagination during a period that shaped the global environment of the present day.

Romantic literature has always been special to environmentalists. It has often been seen as a profound source of ecological values, thanks to figures like Wordsworth ('Come forth into the light of things / Let Nature be your teacher'), Coleridge's albatross-shooting ancient mariner, and Mary Shelley's reckless Victor Frankenstein. Many scholars have traced the origins of green politics to Romantic idealisations of harmonious dwelling amid the natural world. Their research has been important, but it also has its limitations. The coupling of Romanticism and modern environmentalism can make it seem as if all that really matters is the sensitivity with which solitary individuals appreciate nature. In that perspective, important things are lost.

This project is different because it stresses the fact that the nonhuman world is always changing. 'Nature' is less a static source of spiritual values than a dynamic product of historical circumstances. Hence my concern with experiments in new kinds of land use. The authors I study were shaped by personal experience of the ground they worked on: its obduracy, its ecological complexity and its potential for new life. I am especially interested in writers who were radical or oppositional in their politics. Through them, I will examine how social status and power relations mediate experiences of the nonhuman world. My project sheds new light on several canonical Romantic poets: Wordsworth, Coleridge and Percy Shelley. It sets them alongside other writers who are far less well remembered, like William Madocks, the radical MP who undertook a vast scheme to embank an estuary from the sea, and Charles Waterton, the naturalist who turned his ancestral estate into what has been called the world's first nature reserve.

I will track those reformers through five pivotal decades for Britain's economy and environment. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are the 'classic' era of the British Industrial Revolution. Historians have increasingly recognised that the Industrial Revolution involved the reshaping and rethinking of ecosystems. In Britain and its overseas colonies, industrialisation required both radically transformed landscapes and new conceptions of nature itself. For that reason, the main strand of this project will be complemented by a collection of essays, written by economic historians and literary scholars, exploring wider issues of environmental change in the Romantic decades. That essay collection will break new ground in showing what economic and environmental history can add to the study of literature.

This project's ultimate aim is to map a new path for environmental studies of British history and culture. Romantic writings about experiments in land and society let us address fundamental questions about the causes and cultures of ecological change. Britain's imperial and industrial transformation shaped the global environmental crisis of the present day. The Romantics' land experiments can help us understand the history of upheavals that now affect everyone, everywhere.

Planned Impact

This project deals with real places: landscapes that still exist, and ones that in many cases still look as they do thanks to their transformations in the Romantic period. That means the project has a great deal of potential significance beyond university departments. It should have a positive value for people and groups who live near or care for the places that I study, as well as a broader relevance for thinking about environmental change in contemporary Britain.

Throughout this project, I will collaborate with two organisations that look after places visited by thousands of people each year. Both organisations will benefit from the project's research discoveries and from developing new visitor and community programmes.

The first is the Wordsworth Trust, which conserves William and Dorothy Wordsworth's home and manuscripts at Dove Cottage, Grasmere. Through a Heritage Lottery Fund-backed project, the Trust aims to restore the orchard garden at Dove Cottage to the condition in which the Wordsworths knew it. My research into the Wordsworths' garden-making and Romantic-period horticulture will provide historical evidence to support the restoration of the orchard and other outdoor spaces. The Trust will also develop a new education programme (including a Dove Cottage 'satellite garden' in one of their partner schools) and community projects based on my research into the Wordsworths and Romantic gardening. Those activities will feed into an exhibition in the Trust's museum, and they will leave an enduring legacy in the Trust's work with schools and its approach to presenting conservation issues to Dove Cottage's 40,000 annual visitors.

The second organisation is Lancashire Wildlife Trust. The Trust's Carbon Landscape project is restoring a broad corridor of post-industrial land between Warrington, Salford and Wigan. I will contribute to their conservation of Chat Moss, a former wetland that was first drained and converted to farmland by William Roscoe. Roscoe, a historian, botanist, MP and agricultural reformer, is today poorly remembered and understood. My research into his life and work will inform the way the Trust presents Chat Moss's history and engages with local people. Through this project we will work with local schools and community organisations to develop talks, walks, workshops and a day-long 'festival' relating to Roscoe and the history of the moss. Again, this partnership promises an ongoing legacy: our collaboration has already started to influence the Trust's approach to communicating the complex histories of human use of 'natural' sites.

Further potential collaborations include public activities and an exhibition organised with Wakefield Museum, inspired by Charles Waterton and his pioneering conservation work on his estate at Walton Hall. Other places that I study offer more opportunities for projects that will reveal to residents and visitors the histories that shaped present-day landscapes. For instance, the town of Porthmadog came into being through William Madocks's land reclamation scheme, and the World Heritage Site at New Lanark is largely the creation of a philosopher and industrialist whom I research: Robert Owen.

Further into the future, this project has a still wider potential impact. By recovering stories of environmental transformations amid the Industrial Revolution it could benefit visitor and conservation organisations on a national scale. The histories that I examine offer a way to understand the past lives of landscapes we might now take for granted, raising questions about land reform and rights to landownership. Over the course of the project, I will explore potential collaborations on environmental topics with heritage and community organisations like the Museum of Science and Industry and the Rochdale Pioneers Museum, both in Manchester, and Armley Mills Industrial Museum in Leeds.


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