On Adherence to Old Customs.[1]

“There is an unaccountable prejudice to projectors of all kinds ; for which reason, when I talk of practising to fly, silly people think me an owl for my pains.”

SOON after I took up my country residence in England, I scraped acquaintance with some of the neighbouring farmers, who now and then called in, to take a pot of ale ; and I received them with civility. Our discourse naturally turned to agricultural subjects ; and, whilst I reasoned on new plans, my practical guests very soon betrayed they had not the smallest faith in “book-farming,” as they called it.

“Their own practice,” said they, “must undoubtedly be the best, because it was that which had been handed down by their forefathers.” At one of our meetings, I very strongly deprecated this conclusion, and plainly told them they were all wrong. I had no doubt their practice was good : but nevertheless, said I, from books many useful hints, and much valuable information, might he derived upon the better practice of other countries ; and which, in my opinion, would succeed equally in Sussex, as in other parts of England.

Nettled at my arrogance, Homespun, who was the most talkative at our meetings, the cock of the village club, and whose face, at this time, glowed with my October, exclaimed, “Pugh! I care not a single barley-corn for your books ; give me practice ; give me example : (thumping his empty jug on the table) these are the best rules for farmers.” “True, friend,” said I, gently rebuking him for his indecorum, “example has no doubt, a prevailing force on the actions of mankind ; I admit it is more conclusive than the soundest reasoning ; and since I see it will be impossible to persuade you by argument, I will take another mode of bringing you to my way of thinking.”

Homespun by no means relished my admonition, and grinning a sarcastic smile, he, and my other rustic guests rose, and left the room.

It was not until some months afterwards that he paid me another visit, and this was during an unusually dry summer, when all the pastures were burnt up. He looked dejected, complained bitterly of the times, said he was almost ruined, that his cattle were starved, and his cows were dry, and he had been obliged to send them to Romney Marsh. “Mr. Homespun,” said I, “you shall now be convinced that this is entirely the consequence of your pertinacious adherence to old customs ; if you had listened to my advice, and to book-farming, all this mischief would have been prevented. Come with me, and behold the lucerne you despised. The crop was put in a few days after our last debate ; and I have already had three cuttings. My pastures, you see, are equally bare as your own : but my cattle are still in good condition, and my cows yield twice the quantity of milk they had ever done before : and all this is the effect of the crop you treated with so much contempt.”

Homespun looked grave, and as he approached a field of six acres, he was struck with amazement ; he had never before witnessed such a crop. His forefathers had none of the kind. It was indeed uncommonly fine ; he viewed it, and handled it, and exclaimed, “Well, surely this is a lamentable fine thing: I will immediately set about five acres : Oh! fool that I was! but I really could never believe it was possible to have so weighty a spew in so dry a season.” He added, scratching his head, “I now perceive that you gentlemen farmers are not so much to be despised as we thought of.” I thanked him for his compliment.

Thus, by perseverance and example, I succeeded in removing from homespun, and the rest of my mulish guests, who were all attracted by my lucerne, the strong prejudice under which they laboured towards old custom, and against book-farming. Their visits daily became more frequent ; my opinions were listened to, and received, with more respect and decorum than was usual at the commencement of our acquaintance. There was an end of their sly jeering and jokes, which did not escape my penetration ; and I soon became a sort of oracle among them, whom they eagerly consulted at those times when they came to see my “new­fangled husbandry,” as they called it, many parts of which they did not, however, fail to imitate ; but not till they saw it was their interest to do so.

In turning the minds of men from ancient custom, or deep-rooted prejudice, we must naturally expect to encounter difficulties. The most forcible arguments are of no avail : butt once shew them a successful example ; prove to them, practically, the advantages they will derive, and self-interest will do the rest.

By such means no one need despair of converting the most obstinate. Enlightened and liberal minds are, indeed, far more easy to persuade. Indubitable testimony of what has already been done, amid even the opinions of men who have been distinguished by their skill and knowledge in the matters of which they treat, are received by those with scarcely less persua si ve force than the evidence of facts. It is to this class of men I submit the following extracts ; and whilst I recommend them to their serious attention, I must remark that they will find the opinions of Sir John Sinclair, and the experience of Sir Henry Vavasour have most fully corroborated those opinions I have offered in the St. Helena Registers, on the subject of increasing the food of cattle, by means of arable land.

27th July, 1812.

  1. I hesitated some time before I determined to give a place to this and the succeeding paper : but as this paper was calculated to overturn old prejudices ; and “Calculator's confessions” convey a variety of accurate information upon points connected with the old and new husbandry of St. Helena, and as the sentiments of the supposed Norfolk farmer are precisely those which I entertain, in regard to the best modes of cultivating, and improving, the island, it is hoped that these considerations may appear sufficient reasons, for having mixed papers of a ludicrous nature with those of a graver description.

 Section XVIII