One of the things I’ve noticed since moving from Newcastle on Tyne to Wakefield five years ago is how relatively fewer famous people have originated from this county town of West Yorkshire which I now call home. In Geordieland, I was positively swimming in famous names, blue plaques, game-changing careers and local inventions, from Thomas Bewick, George Stephenson and William Armstrong, to the footballers Gazza and Alan Shearer, among many, many others. My observations around Wakefield over the last half a decade have yielded: an eighteenth-century novel’s protagonist, The Vicar of Wakefield, created by Oliver Goldsmith; the twentieth-century artist and sculptor, Barbara Hepworth; and the 70s and 80s pop group, Black Lace, which created “Agadoo” (unfortunately!). I don’t envisage Wakefield’s Tourist Information Centre commissioning tea towels and mugs covered in the names of famous Wakefielders any time soon!
The person I’ve omitted from this esteemed list, of course, is Charles Waterton (1782-1865), a pioneering conservationist who as early as 1820 turned his birthplace at Walton Hall (near Wakefield), to which he returned after travelling around South America, into the WORLD’S first wildfowl and nature reserve. He built a nine-foot high wall around his Waterton estate, populated it with the very first bird nesting boxes and carried out various ground-breaking and important experiments by swapping eggs and observing the birds’ behaviour in minute detail. He also fought a lengthy court battle throughout the 1840s against a nearby soap works which he believed was poisoning his trees and lakes and eventually had it removed by court order. This Wakefield man was arguably an environmentalist and his estate is a testimony to his foresight and environmental attitudes. I have walked around his estate innumerable times, and many local people deeply appreciate having the world’s first nature reserve on their doorstep. As I am a passionate advocate of looking back into the medieval and early modern, as well as the post-industrial, epochs in any attempt to understand the origins and development of modern environmental attitudes and values, I was naturally drawn towards Charles Waterton’s story. His intriguing projects ranged from paying locals 6d for hedgehogs which he then released into his park to constructing a sandbank for sand martins and a stone tower featuring twenty nesting holes.
You can probably imagine my horror when I discovered that the modern speed machine that is HS2 is proposed to blast straight through Waterton Estate, ruining Waterton’s vision and the very long-established and indeed globally important site of his progressive nature reserve. Of course, there is a local campaign to persuade the government to spare Waterton Park in their planned route for HS2, and even Sir David Attenborough has joined Wakefield Council in this noble, heavily politicised and increasingly urgent fight. UNESCO is seriously considering awarding the estate World Heritage Status, which would certainly protect it under law, but right now plans are still in place to blast the railway directly through Walton’s beloved trees. Just as Waterton protected the lake and the trees from the soap works, and from the onslaught of industrialisation more generally, we now surely must follow in his footsteps and protect his legacy from the invasive intrusion of HS2. We ignore, and destroy the legacies of, early (pre-1850) environmentalists and their relationships with environmental resources, systems and processes to our detriment, and to the detriment of environmental history as a whole.
We don’t have to look very hard at all to find examples of technological innovation and its direct impact on the environment in the early modern period. One example of a man who realised quite literally the power of the water was Rowland Vaughan. He was born in 1559 in Herefordshire, fought in the Irish Tudor Wars and then returned home to marry his cousin, Elizabeth Parry, in 1585. Elizabeth owned a manor and a water mill on the River Dore, a tributary of the Wye, and Rowland inspected the manor on a regular basis. During one inspection in March 1587, he noticed a small spring caused by a molehill and that the grass was a richer green underneath the flowing water and he devoted the next twenty years of his life developing a water meadow irrigation system, which he published in his Most Approved and Long Experienced Water-Workes (1610). Rowland created a complex of channels and trenches, dams and sluices, including a three-mile diversion off the main river which he called Trench-Royal. It was a truly original innovation achieved through a great deal of manual labour (albeit mostly that of his employees), a lot of patience and simple trial and error. Ironically, however inspiring the mole had been in the formation of his initial idea, Rowland hunted moles from his irrigation system, calling their undermining of his earthworks ‘burglary’. Though he died in 1628, his water works were still being used successfully in the late nineteenth century and his story demonstrates the enormous power of early modern ideas and technology as well as the power of the water itself.
Within many environmental history topics, I think that important but often hidden linkages connect how particular aspects of the environment were utilised, experienced and managed in the early modern period (1500-1850) and the ways in which those same aspects of the environment came to be exploited, controlled, abused, enjoyed, regulated and protected from 1850 right up to the present day and into the future. These deep foundations are crucial to understanding the precise manner and characteristics of current environmental issues and challenges. In short, the further back in time we can trace the very precise pathways which have been taken in relation to the use and abuse, the protection and damage, of natural resources, systems, landscapes and environments, the sharper our recent past, present and future in relation to the environment will become. As Robert MacFarlane explained in Mountains of the Mind (2003), a history of attitudes towards mountains, ‘each of us is in fact heir to a complex and largely invisible dynasty of feelings: we see through the eyes of innumerable and anonymous predecessors’. This, too, can be applied to attitudes towards the environment, conservation and sustainability, misconceived by many as an exclusively modern invention. Characters such as Rowland Vaughan and Charles Waterton prove that modern environmentalism developed gradually over centuries, not decades, but their delicate and vulnerable legacies can be swept away worryingly quickly unless firm and urgent action is taken to protect them so that future generations can share their vision, their ingenuity and, perhaps most importantly, their insight into and genuine love of nature and the environment.
Edginton, B., Charles Waterton: A Biography (Cambridge, 199
MacFarlane, R., Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003)
Uglow, J., Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick (2007)
‘Sir David Attenborough backs Campaign to have HS2 Threat Estate designated as Heritage Site’, Yorkshire Post, 17/04/2015: http://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/main-topics/politics/sir-david-attenborough-backs-campaign-to-have-hs2-threat-estate-designated-at-heritage-site-1-7216101