Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ellis, William (d.1758)

ELLIS, WILLIAM (d. 1758), was a writer on agriculture, of whom little save his books has survived. He is supposed to have been born about 1700, received an ordinary education, and began life as a plain farmer. For nearly fifty years he held a farm at Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire, on which, however, he made no pretence to scientific agriculture. His early works brought him into 'repute,' and many applications were made to him by landed proprietors in all parts of the country to visit and report on their farms. Thus he travelled over the north of England in order to give those who complied with his terms the benefit of his experience. Ellis seems to have been a shrewd man of business business, for he soon added to his income by frequently travelling as an agent for seeds and seller of farming implements; in short he was ready to execute any sort of country business at a fixed price. Many eager farmers, led hy his fame and his books, proceeded to visit Ellis's farm, but found, to their surprise and disappointment, that he did not carry out any of the views which he advocated in print, that his implements were old-fashioned, and that his land was neglected and in bad condition. This report, speedily reacted on the sale of his books. They had introduced many new methods of treating manure, sheep and turnips, and lucerne, but now their reputation began to decline. Ellis perceived with sorrow that he was outliving his fame.

The success which his work on timber obtained (it ran through three editions in less than three years) tempted Osborne, the book-seller, to engage him as a writer, and Ellis produced with much fecundity volume after volume. Gradually he advanced to monthly works and more voluminous productions, in which, to fill up his stipulated number of pages, he was driven to introduce those ridiculous anecdotes and unnecessary details which have so much marred his writings. So long as Ellis proceeded according to his own rule (Preface to Farriery), 'I always considered experience as the only touchstone of truth, and by that unerring rule every particular here advanced has been sufficiently tried,' all was well, and his books were valued accordingly. But the editor of his last book was compelled before printing it to exclude many foolish stories of gipsies, thieves, and the like, also many absurd nostrums and receipts, evidently only inserted to fill space. Ellis's books have become useless, from the advance in agricultural science.

Ellis's works consist of:

  1. 'Chiltern and Vale Farming,' 1733.
  2. 'New Experiments in Husbandry for the Month of April,' 1736.
  3. 'The Timber-Tree Improved,' 1738. These last two are tracts.
  4. 'The Shepherd's Sure Guide,' 1749; full of fatuous anecdotes of sheep and dogs.
  5. 'The Modern Husbandman,' 8 vols., 1750. This treats of the farmer's year month by month and of rural ecionomy in general; it is Ellis's best work, though such a sentence as 'Be yourself the first man up in a morning for sounding at your door your harvest horn to call your men at four o'clock,' contrasts amusingly with the writer's own practice according to those who went to visit him at Little Gaddesden.
  6. 'The Country House wife's Family Companion,' 1750.
  7. 'The Practical Farmer,' 1769; an abbreviation of No. 5.
  8. 'Every Farmer his own Farrier,' 1769.
  9. 'Husbandry Abridged and Methodized,' 2 vols., 1772.

[Life prefixed to No. 9 above; Brit. Mus. Cat; Ellis's own works.]

M. G. W.