Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Weston, Richard (1591-1652)

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WESTON, Sir RICHARD (1591–1652), agriculturist, was the eldest son of Sir Richard Weston (1564–1613), knight, of Sutton, Surrey, and great-grandson of Sir Francis Weston [q. v.] His family was quite distinct from those of the first Earl of Portland and of Sir Richard Weston, baron of the Exchequer [see under Weston, Richard, first Earl of Portland]. The agriculturist is said to have been educated abroad (in Flanders), or at least to have spent a considerable part of his early life there; but there are phrases in his ‘Discours’ which imply that he was visiting Flanders for the first time in 1644. In 1613, on his father's death, he succeeded to the family estates at Sutton and Clandon. On 27 July 1622 he was knighted at Guildford (Metcalfe, Book of Knights, p. 180).

Sir Richard Weston was the first to introduce, at any rate into that district, the system, long prevalent in Holland, of rendering rivers and canals navigable by means of locks. He attempted by this means to make the Wey navigable from Guildford to its junction with the Thames at Weybridge. In 1635 he was appointed one of the royal commissioners for the prosecution of the work. It was perhaps the expenditure necessitated by his canal scheme which forced him in 1641 to sell Temple Court Farm at Merrow, with the mansion at West Clandon, to Sir Richard Onslow, M.P. for Surrey in the Long parliament. Shortly after this the undertaking was interrupted by the civil war. Sir Richard was a royalist and a catholic. The manor-house of Sutton was entirely unsuited for defence, while the neighbouring town of Guildford was in the hands of the parliamentarians. Sir Richard's possessions were sequestrated, and he seems to have been compelled to flee from the country. In 1644 he was at Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp. It was in the course of his exile that he made those observations on the agricultural methods of the Low Countries which were subsequently embodied in his ‘Discours of Husbandrie used in Brabant and Flanders.’

In 1649 Weston entered into an agreement with Major James Pitson, commissioner for Surrey under the parliament, that the latter should solicit the discharge of his sequestration and forward his schemes for rendering the Wey navigable. Accordingly a petition was presented in the name of Pitson and the corporation of Guildford. A bill authorising the works was brought into the House of Commons on 26 Dec. 1650, and passed as an act on 26 June 1651. The capital was 6,000l., of which Sir Richard was to find half, undertaking at the same time to complete the canal within six months. Sir Richard set to work at once with great energy, employing two hundred men at a time, and using timber of his own to the value of 2,000l. Materials and timber were also taken, by permission of the parliament, from the king's estates of Oatlands and Richmond. Weston died within less than a year of the passing of the act, but he had so far expedited the work that ten out of the fourteen miles were completed, though at an expenditure much exceeding the original estimate. The work was carried on after his death by his son and Major Pitson, and the canal was opened in November 1653. The completed canal had ten locks, four weirs, and twelve bridges; but, though it produced a large revenue, it involved the family in litigation, which, when finally settled in 1671, had more than swallowed up all the profits. At the Restoration an impudent attempt was made by a certain John Radcliffe to get into his own hands the management of the canal. A committee of the House of Commons which sat to investigate his claims came to the conclusion that ‘Sir Richard Weston was the designer of the navigation, and they were satisfied that Mr. [John] Weston's estate was left to him encumbered by reason of his father undertaking the navigation.’

Even more important than Sir Richard Weston's canal schemes were his agricultural improvements. He tells us himself that ‘at the time he went out of England’ he had had ‘thirtie years' experience in husbandrie’ and had ‘improved his land as much as any man in this kingdom hath done.’ It was probably Sir Richard Weston who about this time introduced into Surrey ‘the grass called Nonesuch,’ and we know that, following on the track of Rowland Vaughan [q. v.], he raised rich crops of hay from irrigated meadows (cf. Manning and Bray, History of Surrey). Sir Richard's irrigated meadows are referred to by a contemporary writer: ‘Because hay is dear in those parts this year, near three pound a load, Sir Richard Weston told me he sold at near that rate one hundred and fifty loads of his extraordinary hay which his meadows watered with his new river did yield’ (Adolphus Speed, Adam out of Eden, 1659).

Speed also refers to another improvement of Sir Richard's, the most characteristic of all: his introduction of a new system of rotation founded on the cultivation of clover, flax, and turnips. This Sir Richard brought from Flanders, where he had noticed its practice during his exile. A full account of the Flemish husbandry, written about 1645, he had addressed to his sons from abroad. This seems to have been circulated in manuscript, but there is no evidence that it was ever printed until 1650, when an imperfect copy was published by Samuel Hartlib [q. v.], with a dedication to the council of state, and with the date 1605 (evidently a mistake for 1650, and so corrected in manuscript in many copies). Hartlib did not at this time know who the author was.

Subsequently, on 2 May 1651, and again on 10 Oct. of the same year, Hartlib wrote to Sir Richard, whom he had been ‘credibly informed’ was the author of the ‘Discours,’ asking him for some further information on the subject of clover cultivation, and requesting him to ‘make compleat and sufficiently enlarged’ for the benefit of all ‘his former treatise.’ As Sir Richard took no notice, Hartlib republished the pamphlet in 1652 from a more correct copy, adding transcripts of his two letters to Sir Richard. Hartlib's ‘Legacy of Husbandry’ (a collection of anonymous notes on agricultural matters written by Robert Child, Cressy Dymock, and others, which Hartlib edited and published at the same time as he pirated Sir Richard's work) has sometimes been erroneously attributed to Sir Richard Weston. This error would not need comment were it not for the fact that in 1742 one T. Harris published a very incorrect copy of this ‘Legacy,’ which he attributed to Sir Richard Weston, and then proceeded to support this assertion by foisting Sir Richard's name into the text.

Early in May of the same year (1652) in which the second edition of the ‘Discours’ was published, Sir Richard Weston died at the age of sixty-one, and was buried in Trinity Chapel, Guildford, on 8 May. He married Grace, daughter of John Harper of Cheshunt, who died in February 1668–9, and was buried with her husband. He had by her seven sons and two daughters. The eldest son, however, died in infancy, and Sir Richard was succeeded by his second son, John.

[Manning and Bray's History of Surrey, 1804 i. 134, 1814 iii. 60, 63, 89, 122, 123, 218, App. liv. lv. lvi.; Harrison's Annals of an Old Manor House, 1893, pp. 93–107; Manuscript Pedigree of the Westons of Sutton (Brit. Mus.); several biographical hints can be gathered from the ‘Discours.’]

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