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  Walter Blith (bap. 1605, d. 1654), by unknown engraver, pubd 1653 Walter Blith (bap. 1605, d. 1654), by unknown engraver, pubd 1653
Blith, Walter (bap. 1605, d. 1654), writer on husbandry, was baptized on 7 August 1605 in Allesley, Warwickshire, the fourth and youngest son of John Blith (d. 1626), yeoman farmer, and Ann, daughter of Barnaby Holbeche of Birchley Hall, Fillongley. His father, a relatively prosperous cereal and dairy farmer, had moved to Hollyfax in Allesley from Coleshill, where his family had lived for centuries, some time between 1593 and 1597, and established himself on the fringes of the lesser gentry; Walter's elder brother Francis, who became a lawyer and married Mary, daughter of Sir Thomas Hesilrig of Noseley, Leicestershire, was deemed a gentleman.

Blith married Hannah, daughter of John Waker of Snitterfield, near Stratford upon Avon. They had three sons—Samuel, who eventually became heir to his uncle Francis Blith, John (d. 1679), who became a physician, and Nathaniel—and four daughters, of whom Mary and Hannah were still living in 1650.

Blith farmed his own land with diligence and care. Sir William Dugdale (1605–1686), historian of fen drainage, lived at Blythe Hall in Shustoke parish next door, and was a close friend of Walter's brother Francis. Walter became a captain in the parliamentary army during the civil war, was solicitor and sequestrator of royalist land in Warwickshire and Coventry, collector of rents from lands of the bishop and dean and chapter of Worcester, and in 1649 and 1650 was surveyor of confiscated crown lands in four counties, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, and Norfolk, making twenty-seven surveys and certificates. He bought confiscated crown land at Potterspury, in Whittlewood Forest, Northamptonshire, using debentures as payment. The conveyance describes him as a gentleman of Cotesbach, Leicestershire.

Blith wrote two books on husbandry which surpass all others of their time for their practical good sense, their evidence of his own and others' farming experience, the candour of the author's judgments and opinions, and the care given to describing new farming practices and making textual changes as time and improved knowledge permitted. His The English Improver, or, A New Survey of Husbandry (1649), offering six pieces of improvement, was dedicated to both houses of parliament and the ‘ingenuous reader’. In the same year another edition appeared. A so-called third impression was ‘much augmented’ (1652) and was, in fact, a thoroughly revised work. It was entitled The English Improver Improved, or, The Survey of Husbandry Surveyed, and its second part contained ‘Six Newer Pieces of Improvement’. It was dedicated to Cromwell, the council of state, nobility, gentry, soldiers, husbandmen, cottagers, labourers, and the meanest commoner and reflected new information concerning agricultural innovations, such as woad, clover, sainfoin, lucerne, hops, liquorice, rapeseed, and orchard and garden fruits. Another edition appeared in 1653. Blith intended a further work on animal husbandry, including goats and rabbits, but evidently did not complete it.

Blith deliberately wrote ‘in our own natural country language and in our ordinary and usual home-spun terms’ (2nd edn, 1649, 2). His works strongly urged agricultural improvement, but his enthusiasm for enclosure was always tempered by deep concern for poor men: enclosure should not cause depopulation, but obstruction by a few should be overruled by legislation. Blith's views were doubtless coloured by discussion with Joseph Lee, the celebrated pamphleteer who strongly advocated enclosure, and was rector of Cotesbach, where enclosure had caused turmoil in 1603 and made it a centre of the midland revolt in 1607. Blith in all his writing showed sympathy for the common man. He understood the aspirations of the Diggers, but did not think them realistic. He voiced in his first book (1649) deep reservations about fen drainage, but expressed a desire to know more. Somehow he later acquired that practical knowledge, for in the second book (1652, 1653) he praised the drainers, having learned especially to understand the role of an inspiring overseer who could capture the loyalty of his men.

When Blith made his will in 1650, he was living at Cotesbach, but an additional memorandum declares that he lived for four years from 1650 in Lincolnshire, so he may well have spent that time in the fenland. He died in Lincolnshire in 1654 leaving some £1900 in cash to his children, of which each received between £260 and £340 apiece, to be employed ‘either in a way of grazing or merchandizing’. Blith was a member of Samuel Hartlib's circle, described by Hartlib as his ‘very loving and experienced friend’ (Discourse of Husbandrie, 2nd edn, 1652, ‘To the Reader’), but his parliamentary sympathies precluded the republication of his work after 1660. In 1819 J. Harding, a London publisher, claimed to be ‘nearly ready’ to publish the 1652 edition, considering it ‘not inapplicable to the present day’ (advertisement in Thomas Radcliff, A Report on Agriculture of Eastern and Western Flanders, 1819), but it did not appear.

Joan Thirsk

Sources  

J. Thirsk, ‘Plough and pen: agricultural writers in the seventeenth century’, Social relations and ideas: essays in honour of R H Hilton, ed. T. H. Aston and others (1983), 295–318, esp. 306–14 · L. C. Philpott, ed., ‘Blithe of Allesley’, 1974, Warks. CRO, B.All.Phi (p) [a genealogy] · W. Blith, The English improver, or, A new survey of husbandry [2nd edn] (1649) · W. Blith, The English improver improved, or, The survey of husbandry surveyed, rev. edn (1652); another edn (1653) · TNA: PRO, PROB 11/235, fol. 142 [will of Walter Blith] · TNA: PRO, PROB 11/380, 1685, fol. 67 [will of Samuel Blith] · TNA: PRO, PROB 11/364, 1680, fol. 160 [will of Francis Blith] · Lichfield RO, Wills, 1626B [will of John Blith] · CSP dom., addenda, 1625–41 · M. A. E. Green, ed., Calendar of the proceedings of the committee for compounding … 1643–1660, 5 vols., PRO (1889–92) · TNA: PRO, E121/1–4 [Blith's dealings in debentures] · S. Madge, The domesday of crown lands (1938) · TNA: PRO, E 134, 2 Jas. I, Easter 18 [Holbeach family in Allesley] · TNA: PRO, E 179/193/298 [Lay subsidy of 22 Jas. I for Allesley for John Blith, Walter's father]

Likenesses  

line engraving, BM; repro. in Blith, The English improver improved (1653) [see illus.]

Wealth at death  

approx. £1920: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/235, fol. 142