Farm Engineer Was an Expert in His Field; George Elkington May Have Been an Innovator in the Industrial World of Birmingham but His Lesser Known Grandfather Made His Own Mark on History Too, Writes Chris Upton

Article excerpt

Byline: Chris Upton

George Elkington is one of the more celebrated of Birmingham's industrial innovators, famous enough to warrant a blue plaque on the front of his old factory in Newhall Street (later the home of the Science Museum). Elkington's pioneering use of electro-plating, and his development of celluloid, placed him in the forefront of technological advances in the mid-19th Century.

What is less well known is that originality was deep in the Elkington genes. Two generations earlier, and in very different circumstances, George's grandfather was making his own mark in history. There could not be a better link between England's two revolutions - one agricultural and one industrial - than the tale of two Elkingtons.

Joseph Elkington lies buried in the churchyard at Madeley in Staffordshire, where he owned (or rented) some 500 acres of land, living at Hey House, until his death in October 1806. But it was in Warwickshire, the county of his birth, that Joseph started his own little revolution.

Joseph Elkington's home territory was at Princethorpe on the Fosse Way, a few miles south of Leamington Spa. It was at the nearby church of Stretton on Dunsmore that he was baptised in 1740, and in its churchyard he is commemorated by a monument, restored by the Warwickshire Agricultural Society back in the 1960s. "Pioneer of land drainage" the memorial calls him.

Drainage might not look like a crucial element in good husbandry, but ask any farmer - from the 18th Century onwards, if you can find one - and they'll tell you that having just the right amount of water on one's land is vital.

The trouble is that our water sources are not evenly spread or conveniently located. Under the surface of the soil hidden springs and watercourses make their way, bubbling up in some places, diving deep in others. A clay soil only serves to trap the water in great underground reservoirs, spilling out on to the surface. The presence of an underground watercourse can easily turn a field into a boggy morass, unsuitable either for crops or for grazing animals.

Joseph Elkington had a boggy field just like this at Princethorpe, and set about working out how to deal with it. Like all great discoveries, it was really quite simple.

Our account of what Elkington did comes from a report commissioned by Parliament in 1797, some 30 years after the event. To begin with, Elkington dug a trench, some four or five feet deep, alongside the bog, in an effort to detect the source of the water. But the source was clearly much further down than this. Elkington's contemporaries may have done much the same as this, cursed their bad luck and moved on to another field.

Only when Joseph drove a crowbar down into the clay at the bottom of the trench did the water gush forth. And then a drain could be cut to take the water away.

So Elkington's method was to use boreholes to intercept the source of water. …