One of the key motivations behind the commissioning of the County Surveys was the Enlightenment zeal for ‘improvement’, which characterised late 18th Century Britain and drove the agricultural revolution. Until this time, the fundamentals of farming had changed little over the centuries, with many farmers still using the runrig and open field systems that originated in the middle ages. Attempting to modernise and increase productivity, ‘improving’ farmers developed new principles, worked to cultivate greater areas of land and increasingly large and applied new scientific thought and discoveries to their practices. These changes had vast social implications. As the notorious Highland Clearances showed, in some case they were devastating for farming communities and rural life. Yet, as thinkers like Sinclair knew, ‘improvement’ would be key to Britain’s future, enabling the nation to support its growing population in towns and in the colonies as it became a modern industrial state.
His 1817 article ‘On Potato Flour’ gives an insight into Sinclair view. In it, he writes of recent experiments with drying and milling potatoes to create a cost effective flour that could be stored for long sea voyages ‘without being injured by vermin.’ Pointing to the documentation of this process in The General View of the Agriculture of the County of Kent he states that such new approaches must be ‘prosecuted with zeal, until so important an object as that of enabling this country to supply itself with food, from its own resources, is attained.’ Indeed such is the importance of these new methods, he concludes, that they are ‘entitled to the attention and support of the public’. National debate on such agricultural issues is both warranted and necessary, and in this light, it appears that the intended readership of and interest in the agricultural County Surveys is likely to have been considerably broader than we might now assume.