William Blacker is a name synonymous with the agricultural development of the Gosford Estate. In the nineteenth century when the Castle was under construction Blacker, as Gosford Land Agent, was widely credited with having overhauled the system of production on the estate.
In the accompany recording, Joseph Canning describes the career and influence of William Blacker, estates manager of Gosford Demesne in the early-19th Century.
Use the audio controller to listen to this talk, given in 2003.
The Blacker family were originally from Carrickblacker near Portadown and several ancestors were prominent citizens of their day. William was the middle of five children born to the Reverend St John Blacker of Moira. William's elder brother Samuel followed his father into the ministry and in 1826 became Rector of Mullabrack Church of Ireland. Born in 1775 William's early life remains clouded in mystery save to say that as the middle of five he must have been a hard worker to distinguish himself.
His first employment was in Belfast but the occupation is unknown. His first employment as a land agent came in 1814 when he was employed by Lord O'Neil of Randalstown. Only four years later his services as a land agent were employed by Lord Gosford and unusually Blacker carried on the two agencies for a time until O'Neil dismissed him in 1821.
Blacker continued to live in Armagh as he served the Gosford Estate until 1848. During that time he also served the Close Estate at Drumbanagher and the Dungannon Royal School lands. In addition he worked for individuals such as Lord Bangor.
His considerable experience made him an influential land agent and his essays concerning agricultural practice were well received by his contemporaries. One such essay earned him an award from the Royal Dublin Society. He also appeared on occasion as a witness for a Royal Commission into agricultural practices.
Blacker's work on the Gosford and Drumbanagher estates was recorded by Jonathan Binns, the member of one such Royal Commission. He recorded,
"The system of Mr.Blacker, Lord Gosford's agent, is first to level the old crooked fences and make straight ones, as a division between each occupier, allotting a square piece of land, consisting of about four statute acres, to each person; and as the tenants were in the last stage of destitution, he found it necessary to provide them with lime and seeds, as a loan, without interest; opening an account with each one of them on their first entering upon the farm. A person called an Agriculturist looks after the agricultural department, weighs out the seeds, and instructs the people in the cultivation of their farms".
William Blacker also introduced the practice of feeding animals indoors thus utilising the land for the growing of larger crops. Binns was certainly impressed by the results,
"I could not help regretting, when I encountered so much misery during my subsequent journey, that this system was not more generally adopted. If poor laws had been in operation previously to these cottiers thus settled, they would all undoubtedly have become a burden on the parish; but by the means pursued under Mr.Blacker's plan, they are enabled, not only to provide competently for their families, but to increase the rental of the estate".
Change is always difficult especially when it so directly involves the livelihoods of so many people. Blacker was astute enough to recognise that the tenant's required some encouragement to ensure their acceptance of his methods. From 1833 he organised an annual dinner at which the most productive tenants were rewarded and lecturers were invited to speak to the gathered tenants and guests. This prompted some healthy competition between the tenants and no doubt ensured the methods were adopted rather quickly.
Praise from contemporaries suggests the methods introduced by Blacker were successful and indeed they were subsequently adopted on other estates. Blacker retired from the Gosford land agency in 1848 and died only a few years later.