Coke of Norfolk
Thomas William Coke, the charismatic ‘Coke of Norfolk’, inherited Holkham in 1776, when agricultural improvement was highly fashionable. Over the next forty years, he made Holkham farming – and Holkham hospitality – a byword throughout Great Britain and abroad. His annual three day ‘Shearings’ attracted farmers, aristocrats and royalty. They would ride out each day, Coke at their head, to inspect and discuss the beautifully kept fields of the home farm, innovations in agricultural techniques (such as seed drilling) and equipment, and, above all, his improved breeds of sheep and cattle. Then it was back to the Hall for a long convivial dinner, punctuated by speeches, toasts and, on the final day, the presentation of ‘premiums’ or prizes.
Coke of Norfolk had a gift for publicising, promoting and accelerating the cause of agricultural improvement but he was blessed with having inherited a large, wealthy estate and home farm that had been well run for many years. His great-uncle, Thomas Coke, had built Holkham Hall on the back of agricultural rents: his estate stewards (and, before them, his guardians) had nurtured the estate quietly and efficiently in the days before agricultural improvement became a matter of pride and publicity. Tenants had become accustomed to the security of 21 year leases, farms had been enlarged and improved by enclosure of the old open fields, and marling (digging and spreading rich limey soil) – practised at Holkham since at least the 17th century - was increasingly used to strengthen light land.