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Dr Leonard Baker

Postdoctoral Research Fellow

I am an historian of late-eighteenth and nineteenth century rural England, with my research exploring how environmental change and agricultural ‘improvement’ was perceived, performed and punished.

My PhD and published articles have explored how rural landscapes and non-human actors shaped the forms and functions of socio-political resistance. In particular, these works examine how countryfolk constructed and protected an ‘ethical’ relationship between masters, men and the land. Through microhistorical examinations of rural communities, my research investigates how rural spaces and places served as quotidian avenues for national political, environmental or moral debates.

Currently, I am a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the Leverhulme Trust funded project ‘A Landscape Transformed: The Reclamation of Exmoor Forest’, led by Professor Henry French and Professor Ralph Fyfe (University of Plymouth). This research will explore the transformation of Royal Forest of Exmoor following its sale to John Knight in 1818. By combining palaeoecological analyses of vegetation change with research into the newly uncovered Knight Family Archive, this project will shed new light onto the process of agricultural ‘improvement’ in nineteenth-century Britain. As the History PDRF, my work will establish the chronologies and geographies of improvement activities, the motives and intentions of John Knight, and the potential influences of contemporary improvement literature, agrarian technologies and personal relationships.

Research interests

My current research examines how people conducted, envisioned and resisted environmental change during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As part of the ‘Reclamation of Exmoor Forest’ project, I will explore how the transformation of the Royal Forest was influenced by agricultural improvement literature, landscape designs and agrarian technologies. Moreover, this research will study how the ecological perceptions and moralities of the Knight Family shaped their relationships with the upland landscape and its denizens, both human and non-human. Through examinations and analyses of account books, labour and farm-stock records, this work will provide a detailed chronology for reclamation initiatives between 1818 and 1860. Such research will not only recontextualise surviving landscape features, but also assess how the experiments and ideas contained within contemporary agricultural literature were actually deployed on the land. Similarly, through analysis of the Knight Family’s correspondence and personal documents, this research will move beyond a purely ‘economic’ or 'agricultural' analysis of nineteenth-century landscape change. Instead, it will assess how social relationships, intellectual fashions, socio-environmental ethics or moralities, and personal contacts influenced the material and social geographies of Exmoor.

More broadly, my research examines how material spaces, meaningful places and customary rituals shaped the forms and functions of agricultural 'improvement' and rural protest. By physically ‘remaking’ local environments, countryfolk struggled against landscape change, political exclusivity and poor working conditions. Unfortunately, previous studies have treated rural spaces as symbolic backdrops, leading resistance to become worryingly ‘immaterial’. My research corrects these oversights by integrating the ‘semiotics’ of space with the ‘materiality’ of place. The physical landscapes that surrounded rural communities gave tangible substance and structure to otherwise intangible customs, social obligations and traditions. Through everyday activities and generations of toil, countryfolk established an ‘ethical’ environmental state that provided them with their livelihoods, facilitated their customary culture and defined social hierarchies. By studying ‘major’ and ‘minor’ acts of resistance, such as enclosure riots or trespassing, my doctoral dissertation and published articles reveal how humans and non-humans negotiated environmental change through material objects and bodily performances. The destruction of an enclosure wall, for example, sought to prevent the physical curtailment of a community’s hitherto ‘ethical’ relationships with the land. Through microhistorical examinations, my investigations reveal how material, emotional and moral geographies coalesced during acts of environmental resistance.

By adopting a 'toolbox' of theoretical approaches sourced from fields such as the environmental humanities, cultural geography and ethnography, my work reassesses previously established models of nineteenth-century popular protest. During ecological disputes landlords were not driven solely by their economic goals, nor were the rural poor adherents to a simplistic 'rural Luddism.' Rather, they promoted competing visions of how the environment 'should be', defined by notions of 'reciprocity', 'inter-generational sustainability' and 'fairness.' Answering calls to study resistance ‘holistically’, my research focuses on how ecological, societal and cultural upheavals altered formerly everyday practices and social relationships. Seemingly criminal acts, such as wood-theft or hedge-breaking, were forms of communal justice against those who had ‘immorally’ redefined landscapes and customary economic activities as illegal. In this manner, the ‘plebeian environmental ethics’, or ‘moral ecologies’, championed during protest tied together shared understandings of how local landscapes, economies and societies should operate. Countering recent historiographical trends, my microhistorical investigations reveal how beliefs in paternalistic duty and ‘harmonious’ patrician-plebeian relationships remained central to the activities of rural authorities and protestors. Whilst many have depicted the early-nineteenth century as a period where customary obligations and structural reciprocity collapsed, my work stresses the importance of continuity to the forms and functions of rural protest.


I completed my BA, MA and PhD in History at the University of Bristol, the latter being supervised by Dr Richard Sheldon and Dr James Thompson. 

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