Saturday, 11 July 2015

Jethro Tull Agricultural pioneer

From Wikipedia

....At once the old hands quicken ---
bring pick and wisp and curry comb ---
thrill to the sound of all
the heavy horses coming home.

So wrote Ian Anderson, front man and driving force behind the progressive rock band, Jethro Tull.

Tull, or the “Mighty Tull” as Steve Coogan called them in his masterful Saxondale comedy, have been a part of my life for 30 years or more. Those lyrics from Heavy Horses, the title track on Tull’s 1978 album of the same name have long inspired me and have as a result now taken me on a long wished for pilgrimage. The band was named after the man who three centuries ago lay at the epicentre of the British Agricultural Revolution, pioneered a horse drawn seed drill, dramatically increased agricultural output but is in fact now almost forgotten by society. But not me.

A few weeks ago on a very hot summer's day I followed in the footsteps (or should that be trod the furrow ploughed by) of agricultural moderniser Jethro Tull, something I'd long wanted to do.

Prosperous Home Farm on the Wiltshire / Berkshire border.

Nestles in the lee of the Hampshire escarpment near Hungerford
An everyday farm today but with a unique past....

Prosperous Home Farm is today a 300 acre dairy enterprise, but in the Eighteenth Century it was an arable farm, which for the last 30 years of his life Jethro Tull called home. Until 2014 I regularly drove past this farm hard by the A338 near Shalbourne, a few miles outside Hungerford in Berkshire without realising this was the land which inspired Tull and changed the shape of western agriculture for ever.

I wonder how many drivers today realise the significance of this small farm to the modernisation of agriculture? What happened here was the culmination of a century of advancement, but here (and at Crowmarsh Gifford a few miles away) in a little piece of rural England the first true mechanical farming machine was developed, a moment in history which it could be argued directly aided the Industrial Revolution and fed a human population explosion in Western Europe. Stability in agricultural output allowed massed food production to feed the nation driven on by the Industrialisation of a nation, or nations. For me the arrival of the horse drawn seed drill and other equipment invented by Tull is on a par with the invention of the motor car, aeroplanes and space travel. It changed the world forever.

I’ll begin with the man, Jethro Tull the gentleman farmer. Born in 1674 to a well to do family in the parish of Basildon, Berkshire, made up of the two small out of the way hamlets of Upper and Lower Basildon. Even in 2015 as I arrived at the church in Lower Basildon where a memorial stone lies to Tull, despite its proximity to an ever expanding Reading, these hamlets seem remote and untouched by time.  Tull's exact resting place is uncertain but tradition has it that he lies in a vault under St Bartholomew's Church in Lower Basildon. He died in 1741 at Prosperous Farm. During his 67 years he both battled with ill health and quasi-luddite attitude to his inventions and husbandry practices. His ideas were not generally accepted into everyday agriculture for another 75 years or more.

St Bartholomew's Church in Lower Basildon

The memorial stone to Jethro Tull placed here 200years after his death by Gilbert Beale founder of nearby Beale Park. The lettering is hard to decipher now but a link to it is here.
Now deconsecrated the interior of the church offered a cool sanctuary on a very hot summers day when I visited, yet nothing inside celebrates Tull.

It was a strange feeling walking around St Bartholomew's Church. I quickly found Tull's memorial stone outside, leaning against the southern wall. Severely weather-beaten, the writing is now difficult to read; a stone which anyone passing by would ignore as just any other gravestone. How can the memorial to one of the Nation's great pioneers be so obscure? Entering the lovely church I hoped to find information about Tull within, after all I'd driven a long way to visit here. But there was nothing save a few lines in The Churches Conservation Trust leaflet mentioning the memorial stone and that Tull was the 'Father of the Agrarian Revolution'. That was it. And that's a shame.

Tull's classic work, The New Horse-Houghing Husbandry, details not only his hoeing methods but also the landscape of Prosperous Farm.  This farm is now owned by a Mr Kent who stated in a recent online article;

"We're able to work out which fields are which …. Field shapes and sizes have not changed [since Tull’s time]."

Although the use of the farm has changed it is nice to know that Mr Kent reveres its former guardian of the land. Tull's machinery saw wheat yields increase five-fold during the 18th century.

"Without that you could not have had the industrial revolution," argues Kent in the article.

And that is what fascinates me about the work of Tull and other agricultural pioneers like Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend (whose more poetic nomenclature of ‘Turnip’ Townshend was created due to his passion for this humble root crop).  Yes they were wealthy, but they were radical freethinkers in an age of societal constraint. 

I first read about Tull in a children's Encyclopedia as my interest in farming developed at school. What ignited that spark in me 40 years ago, a young man growing up in northern England, escapes me still. But like the writings of Thomas Hardy that inspired my love of Dorset, reading of Tull and those eighteenth century gentlemen farmers willing to break the rules and force science into the land did, and very much still does, resonate with me. 

The British Agricultural Revolution broke down centuries of inefficient agricultural toil, largely feudal in form, heavily dependent on a peasant labour force to provide food to a largely local market. Many fields were open systems such as can still be seen at Laxton in Nottinghamshire, or interestingly resemble modern day allotments which closely follow the open field system of many individuals growing different crops alongside each other with no real plan or economy of scale production.

Crops were transported no more than a few miles and until 1700 input and techniques to manage the land were rudimentary and often based on centuries old practices. True new science and invention was beginning to tap at the sod of the land, but as they say, old habits die hard. Towns were beginning to expand and their citizens they needed feeding. Many have argued it was subsistence farming, but I’m not so sure. My own view is that this farming provided what was needed for what was then a small population. Towns were small and farmers could supply the townsfolk easily as their fields were close by. Agricultural boom and bust years did happen but generally food output matched the needs of the country.

Farmers had long known that removing crops over time reduced productivity, and that was somehow linked to the soil. When farming began, “wildlands” were cleared, crops sown, yields were good for the first couple of years and then dramatically over time reduced until the fields had to be abandoned. This was fine for a small mobile population. Once the land was exhausted the small population either moved elsewhere and started again or ate their animals, or sometimes starved. The arrival of the Normans changed farming by enhancing the Manor and Serfedom system, but it was still a hit and miss affair.

Everything was dependent on the weather, and the weather defined the harvest. If the latter failed people were in famine. It was lucky then that the Medieval Warm Period was in place, when temperatures were warmer than today, vineyards flourished in southern England and the land was generally able to support the population of 3-4 million.

But from the later Middle Ages onwards settlements grew, these settlements needed and attracted people who slowly began to leave the land to develop trades in town. The town required a stable farming system to feed everyone as the population steadily rose. The best land had already been cleared, more land was needed forcing the cultivation of less productive 'wastelands' like Romney Marsh, upland moors and the Somerset Levels, with their inherent problems.

Generally a two field system existed, otherwise known as crop rotation. Basically a field(s) produced autumn sown crops until it was exhausted (of nutrients) and then returned to fallow while another field (s) was taken out of fallow and cropped, until that became exhausted and so on. So half of the available land to grow crops was fallow at any one time. In terms of yield they were inefficient by todays standards. For example wheat output in the early Middle Ages was at around 0.14 tonnes per acre compared to an average of 3 tonnes per acre today.  But by and large farming provided enough food to feed the people, though some estimates put output between 50 and 75% of healthy dietary needs.

From this a three field system developed where spring sown crops slotted into the regime, making a third of the land fallow. In the middle of all of this had been the catastrophic aftermath of the Black Death era in the fourteenth century, there simply were not enough people to farm, and this began a change in agriculture, as less people on the land had to provide enough food.

Move on a few centuries and we meet the British Agricultural Revolution and Tull. The British Agricultural Revolution of the eighteenth century, it could be argued, began with the arrival into England of the four-field rotation system from Europe, pioneered in Norfolk by the aforenamed ‘Turnip’ Townshend.

Emerging science and knowledge of soil fertility and structure developed a notion that with good husbandry three years were optimum to allow an exhausted field to recover enough to be cropped again, and if you grew fodder crops livestock could be kept all year. So developing on from the three field autumn sown, spring sown and fallow field system, a fourth field would needed.  Enter the four field system. This system involved a four year rotation usually of wheat, turnips (a ‘fallow’ fodder crop that allowed for winter feeding of livestock and manure), barley, then clover (to return nitrogen to the soil). Some systems included peas and legumes, others oats, but the principles were the same.

Thus on a single piece of land 75% continuous cropping was possible, both cereals and a fodder crop and grazing crop which allowed year round breeding of livestock, and more importantly now only a quarter of land was 'in fallow'. It is only very recently that this system has changed again with the arrival of continuous cropping dependent on high external nutrient inputs via fertilisers and plant science advancement.

But back to Tull.

In reality many changes and ideas helped accelerate this agricultural revolution, land drainage, horse replacing oxen, enclosures, turnpike roads opening up new markets and readily available writings from leading scientists of the day. But for me what Tull, Townshend and others like Robert Bakewell who developed selective livestock breeding and Coke of Holkham with sheep management did, was seize the initiative and push forward ideas that only recently had been branded heretical in society.

While the others developed new farming practices, what I admire about Tull was his ideas to ‘make it easier and more efficient’ through the development of mechanization. Absolutely in tune with the embryonic Industrial Revolution, happening elsewhere in the country.

Developments were already occurring. The predecessor of today’s modern plough with a mouldboard and cutter were developed around 1700 by the Dutch ( known as a turnboard ) based on a more ancient Chinese design. More land could now be opened up for agriculture, but that led to problems. Firstly this increasing area needed to have crops sown by hand – literally by hand or later with a seed-fiddle, which was both inefficient and took a lot of time to walk up and down a field.  Secondly once sown into bare land, common weeds could outcompete crops, affecting yields and there was little way of controlling them other than by hand hoeing. The whole system was inefficient and very labour intensive.

And this is where Tull in my opinion rises a head and maybe a shoulder above others at the time. He experimented, on his own farm which could have led to harvest disaster, new farming techniques and invented mechanical agricultural equipment. He put his money where his mouth was.  Using his knowledge of church organs, he developed a horse drawn machine which could plant seeds in rows down pipes.

Think about this. Until then people walked up and down fields broadcasting seed corn onto bare ground. Much of this seed corn was eaten by birds and mammals or rotted, before germination. Estimates put it that 1 bushel of wheat seed corn was needed to produce 5 bushels of crop.  I won't detail the mechanics of his seed-drill, but what Tull did was design a drill which allowed the planting the seeds at regular intervals, at a consistent depth, and in a straight line. This limited waste, allowed for efficient hoeing and dramatically increased harvest yields.

Tull said of his invention, "It was named a drill because when farmers used to sow their beans and peas into channels or furrows by hand, they called that action drilling."

Tull's improved drilling method allowed farmers to sow three rows of seeds simultaneously. His other inventions allowed tillage and hoeing between the crops which according to Tull, loose soil was vital for good germination and early growth and weed removal increased early growth of the crop. This all seems obvious now, but back then, revolutionary. And Tull was a revolutionary thinker, probably because he wasn’t a farmer at all.

What made Jethro Tull take up farming is not clear.  Being a gentleman by birth, after his education in Oxford, he initially became a musician (an interesting connection to his twentieth century counterpart). Music and agriculture don’t often collide but his understanding of the mechanics needed for an organ to operate led directly to his seed-drill invention. In 1693 he entered Gray’s Inn to study law qualifying as a barrister in 1699, although he never practiced. More importantly for agriculture, at this time he toured the Continent for a few months which gave him at first hand a glimpse of agricultural practices outside England. He then returned home and marryied Sussanah Smith of Burton-Dassett, Warwickshire.

The farmhouse where Jethro Tull lived and where the development of the seed drill occurred.

Tull and his wife settled on one of his father’s farm at Crowmarsh Gifford in Oxfordshire in 1701. Sadly Howberry Farm no longer exists but the house he lived in does, now identified as 16–19 The Street, Crowmarsh Gifford.

New houses stand on what was once the farm, but at least there's the Jethro Tull Gardens and Howberry Road.
 I wonder what Tull would think........ the fields he first developed his ideas for increased food production are now built on and permanently removed from food production.

The original building remains now a number of houses, one of which has a blue plaque thankfully

It was here that Tull seriously began an almost obsessive determination to improve agricultural methods and increase yields. He ran a number of agricultural experiments, while farming there but a combination of toil and too frequently exposing himself to outdoor work in all weathers meant he contracted a pulmonary disorder. Unable to find relief in England, he went on another tour of Europe, this time to the warmer climates of France and Italy.

Once again this gave him time to observe European agricultural practices. On his return he moved the family to Prosperous Farm which his father had inherited from a naredowell uncle, near Shalbourne in Wiltshire (though the farm is in Berkshire). It was here that Tull finally perfected and revised his seed-drill instruments and designed new ones suitable to the different soils of his new farm; Here too he demonstrated the good effects of his horse-hoeing culture. All of which made his farm produce more per acre than maybe any in England at the time.

Tradition has it that Tull managed to obtain a sizeable crop off a single field for thirteen years using his methods. In reality this is doubtful and more likely he managed the output with under sowing of clover or legumes and careful management of manuring. Although interestingly Tull wasn't an advocate of animal manures, thinking just the soil particles provided the means of growth, not the nutrients held in the soil as we know today.

Sadly although Tull developed machines and techniques that have a direct pedigree to machines still being used today, in his lifetime his methods were not readily adopted.

Despite Tull successfully demonstrating what might be done by improved agriculture, he was not able to turn it to his own advantage. The expense of all this research and development with often failure as the result, rose in various ways, chiefly by the unsuitability unskilled workmen employed in constructing his instruments, and in the awkwardness and maliciousness of his servants, who, because they did not or would not comprehend the use of them, seldom failed to break some essential part or other, in order to render them useless. One could guess this was self interest, seeing a machine do the work of many men could make them lose their jobs. It would be decades later, long after his death, that his vision and tenacity to develop labour saving more efficient machines would be universally adopted.

The seed-drill Tull began inventing in 1701 and developed fully years later has been called the first or earliest agricultural machine because it had internal moving parts which standardised seed sowing and spacing. Its rotary mechanism was the foundation of all subsequent sowing implements.

Unwittingly these inventions and the work of others contributed to the population explosion of the Industrial era due to a four fold or more increase in the food supply. In England and Wales, the population rose from 5.5 million in 1700 to over 9 million by 1801. By then as his and other techniques were rapidly taken on board by nineteenth century farmers, along with new food imports from abroad the population more than tripled in a century to over 32 million by 1900.

For me as I travelled between Oxfordshire and Berkshire visiting the sites of Tull's work, it struck me that Tull is a giant amongst men not just amongst agriculturalists. His name should be up there amongst the Greats who made Britain, Shakespeare, Nelson, Churchill and so on. His influence on society can not be underestimated yet I felt as I travelled to Crowmarsh Gifford, Lower Basildon and Shalbourne visiting places and following his life three hundred year earlier, he feels like an insignificant footnote in history. One blue plaque on the house where he lived and an impossible to read memorial stone leaning against the church where he now lies. And that is about it. Scholars and those interested in agricultural history know his name, but his name is not on the lips of the general public like that of say another mechanical pioneer, Brunel? 

On that June day as I stood infront of Prosperous Home Farm I felt sad. Something was needed. How many people who pass by on their way to Hungerford to buy a sandwich for lunch know that without his invention and that of the other British Agriculture Revolution leaders, what they are buying, bread, provided cheaply and efficiently by today's agriculture, would not be as easily available without his invention. Neatly summed up Bob Rodale in "The Regenerative Concept." 

"In short, the whole concept of thorough tillage, row cropping, and keeping the soil surface as bare as possible emerged from the brain of Jethro Tull"

It is a sobering thought. We rightly applaud Brunel for the railways, but the railways carried the harvest of Tull's mind and invention, to feed the nation.

I’ll leave the last word to William Macdonald author of ‘Makers of Modern Agriculture’

When it is remembered what a prominent part Agriculture plays in the history of all Nations, it does seem strange that so little is known of the lives of those pioneers who have been foremost in the discovery of fundamental principles, improved methods, and labour-saving machines.”

Bring a song for the evening
Clean brass to flash the dawn
across these acres glistening
like dew on a carpet lawn
In these dark towns folk lie sleeping
as the heavy horses thunder by
to wake the dying city
with the living horseman's cry
At once the old hands quicken ---
bring pick and wisp and curry comb ---
thrill to the sound of all
the heavy horses coming home.

Reference to this Jethro Tull article

Jethro Tull Biography


Fussell, G. E., Jethro Tull: His Influence on Mechanized Agriculture, Osprey, 1973.

Jethro Tull at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers


Profile of the current owner of Prospect Farm, Mr R Kent

"The Agricultural Revolution," AP European History, http://www.eurohist.com/the-agricultural-revolution.htm (December 8, 2000).

Rodale, Bob, "The Regenerative Concept," Rodale Institute, http://www.rodaleinstitute.org (December 8, 2000).

Makers of Modern Agriculture by William Macdonald

Turnip Townshend


  1. A really excellent and informative post Andrew and such a tragedy he is not better known. My husband spotted the post as I was reading it earlier and he was very pleased to learn answers to questions raised (by sheer coincidence) in a discussion he and my son had on a canal walk this morning.

    The contents of this post would make the basis of an excellent tv or radio programme :)

  2. I wonder who I could get to make a radio programme Caroline - thank you for your comments I'm glad my little piece resolved a family discussion.

  3. Thank you for this piece. I live in the US and was reading English history around the time of Queen Anne and Tull’s agricultural improvements figure into the success of England at that time. I was surprised how little interest there seems to be in his works or home. A remarkable contribution to western civilization.

  4. I had an experience a few nights ago during a meditative session. Long story short, what I have come to learn was the spirit of Jethro Tull came to me offering to help me to "build my empire". I am an agronomist by training. I write, paint and blog.
    I am a seeker, considering myself to be on a spiritual path. I never heard of Jethro Tull until the spirit told me his name was Jethro and I began doing some research. I am still trying to find out my connection with Jethro and why he sought me out to assist me. I suspect the connect might be a past life one. Thanks for this article. I found it most enlightening.