Paradigm, No. 23 (July, 1997)

 ‘Not a Reading Class’:
The Development of the Victorian Agricultural Textbook

Nicholas Goddard

Department of Geography,
Anglia Polytechnic University,
East Road,
Cambridge CB2 2PT.


English publishers say, despondingly, that ‘Agriculturists are not a reading class.’ What have they ever had to make them so?’(Chandos Wren Hoskyns, 1849)1

Chandos Wren Hoskyns enjoyed a reputation as a respected early-Victorian agricultural commentator and his own wry, somewhat whimsical style of writing was best exemplified in his entertaining Talpa; or the Chronicles of a Clay Farm (1852). This was based upon columns he contributed to the Agricultural Gazette and found deserved popularity, but Hoskyns was at pains to stress that many contemporary farming books had little appeal for the practising agriculturist. The purpose of this article is to show how the early Victorian antipathy that existed towards didactic works on agriculture was gradually eroded so that by the end of the 19th century the agricultural textbook was accepted as an appropriate medium of instruction. Indeed, Fream’s Elements of Agriculture, first published in 1892, has proved to be one of the most enduring of all textbooks.

Early-Victorian Britain did not lack a tradition of agricultural literature.2 The difficulty was that many of the agricultural books available were variable in quality, and often written by authors who were unable to demonstrate a practical acquaintance with their subject matter. This shortcoming was summarised by Clark Hillyard, a prominent Northamptonshire tenant farmer3 who in 1844 wrote scathingly about:

well-written agricultural communications from theoretical farmers, that are very amusing to the practical and experienced, from the absurdity of many of their recommendations for general practice; their products proving that they know better how to wield the pen than to guide the plough and to cultivate the land.4

Agricultural books often purported to give advice on routine farming operations or attempted to convey information about best practice in different parts of the country, but what was lacking were succinct summaries of standard agricultural methods.

This deficiency was illustrated by Hillyard’s earlier experience. In his Summary of Practical Fanning (1836) he recalled that when he had started his farming career he had attempted to obtain information from the most reputable agricultural works but had found them to be ‘so verbose and so theoretical’ that he soon put them aside. His own book started as a compendium of farming practice written for his son in 1814, 150 copies of which were privately printed and given away.5 The reception given to this work encouraged him later to publish his book which went through four editions in eight years. Although this demonstrated a potential demand for the right sort of agricultural text, more usually commentators stressed the ‘great prejudice . . . of what is considered theory and book-learning’,6 while a reviewer of the second edition of Henry Stephens’s Book of the Farm (first published by Blackwood in 1844) began by stating that there was less demand for works on agriculture than for any other class of book.7

More important than agricultural books at this time were various farming journals, newspapers and periodicals.8 The journals of the leading agricultural societies contained a wealth of agricultural information and the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, which was begun in 1840 under the editorship of Philip Pusey, featured detailed reports of agricultural research, farming experiments, and surveys of farm practice. Similar material was to be found in the Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society (which had been first published in 1799), the Yorkshire Agricultural Society (1838), and the Bath and West Society’s Journal which was relaunched in the early 1850s. While the lengthy technical articles in these publications were consulted at firsthand by only a minority of practising agriculturists, their importance was in the way in which the information from them filtered down into more popular media and gradually influenced farm practice. The weekly farming newspapers, most notably the Mark Lane Express (founded in 1832) and the Agricultural Gazette (1844), had an important role in this process. These and similar relatively more popular publications carried summaries of research, agricultural reports and surveys, accounts of sales and shows, market intelligence, and agricultural advertisements as well as national and regional non-farming news. Also important in the facilitation of the circulation of agricultural information were the shows organised by the numerous early-Victorian agricultural societies and discussion meetings held by local farmers’ clubs.9 Together, these formed a complex web of information sources which were available to the agriculturist in the 1840s.10 However, it took several decades for accessible agricultural textbooks to become available and the gradual emergence of worthwhile instructional works on farming was closely linked to the broader question of the value which was placed on agricultural education in Victorian Britain.

This was an issue which was particularly addressed by John Chalmers Morton, the editor of the Agricultural Gazette.11 For Morton, the professional education of the farmer was a lifelong crusade and in an address to the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE) in 1865 he reported on the sales of agricultural texts then available.12 His own Agricultural Cyclopaedia which had been published by Blackie nine years earlier (and which was still the ‘most complete work of its type extant’ at the time of his death in 188813 ) had sold 8,500 copies. Other works of a similar type such as Loudon’s Cyclopaedia of Agriculture (Longman, 1825), the Rural Cyclopaedia (Fullarton, 1848-52) and the Farmer’s Cyclopaedia (Fullarton 1853-56) had all achieved sales of between 5,000 and 10,000 copies. Smaller works, such as Blackie’s Agriculturist’s Calculator (1851) and the Rev. S. Smiths Lois-Weedon Husbandry (1849) had sold 10,000 and 7,000 respectively. Cuthbert Johnson’s work On Fertilisers had sold 6,000 copies since 1844.14 The figures for Stephen’s Book of the Farm, which was probably the most successful of the early general farm texts, were not available.

Morton set these modest totals against what he estimated to be the total potential market for agricultural books in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland in the mid-1860s. After discounting occupiers of holdings of less than 100 acres as potential purchasers, but including landowners and farm bailiffs, he arrived at a total of 120,000 agricultural readers. He then compared the ratio of agricultural books purchased in relation to the market with those of sales of medical works and quoted figures for the circulation of manuals published by Churchill on topics such as anatomy, surgery and chemistry at nearly 15,000 each over 20 years. Morton recalled that the number of people listed as connected with the medical profession in the 1861 census was 36,000 of whom only about 15,000 were doctors, surgeons or apothecaries.15

Morton’s presentation highlighted the fact that in mid-Victorian Britain farming was not remotely considered to be a profession comparable in standing to medicine, engineering, or law. Although the Royal Agricultural College had been founded at Cirencester in 1844 it made very little contribution to agricultural education during its early years,16 and Morton was only able to identify a total of 500 ‘so-called’ agricultural students throughout the country from the 1861 census. Agriculture did not provide a service to individuals who would expect a professional qualification and the very concept of ‘agricultural education’ was itself one which was questioned17 and frequently patronised:

The English Farmer is a splendid specimen of the human race. He can generally ride well to hounds and has of late years picked up some queer ideas at Cirencester and other centres of science . . . But the sort of writing which is intelligible to ordinary men is to him a mystery. He would find the Saturday Review as inexplicable as if it were in Sanskrit. His mind has run in other grooves; and he would have much the better, of you or me, intelligent reader, if it were a question of judging a shorthorn or a crop of wheat. Small blame to our agricultural friend if he ignores what you and I think excessively interesting. One cannot do everything.18

As the economy and society became more industrialised farming laboured under an adverse image as portrayed by Punch, which imbued the agriculturist ‘with the vernacular of the comic countryman’.19 Two factors were to change the status of agricultural texts during the latter part of the 19th century; an enhanced contribution of agricultural science and technology to agricultural practice and with this a recognition of the need for agricultural technical education.

During the 1840s there had been intense interest in agricultural science, which had been stimulated by the foundation of the RASE in 1838 and the formation of numerous smaller agricultural societies and clubs,20 the publication of Liebig’s Organic Chemistry in 1840 and the establishment of the Rothamsted experimental station in 1843.21 This was underpinned by the demand for food from the rising population and the perceived competitive threat posed by free trade in agricultural produce. Although only slow progress was made in understanding such fundamentals as the complexities of soil science and plant and animal nutrition, ‘science’ could at least begin to demonstrate its relevance for agricultural practice as in, for example, the use of different artificial fertilisers to raise productivity. There were also significant advances in agricultural drainage techniques, harvesting methods, and, later, dairy technology. As has been noted, information on these topics was initially communicated through the medium of agricultural discussions, farming newspapers, and agricultural shows, which in turn gradually led to an increased demand for accessible summaries of best practice and agricultural knowledge.22

This was illustrated by the pamphlets produced by the Agricultural and Horticultural Association, which was founded in 1870. In Agricultural Economy (1874) a variety of authors collaborated to produce coloured charts which demonstrated the manurial and fertiliser requirements of different crops under chapter headings such as the ‘Handy Chemistry of Farm Crops’, ‘The Economy of Artificial Manuring’ and ‘Manuring No Mystery’. The pioneering use of fertiliser charts was justified on the grounds that ‘truths so conveyed are, unquestionably, more rapidly grasped and more permanently assimilated than when presented without external aid to the understanding alone’.23


Morton experimented with the production of accessible agricultural texts in his 10-volume Handbook of the Farm series published by Bradbury and Agnew in the 1880s. The first, and most successful, of these was Robert Warington’s Chemistry of the Farm (1881).



J. B. Lawes (the founder of Rothamsted) had originally been commissioned to produce the work but asked Warington, his assistant,24 to take over the major part of the writing. It was planned as a book ‘similar to the notes which a sharp lad would take home from a course of lectures’ and by the turn of the century it had gone through four revisions and 15 editions.25 Other volumes in the series included The Soil of the Farm (1882), which reached five editions by 1902, The Equipment of the Farm (1884) and The Dairy of the Farm (1885).

These books created something of a fashion in agricultural texts; Vinton (which took over Morton’s Farm Series) also produced a five-volume Handbook of Farm Livestock, for example, and another series was produced by Bell’s including J. P. Sheldon’s The Farm and the Dairy (1889) -- which reached a fourth edition by 1908 -- A. B. Griffiths’s Manures and their Uses (1889), and W. J. Malden’s Tillage and Implements (1891). These books were typically uncomplicated outlines of agricultural knowledge and farm practice.

During the 1880s there was slow recognition that more needed to be done in the sphere of technical agricultural education. The early efforts of the RASE to come to terms with the education question had not been very successful, partly because views on the subject had become polarised between those, such as Morton, who wished to develop professional agricultural education, and others, such as T. D. Acland, who thought that the RASE should lend its weight to the movement for middle-class education more generally. Although the RASE instituted its own agricultural examinations in 1868, only 237 candidates had presented themselves for these by 1890.26 During the early 1880s, however, the RASE’s secretary, H. M. Jenkins, compiled an extensive Report of Agricultural Education in North Germany, France, Denmark; Belgium, Holland and the United Kingdom (1884) for the Royal Commission on Technical Instruction which demonstrated that agricultural technical instruction was often much less advanced in Britain than was the case in European countries, and in 1887 the Paget Report recommended the provision of county agricultural schools. The Technical Instruction Act of 1889 made provision for technical education to be financed by the proceeds of a penny rate and agricultural education was also on the agenda of the Board of Agriculture, which was established at this time.27 The limited resources made available for agricultural education were boosted by the additional funding received from the provisions of the Local Taxation (Customs and Excise) Act of 1890 -- the so-called ’whisky money’.28

It was against this background that in 1891 the RASU’s Education Committee proposed the publication of a general textbook on agriculture, to be written by William Fream, the Society’s associate editor.29 Fream’s draft text was widely circulated among the leading agricultural scientists and practising agriculturists of the day and the 450 dense pages of the first edition was published as Elements of Agriculture: AText Book in January 1892. It was divided into three sections: Part I: The Soil, Part II: the Plant and Part III : the Animal. The Preface stated that it was hoped that the textbook would become a ‘standard work on the subject of which it treats’; the 1,250 copies of the first printing were sold out on the day of publication. A second and third edition sold 10,000 copies by the end of February while a revised and enlarged edition sold a further 10,000 copies by the end of the year. This was a phenomenal success considering the uncertainty of the market for agricultural texts in Victorian Britain, which has been previously noted in this article. Over 35,000 copies had been sold by the time of Fream’s death in 1906 and the book has been an indispensable aid to agricultural students, through successive revisions, during the present century.30 The 17th edition, now renamed Fream’s Principles of Food and Agriculture, was published in 1992 under the editorship of C. R. W. Spedding.



1. Short Inquiry into The History of Agriculture . . . (1849), p. vi. For memoirs Agric. Gazette, 7 January and 9 April 1977.

2. Goddard, N. ‘Agricultural Literature and Societies’ in Mingay (1989), pp. 361-70.

3. Greenall, R. L. ‘Three 19th-Century Northamptonshire Agriculturists’ (1988-9), pp. 443-54.

4. Hillyard, C. Practical Farming (1844), p. v.

5. Hillyard, C. Summary of Practical Farming (1936), Preface.

6. Bioder, John, Library of Agricutural and Horticultural Knowledge (1830), p. 3.

7. Journal of Agriculture, new series, (1851-3), p. 117.

8. Surveyed in Goddard, N. ‘The Development and Influence of Agriculture Periodicals . . .‘ (1983) pp. 116-31.

9. See Fox, H.S.A. ‘Local Farmers’ Associations . . .’ (1979), pp. 43-63; Goddard, ‘Agricultural Societies’ in Mingay (1981) pp. 245-59.

10. Goddard, N. ‘Information and Innovation in Early-Victorian Farming Systems’ in Holderness (1991), pp. 165-90.

11. On Morton’s career see Goddard, N. ‘A Contrast in Style . . .’ pp. 180-90.

12. Morton J. C. ‘Agricultural Education’ (1865), pp. 436-64.

13. Clark., E. ‘John Chalmers Morton’, (1988), p. 692.

14. Morton (1865), p. 456.

15. Morton (1865), pp. 455-6.

16. Sayce, R. B. ‘The Royal Agricultural College’ (1994), pp. 190-1.

17. Richards, S., ‘Masters of Ads and Bachelors of Barley: . . .’ (1983), pp. 161-75.

18. ‘Country Newspapers’, Temple Bar, X, (I W), p. 131.

19. ‘The Tone and Tendency of the Autumn Meetings’ (1861), p. 436.

20. Goddard, N., Harvests of Change . . . (1988), pp. 8-25.

21. Lewis, T. ‘150 Years of Research at Rothamsted . . .’, pp. 107-118.

22. Goddard, N. ‘Agricultural Institutions’ in Collins (in press).

23. Voelcker A. et al. Agricultural Economy (1874), p. 3.

24. Russell, E. J. A History of Agricultural Science in Great Britain , pp. 160-9.

25. Warington, R. The Chemistry of the Farm , 15th ed. (1902), pp. ii-iv.

26. Goddard, N. Harvests of Change, pp. 122-5.

27. Richards, S., Wye College and its World (1994), pp. 44-5.

28. Sharp, P. K ‘Whisky Money and the Development of Technical and Secondary Education in the 1890s’ (1971), pp. 31-35.

29. Jones, G.E. ‘Williarn Fream: Agriculturist and Educator (1983), pp. 30-44.

30. Edmunds, H. ‘Eighty Years of Fream’s Elements of Agriculture’ (1973), pp. 66-77.


Anon Journal of Agriculture new series (1851-1853) p. 117.

‘The Tone and Tendency of the Autumn Meetings’ Farmer’s Magazine, 3rd ser. XX (1861), p. 436.

‘Country Newspapers’ Temple Bar X (1864), p. 131.

Baxter, John The Library of Agricultural and Horticultural Knowledge (1830).

Clarke, E. ‘John Chalmers Morton’. J.R.A.S.E. 2nd ser. XXIV (1888), p. 692.

Edmunds, H.‘Eighty Years of Fream’s Elements of Agriculture’. Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England 134 (1973), pp. 66-77.

Fox, H. S. A. ‘Local Farmers’ Associations and the Circulation of Agricultural Information in Nineteenth-Century England’. In Fox, H. S. A. and Butlin, R, A. (eds). Change in the Countryside: Essays on Rural England, 1500-1900 (Institute of British Geographers, 1979), pp. 43-63.

Goddard, N.‘Agricultural Societies’. In Mingay, G. E. (ed.), The Victorian Countryside (Routledge, 1981), pp. 245-259.

Goddard, N.‘ ‘The Development and Influence of Agricultural Periodicals and Newspapers, 1780-1880’. Agricultural History Review, 31 (2) (1983), pp. 116-131.

Goddard, N.‘Harvests of Change. The Royal Agricultural Society of England 1838-1988 (Quiller Press, 1988), pp. 8-25.

Goddard, N.‘ ‘Agricultural Literature and Societies’. In Mingay G. E. (ed.), The Agrarian History of England and Wales, Vol. VI: 1750-1650 (CambridgeUniversity Press, 1989), pp. 361-370.

Goddard, N. ‘Information and Innovation in Early-Victorian Farming Systems’. In Holderness, B. A., and Turner, M. E. (eds), Land, Labour and Agriculture 1720-1920: Essays for Gordon Mingay (Hambledon Press, 1991), pp. 165-190.

Goddard, N. ‘A Contrast in Style: An Appreciation of Two Victorian Agricultural Journalists’. Agricultural History Review , 44 (2) (1996), pp. 180-190.

Goddard, N.‘Agricultural Institutions’. In Collins E. J. T. (ed.) The Agrarian History of England and Wales, Vol. VII: 1850-1914 (CambridgeUniversity Press, in press).

Greenall, R. L. ‘Three 19th-Century Northamptonshire Agriculturists’. Northamptonshire Past and Present , 7 (6) (1988-9), pp. 443-454.

Hillyard, C. Practical Farming and Grazing 4th edn. (1844).

Hillyard, C. Summary of Practical Farming (1836).

Hoskyns, C. W. A Short Inquiry into The History of Agriculture in Ancient, Medieval, and Modem Times (1849).

Jones, G. E. ‘William Fream; Agriculturist and Educator’. J.R.A.S.E., 144 (1983), pp. 30-44.

Lewis, T. ‘150 Years of Research at Rothamsted; Practice with Science Exemplified’, J.R.A.S.E. , 153 (1992), pp. 107-118.

Morton, J. C. ‘Agricultural Education’. Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England 2nd ser. I (1865), pp. 436-464.

Richards, S. ‘Masters of Arts and Bachelors of Barley: the struggle for Agricultural Education in mid-Nineteenth Century Britain’. History of Education , 12 (1983), pp. 161-175.

Richards, S. Wye College and its World (Wye College Press, 1994), pp. 44-45.

Russell, E. J. A History of Agricultural Science in Great Britain (Allen & Unwin, 1966).

Sayce, R. B. ‘The Royal Agricultural College -- 150 years old in 1995’. J.RA.S.E, 155, (1994), pp. 190-191.

Sharp, P. R. ‘Whisky Money and the Development of Technical and Secondary Education in the 1890s’. Journal of Educational and Administrative History , 4 (1971), pp. 31-35.

Voelcker A., Roberts C. G., Morton J. S., Warington C. G., Wolff H. W. and Greening, E. O. Agricultural Economy (1874).

Warington, R. The Chemistry of the Farm ,15th edn (1902).


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