2.3 Farms & Gardens

Trees: Britain has atypical northern European flora, by dint of arboreal and other botanical introductions resulting from four centuries of internationally roving plant collectors, such that 

'...the British Isles have become host to the most varied ornamental and economic plants in the world.' [Source: Sykes; see Woodland]

Yew was for centuries used in longbows [see English longbow] and oak for wooden sailing ships [see Islanders afloat]

Grass: grazing in the green and pleasant land that is Britain, graced as it is fertile soil and a mild climate, is among the best in the world and was the basis of Britain’s second world-beating export industry, sheep’s wool, after the boom in Cornish tin in the Bronze Age (around 1600 BC); in the Middle Ages wool made Britain a great trading nation once more; the industry had deep roots, with a British hooded woollen rain cloak known to the Romans as birrus Britannicus which was internationally renowned [see Rainwear]; it was the only British item to make it on to an edict of Emperor Diocletian listing Roman Empire’s finest traded goods and services; Emperor Charlemagne insisted on having woollen cloaks from the north of England; woollen fabrics were being exported to the Continent in the 700s AD; the industry expanded after the Normans arrived in 1066; English wool in the Middle Ages was the best in Europe; the main buyers were Flemish weavers, with Renaissance Florentines figuring as prominent customers later; places that are out of the way today, such as Long Melford in Suffolk, were among medieval Europe’s richest towns, courtesy of the wool trade; the importance of wool can be seen in the fact that the seat of the Lord Chancellor was known as ‘the woolsack’; there was a pastoral revival in the 1500s whereby arable land reverted to grassland, creating enormous wool exports; this supplied capital for the industrial revolution – and hence Britain’s third world-beating export industry based on coal and manufactured goods – and Britain’s rise to global supremacy in the 1800s; woolly manifestations did not cease in the modern era, with the modern business suit being invented in and around London’s Savile Row in about 1860 [see Trousers & suits]; the lawn mower was invented by Edwin Budding in 1830; the first commercial motorised lawn mower came from Ransome’s of Ipswich in 1902 [see Lawn mower]

Second agricultural revolution: the first agricultural revolution occurred some 10,000 years ago, when human beings stopped hunting and gathering and settled down to become farmers; that revolution occurred in a number of different places around the globe; the second agricultural revolution occurred in Britain in the 1700s, during the same period as early industrialisation; it can be summed up by the word intensification, which means getting more out of each field; the second agricultural revolution involved enclosure of common land for use in intensive farming, mechanisation (e.g. Jethro Tull’s seed drill of 1701; Andrew Meikle’s first practical threshing machine of 1786), new forms of crop rotation (e.g. as suggested by Charles ‘Turnip’ Townsend in the 1730s), new crops, selective breeding and improved irrigation; food transport improved rapidly in the mid-1700s, with the development in Britain of the world’s first modern road system and its most extensive one [see Roads]; also developed in Britain was the world’s first national canal system, with a hundred dug between 1760-1820 [see Canals]; the productivity boost that came from agricultural intensification supported a population increase, freeing workers for the new factories; between 1500 and 1800, in fact, Britain shifted people out of farming faster than any other big European country

Subsequent advances

Famous breeds: cattle, notably Hereford and Aberdeen Angus, hybrids of which always have the black Angus body and the white Hereford face; pigs such as Berkshire, Gloucester Old Spot, Tamworth, Large White, Wessex Saddleback; Cox’s Orange Pippin; Suffolk Punch, the oldest breed of working horse in the world

Agricultural journal: the first was A Collection for the improvement of Husbandry and Trade, 1692 [Source: Robertson/Shell]


Agricultural society: the first was the Honourable Society of Improvers of the Knowledge of Agriculture in Scotland, founded in Edinburgh in 1723 [Source: Robertson/Shell]


Agricultural show: the first recorded agricultural show was held by Salford Agricultural Society, Lancashire, in 1768 [Source: Robertson/Shell]


Rock garden: the first was laid out in 1774 by William Forsyth (of Forsythia fame) with 40 tons of Tower-of-London stone at the Chelsea Physic Garden [Source: Robertson/Shell]


Ploughing match: the first was held in Odiham, Hampshire, in 1784 [Source: Robertson/Shell]

Gardening magazine: the first was The Botanical Magazine of William Curtis, Lambeth, London, of 1787 [Source: Robertson/Shell]

Threshing machine: following Adrew Meikle’s first practical threshing machine of 1786, Thomas Wigful of King’s Lyn, Norfolk, built the first wheeled threshing machine, in 1802 [Source: Robertson/Shell]

Allotments: these were inaugurated in 1805 by George Cayley [Source: Robertson/Shell], who is thus the father of the allotment as well as the father of aviation [see Aviation]



Strawberry, edible scarlet (cultivated): Keens Seedling, exhibited by Michael Keens, Isleworth, Surrey, 1806 [Source: Robertson/Shell]


Chemistry in farming: Humphry Davy’s Elements of Agricultural Chemistry of 1813 was the first book to apply chemical principles systematically to farming

Reaper: Robert Bell, 1826

Artificial fertiliser: the first, in 1839, was a superphosphate of lime used by John Bennet Lawes for cultivation of turnips at Rothamsted, Harpenden, Hertfordshire; when Lawes put superphosphtes on sale from a London factory, at 4s 6d a bushel, this became the world’s first manufactured artificial fertiliser [Source: Robertson/Shell]; ammonium nitrate was another fertiliser developed by John Lawes, working with Joseph Gilbert in the 1840s and for decades thereafter; Rothamsted was founded as an agricultural reseach station in 1843 and is the world’s oldest such 

'Manure, compost and ash were used as fertilisers for centuries before the 1800s, but people did not understand how they worked until the science of chemistry was developed in the 19th century and it became clear that they supply plants with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.' (The Economist, 7 November 2009)

Village flower show: the first was organised in 1856 by Henry Cole at Shere, Surrey [Source: Robertson/Shell]


Milking machine (pulsator model): Thistle Mechanical Milking Machine invented in 1895 by Alexander Shields of Glasgow, Scotland; marketed at £100; regarded as a modern prototype [Source: Robertson/Shell]


Green belt: the first was 5-mile stretch near Hendon, which was designated an area of no development to halt London’s urban sprawl, 1929 [Source: Robertson/Shell]

Silage ‘buckrake’: Rex Paterson, 1948-9


Hydraulic lift tractor: the first was designed by Harry Ferguson and manufactured by David Brown Tractors of Huddersfield, 1936 [Source: Robertson/Shell]


Paraquat: patented by ICI in 1959; first weedkiller able to detroy green vegetable matter when sprayed on it, but inactivated on contact with soil [Source: Robertson/Shell]

Artificial pyrethroid insecticides: the first stable ones were synthesized by Michael Elliott in 1967; this was at Rothamsted; also there, Roman Sawicki conducted ground-breaking work into understanding the development by pests of resistance to insecticide

Gro-Bag: introduced by Fisons in the UK as a world first in 1973 [Source: Robertson/Shell]; the customer planted directly into the peat-filled bag, watering as required

Dolly the sheep: first cloned mammal and history’s most famous sheep; Dolly (1997-2003) was cloned from adult body-cell DNA at the Roslin Institute, Scotland

Genetically modified plant food: the first product approved for sale (in both Britain and the US) was a tomato engineered at Nottingham University

Charcoal: this can be used to enrich soil and capture CO2 from the atmosphere

'The first inkling that putting charcoal in the ground might improve soil quality came over a century ago, when an explorer named Herbert Smith noticed that there were patches of unusually rich soils in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. Most of the forest’s soil is heavily weathered and of poor quality. But the so-called “terra preta” or “black earth”, is much more fertile. This soil is found at the sites of ancient settlements, but it does not appear to be an accidental consequence of settlement. Rather, it looks as though the remains of burned plants have been mixed into it deliberately.' (The Economist, 29 August 2009)

English country estate: inspiring country seats are an island speciality; their parks in particular are one of Britain's greatest contributions to the visual arts; Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-83) was a renowned landscape gardener who was wont to say that a particular landscape had ‘capabilities’; among his commissions were Stowe, Croome, Stourhead and 200 other sites; he developed the English landscape garden style of pastures, groves of trees,and sinuous lakes and temples; it has been a cultural gift to the world; the gardens at Chiswick House, London, are renowned as the birthplace of the English Landscape Movement; they were designed by William Kent & Lord Burlington in 1729; the gardens inspired countless other estates, from Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire to Central Park in Manhattan; prior to the vogue for natural landscapes in the 1700s, formal layouts were favoured in the 1600s, as is still to be seen at Powis Castle; many fine gardens were also laid out in the mid-Victorian period (1800s); Britain's foremost garden designers have included Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) and William Robinson (1838-1935); an especially famous garden is that of Sissinghurst, Kent; the islanders are the globe’s greatest gardeners, with the lawn as centrepiece – so ‘delicious’, as Henry James put it, ‘to the sentient bootsole’; the first plant hybrid was that of Thomas Fairchild (1667-1729) in 1716

'Stowe was the garden that Catherine the Great based hers on at Tsarskoe Selo, near St Petersburg; and it was the place where 'Capability' Brown made his reputation, the Baroque English architect Sir John Vanbrugh left his mark, and where the great designer William Kent would devise areas of intimacy and informality.' (National Trust Magazine, Spring 2012)

[see Architects & architecture and, below, National Trust]

Conservatory: 'The earliest known glasshouse (i.e. with glass roof and walls) was the Duke of Rutland's grapery at Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, England. The glazing was completed under the direction of the eminent horticulturalist Stephen Switzer in 1724.' [Source: Robertson]; the first modern glass conservatory was developed for the Duke of Devonshire by Joseph Paxton (1803-65); the Eden Project was built in 2001, on the site of an old china clay mine in Cornwall; it is the biggest conservatory in the world

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: this was developed from the garden at Kew in London of Augusta, Princess of Wales, 1759; Kew has the world’s largest collection of plant specimens, at over 7 million, with more arriving all the time, notably for the Millenium Seed Bank, a global repository which had conserved 10% of world’s seed-bearing flora by 2010; the Index Kewensis is the world’s foremost taxonomic guide to plants; Kew was under the legendary supervision of Joseph Banks (1743-1820; see Joseph Banks) then Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817-1911); Kew has the oldest pot plant in world; it was the centre of  an imperial network of botanic gardens (e.g. Calcutta, Singapore, Melbourne etc); breadfruit was transferred from Tahiti to West Indes in 1793 as a food crop; this would have happened earlier but for history’s most famous mutiny, which took place on board HMS Bounty in 1789; the protagonists were Captain William Bligh and First Mate Fletcher Christian; the mutineers descendants populate Pitcairn Islands to this day, though Christian himself lacks for descendants; other famous plant transfers were mahogany (Honduras to India), rubber (Brazil to South East Asia) and chincona (for quinine in bark, the irst effective remedy for malaria; Amazonia to India); at Joseph Hooker’s suggestion Ascension Island in the South Atlantic was successfully aforested, an example of t'erraforming'; Kew is justly rated ‘The Garden that Changed the World’ [see below, Chelsea Flower Show]

Crystal Palace: the design of Joseph Paxton (1803-65) for this cast-iron and glass structure was inspired by the ribs of the giant Victoria regia lily; the Crystal Palace is rated the first modernist building; it was 1,851 feet long to commemorate its year of construction for The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, which itself was the progenitor of World’s Fairs (or World Expos, as these are sometimes called); the Great Exhibition was suggested by Henry Cole and decisively enabled by Albert, Queen Victoria’s Prince Consort; there was a 2000-page catalogue describing the wonders on offer from 14,000 exhibitors from around the world; the Great Exhibition received 6 million visitors and rates as the most stupendous party thrown in Britain’s history; sparrows became a nuisance in the vast space of the Crystal Palace; Queen Victoria mentioned this to the Duke of Wellington, who proffered the famous solution, “Sparrowhawks, Ma’am”; the surplus from the Great Exhibition allowed several important institutions to be developed – the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, Imperial College and the Royal Albert Hall; a century on, in 1951, the British people poured into the Festival of Britain, held in London; in 2000 the Millenium Exhibition was held to greet the third millenium in the purpose-built Millenium Dome, London; the Dome is shaped like the canopy of an umbrella and is supported by 12 yellow towers; designed by Richard Rogers, the Dome has become a UK landmark

Public park: Britain's first, though not the world's, was given to the townsfolk of Derby by mill owner Joseph Strutt in 1840; it boasted an arboretum

Garden city movement: this was started by Ebenezer Howard in 1902

Environmental conservation law: the first-ever in the modern world is reckoned to have been the Sea Birds Preservation Act of 1869; this had been promoted by Cambridge don Professor Alfred Newton, appalled at the extinction of the Great Auk and the threat to other birds, whose feathers were used in ladies’ hats ; he helped in the development of what became the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, founded in 1889 by Emily Williamson; yet efforts to protect birds in Britain pre-date this effort by more than a thousand years, with St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne in the AD600s having instituted the world's first bird-protection laws

Harry Godwin & Arthur Tansley: their pioneering work at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire in the early 1900s make them the fathers of modern ecology and conservation; in 1899 Wicken Fen became the first nature reserve of The National Trust

National Trust: a heritage and conservation organisation founded in 1895 by renowned social housing reformer Octavia Hill (1838-1912), Robert Hunter (1844-1913) and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley (1851-1920), its full name is the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty; in 1945 the Trust owned 112,000 acres and had 7,850 members; by the time it celebrated the centenary of the National Trust Act in 2007 its membership had risen to 3.5m, with 617,000 acres under management in a total estate encompassing 37,000 buildings and 235 gardens and parks

'The National Trust possesses one of the most extraordinary inheritances in the world. Among its huge diversity of possessions – from farmland to gardens, mountain scenery to coastline, ancient monuments to great country houses – are properties of outstanding importance, quality and beauty.' (John Goodall, Architectural Editor, Country Life, writing in National Trust Magazine, Autumn 2010)

'What has taken place, almost by stealth, has been a social and cultural revolution on a huge scale, unmatched by any other country.' [Source of this quotation and the prior figures: National Trust Magazine, Autumn 2011]

By 2012 membership had topped the 4m mark; the National Trust is known as the ‘Mother Trust’ within the International National Trusts Organisation, INTO, which itself was founded in 2007 and is based in London; the motto of the National Trust is 'For ever, for everyone'; churls feel that the Trust is an undertaker organisation, minding family houses killed off by inheritance tax [see Built heritage]


Natural England: defines Ancient Woodlands and designates Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest; it is the environmental counterpart of English Heritage [see Built heritage]


Chelsea Flower Show: the world’s greatest garden

show is run by the Royal Horticultural Society, which

was founded in 1804 at the suggestion of John

Wedgewood, son of Josiah Wedgewood, famed potter;

the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, on a site of just 4 acres,

celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2013

[see also above, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew]




Greenhouse effect: John Tyndall (1820-93) hypothesized that a rise in carbon dioxide trapped heat in the Earth’s atmosphere; this effect underlies global warming – the first world leader to warn of which was prime minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1990s

Moorland: Britain’s ‘blanket bogs’ are among the world’s finest examples

Emblems: the shamrock of Ireland north and south, the leak and daffodil of Wales, the thistle of Scotland and the rose of England; other symbols with a national connotation are the Welsh dragon, the Irish harp and the British bulldog; the rose has long been an important symbol in English history, as in the Wars of the Roses; the term ‘English rose’ also denotes an efflorescent maiden; the first recorded use of ‘Rose’ to describe a female islander was by the Roman poet Martial in the 1st century AD; he was referring to Princess Claudia, sister of Britain’s King Caractacus; Caractacus was the resistance leader who had been captured and taken along with his family to Rome; Claudia became the wife of a high official in Rome; Martial, the Roman poet, wrote of “Blue-eyed Claudia! Rose of the Britons! Capturer of Hearts!”; Claudia’s nephew was Caractacus’s son Prince Linus; Linus became the first Bishop of Rome, i.e. the first Pope before the term was used

[see Local colour]

© The National CV Group 2013
All Rights Reserved



History in the news
About Us
Contact us
Island, Sea & Sky
Agriculture & Gardens
More Technology
Freedom & Democracy
Empires & Wars
Language & Culture
Sport & Leisure