Morpeth Herald 1898 advert Pentland butter churns illustrated.
Morpeth Herald 1898 advert Pentland butter churns illustrated.

In the latest Herald The Past feature, our columnists Alan Davison and Brian Harle consider feeding the Victorian masses; manure, turnips and bones.

As the Industrial Revolution changed Britain forever, the increasingly large, urban population had to be fed by less people using land that was often of poor quality.

Improvements were needed in land management, crop husbandry, quality of livestock and farm machines.

This was the Agricultural Revolution and we can see some of the important events in Northumberland by looking at the activities of a few local entrepreneurs.

In the 1760s, writer and farmer Sir Arthur Young started touring farms nationwide to find and advertise the best practices, machines and breeds.

In Northumberland, he met two of the foremost innovators, George and Mathew Culley, who took on the tenancy of a run-down farm near Wooler in 1767.

They increased yields immensely by radically changing the crop rotation system, using turnips for fodder and developing a new breed of sheep, the Border Leicester. It was perfectly suited to local conditions.

In 1793 George put forward one of his most important ideas when he suggested that there should be ‘Public Farms ... devoted to the perfection of agriculture in all its branches’.

In other words, farms that experimented and demonstrated to local farmers the best practices. His wish came true, but not until 103 years later with the opening of a County Demonstration Farm at Cockle Park.

The streets were awash with manure after the market so ‘scavengers’ swept it up and dumped it at Low Stanners. The council sold it to farmers and market gardeners.

But back to the title and more about turnips. One of the great problems faced by farmers was providing enough fodder to over-winter livestock: in general, there was not enough to keep all of the animals so most were slaughtered in the autumn, and by spring the survivors were often near starvation.

One answer was to cultivate Swedish turnips (Swedes, rutabagas or, locally, ‘bagies’) for animal feed. This is where Morpeth comes into the story because it was surrounded by ‘good turnip land’, as the Herald put it.

Local farmers needed supplies of seeds, fertilizers and machinery and several of Morpeth’s market gardeners, such as George Purdy, were fast off the mark, becoming seedsmen, stocking a dozen or more varieties of turnips.

Others, such as Robert Carss of Corporation Yard, sold the latest agricultural machines so by the 1860s the town was on its way to becoming an important agricultural supply centre.

Pentland, of 34 Newgate St, was one of the earliest hardware stores that advertised agricultural wares. They sold everything and were always quick off the mark if a new implement came on the market.

Fertilizers were essential for increasing yields, but chemists realised that each crop needed the right balance of nutrients, especially nitrogen, phosphate and potash.

There was a worldwide search and for a time, one of the favourite new high-nitrogen manures was Peruvian seabird guano, shipped in bags all the way from the Pacific. It was all the rage until supplies dried up, but in 1855, Thomas Turnbull, ‘Tea and Coffee Merchant, Market Place’, was still advertising that he was also ‘Agent for Peruvian and Bolivian GUANO and crushed bones’.

Some crops need extra phosphate and the earliest source of this ‘manure’ was bone dust, a waste product of farming. This led to the 17th Century corn mill at Bothal being converted into a bone mill, the bones coming from the Duke of Portland’s farms at Whitefield and Longhirst.

However, local supplies were not sufficient so entrepreneurs started importing bones from Europe in huge quantities (amid rumours of them collecting bones from battle fields). One of Britain’s leading bone importers was Sampson Langdale, who lived in Morpeth from the 1860s until his death in 1889.

Originally, the Langdales were farmers near Stockton who became one of the largest corn merchants in the country. After being bankrupted in the corn market crash in 1847 they turned to the manufacture of ‘chemical manures’ on the Tyne. Despite many set backs they ran one of the biggest chemical manure factories in Britain at St Lawrence (near Byker).

They imported bones from a meat cannery on the Danube, but in hot weather the ships were so stinking that crew refused to sail in them. Undeterred, they built a facility next to the cannery to convert the bones into ash before shipping.

Always on the look-out for ways to make money, Sampson offered to build a public toilet if he was allowed to drain the effluent into his factory. His offer was refused.

The Langdales started selling at Morpeth market in the 1860s then Sampson moved from Newcastle to Damside and at some stage bought High Espley where he farmed Border Leicester sheep. He opened a depot in the Market Place around the 1870s and had another on the banks of the Tanner’s burn at Staithes Lane. He treated his Morpeth customers well, giving them an annual, but unappetisingly named, ‘Manure Dinner’ in the Queen’s or Nag’s Head.

There is no doubt that he was an asset to the town, but he also continued to have interests on a national scale. He was one of the three buyers of the huge Laws Chemical Manure Company for £300,000.

The proceeds were used by Laws to build Rothamsted Experimental Station at Harpenden that preceded Cockle Park and which is still one of the premier agricultural research stations in the world. Sampson Langdale started out in a small way in Morpeth, but expanded his range to cover almost everything a farmer needed.

By the 1890s huge progress had been made in increasing crop yields and improving livestock, but in order to keep on producing more food, long-term experiments were needed and farmers had to be kept up to date with the latest information.

As a result, the county council leased a farm from the Duke of Portland and gave £500 p.a. towards supporting a Professor of Agriculture at the newly-formed Durham College of Science (later Kings College, then the University of Newcastle). The county maintained the farm and the college provided scientific direction and so the County Demonstration Farm at Cockle Park was born.

The experiments changed agricultural practices in Britain and gained the farm a world class reputation. Locally, the Herald published regular reports of the results of the experiments and reports of open days for farmers and visitors from all over the world. One of the first experiments was also one of the most important. Grasslands in the north of England were mostly very poor quality, but most farmers focussed on improving their livestock rather than the grass.

The first director, Sir Wm Somerville, realised that the way forward was to improve the grasslands so he experimented to see if a waste product of the iron and steel industry called basic slag could be used as a cheap source of phosphate.

The experiment was a huge success and it helped to transform grass crops and livestock production. Guess who provided the basic slag; none other than Langdale’s Chemical Manure Company!

Morpeth continues to sell agricultural supplies and Cockle Park is still an important research facility with one of the original experiments still running (the oldest of its type in the world).

However, research has kept up with modern needs and the latest development is an anaerobic digestion plant that uses manure to generate heat and electricity, and to produce an organic fertilizer.

Surely, George Culley would be delighted with Cockle Park and amazed at this latest use for manure.

l Thanks as always to the Mackay family. If you have any comments or questions, contact us via morpeth-histo ry@hotmail.co.uk.

More information about Cockle Park can be found at http://www.ncl.ac.uk/afrd/business/cockle/