The Book of the Farm

The Book of the Farm, by Henry StephensOne of the less likely ‘hits’ of the BBC’s recent programming has been the series called ‘Victorian Farm’, in which two archaeologists and a historian gamely dress up in very uncomfortable-looking clothes in order to demonstrate the pleasures and pains of Victorian husbandry. (A new series, ‘Edwardian Farm’, has just begun, and I believe there were previous series on medieval and seventeenth-century farming (?) though neither of these seems to have caught the public imagination in the same way.)

It’s an gentle and enjoyable series, about which there’s no point in being too critical (and I’d hate to upset Ruth and ‘the boys’ anyway), but my first question (apart of course from ‘What do you do about toilets in your house with no running water?’) was: which bit of the 64-year Victorian period do you have in mind? Do we have all manual labour, or some mechanisation? Are we in an agricultural depression or a period of relative prosperity? A bit of everything, inevitably, but I do know that their farm must have been run on post-1842 lines, because they use as their reference bible The Book of the Farm by Henry Stephens, first published in 1842.

Stephens, born in Bengal in 1795, was an exact contemporary of Thomas Carlyle, and like him, attended Edinburgh University. Stephens however was clearly a practical person with none of the doubts about his ability and vocation which tormented the later Sage of Chelsea. Sent to Scotland after the death of his father, an East India Company surgeon, in 1806, Stephens went to school in Dundee. Having studied chemistry and agriculture at Edinburgh at the theoretical level, he obtained lodging with a Berwickshire farmer, George Brown, and gained practical experience. In 1820 he took over a farm which (probably) belonged to his family, and was free to begin trying out the most modern and experimental methods; he reported his activities in the new Quarterly Journal of Agriculture. At some point in the early 1830s, the failure of an Indian company in which he had invested forced him to sell the farm, and he devoted himself thereafter to writing guides to best agricultural practice, for the use of both novice farmers and those who were stuck in traditional and unprofitable ways. His own experience was supported by frequent travel in Britain and Europe to keep abreast of developments.

His 1842 book, subtitled, Detailing the Labours of the Farmer, Farm-Steward, Ploughman, Shepherd, Hedger, Cattle-Man, Field-Worker, and Dairy-Maid, was published, like all his subsequent writing, by Blackwood of Edinburgh. One of its unique features (for the time) was that it was arranged chronologically: Volume 1 deals with winter tasks, Volume 2 with spring, and Volume 3 with summer and autumn. Its expected readership is characterized in the first chapter of Volume 1: ‘The difficulties which the young farmer has to encounter at the outset of learning practical husbandry’; chapter 2 is on ‘The means of overcoming those difficulties’; and chapter 3 reviews ‘The kind of information to be found in existent works on agriculture’. Further chapters on such topics as ‘The evils attendant on landowners neglecting to learn practical agriculture’ continue until chapter 16, ‘The steading or farmstead’, and we at last get our hands dirty with chapter 24, ‘The planting of thorn hedges’. This thorough and detailed approach to the subject, based on hands-on experience as well as familiarity with contemporary research, together with the engraved illustrations showing details of equipment and techniques, meant that the book was enormously successful, with two further editions in Stephens’ lifetime (1849–51 and 1871), and many more updatings by others after his death. ‘Stephens’ Book of the Farm’ effectively became a brand, with other titles such as The Book of Farm Implements and Machines, The Book of Farm Buildings, A Manual of Practical Draining (one of the processes by which Stephens had improved the productivity of the land on his own farm), and Physiology at the Farm (on food plants and animal feed). Several of his books were translated into European languages, and some had American editions.

Stephens, who never married, died in 1874 after a tragic accident at his Edinburgh home: he contracted pneumonia after his lungs had been affected by coal-gas poisoning. It is nice to think that over a century later his works are still being consulted as the authoritative source on how to run a Victorian (and Edwardian) Farm.

The Victorian Farm of the BBC series was on the Acton Scott estate, in glorious Shropshire countryside ( The new Edwardian series is set in the Tamar valley ( Two more questions for the team: where was Health and Safety when Alex climbed barefoot on to the roof last week with a chicken? And did you know that Celia Fiennes describes (p. 32) a technique similar to that (mercifully abandoned by Alex) of using a chicken to clean a chimney? In Surrey, the underground course of the River Mole was allegedly tracked by stuffing a duck into the hole  into which the water flowed out of sight; it emerged out of a spring-hole some distance away ‘wth its ffeathers allmost all Rubbed off . . . but how they could force ye Duck into so difficult a way or whither anything of this is more than Conjecture must be left to every ones Liberty to judge’. Don’t try this at home . . .


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2 Responses to The Book of the Farm

  1. Pingback: An Everyday Story of Country Folk | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

  2. Pingback: Putting Down Roots | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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