Jethro Tull’s name appears in almost every History text book as a figure of heroic stature in the agrarian revolution which allegedly transformed British Farming in the 18th Century.

Recently lionised on TV and in a colour supplement as a hero in the history of farming Wikipedia tells us “he is considered to be one of the early proponents of a scientific (and especially empirical) approach to agriculture.” So how true is this verdict?

1.] Tull states that the key food for plants is “earth” and dismisses “nitre” as plant food. Essentially he argues that it is fragments of powdered rock that are taken in by tiny mouths on the roots of crops, and that there must be a repeated stirring up of the soil to stimulate this process. But moisture and humus in the soil as well as micro-organisms and nitrates, phosphates and trace elements are vital for growth, and incessant disturbance at the roots of growing crops can be harmful.

2.] Tull dismisses manuring and crop rotation as not only unnecessary but bad for the soil – but they are beneficial if correctly used. Growing the same crop every year without replacing nutrients impoverishes the soil.

3.] Tull’s seed drill was not the first invented, nor was it particularly effective and could only operate if made to a very precise standard by a cabinet maker. Only after his death when gearing was added was it effective. Even so a skilled team of workers broadcasting could be more effective than early mechanical devices, in sowing grain crops.

4.] Tull’s sowing rate for grain led to a very low density with wide spaces between the rows to allow the horse hoe to hoe between, not primarily to remove weeds but to till the soil and stimulate the roots.

5.] Tull claimed good results empirically with his methods but I am sceptical and in the long term his methods would exhaust the soil and yields would fall and the soil erode. His results may have looked good in terms of ratio between seed sown and yield, but between farmed area and yield they cannot be as good. Is there any evidence of subsequent widespread use of his methods?

6.] The heroic verdict on Tull fits the popular myth that there is an inevitable tide of human progress which is the product of an elite group of ‘scientific men of genius’ [hardly any women]. Numerous earlier changes in farming, earlier knowledge and the roles of market demand and more efficient arable units are far more significant in the development of agriculture than heroic individuals.

For changes in agriculture see Chapters 1 and 2 in Kimble’s Journey

The Hampden Family and Parliament

The Hampden family were very influential in English politics from 1621 – 1720. 

John Hampden’s statue stands at the entrance of the central lobby of the Houses of Parliament and he has been referred to as ‘The Patriot’ and ‘Father of the Nation’. His son and grandson were also at the centre of political affairs but there was a calamitous fall from grace in 1720.

John Hampden had been a royal ward as his father died when he was a minor. The Hampdens were wealthy landowners, with Puritan religious sympathies.

John Hampden became an M.P. and was a friend of the leading parliamentarian Sir John Eliot, and was, like him imprisoned for refusing to pay a forced loan by King Charles I. After the death of Eliot, in prison, in 1632 Hampden was said to have become embittered.

In 1635, the king attempted to impose ‘Ship Money’ tax without the consent of parliament [which had been prorogued]. John Hampden and his tenants famously refused to pay the tax, in St Nicholas’ Church Great Kimble.

Eventually, in 1637 the courts found in favour of the King, but both sides were now on the road to conflict. The king recalled parliament and then attempted to

arrest five key members, including John Hampden. When the civil war broke out John Hampden and John Pym were the leaders of the parliamentary side.

Hampden died of wounds received in controversial circumstances at the battle of Chalgrove Field. A truce was called and men from both sides attended his funeral.

Richard Hampden succeeded his father and was influential in Parliament throughout the next fifty years. He actively opposed the succession of King

Charles II’s Roman Catholic brother James II and played a major part in the ‘Glorious Revolution of 1688. His religious views were far more militant than his father’s had been and there were controversies over appointments of priests to Great Kimble and the issues of the altar and the font in St Nicholas Church.

Richard’s son – the younger John Hampden involved himself in dangerous plotting against King Charles II in the ‘Rye House Plot’. He escaped with his life, due to the Hampden name, and had to pay a heavy fine. He also escaped with his life when he supported the Monmouth Rebellion – others were not so lucky and fell foul of the notorious ‘Bloody Assize’ overseen by the Hampden’s neighbour Judge Jeffries.

The Hampden descent came down to the younger Richard Hampden in 1696. Disgrace was to follow embezzlement in 1720 although the core estates were not sold in deference to the family’s service to the nation.

For more on John Hampden and the Hampden family see Chapter 4

For the controversies over Great Kimble Church see Chapter 12

A sideways look at Prime Ministers

Before the First World War the Chequers Estate, which held extensive land in Kimble Parish, had a very typical history.

Before the Norman Conquest it was held by Leofnoth –“a man of King Edward”, then it passed to Mainou one of William the Conqueror’s Breton Mercenaries. The next owner was a new type of noble a professional administrator who worked in the Exchequer [hence “Chequers”], and who built the original house. He married his offspring into the traditional nobility and the estate’s fortunes rose and declined with the fortunes of its owners. The house was rebuilt three more times over the years.

Following a complex process over several years the Estate became a trust and was to be used as a country estate “..for the rest and recreation of Prime Ministers” from 1921 onwards . Many of the estate staff came from Kimble and so Kimble people developed a very different view of Prime Ministers from that of Historians. The great war leader and social reformer Lloyd George was unpopular, a verdict not helped by his wife’s evident dislike of Chequers, although she was active in Kimble Free Church and her daughter Megan was popular. By contrast the first Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was popular, as were Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, although their reputations as Prime Ministers are low. There is a famous story about Baldwin consulting Herbert Howard the station master at Little Kimble to test public opinion on the issue of Edward VIII’s abdication. Winston Churchill was respected rather than liked, but his successor Clement Attlee was popular.

Of more recent Prime Ministers Edward Heath was quite active in the community and was a frequent visitor to the Bernard Arms, and was a ‘pint of bitter’ man, which surprised me. Mrs Thatcher divided opinion very sharply, with some people appreciating her interest in local suppliers, while other people found her high-handed. Her husband Dennis sometimes found Chequers boring, and would often wander up the drive and drop in on neighbours. It was felt that he was far more shrewd and influential than he appeared to be.

There was a famous occasion when John Major and his wife roused the landlord of the Bernard Arms one Sunday afternoon to cook for them and the Russian president Yeltsin and his wife. Mrs Major preferred Huntingdonshire to Chequers but wrote a very well- sourced book on Chequers.

For more on the History of the Chequers Estate see Chapter 5
For more on Prime Ministers see Chapters 7 and 9