Thomas Bates, a man of generous spirit, ploughed knowledge and money into the agricultural revolution that reshaped 19th Century Britain.
In the hundred years between 1770 and 1870, the North-East played a crucial role in what were two of the most important social and economic events in this country’s history.
GENERALLY referred to as the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, these two periods of great social and economic turmoil overlapped and complemented each other to transform the way of life of the entire nation.
New factories created jobs – lots of them – and their workers needed a ready supply of food.
To meet this new demand for its products, farming, which had changed remarkably little for centuries, could no longer rely on inefficient and wasteful practices.
New methods of tilling and improving farmland, and creating more of it, developing crops with heavier yields, machines that could work faster than people and animals which matured more quickly, grew to a greater size and were worth much more to the farmer than it had cost to rear them, were just some of the considerations that landowners needed to address.
Nothing less than a complete revolution in every aspect of agriculture would even come close to improving the situation.
Fortunately, some far-sighted farmers were more than willing to embrace change, while most of the rest eventually concluded that they simply could not afford to be left behind.
One of the most visionary of the pioneers, whose name and work are still remembered and revered in farming circles around the world, was Thomas Bates.
One of the foremost cattle breeders of his time, he earned his success and reputation by investigating and improving several previously-neglected aspects of agriculture, including the draining and fertilising of land and the optimum methods of feeding livestock, both for profit and for their well-being.
Bates realised early in life that ideas needed to be shared if they were ever to bear fruit and to this end he spoke to influential groups about his work, submitted papers on a wide variety of subjects to magazines and corresponded with like-minded individuals in Britain and much farther afield, especially in the US.
He was not at all selfish in sharing his knowledge and ideas with anyone who cared to ask him about them.
Immersed in farming from early childhood, Bates was born on February 16, 1775, and grew up at Aydon Castle, a few miles north-east of Corbridge, in Northumberland.
Coming from a well-to-do family, he was sent to be educated at two of the North’s finest grammar schools, first at Haydon Bridge and then at Witton-le-Wear, where he was taught by the Reverend John Farrer, until summoned home, at the age of 15, to help manage his father’s several farms.
Before he was 20, the young Bates became the tenant of Aydon White House Farm, where he continued his research into the weight of animals compared to their food intake and also succeeded in producing a record crop of 50 tons of turnips per acre.
By the time he was 25, he had become so successful that he was able to lease two farms and lay the foundations of a first-rate herd of Shorthorn cattle. He was the first person to pay the renowned breeder Charles Colling of Ketton, near Darlington, 100 guineas for just one of several cows he bought from him.
When Bates was left a substantial legacy by his Aunt Joyous, he ploughed it back into farming by investing in more land and more Shorthorns, as well as extending the in-breeding programme he had successfully devised and developed for them.
In 1811, while still retaining Halton as his main residence (and becoming increasingly renowned for his genial hospitality there), he spent £30,000 – £20,000 of it in cash – on the purchase, from John Waldy and Henry Hutchinson, of 1,000 acres of the manor of Kirklevington, two miles south-east of Yarm, on the River Tees. Half of the land was “good, old grass fields”, the remainder “poor, cold clay”, badly-drained and marshy.
KI R K L E V I N G T O N , today an attractive residential village with several houses whose external walls carry dates and inscriptions indicating that they originate from the 18th Century, but whose floor plans and locations place them much farther back in history, was “a poor place” when Bates first saw it. But he had great plans for it.
Before he could bring his Shorthorns to such a place, he would spend the next 20 years – and a good part of his fortune – installing extensive drainage schemes and the application of manure and fertilisers to turn those acres into prime grazing land and soil that would produce both wheat and the quality fodder crops his cattle would need.
During most of those 20 years, he lived in the Tyne Valley, where in 1818 he bought yet more land which included Ridley Hall, the most impressive house in that area.
But in 1830, he decided Kirklevington was ready and, on May Day, left Ridley Hall and travelled south with 50 Shorthorn cows and heifers.
When he arrived, Kirklevington was described as “a poor destitute place, eaten up by paupers”, but he changed all that.
He employed as many of the paupers as he could, and encouraged them to save some of what he paid them so they would never have to live on parish aid.
In 1837, he wrote to the Poor Law Commissioners suggesting that a law should be passed encouraging everyone between the ages of 21 and 60 to pay sixpence a week into a fund that would support them in their old age and during sickness. For the first ten years of each participant’s involvement in the scheme, their employer would contribute threepence per week.
This early attempt at National Insurance unfortunately came to nothing.
In 1823, along with the paupers encountered by Bates, Kirklevington also provided a living, of sorts, for four farmers, three shoemakers, two wheelwrights, one of whom was also a “machine maker”, a bailiff, a tailor and a grocercorn miller, as well as the landlord of The Crown inn who doubled as the village blacksmith.
AS well as providing cheap and comfortable cottages for his employees and looking after them in sickness and old age, The Farmers Magazine said of Bates: “His word was more relied upon than many men’s bonds. In hospitality, to all comers he was seldom equalled; his house was open to every one of whatever grade, from the Peer or Member of Parliament down to the small undistinguished farmer.
The longer the visitor stayed, and the more he partook of his liberality, the more welcome he was. In fact his house was the home of all who entered it.
He wrote a vast number of letters to the newspapers, mainly on the politics of agriculture, and was always at a county meeting or election where anything agricultural was the subject of investigation or remark.”
Much as he was used to the good life, Bates was never over-indulgent, drinking water with his meals unless he shared some wine with visitors, and, there being no mansion on his Tees Valley property, he was content when he did finally move to Kirklevington to settle in the long farmhouse of Town Farm, sometimes called Town End.
With its outbuildings on the south side of the property, Bates’ principal living rooms faced north onto Forest Lane and, beyond, towards Yarm.
The house has survived, looking much as it did when he lived there, but his farm buildings have been demolished and replaced by modern red-brick housing.
Towards the end of his life, when suffering more than usual with his renal disease, he visited Redcar to try, unsuccessfully, to alleviate its symptoms. His condition gradually worsened until his death, aged 74, on July 25, 1849.
His famous Shorthorn herd of 68 premium cattle was sold by auction at Kirklevington on May 9, 1850. More than 5,000 OF GOOD STOCK: The Colling brothers, Robert and Charles, of Ketton, near Darlington, and below, Comet, one of the most famous of the gigantic shorthorns which they bred people attended the sale, including some who had travelled from the US. Many more Americans had intended to be present but, the date of the auction having been unexpectedly brought forward, they arrived too late.
The animals in the sale did not fetch the expected prices.
This may have been because Britain’s new Free Trade policy had driven prices down or due to a conspiracy hatched to prevent the high-spending Americans from attending and bidding them up.
It was generally agreed, however, that “the Kirklevington animals were the most excellent shorthorns ever seen together”.
Bates’ grave near the north-east corner of Kirklevington churchyard was augmented a few years later by a memorial placed there by his friends who “appreciated his labours for the improvement of British stock and respected his character”.
Unfortunately, the dates of his birth and death as recorded there are incorrect.
In the 1880s, on the instructions of his nephew, a stained-glass window was placed to his memory in the nave of the church.