Bath Agricultural Society

BRLSI is a Literary and Scientific Institution today, but its forerunners in Bath had much wider interests, with Agriculture at the forefront. The following extracts from our Archives give some details of this undertaking.

The Circus, Bath, designed by John Wood the Elder and completed in 1762

The Bath Chronicle for 28th August 1777 carried a notice addressed to "The Nobility and Gentry in the counties of Somerset, Gloucester, Wiltshire and Dorset in general, and the Cities of Bath and Bristol in particular". This was a proposal for the "Institution of a Society in this City, for the encouragement of Agriculture, Planting, Manufactures, Commerce, and the Fine Arts...".

Interested individuals concerned with forming such a society are invited to attend a meeting at 11 a.m. on September 8th at York House (now the Royal York Hotel). Twenty-two people responded to the notice and the first of Bath's scientific societies was inaugurated. It was to continue its close associations with Bath until 1974, when its administration moved to a new, permanent home at Shepton Mallet.

The idea of a society was the brain-child of Edmund Rack, the son of a Norfolk labouring weaver. A draper by trade, Rack had also cultivated a taste for literature. During his earlier life in Norfolk he had become very interested in agriculture and, in particular, in the application of modern methods and when, in 1775, he settled in Bath, and his attention was immediately drawn to the poor standard of agricultural practice in the West Country.

Rack was responsible for a series of letters to the Farming Magazine and the Bath Chronicle, pointing out that it was in the interest of the farmer, the landowner and the nation in general that the agricultural resources of the country should be increased. By August 1777 he must have felt that the time was ripe for more specific proposals, hence the advertisement.

At the inaugural meeting the Chair was taken by John Ford. The attendance was as follows:

John Ford Esq. in the chair,
Revd. Dr. Wilson Phillip Stephens, Esq.
Revd. Mr Ford Paul Newman Esq.
Dr. Wm Falconer
Mr. John Newman
Dr. Patrick Henley
William Street Esq.
Wm. Brereton Esq.
Mr. Symons, Surgeon
Mr. Saml. Virgin
Mr. Crutwell, Surgeon
Mr. Richard Crutwell
Mr. Arden
Mr. Foster, Apothecary
Mr. Wm Matthews
Mr. Cam Gyde
Mr. Parsons
Mr. Benj. Axford
Mr. Edm. Rack
Mr. Bull

Edmund Rack

Several resolutions were passed, among them the unanimous request that Edmund Rack, then 42 years of age, should be appointed Secretary of the Society.

The first edition of Aims, Rules and Orders of the Society, published in 1777, lists several important objectives. These include the aim to improve husbandry through the award of premiums (prizes) and the encouragement of experimentation in those spheres most needing it.The first General Meeting on 9th December 1777 considered 49 recommendations for premiums ranging from 1 guinea to 30 for projects as varied as the raising of the principal farm crops, the rearing of agricultural stock , improving farm implements, softening hard water and even the manufacture by a woman of the greatest quantity of black lace.

Each subsequent year brought new projects for premiums, some of them decidedly unexpected. In the 1809 list, for example, there is the offer of an award for the best treatise either in defence or refutation of the theory of the Rev. Mr. Malthus concerning population; the prize-winning essay was published the following year. Unlikely though this topic sounds in its particular context, it of especial interest because Malthus himself had strong connections with Bath. One source actually states that he spent the last four years of his life at Bath, though this is uncertain. It is known, however, that he died there in 1834 at 17, Portland Place, the home of his father-in-law, John Eckersall. He is believed to have been buried at Claverton. At a later date a tablet was erected to his memory just inside the West Door of the Abbey Church.

By the spring of 1780 a site had been found and approved by Edmund Rack and ten acres of land at Weston, Bath, was taken over for experiments in agriculture. The land itself which presented a variety of soils and situations, was part of a farm occupied by a Mr. Bethel, who agreed to conduct the experiments himself, under the supervision of a committee.This was the very first experimental farm in Britain and a worthy precursor to Woburn and Rothamstead. Even so, after about ten years the scheme petered out, probably as a result of defective management.

MIneral Water

Beside Edmund Rack, there were other interesting individuals among the earlier members of the Society. William Falconer, a Doctor of Medicine of both Edinburgh and Leyden Universities, came to Bath in 1770, taking up residence in the Circus. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1773 and later became a physician at the Bath General Hospital. One of his particular interests was the medical applications of the Bath hot mineral spring water, a subject on which he wrote several works. William Matthews, another founder member, and later to succeed Rack as Secretary, was the son of an Oxfordshire Quaker shoemaker. He came to Bath in 1777, first setting up a brewery, then a coal yard and then a seed and implement business at Hetling House (now Abbey Church House). He published several books, all of them on theological or moral issues.

Soon after the Society's inauguration, Thomas Curtis became a member. The original founder of the first Bath Philosophical Society in 1779, Curtis was a greatly respected figure. In an obituary Edmund Rack said of him "he was well read in men as well as books; yet he rather sought to be useful rather than popular; to merit rather than court applause".

Joseph Priestley (Image: Wikipedia)

More important historically was Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen. It is perhaps surprising to find Priestley associated with Bath; he is almost invariably linked with Birmingham where his house and laboratory were once pillaged by a mob in an orgy of political violence. Between the years 1773 - 1780, however, he was a library companion to Lord Shelburne, afterwards First Marquis of Lansdowne and in 1782, Prime Minister. Priestley lived near Lord Shelburne's seat at Bowood near Calne, Wiltshire. In fact it was at Calne that he discovered oxygen, a momentous event in the development of chemistry. In 1777 we find Priestley as Honorary and Corresponding member of the Society. In 1778 he was Vice-President and in 1780, on the Committee of Correspondence and Enquiry.

It is clear from a number of sources that Priestley was active in both the social and the scientific life of Bath. His introduction to its scientific life was probably through William Watson, with whom he was already acquainted. In the preface to Watson's only book, A Treatise on Time, published in 1785, tribute is paid to "that eminent philosopher, Dr. Priestley (who thought it [the book] not unworthy of the public eye)".

Sir William Herschel

Priestley also knew William Herschel. At one stage he assisted Herschel in making the acquaintance of John Mitchell of Derbyshire, who was also engaged in the construction of large astronomical telescopes. On the social side, Priestley was friendly with the Linleys of Bath and at one time lodged with them.

Letters and Papers

In 1780 came the first volume of Letters and Papers of the Society, the forerunner to today's BRLSI Proceedings. These appeared irregularly and terminated with Vol. XV in 1829. They provide an invaluable source of information on the startlingly wide range of activities carried on within the Society. On reflection this is not really surprising. The era of specialised national journals was still to come and local society journals, with their wide spread of information, formed a necessary step in the evolution of the present-day serial. Articles in Letters and Papers, and later in the Journal, produce such topics as meteorology, the exhibiting of livestock, hay steaming, the chemical analysis of soils and later on, even steam engine trials.

A recurring theme in the Society's earlier publications was the application of chemistry to agriculture, especially chemical analysis of soils and fertilisers. As early as 1805 the Bath Society had voted funds to establish a chemical laboratory. In the same year, Dr. Clement Archer, a Bath physician, offered to lecture without fee, on this same topic of chemistry's applications to agriculture. He also offered his services in superintending the operation of the analytical laboratory - an offer which was promptly accepted "and the Doctor was immediately appointed Chemical Professor to the Society, with the unanimous thanks of the Meeting".

The laboratory was set up in the vaults of Hetling House; £100 was to be spent by Dr. Archer, presumably on equipment and chemicals, and £50 per annum to be paid to Mr. Cadwallader Boyd, as assistant. The following spring, Dr. Archer gave a course of lectures "which were attended as well by many Ladies and Gentlemen who had a taste for science, as by most of the members who remained in town". Unfortunately, Dr. Archer died after a few months but the Institution continued in the hands of Boyd, " a very ingenious and intelligent chemist whose real knowledge and acquaintance with the science is accompanied by that unassuming modesty generally attendant on true merit".

Referring to the quality of Boyd's analytical work, we read in Letters and Papers that "of the accuracy of the results of these analyses as delivered by Mr Boyd, the Society entertains not the least doubt". Clearly the Society had great faith in Boyd! A present-day assessment of his methods would provoke considerably less optimism. The methods he used were those of Humphrey Davy, as published in his Elements of Agricultural Chemistry. Davy, later Count Rumford, was, as we all recall, the man who first isolated sodium and potassium, an event recalled in the clerihew by Edmund Bentley:

Sir Humphrey Davy
Abominated gravy
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium

Great chemist he may have been, but his analytical methods were not particularly reliable.

Agricultural Science

As might have been expected, the first half of the 19th century saw tremendous developments in the science of agriculture. Chemistry and physics were undergoing rapid changes and it was only natural that the newly acquired knowledge should be applied to biology, which, after all, depended on the same basic mechanisms.

Probably the single most important step taken by the Society was the appointment of Dr. Augustus Voelcker as its consultant chemist in 1855. His influence was strongly felt in several areas. Through the Society's Journal he brought the new agricultural science directly to its membership; he travelled extensively through the entire area covered by the Society, giving lectures and taking part in discussions; he analysed soil and fertiliser samples given to him by farmers and he was able to advise them on their particular needs, as well as the value of their fertilisers. As he put it, "any good analytical chemist can ascertain the exact amount of the different constituents of the manure, and, knowing the market price at which they can be obtained separately, he is enabled to calculate with tolerable accuracy its commercial value". There was certainly need for such information for at this time the adulteration of foodstuffs had reached extreme proportions.
A parallel situation existed in the sale of fertilisers. Voelcker drove home the basic point that these should be analysed and that "the presentation of a chemical analysis by the dealer is in itself no guarantee of the genuiness or value of the manure".

Voelcker had been educated in Germany, where he studied under Liebig. In 1849 he was appointed the first Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester. Despite his German origins, he appears to have been popular with English farmers. His emphasis on checking fertilisers by analysis paid off; within a few years the Society noted a marked improvement in the quality of fertilisers offered for sale. In 1863 he resigned his post at Cirencester and set up in private practice in London but he still maintained his association with the Bath Agricultural Society.

Another side of agriculture which interested Voelcker was cheese making. Here too, he stressed the scientific approach - "All that is mysterious about it is purely accidental". Improvement in the quality of cheese and butter was a matter which concerned the Society increasingly in the latter part of the 19th century. In 1889 its first Cheese School was set up in Wells, with the complete course lasting four weeks and costing 8 guineas. Later it moved to Frome with F.J. Lloyd, an agricultural chemist in attendance. In spite of these praiseworthy efforts, reports in the Journalistic pointed to the superior quality of foreign produce. The reason was claimed to be insufficient agricultural education and research.

In 1852 a decision was taken to move the Annual Meetings away from Bath and to hold them each year in a different town within the Society's area. Each meeting was combined with an Agricultural Show. The mid-20th century saw the far-reaching decision to seek a permanent site for the Annual Show and, accordingly, a 200 acre site was acquired at Shepton Mallet. In 1974 the Society's administration too, left its permanent home in Bath and moved to Shepton Mallet. After 197 years the connection with Bath was almost, but not quite severed. All that remained to the City were the Society's Library, now housed in the University of Bath, and its archives, which were given into the care of Bath City Council. Very likely Edmund Rack would have approved!

Mostly taken from: Bath Some Encounters with Science (Chapter Four: Societies and Institutions), W J Williams and D M Stoddart, Kingsmead Press, 1974.

Additional material and Editing, Joy Whalley, Ruth Abbott. Also used: The Revival of the Institution, Jane Coates and Michael King, BRLSI Annual Report,1996.