October 29, 2008

Thomas Bates - Northumbrian Farming Innovator and Shorthorn Breeding Pioneer

By Dr Malcolm Tait, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

How on earth could there be connections between the village of Chudleigh in Tasmania; Vancouver, Canada; Halton Castle, Northumberland; Thomas Bates and Shorthorn cattle?

This story began while my wife and I were visiting Tasmania in 2005. We stumbled across a local agricultural show at Chudleigh where, just by chance we met Warwick Holmes, a retired dairy farmer. His small herd of dairy Shorthorns is his hobby and pride and joy.

Warwick knew only a little about the history of the breed so, with my wife being from Durham, and me from Northumberland, we told him what we knew. I then promised to do some research and provide more detail.

On our return to Vancouver I discovered a book in the library of the University of British Columbia, entitled "The History of Improved Short-Horn or Durham Cattle: from notes of the late Thomas Bates".

Thomas Bell
The author of the book was a Thomas Bell, born at Halton Castle, Northumberland in 1805, where his father Robert Bell was farm steward for Thomas Bates for many years. Robert Redpath, "North of England Farmer Office", Clayton Street, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, published the book in 1871, and this particular copy is signed by a "John Swinburne, 16 Aug. 1871".

Who was John Swinburne (a good Northumbrian name), and how did the book end up in Canada?

From the book I discovered that Thomas Bates was a Northumbrian, one of the leading agriculturalists of his day, and a famous breeder of Shorthorn cattle. His contribution to agriculture in the county, and the Shorthorn breed around the world was massive, and that he probably never got full credit for this.

Memories of Cockle Park
Reading this material brought back memories; generations of us past students who studied at King's College (then a college of the University of Durham) and Cockle Park (the University's experimental farm) were told all this by our revered Professor H. Cecil Pawson, but not much went in at the time as history was not our favorite subject.

Shorthorns were called "Durham cattle" and the Colling brothers who farmed near Darlington get most of the credit for their development. But Thomas Bates made a much greater contribution to improving the breed, and to many other aspects of agriculture.

A man of foresight
Bates was a man of great foresight; many of his ideas were conceived at Halton Castle, which became the test bed for much of his work. Later in life he moved to Kirklevington in North Yorkshire, and his involvement with Shorthorns is often linked to his Kirklevington herd with little mention of his Northumbrian roots.

Bates concentrated on the breed's milk production and milk quality, he was largely responsible for developing the dairy strain of Shorthorn, and apparently large quantities of superior quality butter and cheese were made at Halton. A footnote in Bell's book states; "I believe that no cheese is now (1871) made in Northumberland. The ordinary cheese used by the labouring classes is nearly all American".

Shorthorns were classed as a "dual purpose" breed and produced both meat and milk. Robert Booth of Killerby, Durham concentrated on the beef characteristics and there was a famous saying "Booth for the butcher, Bates for the pail".

Thomas Bates
Thomas Bates was born in 1776 and attended school at Haydon Bridge and Witton-le-Wear. His farming career began at Aydon Castle and by the age of 20 he was managing one of his father's estates, Park End, Wark. Within a very short time he made significant improvements to that property, primarily by draining and liming.

He was 25 in 1800 when he took the 21-year lease on 800 acres at Halton Castle, a short distance north of Corbridge. He immediately began draining large areas of that estate applying what was known as the Elkington principle. This involved close study of the nature of the soils, the strata and the water flow. Drains were up to 10 feet deep and draining was followed by extensive use of lime.

While he was at Halton he spent the winters of 1809-11 at Edinburgh University studying chemistry and mineralogy. He then promoted the application of these and other sciences to the study and improvement of agriculture.

Many friends
Many eminent agriculturalists were his friends, mentors, and sources of inspiration and several were frequent visitors to Halton Castle. One of the most notable was George Culley of Fenton who married Elizabeth Bates, a cousin of Thomas' father. The Culley brothers were noted breeders of livestock especially the creation of Border Leicester sheep. Many of the principles of animal breeding that Thomas Bates applied to the improvement of Shorthorns were learned from George Culley.

George Culley was also the primary author of the "Survey of Northumberland" 1797. In that report he proposed the establishment of experimental farms to bring about improvements in farming. Thomas Bates picked up this idea, developed it further and presented a lengthy address on the subject of the need for "publicly funded experimental farms" to the Board of Agriculture. It's dated Halton Castle, Dec. 19th 1807.

No farming academics
In that address, he expressed concern that Britain was not self-sufficient in food and was becoming increasingly dependent on imports. In relation to this he also debated the pros and cons of free trade. Furthermore, Bates lamented that there was not a professor of agriculture at either Cambridge or Oxford University. He was clearly a man ahead of his time, as it was 40 years after his death that the Northumberland County Experimental Station was established at Cockle Park (1896), as well as a Chair of Agriculture at the University of Durham, College of Science, Newcastle.

Bates was also interested in forestry; he started plantations on the higher land at Park End, primarily to provide shelter for livestock. While at Halton, he wrote articles for agricultural publications urging other landowners to do the same, drawing attention to the importance and benefits of shelter for stock.

As a result 1000 acres of Corbridge commons was planted. Swedish visitors to Halton Castle gave his efforts in afforestation greater impetus when they observed that, "Britain imports large quantities of timber yet the hills of Northumberland are naked." Did Thomas Bates foresee Kielder Forest?

Moving to Ridley Hall
In 1818, before the lease on Halton Castle expired, Bates bought Ridley Hall and moved there. He subsequently moved to Kirklevington in 1830. On one occasion he attended a meeting at Alnwick and in response to a toast he said; "Although I now reside in Yorkshire my heart is still in Northumberland".

Several of his ideas have borne fruit and many of the issues he addressed nearly 200 years ago are highly relevant today. He never married and the herd was dispersed after he died at Kirklevington in 1849. There is a memorial beside his grave in the Kirklevington churchyard that was raised by his friends who recognized him as "one of the most distinguished breeders of Shorthorn cattle".

Within Kirklevingon church there is a memorial window depicting Shorthorn cattle which his nephew arranged to be installed in 1883.

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