Old Ways

Jethro Tull (1674-1741) Changed Farming Forever

Jethro Tull (1674-1741) was an eighteenth-century agriculturalist who has been credited as a major figure in instigating the British Agricultural Revolution.

He introduced new ways to sow seeds, fertilise soil, and prepare the earth for cultivation.

Tull brought these new approaches into common use, placing an emphasis on scientific methods which reflected the age of enlightenment (a contemporary philosophical movement which emphasised methodical enquiry) in which he lived and worked.

He advocated the use of mechanical devices of his own invention to improve efficiency and results in modern agriculture.

Jethro Tull's cottage
Cottages, Crowmarsh Gifford. Jethro Tull, inventor of the horse-drawn seed drill, lived here 1700-1710.

He was a persistent and convincing proponent of agricultural innovation and, while there is some debate about whether he was the true inventor of some of the devices he is credited with originating, he was certainly an enthusiastic and influential spreader of these ideas.

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As a direct result of his interventions – through putting agricultural innovation into practice and the publication of his own writings on these subjects – these new inventions and Tull’s insights were widely adopted during his lifetime.  

The eighteenth century saw a period of rapid and dramatic transformation in agriculture which, in turn, brought about wide-ranging social and economic changes in Britain.

Tull’s significant role in bringing about these changes is not as widely understood as it should be, considering what a formative role it played in creating the modern world.

A cursory Google search is more likely to produce hits about the rock band named after him than the man himself.

Who was Jethro Tull?

Jethro Tull was born in Berkshire and baptised on 30th March 1674.

He studied at St John’s College, Oxford, where he matriculated at the age of seventeen. He trained to be a lawyer and was called to the bar on 11th December 1693. Shortly after being called to the bar, however, he was taken ill and travelled abroad for his health.

This was a fortuitous accident in the history of agricultural development.

During his convalescence, he spent some time living in Montpelier and toured both France and Italy.

Jethro Tull

During his travels, he paid particular attention to the farming methods being employed in Europe at the time and learnt a great deal from this opportunity to observe alternative methods to those being used in Britain at first-hand.

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For example, he saw how the vinedressers of southern Europe prepared the soil with constant hoeing but did not fertilise it with manure, reinforcing his own insights and firmly establishing ideas which would inform his later inventions and practices.

When he returned to England, he took on Prosperous Farm at Shalbourne, where he continued to develop new methods in agriculture in practice, while also working on his agricultural theories.

In 1701, he developed a horse-drawn seed drill and went on to invent a horse-drawn hoe.

These and other ideas like them, created a basis for the development of modern agriculture which was based in scientific observation and employed mechanisation.

He died on 21 February 1741, leaving an influential legacy of innovation in agricultural methods which, thanks to his advocacy, had begun to be widely adopted by other landowners too.

What did he do?

Opposition to Virgilian Husbandry

Tull saw himself as an innovator of what he called a “New Husbandry” and was outspokenly critical of old methods. This can particularly be seen in his criticism targeted at “Virgilian” methods of agriculture.

The Georgics is a didactic poem by the Roman poet Virgil. It describes an ancient mode of agriculture which remained influential to Tull’s day; in fact, the eighteenth century saw a huge resurgence of interest in Virgil’s agricultural poem.

Jethro Tull seed drill

Frans De Bruyn has noted that, today, the British Library holds no fewer than twenty eighteenth-century translations of the Georgics, a striking fact that speaks to its popularity and impact in the period.

The poet Joseph Addison wrote in his “Essay on Virgil’s Georgics” that this long poem is in “some part of the science of husbandry, put into a pleasing dress and set off with all the beauties and embellishments of poetry”.

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This poem was an unlikely but strong influence on eighteenth-century agricultural methods; it wasn’t only considered as poetry but also as an instructional text, teaching readers how best to cultivate the land.

Virgilian Husbandry

Tull was opposed to this way of thinking. His resistance can be seen in his polemic chapter, “Remarks on the Bad Husbandry, that is so finely Express’d in Virgil’s First Georgic,” in which he systematically critiques what he saw as the key principles of Virgilian Husbandry.

He disapproved, for example, of burning stubble to enrich land, which he believed burnt nutrients out of the soil because he observed a loss of weight between samples taken before and after burning.

He also disagreed with the “Virgilian” idea that poor land should be ploughed shallowly and late in the season, because this method was in direct opposition to his own ideas about the importance of hoeing frequently to enrich the soil.

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He called his own ideas a “New Husbandry,” opposed “in all respects” to Virgilian ideas which, he writes, “warrants calling it Anti-Virgilian.” By opposing these established and traditional ideas,

Tull identified his work as modern and forward-looking in contrast to attitudes which were stuck in the past. This rhetoric from Tull represents a turn away from pastoral traditions and towards modernity, efficiency, and progress.

The Importance of Soil

Tull believed that soil was the single most important consideration for growing plants: “That which nourishes and augments a plant” he wrote “is the true food of it.

Every plant is earth, and the growth and true increase of a plant is the addition of more earth.”

Soil, then, was the basis of his theory of proper agricultural management.

This was at once a sound observation – soil is clearly a centrally important factor in the cultivation of strong crops – and mistaken in its over emphasis on a single factor in the cultivation of crops.

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He also incorrectly believed that soil was food for plants and that they absorbed it through their roots. Tull therefore rejected the need for fertiliser, considering the practice of manuring soil to be wasted time and effort. He also opposed the idea of letting fields lie fallow.

This was one of his most controversial beliefs and one which has led some to consider him, in the words of one historian, “a crank”.

“His experiments, indeed, were extraordinary,” Eric Kerridge wrote, “but Tull was a crank and his system unworkable, and the monoculture of horse-hoed wheat had no advantage over an alternation of wheat and bare fallow”.

Seed Drill

Tull’s ideas about the primary importance of mechanical preparation of the soil (as opposed to preparation with fertiliser), led to a number of mechanical innovations.

Most famously he developed the seed drill in around 1733.

This replaced traditional practices of broadcasting seed – in which seed was thrown evenly across turned soil and then harrowed – and met with resistance from skilled agricultural workers who prized their time-honoured ways of doing things.

Blue plaque of Jethro Tull
The Street, Crowmarsh Gifford: plaque marking former home of Jethro Tull As the plaque indicates, Jethro Tull (1674-1741) was the inventor of the horse-drawn seed drill.

Tull’s first machine was a drill-plough to sow wheat and turnip seed together.

This machine was capable of sowing three rows at a time. It was made up of two boxes containing seed which were placed one behind the other, allowing two types of seed to be sowed simultaneously.

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There was a harrow at the back of the machine which covered the seed over with soil as it was sown.

This design was followed by other innovations on the fundamental structure, making it lighter and adding features which specialised it for different crops.

The harrow could be lifted, and the seed-feeding mechanism stopped when the machine needed to turn a corner.

The Importance of Hoeing the Soil

Instead of applying manure or burning stubble, Tull firmly believed that the best way to create fertile soil was mechanical preparation. Hoeing, therefore, was an especially important aspect in his approach to cultivating crops.

This procedure destroys weeds allowing crops more space to flourish and, by loosening the soil, aerates it.

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It also allows the deeper permeation of water and better drainage, meaning that plants are more hydrated and less likely to become waterlogged.

Tull was one of the first to advocate hoeing – which he had observed in the vineyards of southern Europe – as a modern British farming method. He developed a horse-drawn hoe, which mechanised what he considered an essential process.

Tull’s Legacy

The significance of Tull’s work has been much debated. Lord Ernle called him “The ‘greatest individual improver’ that British agriculture had ever known”.

Others questioned this assessment wondering if he is given too much credit for a wave of improvement which was powered by many innovators working at the same time.

Jethro Tull gravestone

The agricultural historian Mauro Ambrosoli has argued that “Agricultural innovations in England [in the 17th and 18th centuries] were brought about by a combination of local and physical factors.

The(soil, rainfall), economic and institutional factors (large estates, legislation, trade cycles), and social factors (cultural fashions, foreign refugees and the enquiring minds of scholars)” rather than the work of individuals.

Tull was not the only innovator working in the early stages of the British Agrarian Revolution but he was a figurehead for an innovating movement and developed key ideas which shaped the development of his discipline.

He made a number of key insights which significantly contributed to a wider development agricultural progress. His importance as a figurehead for this trend can be seen in his influence on his contemporaries and immediate successors.

Tull’s Prosperous Farm became a site of pilgrimage to which those interested in agricultural matters – such as Arthur Young and William Cobbett – were drawn to learn from and honour his work.

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