Turnip Husbandry

Who said the Victorians were stuffy and prudish with no sense of humour?  This article from Volume IV – No.27, dated March, 1890 made me smile.  I’ve always found the turnip to be the most humorous of vegetables (although I think this was written in all seriousness!)………….I blame Blackadder!

Blackadder Turnip 1


If the tale of agricultural improvement could be told in any two syllables, it would be those which spell turnips. To ask a farmer now-a-days to farm without turnips, would be like asking the Israelites of old to make bricks without straw; and yet there was a time, and not so far back in the history of this country, when turnips were as great a novelty as guano was in our own day. There were no turnips at no very remote period. Turnip husbandry is later than our first turnpike road. Let us learn from Macaulay what our fathers had to do and to do without in the days when there were no turnips:

The rotation of crops was very imperfectly understood. It was known, indeed, that some vegetables lately introduced into our island, particularly the turnip, afforded excellent nutriment in winter to sheep and oxen; but it was not yet the practice to feed cattle in this manner. It was therefore by no means easy to keep them alive during the season when the grass is scanty. They were killed and salted in great numbers at the beginning of the cold weather; and, during several months, even the gentry tasted scarcely any fresh animal food, except game and river fish, which were consequently much more important articles in housekeeping than at present. It appears from the Northumberland Household Book that in the reign of Henry the Seventh fresh meat was never eaten even by the gentlemen attendant on a great Earl, except during the short interval between Midsummer and Michaelmas. But in the course of two centuries an improvement had taken place; and under Charles the Second it was not till the beginning of November that families laid in their stock of salt provisions, then called Martinmas beef.

What would we say if for only three instead of nine months of the year we had to go without fresh meat, nay, what if for only one single month? We cannot conceive the possibility of not being able to procure fresh beef and mutton either for love or money. The thing seems preposterous, and the idea incredible. But if in aught history is to be believed, this was the case in the reign of the Second Charles and for long afterwards. How long afterwards is more than I can say, and I am not disposed to hazard a conjecture. I have no wish to discredit my authority, and I am ready to admit that by the reign of Charles the Second the turnip had been introduced into this country. So had the potato in the reign of Elizabeth or that of James the First. But neither had become generally known. Sir Walter Scott tells us that in Scotland, so late as in 1745, the now all but universally grown potato was then all but totally unknown, and that the only esculent of the cottar was the kail or colewort which grew luxuriantly amidst nettles and national thistles. If the potato was so long in making its way, how long might not have been the turnip? It is one thing for a root or a plant to be known as a botanical curiosity, or even as being grown in gardens, and quite another to have it as the subject of cultivation as common husbandry. The fact is that the turnip as a root to be raised in the fields was unknown in this country until after the accession of the House of Hanover in 1714. The Marquis of Townshend was made Secretary of State at the accession of George I. in 1714, continued in office until the close of 1716, and resumed office again in 1721. Now George I., much to the dissatisfaction and disgust of the English people, was continually visiting and sojourning at the petty place from which he came. As far as might depend upon the king personally, Britain for half the year round was ruled from Hanover. While at Herenhausen, the king had, as a matter of course, to be attended by an English Minister, and the Marquis of Townshend was the one who went oftenest abroad. It was in Hanover where the Marquis of Townshend first saw turnips growing in the fields, and from whence he introduced their cultivation into his own county of Norfolk. According to John Grey, of Dilston, no turnips grew on a Northumberland field until between the years 1760 and 1770, although they had been sown and reared in gardens for several years before.

When turnips were first introduced, there was a prejudice against them on account of their coming from Hanover. But I venture to say that the turnip was cheap to this country at the cost of all the wars which ever we were driven or drawn in to wage for German objects and German interests. What, indeed, has not turnip husbandry done for England? Why, practically, it has doubled our acreage and doubled the duration of our summer. Turnips are the raw material of beef and mutton. Turnips have made us for a very great part of the year independent of grass, and have enabled us to go on feeding the whole year round. How could the present population be found with animal food except by means of turnips? If that man is a benefactor to his species who makes two blades of grass grow where one grew before, what must the Marquis of Townshend have been to have found food for nations and generations? And yet the Marquis of Townshend is hardly so much as noticed in history for the introduction of turnips. What signify Ministerial intrigues and Parliamentary squabbles at this day? Half a line of Pope has made Townshend immortal “All Townshend’s turnips and all Grosvenor’s mines.”

We are apt to regard Christmas beef as something coeval with creation. There could not be any such thing as Christmas beef in the first quarter of the last century. We talk fondly of roast beef being true old English fare. We might rather have termed it rare old English fare, for our fathers only knew it from Midsummer to Martinmas.

But the good of turnip husbandry is not by any means confined to the production of beef and mutton. Turnips make manure, and manure makes corn. Turnips really and truly mean everything. Get but turnips, and all other things are added, or rather implied. The great value of guano and other portable manures is in enabling turnips to be grown. No man can tell how much turnip husbandry has not augmented our annual product of corn. Neither can any man measure how much turnip husbandry has increased, is increasing, and will increase our national wealth. If Grosvenor’s mines had been as rich as those of Peru, they could not have done so much for England and the English people as Townshend’s turnips.

Blackadder Turnip 2

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