Farming – The Educators

by Alan Postlethwaite

Upper Vale of Eden (7-219)

Early Educators

Agricultural education in the UK was not a matter that initially attracted anything like the state support that it was given on the continent and in the New World. In the pioneering phases initiatives relied on the energy and vision of individuals and groups. In Cumbria a significant step was taken by the foundation in 1874 of an Aspatria Agricultural College. It was only the second of its kind in the United Kingdom and, in many respects was unique. The primary promoters were three local figures – farmers William Norman and John Twentyman and veterinary surgeon Henry Thompson – inspired by the enthusiasm for co-operative endeavour of Sir Wilfrid Lawson. William Norman had studied the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester and recognised the value of sound agricultural education, but appreciated that fees for students needed to be set at a level northern farmers and tenants could afford. With financial support from Sir Wilfrid and the backing of a joint-stock company of local co-operators, the Agricultural School appointed Thomas Edwards as its first master and enrolled its first three students.

The early years were difficult with problems of student recruitment, staff changes and lack of resources. The tide turned with the appointment in 1886 of Dr Henry Webb, then Secretary of the Cirencester College, as Principal. Dr Webb’s leadership saw student numbers increase each year and he began to raise Aspatria College to a position of high national standing. The Principal was called as a witness by the Paget Commission set up by the Government in 1887 to look at agricultural and dairy schools in Great Britain. The report of the Commission highlighted the cost nationally of inadequate agricultural education and poor dairy practice but recommended Aspatria as the only agricultural college to be given grant aid. The grants that followed enabled the College to widen access to its courses and provide scholarships to cover all course fees for new student entrants. In 1889 local authorities were granted powers under the Technical Education Act to engage in agricultural education and an offer was made to Cumberland County Council to take over the operation of the College but the option was refused as being too speculative.

Under Dr Webb’s direction and personal financial backing the College continued and maintained a reputation which brought it many distinguished visitors. Mechi Farm was among those used for practical instruction. The West Cumberland Dairy Co. allowed its Aspatria factory to be used for classes in commercial butter manufacture. The College was to the fore in admitting women to its classes. The year 1893 saw the College premises substantially enlarged but also ended with the sudden death of its Principal. Responsibility for the College passed to Dr Webb’s widow and sister with Mr John Smith Hill, a friend of Dr Webb, arriving as the academic manager. Under this new management the College continued to achieve success and gained personal and institutional recognition for John Smith Hill. As the first World War approached student numbers declined. Of four pioneer farming colleges in England only Cirencester and Aspatria then remained and both closed for the duration of hostilities. After the war it was decided that the cost of rebuilding and re-equipping facilities at Aspatria could not be justified and the Aspatria Agricultural College passed into history.

Seeds of Change : Andrew Humphries, Newton Rigg College, 1996

Their Successors

The County Councils of Cumberland and Westmorland anguished long over the discharge of their responsibilities in the fields of technical and agricultural education. With help from Dr Webb and his staff a programme of agricultural lectures was arranged in the early 1890s at centres across the counties. These had a mixed reception as often the lecturers’ scientific knowledge was out of kilter with the traditional skills of the farmers. The urgent need to raise the standards of dairying was driven by the depressed state of the rural economy and a nationwide demand for good quality butter. Migratory Dairy Schools were introduced, again drawing on the experience of the dairy department of the Aspatria College. Shared between the twin counties was a lumbering travelling dairy van which visited more remote districts and required the combined efforts of three or four horses for its movement. The endeavours of the dairy schools were credited with the change to the use of end-to-end churns and mechanical butter-makers. Taking the instruction into the rural communities was an important factor in the greater success of the dairying initiative, such that the itinerant dairy training lasted in the counties until the 1930s.

Finally in November 1894 representatives of Cumberland, Westmorland and Northumberland counties met in Carlisle to consider ‘the desirability of establishing a fixed Dairy School and Farm for the three counties.’ Distance of travel soon caused the withdrawal of the Northumberland interest but Cumberland and Westmorland were able in 1896 to conclude a lease on Newton Rigg Farm, near Penrith and virtually on the border of the two counties. This marked the foundation of Newton Rigg College. For its first year eight male students were enrolled, two full-time staff appointed, and a herd of cows and flock of sheep purchased to keep them company. Shorter dairy courses for female students soon began and local students were able to join courses on a non-resident basis. As technical and further education gradually gathered momentum Newton Rigg became a familiar name in the Cumbrian countryside and a source of pride to the farming community. Academic rigour was assured by close links with Armstrong College in the University of Durham. Financial security came from new Board of Agriculture funding which removed the uncertainties of local authority support and allowed a substantial programme of improvements in 1913.

The war years meant the suspension of much of the college’s routine. During the war years agricultural production had increased but the removal with the peace of state support and the return of a free market heralded a decade of severe depression seen by the farming community as ‘The Great Betrayal’. Commodity prices collapsed as scarcity gave way to surplus. Newton Rigg went through an unsettling period. Attempts to recover a post-war momentum were derailed by discontents that ended in a wholesale reorganisation of staffing in 1925 and the appointment of a new Principal. A new power in the countryside emerged in the form of the Women’s Institute and it became clear that the WI was to have a marked influence of the future of agricultural education and the programme of activities at Newton Rigg. The extension of rural education into schools and the wider community was being recognised as a key element in promotion of viable employment and social wellbeing in the countryside. In spite of some grumbling from elderly councillors, Newton Rigg recognised the potential of the newly spawned Young Farmers’ movement and fostered its growth. In a host of ways the College showed its capacity to respond to local and individual needs. A correspondence course was provided in response to requests. Domestic science teachers were given training in the use of British farm produce in household catering. Instruction in dry-stone walling was offered with a course at Millom expressly for unemployed workers. The broader understanding of rural occupations produced courses to promote and improve beekeeping, poultry keeping, horticulture and fruit growing, especially damsons and blackcurrants.

In response to the widespread unemployment and distress during the years of depression, the Land Settlement Association was formed to resettle families who lacked capital or experience on small units of land where they could support themselves. The LSA’s purchase of Crofton estate near Thursby was one of its most ambitious projects, which was primarily developed for unemployed miners from West Cumberland. Technical training was provided and staff at Newton Rigg shouldered a great deal of this responsibility. Between 1935 and 1938 over 150 separate holding were provided on LSA estates in Cumberland. Similar ‘half acre holdings’ existed at Oughterside, Hensingham and Dearham. There were allotments for those without jobs at other centres from Hallbankgate to Millom and at Maryport the Principal from Newton Rigg designed and had oversight of new piggeries for such a scheme. Through the difficult inter-war years, while the College extended the scope and orientation of its endeavours, it remained focused on its core work of advancing the quality of the Cumbrian farming industry. On the arable front trials were conducted into the production of seed potatoes and to explore the varieties most suitable for supplying potato crisp manufacture. Attention continued to be devoted to dairying particularly in encouraging cheese and butter production to absorb milk surpluses. There was a focus on upland soil improvement both by ploughing and reseeding and also by trials with liming and phosphate dressing. The use of basic slag as a source of phosphate had been promoted by Newton Rigg to improve poor grassland and won particular support in West Cumberland where iron industry slag abounded. However, as clouds threatening more hostilities gathered over Europe so bickering and complaints hovered over Newton Rigg. Investment was needed if the College was to survive. The old disagreement over whether it was an educational facility for which the local County Councils should have care or a training agency responding to the needs of the national farming industry surfaced anew. Beyond agreeing that major modernisation was imperative, all possibilities of a solution had to be put on hold.

World War II began with the nation is a better state of readiness than in 1914 not least in the farming industry. Reserves of fertiliser, feed stock and machinery had been built up and the response was dramatic. By 1942 home food production had grown by 70%. War Agricultural Executive Committees became the local operational arm of government, managing such matters as ploughing up land and targets of crop production. Newton Rigg was to all intents and purposes requisitioned for the war effort and the duties of the staff came under ‘War Ag’ directions. A major wartime role of the College was the training of members of the Women’s Land Army. In the four year from 1939 around 485 land girls attended courses at the College lasting four weeks. In 1940 the green berets of the timber corps appeared. By the close of 1943 1,071 land girls were at work on Cumbrian farms.

As the war ended planning for the future resumed. It was clear that the key to post-war provision lay in capital investment subject to the approval of the Ministry of Agriculture. Several government committees considered how best to build on the dramatic improvements in agricultural productivity achieved during the war. The Luxmoore Committee argued that the confused pattern of farming education with farm institutes, colleges and university departments should be replaced by making the farm institute system of pre-college practical training an obligatory requirement on all local authorities. A new advisory service (NAAS) was to be formed to separate teaching from technical advisory work. This separation of academic and regulatory functions was not universally welcomed. However, the changes brought sharper focus and new opportunities for Newton Rigg, where a major centrally funded capital development programme was put in hand. Alongside improvements to the campus facilities, additional land was acquired to enhance the scope of practical farm experience in the curriculum. Increased mechanisation, advances in herbicides and pesticides, improvements in stock breeding and grassland management, together with greater attention to horticultural training and poultry-keeping all impacted on the changed emphases of life at Newton Rigg. The traditional role of farm institutes in building links with their host communities was pursued with a new enthusiasm. Extension work with local farmers, with schools and through extra-mural classes became an essential element of the College’s educational offering. With the advent of television in the 1960s Newton Rigg moved into using the media to promote agriculture and was the first college to provide a formal course of educational broadcasting. From 1967 the College became the Cumberland and Westmorland College of Agriculture and from 1969 was designated the National College of Forestry at Supervisory Level.


The revised pattern of activities at the College had a mixed effect. Horse trading among rival institutions caused some reduction in the range of agriculture courses provided although opportunities for forestry training increased. This was also a time of declining employment in the farming industry. Part-time courses and extra-mural classes continued to flourish. But times were changing. UK entry to the EEC brought significant benefits to the agricultural sector where farmers where prepared to grasp them. For Cumbrian farms, grassland productivity and utilisation had the greatest potential for gain. Skills in business administration and computer use were also becoming vital to success.

In the 1960s there was a countrywide expansion of higher education leading in 1965 to the creation of many polytechnics with central regulation of academic standards. In 1998 Newton Rigg College was attached to the University of Central Lancashire. In 2007 the College was transferred to the newly created University of Cumbria only to find its survival threatened in 2010 by the financial crisis that overtook the new foundation. A brighter outlook came with the transfer of the College’s management to Askham Bryan College, near York, of which it is now a component campus offering a broad range of academic courses in agriculture, land management, sport, health, and social care. In 2013 the Newton Rigg site received a major investment of capital with a grant of £3m. from the Skills Fund Agency which created the National Centre for the Uplands and greatly enhanced student facilities.

Undoubtedly the most severe recent crisis to affect Cumbria agriculture was the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001. The county was the area in the country worst affected by the epidemic with 843 cases. A Lancaster University field study reported on the far-reaching effects on the rural society and individuals in the farming community of the experience. The outbreak proved the resilience of farming families and their tenacity was displayed in the eagerness of many to restock and resume normal business while others responded by various diversification strategies such as tourist hospitality, visitor attractions, and ice cream manufacture. Studies of the 2001 FMD outbreak also highlighted the vulnerability of the rural economy to such a crisis and the persistent problems of low productivity and earnings in the remoter parts of the countryside. Since 2001 economic growth in Cumbria has lagged even further behind the national average. Coincidental with the FMD crisis, the Government department with responsibility for agriculture changed from MAFF (the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) to DEFRA (the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs). While the foot and mouth outbreak triggered the demise of the Countryside Agency and Regional Tourist Boards in favour of an increased role for Regional Development Agencies, the national focus on farming was diminished by the sprawling obligations of DEFRA. Since 1998 a Cattle Tracing System (BCMS) has been in operation by which farmers must register all births, movements and deaths of animals. One of the principal centres for this service is at Workington.

(Page created 03/04/16)