‘The beginning of Reaseheath’- by W A Carr

Article written by W A Carr (pictured) in 1971

This is Jubilee Year for Reaseheath. Members may be interested to know what the place was like in 1921. Few can have any idea of farming conditions at that time and the difficulties we experienced in founding Reaseheath 50 years ago.  

South Cheshire was almost entirely under permanent grass and farming had been carried on with little change for generations. Cheshire was famous for cheese in the time of the Romans and cows and cheese still predominated on farms within fifteen miles of Reaseheath in 1921. There had been more change in the north of the county where arable crops and early potatoes were a feature. 

Reaseheath and Henhull Hall were purchased by the Cheshire County Council in 1919 for a Farm Institute. Men were to be taught agriculture at Reaseheath and women dairying at Henhull. It was considered inadvisable to have women at the same place as the men. The purchase of Henhull annoyed many farmers who considered that women should continue to be taught at Worleston Dairy Institute which had a high reputation for turning out good cheesemakers and even Reaseheath was regarded by many as a “white elephant”. 

There were however some enthusiastic farmers, landlords and estate agents who encouraged the Council to proceed to form the Institute for men at Reaseheath. A start was made to convert the Hall into a hostel and add a wing to house the Vice Principal who was expected to act as Warden. The stables and outbuildings were converted into lecture rooms and laboratories. Conversions had to be done with the minimum of outlay so that accommodation and amenities for students fell far short of present-day standards. Money was scarce in the years following the war. Corn and livestock continued to fall in value. Cheese was sold in Nantwich Market at 4 ½ d per lb., and our farm milk went into the dairy at 6d per gallon. You can understand therefore, why money was so tight and why we had to put up with second-hand material in hostels and labs. 

Alterations proceeded to plant and we were ready for students by October 1921. We had good staff, Mr W B Mercer was appointed County Organiser and Principal in 1919 and I came as his deputy in 1920. Mr R E Louch, Mr R G James and Miss M E Black had been employed by the Council for some time. Mr Louch was appointed Head of Poultry Department and Mr James Head of Horticultural Department and Miss Black became the first instructress of cheese-making. The Chairman of the Agricultural Education Committee, Alderman McCracken at one time Principal of the Royal College at Cirencester played an outstanding part in the establishment of Reaseheath. He even induced the Ministry to allow the appointment of a chemist and biologist. Lecturers in science were not normally allowed for on the staffs of Farm Institutes. I think that Mr Sant who later received a knighthood was the first chemist while Mr Crabtree took over biology. Miss Povah was appointed Matron and Mr T Curry Farm Manager. 

During 1921, Mr Mercer and I scoured the country in search of students. Farmers would not send their sons but there was a number of ex-servicemen about who enrolled, and we got a few lads from towns and villages in the county. If I remember rightly, we started with about twelve students in agriculture, five or six in poultry and a similar number in horticulture. They varied in age and intellect, but they were the best lot we had for some years; they disciplined themselves and were keen to work. 

I gave lectures on agriculture and demonstrations on practical work, often contrasting local methods with those to which I had been accustomed in Scotland. I remember that I got half a dozen sowing sheets from a sadler in Stonehaven so that I could teach sowing with both hands. The local custom was to use one hand from a heavy tin contraption. On similar farms at this time, it was still usual to sow both corn and fertilizer by hand. Demonstrations were held to show different methods of applying dung and we had competitions in carting and spreading. I remember teaching students to cut and lay popes in field drains and have since been blessed by students turned farmers for their knowledge of the art. 

At first, I was warden of the hostel but became so involved in outside work that I was relieved of this task. Students were easy to control in the hostel for a year or two but in time they got up to some pranks and if a younger brother followed his elder brother, he arrived knowing all the tricks and the fun began early in the new session. There was no difficulty with discipline even when the girls came to the new hostel. I recall during the first session that Miss Povah the Matron insisted on wearing a hospital matrons’ uniform. It must have pleased Mr Crabtree for they became engaged and emigrated to Canada. This was the first of the Reaseheath romances. Miss Wallis followed Miss Povah as Matron for many years, was renowned for her hospitality to visitors who included HRH the Prince of Wales and she guarded his unwashed teacup to the end. 

From the start Reaseheath was responsible for agricultural education and advisory work in the county. In addition, we had to run four farms, about 600 acres with some 300 cows. The Principal had to spend most of his time at Reaseheath while I spent most of mine in the country, visiting farm and laying down experiments or trials on grass or arable crops. My mode of transport was at first by bicycle and train from Crewe. 

I tried to arrange meetings and give talks to farmers but they would not listen to me until I proved that I could practise as well as preach. I stirred things up when I mentioned at a meeting that they could double their output when threshing corn. I was taken to task by threshing machine owners and farmers and challenged to demonstrate that it could be done. We had arguments in the Cheshire papers for weeks and I nearly got the sack as the Agricultural Education Committee was sure that I would fail and let them down but I arranged two demonstrations and put through 24 bags per hour in the first and 26 in the second which was double the normal 10 to 12 bags per hour. I had convinced farmers that we could teach them something at Reaseheath. However, I failed to convince them in 1921 that tractors could eliminate horses. Few had any knowledge of internal combustion engines and those who had could not set a plough. This was still the case on many farms in South Cheshire during the last war.  

In the early days there was poor attendance at lectures on agricultural subjects in the south and west of the county but in the north around Altrincham I had good meetings. We also had success in the Hyde area where farmers were plagued by smoke and acid soil. Here again we had to demonstrate that a farm could be made to pay its way. We undertook to help a new tenant from Gloucester to run a derelict farm Taylor Fold where a number of previous tenants had failed. By liming, manuring and direct seeding to grass in 1921 we established good pastures and replaced hay with silage. Such ventures helped to gain the confidence of farmers and we began to enrol more farers sons as students.  

The feud over Worleston ended by the sale of both Worleston and Henhull and the erection of the women’s hostel at Reaseheath. 

As our county work expanded we had to increase our staff and we were fortunate to obtain men of outstanding ability. Both staff and students who were at Reaseheath have done well. Two have been knighted, two became Professors, two Regional Directors and four Grade 1 County Officers in the NAAS, three staff and three students have been appointed Principals of Farm Institutes and many students are successful farmers.  

Our work at Reaseheath attracted visitors from other Institutes and Experimental Stations. Sir John Russell was a frequent visitor and we kept in touch with Sir George Stapledon about grassland research and ICI in addition to experiments of our own. We pioneered the application of nitrogen to grazing land and the under sowing of corn crops to be cut for silage. At the request of the Ministry we carried out a zero grazing trial on arable crops in 1920 to 1925. I think Reaseheath was the first to demonstrate that leys deteriorated with overgrazing which induced Martin Jones to undertake his well known experiments with ICI on the effect of grazing on the composition of the sward. Experiments at Taylor Fold showed that good leys could be obtained by direct reseeding. Also, we proved that in the early years, silage should be made in preference to hay or corn in smoky, uplying districts with a high rainfall. Our trials on the manuring of early potatoes were appreciated by farmers in the Frodsham area. 

The poultry and horticultural departments equally played their part at Reaseheath and in the county. I still think that it was a mistake to transfer the advisory work from the Institutes to the NAAS after having had experience of both.  

We in our time worked hard to put Reaseheath on the map. Since the last war Reaseheath has blossomed as the rose under Mr Lamberton and Mr England and I look forward to seeing the new buildings and getting first-hand information on the scope of enterprises. I only wish that my department friends could be with me to see the progress of the work they began. 

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