"Turnip" Townshend and the Agricultural Revolution

Edward de Raaf, my hero in The Raven Prince, is interested in all things agricultural. Whilst researching Agricultural Discovery in eighteenth century Britain, I ran across this rather interesting gentleman…

During that period of discovery and innovation in Britain known as the Agricultural Revolution, there were many men of learning who emerged to champion scientific methods of farming, but none with a nickname so evocative as “Turnip” Townshend. 

“Turnip” was actually born Charles Townshend in 1674. At the age of twelve he succeeded to the family title and became 2 nd Viscount Townshend. He had an illustrious career as a Whig politician under George I, becoming Secretary of State, and for a while, directing Britain’s foreign policy along with Robert Walpole, his brother-in-law. 

When Townshend was forced out of politics because a difference of opinion with Walpole, he retired to his estate, Raynham, in West Norfolk. There, Townshend began experimenting with new agricultural techniques, most importantly crop rotation. If the same crop is grown over and over again on the same plot of land-as had been the practice for millennia in Britain -the land eventually looses fertility and harvests decline. The only way to prevent this was to let the land lie fallow for a season or two. 

Townshend discovered-or merely popularized, there is some debate-that if crops were grown in rotation, the land could be kept in production with no loss of fertility. To do this, the land was divided into four fields and in each was grown in succession: wheat, clover, barley and turnips. The clover and turnips renewed the soil when grown after wheat or barley. Indeed, we now know that clover is a nitrogen fixing plant-one of several crops that puts nitrogen back into the soil. Turnips and clover were also fodder crops. When the animals were let into the field to graze, their droppings fertilized the land. 

Townshend’s method became known as the Norfolk Crop Rotation system. Sadly, however, the only thing Townshend earned for this wonderful discovery was a rather unfortunate nickname.