Heritage: Hornchurch landowner was a farming pioneer

Farming today is very different from 200 years ago, Picture: Ian Burt

Farming today is very different from 200 years ago, Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

Farming was very different 200 years ago as Prof Ged Martin’s story of an Emerson Park landowner shows

Richard Harding Newman became the owner of Nelmes in 1781.

The largest estate in Hornchurch, its 530 acres were developed from 1895 as the suburb of Emerson Park.

Ambitious landowners experimented with new methods to increase output. When agricultural writer Arthur Young studied Essex farming in 1807, Newman supplied useful information.

Newman could be dogmatic about his methods. Cabbage seed must be sown on February 12th. Land intended for barley should not be ploughed in springtime: rather, leave the soil to crumble like ash in winter frosts. Bean rows must be hoed when the plants flowered. (Luckily, farm labour was cheap.)

One thirty-acre Nelmes field was notoriously the worst in Hornchurch – “very wet and heavy land, on a rank clay”. It had once grown just three sacks of wheat.

Newman used a mole plough – a cast-iron torpedo fixed to a deep blade – to create underground drains across the field, about eight feet apart. Crops improved dramatically.

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He also pioneered the use of green manure, crops such as “winter tares” (vetch) which were ploughed in to enrich the soil. Swedes did well with this preparation.

Traditionally, wheat was sown by hand, “broadcast”, a term later applied to radio and TV output.

In 1803, Newman introduced a mechanical drill, a more efficient way of distributing the seed. The machine was so successful that he insisted he wouldn’t sell it for one thousand guineas.

Although potatoes had been introduced from America two centuries earlier, they were only just being grown commercially.

In 1806, Newman planted fourteen acres of potatoes, in rows thirty inches apart, convenient for weeding by hand. They were mulched with well-rotted manure, which prepared the ground for other crops. He harvested 150 tons of spuds.

Knotgrass (probably hogweed) was “the most troublesome weed on his farm”. Its bulbous roots had to be dug out by the wagonload and burned.

Charlock (wild mustard) was another nuisance. Perhaps its yellow flowers still infest Emerson Park gardens?

The Nelmes knotgrass problem was probably worsened by intensive sheep farming.

In 1781, the farm carried fewer than 100 sheep. By 1806, Newman was running 770 Southdowns, including 310 breeding ewes.

Except in very bad weather, the sheep were “folded” into moveable pens at night, to protect them against foxes and to concentrate their supply of manure.

Income from sale of wool and lambs more than paid the wages of shepherds.

A dairy of ten cows provided butter, and fresh milk for Newman’s pack of foxhounds.

In 1804, he purchased eighteen oxen from Somerset, importing Somerset men to train them.

Three beasts which failed to adapt to Hornchurch “made famous beef”, but the rest were “uncommonly quiet”, and proved superior to horses at ploughing. They consumed more hay, but increased wheat yields produced bumper hay crops.

Newman’s farming experiments cost money. In 1806, he built an expensive threshing mill, which separated the ears of wheat from the straw, state-of-the-art equipment operated by a foot pedal.

It’s shocking to discover the source of Richard Harding Newman’s investment. He was co-owner of a slave plantation, Blue Hole, on the north-west coast of Jamaica.

In 1804, the year Newman purchased his oxen, the Blue Hole accounts included income from the sale of “mulatto” children.

They were the children of one black and one white parent. It’s likely that Newman’s European plantation managers were impregnating vulnerable Jamaican women, and selling their own kids into slavery. The profits were literally ploughed into Emerson Park soil.

As a teenager, Newman’s portrait had been painted by the artist George Romney.

Hard to believe the young man in the elegant pink silk suit was a fan of using pigeon dung as manure!

In 2014, the “Pink Boy” was auctioned for £194,500. It’s illustrated on Christie’s website.

Nelmes was destroyed in 1967, its owner claiming the mansion was too dangerous to repair.