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It is always interesting to learn about how a new idea is turned into a commercial success. Usually the story concentrates on the problem to be solved and how a profitable technical solution was produced. The invention of the Suffolk seed drill was one of the important drivers of world development. From the small Suffolk village of Peasenhall tens of thousands of drills were sent around the world at a crucial time when Britain had a profound influence on the world enviroment and its economy The history of the Suffolk seed drill was first presented in the East Anglian Daily Press, July 6th 1901 in a somewhat novel and romantic way. The article highlighted the social network of the inventor, James Smyth, which was a key to his success. James was the village wheelwright of Peasenhall at the turn of the 18th century. The article “
New East Anglia- The History of the Suffolk Drill
”, took up his story in a romantic vein as follows.
‘In his humble workshop did the wheelwright work at the labour which usually comes to the ordinary village artisan- wagons, rakes, and such things to be repaired, or the one or two workmen for whom he found employment. Sometimes, too, he was called upon to mend the old Norfolk block drills, in which all the coulters were fixed in one transverse wooden beam, the only drill at that period in use, and about the most unserviceable instrument of its kind which could be conceived. Its disadvantages were a frequent source of discussion with all men who were advanced agriculturalists- perhaps with no one of these more than Mr. Robert Wardley, the churchwarden of Peasenhall, and occupier of the Grove Farm, which lay on the picturesque slope of land opposite the wheelwright’s shop. The matter formed the subject of conversation between the wheelwright and the farmer on many occasions, and the result was that the question of the improvement of drills became the chief thought of the artisan. He pondered on it by day, and dreamt about it at night. Many where the experiments made, involving the expenditure of much time and a considerable amount of money. In the end, their labours were entirely rewarded by the fact that James Smyth was able in 1800 to produce his first lever drill. As may be supposed, success did not come immediately. Much time of thought and anxiety were passed before the invention could be pronounced a success and often and often the wheewright returned to the shop from Mr Wardley’s farm, where experiments had been proceeding, disconsolate because his hopes had been for the moment frustrated. At last, … a drill was made, in which each coulter was fixed to an indpendent lever, instead of to one transverse beam, and which there could be no doubt, was capable of revlutionising one of the chief branches of agriculture. This led to a life long friendship and in the early days of the drill manufacture, Mr Wardley proved a true friend both socially and financially.’
The inference is that Wardley provided the necessary practical agricultural experience of drilling, which revealed the shortcomings of the horse drills of the time, and Smyth applied his skills as an innovative blacksmith and wheelwright to make the necessary adaptations to increase its efficiency.
A production system to make devices called seed drills was set up in Peasenhall, occupying a small field behind the church, by James Smyth around the year 1800. James was born at Sweffling in 1777, so would have been 23 years old in 1800 when he started producing his lever drills.
He was described as a wheelwright. This reflects his father's coopering business in nearby Sweffling, which combined wood and ironworking to make hooped barrels.
James Smyth was the third Suffolk machinist to develop the idea of producing agricultural implements for a mass market. The first was Richard Garrett of Leiston, who acquired a blacksmith’s shop and forge in 1778, which eventually expanded to a work force employing thousands. About ten years later, Robert Ransome arrived in Ipswich to begin the mass production of ploughs. All of these family businesses, which made very significant contributions to the British economy, are now extinct. Their legacy is a general model of world development. Individuals with little learning, but much native wit, build family businesses, which are driven by consumerism in a competitive market, energised by innovation and the increasing scale of production. The other feature is that invention is more likely to arise in a community that sets store by things of the mind than in one that seeks only material ends. Suffolk, in the short span of years between the accession of George III and that of his son, William IV, when the Garretts, Ransomes and Smyths were gathering resources for production, provided such a free-thinking environment.
The Smyth drill-making operation was the smallest of the three Suffolk family enterprises, but it can be argued that it had the greatest impact on agricultural output in relation to its size. However, in its growth, peak and decline, the Peasenhall business illustrates the inherent limitations of organisations that depend on fathers handing on a family enterprise to their sons, where there seems to be an inevitable failure to sustain a competitive edge across the generations.
The system of human relationships that defines the industrial revolution had its origins long before 1760, and attained its full development long after 1830. Most ‘inventions’ were achieved through two or more previously independent ideas or processes which, brought together in the mind of the inventor, issue in a more or less complex and efficient mechanism. The ancestral skills of the Smyths of Peasenhall reached back into the craft families working in wood and metal, who lived, generation after generation, on the eastern edge of Suffolk’s clay plateau. Their complex network of kin and neighbours, spreading ideas and injecting capital, played a vital part in James Smyths initial success.
His enterprise was carried forward with a new blend of old village skills of working wood and metal based on common sense and job satisfaction. The role of women as wives and mothers, played a crucial role in the success of the drill works but also contributed to its eventual failure. These women were of a time when marriage was viewed as a masculine economic investment and a biological system for the production of male heirs. The death of a new-born child before that of its parents may seem unnatural today, but in the Smyth’s time this unfavourable chance multiplied against every infant’s existence and the perpetuation of patrimony.
Wardleys and Kemps
In 1800 there were two Robert Wardleys living in Peasenhall. Robert snr was born in 1740 and was 60 years old when the Smyth/Wardley association described above was established. He died in 1837 aged 97 and was buried in Peasenhall. The other Robert Wardley was Robert snr’s eldest son. Robert jnr was born at Ubbeston in 1760 so he would have been 40 years old in 1800. His siblings were John, Mary and Elizabeth.
James’s Smyth’s mother was Hannah Kemp of Sweffling. Bonds of kinship between the Smyths, Wardleys and Kemps are set out in the will of Hannah Kemp’s uncle, Simon Kemp, a Sweffling farmer who died in 1831. In the will, Robert snr is referred to as ‘of Laxfield’, which probably referred to the place of his birth in 1740.
Robert Wardley jnr married Hannah Kemp’s sister Ann at Peasenhall in 1785. They had six children, Robert, Mary Ann, John, Samuel, Betty and James. The younger of the two Wardley’s was therefore the uncle of James Smyth. It was probably these kinship bonds between the Wardleys and the Smyths through their marriages with the Kemp sisters that set the scene for their cooperative project.
Robert Wardley jnr, died aged 42 in 1807 and was buried in Peasenhall. After the death of his brother, John Wardley married Robert’s widow Ann so maintaining the Wardley/Kemp kinship network. This marriage took place in Peasenhall. The marriage certificate states that she was domiciled in Blaxall. It is likely that at this time Ann resided in Blaxall with her son Robert and his wife Rebecca Crisp, who were also living in the village.
There is no direct evidence as to which of the two Robert Wardleys was James Smyth’s partner in establishing the Peasenhall drill works, his uncle on the Kemp side or his uncle’s father.
There are two references to personal bonds between James Smyth and the Wardleys of Peasenhall. One is the will of Robert Wardley snr. where an executor was a Smyth who Robert refers to as his “friend, James Smyth gent. Wheelwright” of Peasenhall. The other reference is the will of Robert’s son John, where his friend James Smyth of Bramfield is appointed executor. Incidentally, this is evidence that sometime in 1836/7 James Smyth snr moved from Peasenhall to Bramfield. The Peasenhall record of his burial in 1843 says that he was ‘late of Bramfield’. The 1844 Whites Directory lists a James Smyth resident in Bramfield.
From his will it seems that Robert snr, even at the age of 97, was above average in wealth and property. In these respects, it is likely that Robert snr was the Robert Wardley referred to in the East Anglian Daily times of 1901. He would have been well placed to be a co-founder of the Peasenhall drill business providing the practical test bed to evaluate James Smyth’s technical innovations and contributing resources in land and capital to start the enterprise. A vital asset of the firm was the land (2 acres) on which the drill works was developed. The derelict works site, currently being developed for housing (2004), adjoins Street Grove Farm. It probably originated as one of the fields belonging to the farm at the turn of the 18th century when it was likely to have been owned by the Wardleys.
No records have come to light regarding this transaction. The earliest indication of the layout of Grove Farm comes from the Peasenhall Tithe Apportionment of 1840-42. The tenant of the Grove Farm homestead was a William Girling. He farmed most of the fields to the village boundary that were situated between the two roads, Rendham St and the road to Bruisyard that climb to the clay plateau south of the village. This tenanted holding included two large fields belonging to James Smyth snr (died 1843). In fact, James owned five roadside fields to the south of the drill works. Three of these were subsequently developed by his son James to build two Smyth properties, The Hall, and The Chalet.
The Wardleys did not own Grove Farm at the time of the Tithe survey (Robert jnr died 1807, Robert snr died 1837). In his will Robert snr divided his properties in Peasenhall between his daughter Mary, the widow of Cornelius Brown, and his son, John. Mary’s bequest could have included lands belonging to Grove Farm homestead. According to the Tithe Apportionment, Grove Farm was owned jointly by Robert Clayton and Robert Brown. Robert Brown was probably Mary’s son.
The article in the East Anglian Daily Times provides further information about other family networks associated with the spread of technical know-how and sales of the Smyth drills.
‘The knowledge which successive members of the Smyth family have attained has not been kept within the bounds of quiet Peasenhall. Jonathan Smyth (the brother of the founder) who became his apprentice, set up in business at the natal place, Sweffling. An offshoot from this was William Woolnough, who, after spending many years at Leiston as foreman of Messrs Garrett’s Drill Department, later, at Kingston on Thames became well known in the firm of Priest and Woolnough. George Smyth, a son of the first inventor, started business in Ipswich in 1897, but he died two years later and left no successor. Then there was Woodgate Gower (his son in law), who, having acquired a knowledge of the trade, went to Hook, in Hampshire, where he established himself successfully, and when he had taught his sons the trade, he dispatched them also to other distant counties, as Shropshire and Buckinghamshire. So at one time almost the whole of the drills made in England must have been manufactured from knowledge which had been gained in secluded Peasenhall.’
None of the offshoots of the Peasenhall works had the same success as the original James Smyth enterprise. In this respect, the activities of his brother Jonathan are something of a mystery. After serving his apprenticeship at the Peasenhall works, Jonathan moved to Knodishall with his wife Pheobe (Watts) as a wheelwright. They had married in Peasenhall in 1813. A son Joshua, was born in Knodishall in 1817 and father and son appear in the Sweffling census of 1841 as corn drill makers. Jonathan died in 1868 after which Joshua carried on the Sweffling business. He is present in the 1871 census for Sweffling. This continuity is evident from a poster Joshua produced advertising the Suffolk Improved Corn, Seed & Manure Lever Drill. In this poster Joshua described himself as ‘
son and successor to the original inventor and maker’
. The picture of the drill shows that its design was very close to the original Peasenhall drill, which according to Alan Ransome, writing in 1845, was produced by James and Jonathan Smyth working together. It is quite distinct from the later designs produced by the Peasenhall works in that the seedbox, with its funnels, projected well above the driving wheels.
Joshua married Elizabeth Bezant (1849?) the daughter of the Ringsfield blacksmith. They had two daughters Phoebe (1843) Emily (1850) and at least one son Alan in 1858 There is no evidence that this generation took up drill making. It therefore appears that the Sweffling business ended with the second generation of Smyth drill makers.
What is the significance in the grand scheme of things of these family happenings over a relatively small space of time in Peasenhall so long ago? First and foremost they created a powerful and lasting sense of place, which still influences local people who look back on the Smyths as people to be celebrated because they maintained their village as a thriving island in a sea of agricultural poverty and ‘put Peasenhall on the world map’. Then there is the Smyth, Kemp, Wardley network viewed as a global example of cultural ecology. It exemplifies the need to study societies more as integrated ecosystems in order to gain an understanding of the interlocking processes, social and bio-physical that maintain their cultures. Third, the story can be taken as a starting point to consider the proposition that individuals are constantly occupied in striving, not towards a finite goal that would end when the goal was reached, but towards a process of ‘becoming an individual’. In other words, the individual has the potential to develop a mind. Children are born constrained by the very limited perspective of family, and the challenge of life is a process of liberation of the mind in an ecosystem that is always socially, biologically and physically situated. This is why the site of the Peasenhall drill works, now with only plans and a handful of photographs as reminders of the fantastic human ingenuity of mass production, is a special place to contemplate what projects are worth striving to realise. The fact that it overlooks the village churchyard, with its monuments to the eternal life of Smyths, Wardleys and Kemps, is significant. In a way, both spaces are sacred to establishing one’s convictions about the nature of the world and oneself. In Peasenhall we have a remarkable juxtaposition of the roots of Christianity and industrialism that together nourished the Western idea of ‘progress’, but which are now bearing the bitter fruit of the global environmental crisis. The spanking new housing estate that now occupies the drillworks is a symbol of the population explosion that is behind it.
Downing, R. & Bellamy, D. (2005) Sowing seeds in lines (
a genealogy of Smyths, Wardleys and Kemps
in Sweffling and Peasenhall)
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