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The Lost Diaries and Accounts of Sir John Bennet Lawes

Report of a talk by John Jenkyn on 25 May 2010

The following is based on an account of a talk given to the Society by John Jenkyn that was first published in Newsletter 111, October 2010. In that talk, John described work that he and Roger Plumb had been doing on the (then) recently-discovered Diaries and Accounts of John Bennet Lawes (he was not made a baronet until 1882) The report has been updated by John Jenkyn in September 2018.

Lawes’ diaries before conservation – © Rothamsted Research

The records are contained in two large leather-bound ledgers, each fitted with a substantial brass lock. A scruffy note with the two volumes indicates that they were deposited at Rothamsted (i.e. in the Archive of the Lawes Agricultural Trust) by the Lawes-Wittewronge Will Trust when it was wound-up in 1952. Nothing was known about the contents of the two ledgers because they were locked, and came to Rothamsted without their keys. Jenkyn and Plumb suspect that the librarian at the time (and subsequent librarians and archivists) assumed that they contained records relating to the Will Trust, and were, therefore, unlikely to contain anything of direct relevance to the history of the Experimental Station so opening them (not expected to be a straightforward procedure) was not considered to be a priority.

John Jenkyn and Roger Plumb both spent around 30 years working in Rothamsted’s Plant Pathology Department but after retirement became increasingly interested in the Station’s history and its archives. In around 2006, they decided that efforts should be made to open the two volumes to determine whether they contained anything of interest that would justify their retention. This was, though, easier said than done.

The locks on the diaries – © Rothamsted Research

Fortunately, however, Chris Smith, a former colleague in the Plant Pathology Department, and a skilled (and very careful) engineer, agreed to try and pick the locks. It was not an easy job, and he had to make a special tool to do it, but he eventually succeeded. All concerned were surprised, and delighted, to find that the contents of the two volumes have nothing to do with the Will Trust but, instead, contain diaries and accounts written by Lawes over a period of about 20 – 25 years from 1847.

Assessing the contents

The first task was to go through the two volumes to number the pages (many of which are blank) and summarise their contents. The contents of Volume I include:

  1. A summary of rents due for properties that were part of the Rothamsted estate in 1847. (1 page)
  2. Diaries and accounts (i.e. ‘Day Books’) for 1847 to 1858, and annual summaries of income and expenditure from 1851. (239 pages but some diary pages are blank)
  3. Records and accounts of the Lawes Manure Company for 1847 to 1871. These include short-lived records of payments and receipts but are mainly 6- and/or 12-monthly stock valuations etc. (104 pages)
  4. Farm records for the period 1847-52. These include short-lived records of payments and receipts but are mainly valuations. (19 pages)
  5. Records of an account with the London and County Bank at St Albans, 1862 and 1863. This was probably the farm account. (3 pages)
  6. Notes and accounts relating to the Harpenden British Schools, 1850-57. (5 pages)
  7. J. B. Lawes’ account with Mr Castley. Lawes had dealings with Castley from 1846 to 1849 but these records cover a much shorter period. (2 pages)
  8. Records and accounts relating to Beadon’s patent, 1854 and 1855. Lawes signed an agreement with Beadon in 1854 giving him ‘exclusive licence to work his (Beadon’s) patent for improvements applicable to the roofing of houses’. Designs for moulded guttering tiles were a key feature. (4 pages)
  9. Another set of diaries and accounts that extends the period covered from 1858 to 1862. (246 pages but many diary pages are blank)
  10. Valuations of Lawes’ assets, and his liabilities, 1864 to 1869. (13 pages)

The records in Volume I start in January 1847, shortly before Lawes returned to live in Rothamsted Manor after an absence of nearly four years. He moved out of the property partly so that he could rent it out and thus generate some income but also so that he could live closer to his superphosphate factory at Deptford Creek while the business was being established.

By 1847, the Lawes Manure Company was on a sound footing, and one gets the impression that Lawes was feeling rather pleased with himself and bought this enormous ledger in January of that year (from a Mr Brooks, for £4.5.0) with the intention of recording anything and everything that related to his financial affairs – including, at the start, his Manure Company and his farm, and, later, the Harpenden British Schools (which he supported in many ways, including financially) and his dealings with Beadon. Evidently, however, his initial enthusiasm soon waned and he stopped keeping many of the records after a relatively short time. He presumably decided that they were not necessary, often, perhaps, because they duplicated records kept by others (e.g. the farm bailiff was probably expected to keep the farm accounts).

Consequently, by the time that Lawes started Volume II, he had rationalised the records that he needed to keep, and it has only three sections (and many more blank pages than Volume I):

  1. Diaries, 1863 – 1868. These are much briefer than the diaries for earlier years.
  2. Accounts (i.e. ‘Day Books’), for 1863 – 1878/79. (294 pages)
  3. Valuations of Lawes’ Assets and Liabilities, 1869 – 1879. (18 pages)

Records of business activities

Lawes diary and accounts, 1852 (one page of many). © Rothamsted Research

Inevitably, the diaries excited the greatest interest but it quickly became apparent that they are, principally, business diaries rather than personal diaries. Thus, they record where he went (even if it was only to his office in London), who he met and who came to visit. Trips with, and visits by, friends and family are often recorded but there are few details about what they did (when on holiday, for example), and there is nothing to indicate where he stood politically. Even the experimental work being done at the Laboratory seldom gets a mention but the financial costs are recorded in the accounts; in the early years, they typically amounted to around £1,200 to £1,400 per annum. These figures include salary and, presumably, expenses paid to Henry Gilbert, Lawes’ collaborator. The accounts also reveal that, in July 1850, Gilbert received a bonus of £100 as a wedding present.

At the time when John Jenkyn gave the talk, the work of transcribing the diaries had only just begun but it was already apparent that they were unlikely to reveal any major new discoveries about Lawes’ life and work. They, and a number of letters and other loose sheets of paper found between the pages of the two ledgers, do, however, contain much detail that adds colour to what is already known; John spent the rest of the time giving a few examples.

First, it is very clear that after Lawes came back to live at the Manor in 1847, he still took a very active interest in the running of his Manure Company. He was an early commuter and, except when he was away from the Manor for business or other reasons, would typically go to his office in London on two or three days a week. Initially, at least, this was not as simple as it later became because the nearest station was at Boxmoor (Hemel Hempstead). It is not known how he travelled to and from the station (e.g. on his own horse or by pony and trap driven by a groom). Lawes was fortunate to have the support of two very able managers.

Henry Young Finch ran the office, and Mr Wilson managed the works at Deptford Creek. On 18th July 1847 (which was probably a Sunday because Lawes went to church in the morning), Lawes recorded that ‘Mr Finch came down and made an offer to me to accept him as a partner in my manufactory at Deptford’. Lawes did not reject this proposal out of hand, and it may have come to something if Finch hadn’t died prematurely. If the two men had forged such a partnership, the history of the Experimental Station might have been very different.

It appears that Lawes went to the Deptford works relatively infrequently unless he had a specific reason to do so. He went there in April 1852 to meet Mr A. Croskill concerning a bone mill that Croskill had erected at Deptford the previous year ‘… & which would not work’. (Bones are one of the raw materials from which superphosphate fertiliser can be made). Croskill offered ‘to put up another in its place which will grind 15 to 20 Cwt of Raw Bones per hour…’. There is, though, a suspicion that the problem lay not so much with the mill but with the steam engine that powered it because in 1855 he bought a more powerful (second hand) engine.

The Day Books record all payments and receipts relating to not only the Manure Company but also the farm, the estate, the laboratory and personal items, and it appears that all of these transactions went through a single account, at Prescotts Bank. Income generated by the Manure Company (i.e. the amounts on which Lawes had to pay income tax) rose very quickly from about £500 in 1844/45 to around £5,000 in 1849/50.

Other business ventures

Lawes’ main business was manufacturing superphosphate fertiliser. It was very successful and made him a very wealthy man. He was evidently interested in other business opportunities that came his way but none were as successful as the Manure Company. One example is the manufacture of roofing tiles to designs patented by William Beadon (of Otterhead on the borders of Devon and Somerset) already mentioned. No evidence has been found to suggest that it made Lawes very much money but he stuck with it for many years.

Even less successful was Lawes’ partnership with Mr Castley. In October 1846, he ‘Signed an agreement with Mr Castley … (which) gives me the power to try the merits of a certain invention discovered by Mr Castley during the space of 9 months from October and if I approve of his invention I am to take out Patents at my own expense and to carry out the invention giving Mr Castley (a?) Royalty equal to 1/3rd of the profits’. Castley was paid to come to Rothamsted to ‘superintend the experimental trials of his invention’ but there appears to be nothing in Lawes’ records to indicate the nature of that invention. The loose sheets of paper found in the two ledgers include many of Castley’s accounts, which detail his expenses. Among the equipment that Castley purchased were a still, an air pump, a furnace and a colour mill. The consumables included oil, borax, soda, pitch, sal ammoniac, rosin, subacetate of lead, and spirits of wine. They also included, but only very late on, gutta percha. Castley managed to spin-out the trials until around the middle of 1849, considerably longer than the nine months originally agreed. By that time, Lawes had invested more than £600 in the project. He did not take out a patent, which is a bit surprising because Castley did, in July 1849. It covered the manufacture of varnish, which ‘… answer(ed) well for the coating of all course fabrics such as tarpaulings (sic), rick clothes &c’.

A breach of trust?

Another costly mistake was appointing John Brash as farm bailiff. He came with good references and began working for Lawes on 25th December 1848. Between May and September 1849, there are several references to Brash in the diaries, always in connection with his routine duties as farm bailiff. In the first, Lawes wrote ‘Ordered Mr Brash to call upon Mr Lewin and request him to deliver up the boughs which he had cut off some Elm Trees growing on the waste in front of his shop & to pay to me a small fine as an acknowledgement of his offence’.

While, however, Lawes was on holiday in Scotland he became increasingly irritated with Brash because of his unwillingness or inability to supply Lawes with regular (weekly) farm accounts. On his return from holiday, Lawes dug deeper and on 19th January 1850, ‘Went to St Albans to prefer a Charge against Brash my late Baliff (sic) for receiving money in my name & not accounting for (it) ….’. In due course, he appeared before Lord Salisbury at the Sessions in Hertford and was sentenced to seven years’ transportation.

The sentence was not, however, carried out and John Brash was pardoned, at Portland jail, in October 1852. It is known that he returned to Harpenden but his eventual fate is a mystery. Meanwhile, a collection was started in Harpenden to support Brash’s wife (Helen) and four young children. She used the money (£31) to establish a business as a ‘Tea Dealer’ in Harpenden, where she continued to live for at least the next twenty years.
The diaries reveal that Lawes had occasional bouts of self-doubt and soul-searching. One of these episodes was in April 1847, soon after he had returned to the Manor but also, and perhaps significantly, not long after he had suffered a serious illness. Another was in March 1850 not long after Brash’s conviction, and one wonders if Lawes was feeling some remorse about proceeding with the prosecution, especially because of the impact that it had on Brash’s family. These crises of conscience contrast dramatically with the routine down-to-earth nature of the diaries’ content elsewhere.

But not all was business …

On a happier note, the diaries (and accounts) suggest that Lawes, despite leading a very busy life, was a very attentive husband. He took his wife, Caroline, to exhibitions, (including the Great Exhibition in 1851), bought her a Broadwood piano (which cost over £200), paid £100 to have her portrait painted by Sir William Ross, and frequently bought her less expensive gifts such as watercolours.

To finish his talk, John showed the audience two light-hearted extracts from the dairies that he and Roger had particularly enjoyed reading.

On 22nd November 1849:
‘….. we went to see the Zoological Gardens & I purchased a Vulture there for E. Fountaine for £2.10’. (Edward Fountaine was one of Lawes’ brothers-in-law – his wife was Caroline Fountaine).

On 21st March 1850:
‘… returned from London With Mr Northcott & an Owl which Edward Fountaine sent to me’.

Lawes’ diaries after conservation – © Rothamsted Research

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