William Smith and Steam Power

Yesterday I wrote about Edward Hayes, one of Wolverton and Stony Stratford’s steam pioneers. His early associate was a farmer from Little Woolstone, William Smith. Smith came from a well-established farming family in that area and was born at Church Farm in 1814. His father, like many successful 18th century farmers, had expanded his faming interests to include farms at Woughton and Great Linford and young William cut his farming teeth on these farms before returning to Church farm on his father’s death in 1837.

Smith was a man of financial as well as intellectual resources and began to experiment with steam power for agricultural applications and before long he found a fellow traveller in Edward Hayes, who was then working at Wolverton. The problem for Smith and all steam pioneers in the agricultural area was the excessive weight of steam traction engines which quickly bogged them down in the soil while they were in use. Smith’s eventual solution was to design a stationary engine which could haul ploughs and cultivators through the fields through a system of ropes and pulleys.

He had some success with these monstrous machines in the mid century and by 1862 was reported to have 200 customers on his books. Sir Frank Markham describes the efforts of a day’s harvesting in July where a field of wheat was harvested at Linford, threshed by another machine and taken to Little Woolstone Mill to be ground into flour. The effort of days or a week was dramatically cut.

This was not without its social impact. In 1851 his farm at Little Woolstone employed 21 men. By 1861 this number was down to 7 men and 6 boys. By 1877 trade union organisers were speaking at Little Woolstone and finding a ready ear amongst workers who saw their jobs disappearing and their wages stagnating. Smith was not accustomed to this method of dealing with his workers and appears to have been unable to make the adjustment. His response was to cease farming and building machinery. The fields were  left to grass and pasture and he put all his machinery in a barn and bricked up the walls. The machinery was discovered in 1958 and restored. I am not sure where they are to be found today.

William Smith, although married twice, had no children. His first wife, Susannah Williamson, was 14 years older than he and probably about 40 when they married. Likewise his second wife Louisa was in her 50s. So the fact that he had no children to take over the family business may in part have led to his uncompromising position.

The steam engine had a relatively short history on the farm. Once lighter, more maneuverable oil powered engines appeared the steam engine quickly vanished from the farm. Thomas Hardy describes the impact of the steam engine  in his 1891 book, Tess of the Durbervilles.

Close under the eaves of the stack, and as yet barely visible was the red tyrant that the women had come to serve – a timber- framed construction, with straps and wheels appertaining – the threshing-machine, which, whilst it was going, kept up a despotic demand upon the endurance of their muscles and nerves.

The “red tyrant” works remorselessly and agricultural workers in Dorset were now experiencing the domination of the machine, much as their industrial cousins earlier in the century. The natural rhythms of working in the countryside, once governed by daylight and the weather, were now under the rule of an unseen clock.

William Smith’s minor legacy was to be an early adopter of the industrialization of agriculture.