Lord Rayleigh’s Farms is known today as a successful farming and property company based on the Terling Estate, near Chelmsford, in Essex. It takes its name from the Barons Rayleigh, a title created for the Strutt family of Terling Place by George IV in 1821.
The third Baron – and owner of the estate when the company was established – was better known as John William Strutt, the Cambridge scientist who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. John was a man of glittering achievements; but the development at Terling of one of the most productive and progressive farms in the country was not one of them. That accolade belongs to his younger – and comparatively overlooked – brother, Edward Gerald Strutt.
As the junior son of an aristocrat, Edward was entitled to call himself ‘The Honourable’ but not much else. He was born (in 1854) under the expectation that he would earn his own living. An obvious way of doing this lay – for Edward, as for many men in his situation – close to home: in the full-time running of the family estate.
Generations of landowners’ relatives had taken on this work – and generations had not done it well. Keeping it in the family had all too often meant an amateur (and in many cases dishonest) handling of affairs; though by the middle of the nineteenth century the management of land by professional agents had also begun to emerge as a respected line of work.
Strutt was determined to be one such professional. Accordingly, after Cambridge, he took an apprenticeship with a firm of land agents, Rawlence and Squarely, in Salisbury. There, he was tutored by experienced agriculturalists – James Rawlence had a high reputation as a sheep-breeder – in the arts of farm improvement, surveying and valuation. This education, as a young man of 22, he brought back to Terling Place.
Strutt initially took a hands-off approach to the land, most of which was in the capable hands of the tenants who farmed it. But any impression the fledgling manager might have had that he was in for an easy ride was short-lived. This was the 1870s; and things – for the estate, and for Strutt – were about to change dramatically.
Catastrophic harvests in the second half of the decade saw British arable farmers, already struggling to compete against record imports of cheap American wheat, pushed to the limits of what they could survive. Many, the Terling tenants included, eventually had to abandon their livings.
Strutt, on the other hand, had no option but to stay and fight.
He did so, not by abandoning arable farming, but by combining it with dairy. He also did so knowing that both endeavours had to turn a demonstrable profit.
When it came to the cows, this meant investing in the health of the animals and, thus, the quality of their milk. The breed was unimportant; and the animals were certainly not to be overfed – as others in the country were – ‘for the show yard or excessive production’. What mattered was a ‘moderate’ and balanced diet; and sanitary living conditions.
Strutt went to great lengths to achieve both. He purchased the usual ‘cake, meal, grains, and other concentrated food’ but, in the interests of sustainability, pioneered too his own cultivation of alfalfa and other proteinous forage crops to enrich the estate’s limited pasture. New cow-sheds, meanwhile, were built in accordance with modern hygienic principles (in 1928 Strutt’s milk herd would be officially judged the cleanest in England).
Tuberculosis was, of course, the great plague of the day – both for humans and for cattle – and Strutt was ruthless in weeding it out. Years before it became routine, the tuberculin test was being applied to the Terling cows, over half of which, in the early days, were found to be infected and were therefore destroyed. By 1912 Strutt was testing his 800-strong herd annually as well as all new arrivals – including the home-bred.
At stake was the safety of the milk that Strutt – through a new company, Lord Rayleigh’s Dairies – was now selling directly to the London market. Stringent standards at Terling meant not just animals free from disease but a facility attached to the railway station where the product could be centrifugally cleaned and pasteurised before being dispatched to town.
Strutt’s cows were kept under close watch for other reasons too. Their yield was recorded exactly, every week, and on an individual basis – and only the profitable animals were allowed to stay.
This was part of the remarkable phenomenon that was Strutt’s approach to land management. Nothing happened on the farm – nothing went into it, nothing came out – that was not logged, by him or his staff, in minute detail. This was as true for the performance of arable crops as it was for the milk herd: the annual profit per acre of every crop – from wheat and barley to peas and red clover – was worked out to the penny.
Every cow, every field had to justify its keep. The writer H Rider Haggard was amazed, when he paid the estate a visit, to be shown ‘a tillage book [which] actually treats each field as if it were a separate farm’ – all expenses charged and deducted from the value of what was produced.
Under such a regime, Lord Rayleigh’s Farms became the successful business it needed to be. It wasn’t, in fact, Strutt’s only one. A land agency he had early on founded with an old schoolfriend, Strutt and Parker, was no less prosperous; and, thanks in part to its acquisitions, the extent of land under Strutt’s direct management eventually reached about 25,000 acres.
Needless to say, heads were turned. Neighbours asked for Strutt’s assistance in running their own farms. And it was no surprise when the government, in 1915, asked that he sit on its wartime food production committee; nor that he later helped frame the 1917 Corn Production Act. For his pains, the same year, he was made a Companion of Honour.
What turns the head today, perhaps, is the man’s unwavering confidence in the face of extraordinary odds. He came to farming at a time when many, overwhelmed by its challenges, were deserting it. At a time, too, when some of the country’s oldest rural estates were being broken up and sold off, Strutt turned Terling around – by pioneering, equally, a scientific rationale and a business method.
In these respects he helped set a template for the modern agricultural age.