Charles “Turnip” Townshend


Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend as a young man. Painting from the studio of Godfrey Kneller. National Portrait Gallery.

The nickname “Turnip” was given to Charles Townshend (1674-1738) because of his enthusiasm for the root vegetable and, when I did my history “O” level, he was definitely presented as a hero of the Agricultural Revolution.   According to Charles the virtues of the turnip lay in their ability to help increase the amount of food produced, rather than how they improved a stew.

Born at Raynham Hall, Norfolk, he had an impressive political career before turning his attention to new farming techniques, in particular the four field crop rotation.  This system of growing was an important factor in increasing food production during the British Agricultural Revolution. However, four field crop rotation was a development of existing practice and not one of Charles Townshend’s making.   Farmers had long moved crops about from year-to-year in a system which normally involved  leaving some land out of production.  Nor did Charles Townshend introduce the turnip to Britain.   His contribution was as an advocate rather than as an originator.

It could be argued that the real heroes were the Flemish farmers who developed the idea of rotating crops of wheat, barley, clover and turnips on their land during the 16th century.  This system kept the soil in good condition and avoided leaving land fallow.  The turnips were fed to cattle during the winter helping to increase the amount of meat, milk and manure.

The adoption of the four field crop rotation increased food production in Britain and Charles “Turnip” Townshend deserves credit for using his land and social position to promote it.

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