I imagine that most people these days, if they have heard of Babraham at all, know it for the Babraham Institute, a research campus at which the nineteenth-century Babraham Hall (it had several antecedents) sits in the centre, and which, most tragically, has just lost its Director, Professor Michael Wakelam, to COVID-19.
But nearly two centuries ago, the village, six miles south-east of Cambridge, was at the forefront of science and genetics (almost before either word was coined), and attracted large crowds of noble and learned visitors, because of the work of Jonas Webb (1796–1862), whose statue you can see if you walk (cycle, drive) into the village – on the left if you’re coming from the Sawston direction, which is what I usually do.
Jonas Webb’s nephew, John Slater, had a Short Memoir of the Webb and Slater Family (which includes extracts from other works about Webb, but tails off a bit into favourite Bible readings) privately printed in 1912. In it, he states that the Webb family is first recorded in East Anglia in the parish register of Horseheath, with a John Webb in 1558. An adulatory article on Jonas in the Farmer’s Magazine of March 1845, which quotes extensively from ‘a recent obliging communication’ from him on his career and successes to date, states that he was born on 10 November 1796, ‘being the second son of Mr Samuel Webb, of West Wickham in the county of Cambridgeshire’.
John Slater is expansive on the subject of Samuel, his grandfather:
Slater’s father, also Samuel, had farmed since the eighteenth century at the Harlaka Farm, Great Thurlow, in Suffolk, and ‘later hired the Hundon Farm, and finally the Streetly Farm, at West Wickham’, the next parish to Horseheath. It is worth noting that in all instances he was a tenant farmer, not the owner of the land – completely normal at this period (and indeed subsequently), with the tenancy usually passing from father to eldest son.
As a second son, Jonas needed land of his own to farm. He himself had taken the tenancy of Church Farm at Babraham in 1820, and as Slater describes it, he ‘was assisting Henry John Adeane, Esq., of Babraham Hall, in planning out the estate into farms’, with the consequence that he persuaded his elder brother (again a Samuel) to give up the Harlaka farm in 1829 and take up Reed Barn Farm at Babraham instead.
The Adeane family had become owners of the Babraham estate after Robert Jones (1704–74), Member of Parliament for Huntingdon, wine merchant and a director of the East India Company, bought it in 1770.
He demolished the Elizabethan manor house built by the colourful Genoese Sir Horatio Palavicino (1540–1600), and built a new square house in its place, subsequently leaving the estate not to his only child, Anne, who had ‘disobliged’ him in marrying James Whorwood Adeane (1740-1802), collateral descendant of the first duke of Chandos, army general, Groom of the Bedchamber and MP for Cambridge and later for Cambridgeshire (one wonders what was objectionable about him?) but to her eldest son, Robert Jones Adeane (1763–1823). (In fact, it came to the same thing, as Jones died in R.J.’s minority.)
It was R.J. Adeane’s second (but eldest surviving) son, Henry John Adeane (1789–1847), who, when he inherited, had his grandfather’s box replaced by a grand mansion in the Jacobean style designed by Philip Hardwick (1792–1870), friend and executor of J.M.W. Turner, most famous for his classically austere Euston Arch; and it was he who employed Jonas Webb as a tenant farmer and agricultural advisor.
Slater recounts of 1820, ‘Farming was then much depressed, so that my uncle, in taking the Church Farm, was able to purchase his seed corn at such a low price that his first crop made double the price paid for the seed.’ It was not however arable farming which made Jonas famous, but his work as a breeder of sheep.
He told the Farmer’s Magazine: ‘I commenced breeding Southdown sheep as soon as I began business for myself … from a conviction, through many experiments made when at home with my father with many different breeds of sheep, that more mutton and wool of the best quality could be made per acre from Southdown sheep than from any other breed … I commenced by purchasing the best bred sheep which could be obtained … regardless of expense and have never made a cross from any other breed on any occasion since.’
The phrase ‘regardless of expense’ is interesting, and Dr Paul M. Wood points out here that Webb’s own notebooks make it clear that the venture was a joint one with his landlord Adeane (though the latter appears not to have been wild about farming: his diary for 9 December 1837 says: ‘I am at times very sick of farming; it is so completely the rage of the country gentlemen in these parts’). On the other hand, Adeane did seem to enjoy the ‘great glory’ of the success of Webb’s activity, which, as his animals became more famous (he diligently lists his own and his brother’s successes with rams and ewes to the Farmer’s Magazine), led to numerous farmers, including even members of the nobility, to descend on Babraham Hall for ram sales and ‘ram-letting’.
On 21 July 1838, Adeane wrote: ‘The sheep day went off very well yesterday, more people than ever, 300 sat down to dinner. The gentlemen all came back to tea (not the 300), one ram let for 52 guineas, and a gentleman came from Liverpool and made great purchases for America, but the great glory is to have so many Sussex people come to be supplied.’ (Only the ‘gentlemen’ were allowed up to the big house for tea after the dinner.)
The point about the ‘Sussex people’ is of course that the county was the original home of the Southdown breed – Webb had bought his first animals there, ‘regardless of expense’, and it was John Ellman (1753–1832) of Glynde (greatly praised by Arthur Young) who was credited with developing the breed from a tall lean sheep into a more compact and meaty one which still produced a good heavy fleece.
He had met George III, whose enthusiasm for progressive farming had given him the soubriquet of ‘Farmer George’, and, like Webb after him, was a correspondent and even friend of those members of the peerage, like Earl Spencer, who managed parts of their estates themselves.
Webb also bred shorthorn cattle, and won a first prize at the only show in which he exhibited a horse. He was the prime mover in the building of the Agricultural Hall (‘the Crystal Palace of the animal world’) in London, which opened in 1862 to host the Smithfield Christmas Show and is now the Business Design Centre.
But it was the Southdowns that made Jonas Webb’s name, and put Babraham on the map. He retired and sold his animals in July 1862: according to Slater, 1,000 people sat down to dinner on that occasion, many recalling to each other the many past meetings at Babraham. Altogether 969 sheep were sold, for a total of £10,926 (1,406 had been sold the previous year); Slater notes that the best ram went to the United States and others to ‘Canada, Australia, South America, and to nearly every country in Continental Europe’.
Sadly, in October 1862, his wife, visiting her brother Henry Marshall in Cambridge, became seriously ill. Her husband was sent for, apparently collapsed, and died five days after her, on 10 November, his birthday. Jonas and his wife were buried in Babraham churchyard (the Adeanes are all inside the church). The Babraham statue, created by Baron Carlo Marochetti, allegedly Queen Victoria’s favourite sculptor, was subscribed to by his fellow farmers.
There was some debate about where to place it. The Agricultural Hall in London was the first choice, but given the necessary flexibility of the space, it was thought that the statue might be in the way, so instead it was erected (where exactly?) on Peas Hill in Cambridge, and thereafter moved inside the Corn Exchange, on the other side of the market square: ‘There he stands, surrounded every Saturday by hosts of his old friends and brother farmers … The simple inscription … speaks volumes – “Jonas Webb, of Babraham, from farmers and friends in many lands”’. I can’t find out when the statue was moved to Babraham – in 1965, when the Corn Exchange ceased to function as a corn exchange, or in 1981 when it was closed to be restored and turned into a concert venue?
Charles Darwin said of Webb (in The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, vol. 2, 1868) that he was ‘the most celebrated of recent breeders’. He was also called ‘one of nature’s noblemen, both in person and character’; moreover, ‘Few men have lived in whom so many personal and moral qualities combined to command respect, esteem, and even admiration. In stature, countenance, expression, and deportment, he was a noble specimen of fully developed English manhood’ – and so he appears in sculpted form on Babraham High Street.