We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Sir  John Bennet Lawes (1814–1900), by Sir Hubert von Herkomer, 1893Sir John Bennet Lawes (1814–1900), by Sir Hubert von Herkomer, 1893
Lawes, Sir John Bennet, first baronet (1814–1900), agriculturist, was born at Rothamsted, near St Albans, Hertfordshire, on 28 December 1814, the only son of John Bennet Lawes (d. 1822), owner of the Rothamsted estate of somewhat more than 1000 acres and lord of the manor of Rothamsted, and his wife, Marianne, daughter of John Sherman of Drayton, Oxfordshire. He was educated at Eton College and at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he matriculated on 14 March 1833.

Lawes later recalled that in his days ‘Eton and Oxford were not of much assistance to those whose tastes were scientific rather than classical’, and that consequently his early pursuits ‘were of a most desultory character’, by which he meant that his interests did not extend much beyond shooting and fishing (Agricultural Gazette, 3 Jan 1888).

Experiments with herbs

Lawes left Oxford without a degree in 1834, when the tenant to whom Rothamsted had been let went bankrupt; Lawes and his mother returned to take charge of the house and the home farm. From an early age, he later recalled, he had ‘had a taste for chemistry’, and he at once had ‘one of the best bedrooms in the house fitted up with stoves, retorts, and all the apparatus necessary for chemical research’, much to his mother's dismay (DNB). Within a year or two, however, this apparatus had been banished to an old barn, which was to serve as the Rothamsted laboratory for nearly twenty years. Lawes's first experiments had nothing to do with agriculture: he was intrigued by the composition of drugs, and he amused himself by growing various medicinal plants such as poppies, hemlock, henbane, belladonna, and colchicum, in a corner of one of his fields, and by trying to isolate their active ingredients in his bedroom. He also cultivated the acquaintance of Anthony Todd Thomson (1778–1849), professor of materia medica at the new University College, London. Thomson was the author of The Conspectus Pharmacopoeia (1810), a standard work which ran through many editions, and he became Lawes's instructor and adviser.

Experiments with bones

While dabbling in drugs and retorts, Lawes was influenced by a chance remark of Lord Dacre of the Hoo, who farmed near him, who pointed out that in one farm bones were invaluable for the turnip crop, and on another they were useless. This experience had perplexed other farmers, who were making increasing use of bones and bonemeal as manures after 1815, and in 1829 a published report had stated that bones were most effective in raising the yield of turnips on dry sands, limestone, and chalk soils, but were utterly ineffective on clays and strong loams. Lawes set out to solve this puzzle in a series of field experiments which ran for six years from 1836. In these he established by trial and error that both bones and mineral phosphates would, when treated with sulphuric acid, produce striking results on turnip growth, while untreated bones in whatever quantity would have no effect at all. The theoretical explanation, which came much later and not from Lawes, was that bones contained calcium phosphate, which was inert and only released by contact with acid; and that this made the phosphate soluble and available for plant growth. While some soils were naturally acidic and made this conversion spontaneously, many others were not.

It was the practical result which mattered to Lawes, just as it was the practical proof he provided—that superphosphate of lime, as he named the product of the treated bones or phosphates, increased the yield of turnips—which mattered to farmers. In May 1842 Lawes applied for a patent for ‘chemically decomposing for purposes of manure by means of sulphuric acid of Bones, or Bone Ash or Apatite or Phosphorite or any other substances containing phosphoric acid’ (patent no. 9353). He was fortunate to obtain a patent for a chemical reaction which had been known to chemists for some years, and whose fertilizing properties had been explicitly described by the great German agricultural chemist, Baron Justus von Liebig, FRS (1803–1873), in his Organic Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology, published in 1840 (simultaneously in English and German editions).

Marketing fertilizers, and marriage

Liebig was a laboratory scientist who did not make field trials; Lawes was an entrepreneur with a taste for applied science. Having secured the patent and with the prospect of monopolizing the market for the new fertilizer, Lawes single-mindedly put business interests before domestic and family concerns. On 28 December 1842 he married Caroline (d. 1895), daughter of Andrew Fountaine of Narford Hall, Norfolk; and it was to the latter, the owner of the Narford estate, that six months previously, Lawes had sold the first big consignment of superphosphate. (It had proved to be hugely successful.) Instead of taking his bride on a promised continental honeymoon, Lawes hired a boat on the Thames and took her on a river cruise to its less appealing reaches, prospecting for a suitable site for a manure factory. Caroline Lawes never forgot the disappointment, though the search laid the foundations of her husband's fortune. They had one son, Charles Bennet (1843–1911), a sculptor, and one daughter, Caroline (1844–1946).

The site chosen for Lawes's factory was on Deptford Creek, on the south bank of the Thames. It had the added advantage of proximity to sugar refineries, whose waste product, spent bone charcoal, Lawes found was a rich source of phosphate for his acid treatment. The factory was ready by the summer of 1843, when Lawes made his first commercial sales of superphosphate. The new fertilizer sold readily to market gardeners and turnip-growing farmers, but the first half dozen years or so were still a lean time for Lawes as he strained to expand his business, temporarily giving up residence in the big house at Rothamsted to save money and thus adding to Caroline's disenchantment with her unexpected role as a manure manufacturer's wife.

The chance discovery of coprolites in Suffolk in 1843 by the Cambridge professor of botany J. S. Henslow (1796–1861), while on holiday in Felixstowe visiting his living, attracted Lawes into the business of excavating and open-cast mining for these phosphatic nodules. His ownership and control of what was, until the 1870s, the most important raw material for making superphosphate was an important factor in assuring his prosperity. Another factor, paradoxically, was the effort of imitators and competitors to upset his patent, for two lawsuits brought by them in 1848 and 1853 ended by upholding Lawes's sole right to make superphosphate out of minerals (and holding that coprolites were a mineral substance), while he surrendered any claim to monopolize the use of bones. Crucially, the judgment confirmed a lucrative agreement that all other superphosphate manufacturers would pay Lawes a royalty of 10s. per ton on their output for the remaining currency of the patent.

With business flourishing Lawes set up a second, much larger, factory in 1857, on the north bank of the Thames, at Barking Creek, and this became internationally renowned, and visited, as the model of a well laid out, technologically advanced, and efficiently run fertilizer factory. In the 1860s he was drawing an income of about £50,000 a year from his fertilizers; and in 1872, at the peak of his prosperity, Lawes sold the two factories at Deptford and Barking to a public company for £300,000, retaining possession of a quite separate plant making tartaric and citric acid. In the 1880s he inherited a sugar plantation in Queensland, from a nephew of his wife, but this does not seem to have been very successful as a business. After 1872, however, Lawes ceased to be directly involved in commerce and business management.

The Rothamsted Experimental Station

Lawes was unusual among successful industrialists in that he did not wait until his retirement from business before energetically, and expensively, pursuing his chief hobby. In 1843, while busy setting up the Deptford plant, Lawes invited to join him at Rothamsted as chemist, and in practice to be director in charge of the day-to-day management of agricultural experiments. This began a lifelong association, and virtually all the results of the Rothamsted experiments, certainly from the mid-1850s onwards, were published under the joint names of Lawes and Gilbert. The establishment of the Rothamsted Experimental Station also effectively dates from 1843, when the previous superphosphate trials ceased and the continuous recording of the wheat yields from Broadbalk Field began. This was—and continues to be—a ‘control’ plot on which wheat was grown continuously without any manure, and it became the most famous field in the world. At the same time on other plots different manurial applications and rotations were applied. Similar very long-running trials were conducted with barley and mangolds and, over shorter runs of years, with oats, clover, beans, turnips, and potatoes, on Broadbalk, Barnfield, Geescroft, Hoos Field, and Park Grass, using the same technique of one plot or strip receiving no manure and others receiving measured doses of different fertilizers. The hallmarks of this work were the meticulous control and measurement of every step in the cultivations, the weighing and composition analysis of the crops, and the publication of the results as soon as it was felt that the evidence of a meaningful run of years had been gathered, in the agricultural and scientific journals.

Personally responsible for deciding the main lines of the work at Rothamsted, Lawes also provided all the finance. The claim of a one-time Rothamsted research chemist that ‘all the time he was accumulating a fortune by business in London, he was at home spending a fortune in laborious scientific agricultural investigations’ had an element of truth (Agricultural Gazette, 17 Sept 1900, 180). The fortune was large enough to support both the investigations and an increasingly comfortable gentry lifestyle. The farming community appreciated the generous way in which he freely publicized the results and thus provided extremely valuable guidance on which fertilizers, or farmyard manure, and in what amounts, to use on which crops. His growing reputation for liberality and support of objective and disinterested agricultural research helped him to win the patent cases; it moved the farmers, initially of Hertfordshire and then of the country at large, to raise a public testimonial to him in 1853 in recognition of his contributions to the improvement of agriculture. The money was used to build the Testimonial Laboratory at Rothamsted, which replaced the original barn. This was a pretentious and poorly constructed building, which collapsed in 1912; when (Alfred) Daniel Hall (1864–1942) took over Rothamsted in 1902 he found it much more like a museum than a laboratory, though it had served Gilbert well enough for the rather restricted range of laboratory work that he undertook.

The Lawes Agricultural Trust

While Lawes's disinterestedness was recognized by most people, there was a strand of opinion, intermittently vocal, which held that Lawes was first and foremost a manure manufacturer and merchant, and that his agricultural investigations were primarily designed to further his business interests. This excited vehement denials from his supporters, who pointed out that many of the Rothamsted results, widely publicized, tended to establish the restricted range of beneficial and profitable applications of superphosphate and to demonstrate the crops which thrived without it or on which it was a waste of money to apply it. Nevertheless, it was not until after Lawes had withdrawn from the fertilizer industry in 1872 that he became universally recognized as the world's leading authority on agricultural science. Rothamsted became so frequently and intensively visited that a marquee with beer and other refreshments for visiting groups was almost permanently in use. This reputation was further enhanced by Lawes's announcement that he would give £100,000 from the proceeds of selling his factories to provide for the long-term future of the Rothamsted station. He redeemed this promise in 1889 by establishing the Lawes Agricultural Trust with that endowment, to which the laboratory, and the several fields of the home farm which were used for the experiments, were assigned on long lease.

These efforts to continue and perpetuate his life's work were institutionally successful, and when some ten years after his death the Rothamsted Experimental Station received its first government grant, as a research institute for soil and plant nutrition, its future was assured. By that time Rothamsted was badly in need of rejuvenation. Lawes's attempt to inject new ideas by recruiting the young chemist Robert Warington (1838–1907) were frustrated by Gilbert's conservatism and refusal to let Rothamsted venture beyond the well-tried routines of analysing the ash residues of crops and the chemical composition of land drainage water. Hence the last twenty years or so of the Lawes–Gilbert association were largely unproductive. However, the jubilee was celebrated in style in 1893, with a public ceremony at which Lawes was presented with his portrait by Hubert von Herkomer and a large granite boulder from Shap, inscribed ‘to commemorate the completion of fifty years of continuous experiments (the first of their kind) in agriculture conducted at Rothamsted by Sir John Bennet Lawes and Joseph Henry Gilbert, A.D. MDCCCXCIII’; this was erected in front of the laboratory. By then the pioneering days of the experiments were long past. Lawes and Gilbert published a 354-page summary of their fifty years of experiments with crops and the feeding of animals in the Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland (fifth ser., 7, 1895); but the most lucid account is by A. D. Hall, in The Book of the Rothamsted Experiments (1905).

Experiments with farm animals

In essence the work of Lawes and Gilbert laid the foundations for the systematic study of the effects of fertilizers and nutrients on soils and plant growth. Their less well-known experiments with farm animals, mainly conducted between 1848 and 1864, initiated controlled research into the effects of different diets on weight-gain in cattle, sheep, and pigs, and, crucially, into measuring the chemical composition and manurial value of the excreta produced by the different diets. This last was of immediate practical use to farmers and valuers as a guide to the objective valuation of the amount of compensation for ‘unexhausted improvements’ which might be left behind on or in the soil of a farm by an outgoing tenant. Indeed, all the work was intended to be of direct practical utility in farming. The essentially chemical approach of both Lawes and Gilbert did, however, mean that they had a somewhat restricted view of the scope of agricultural research and a tendency to regard chemical properties, notably fertilizers, as the most important and interesting variables. It is significant that there is no record that Lawes ever made contact with Eleanor Ormerod (1828–1901), the leading entomologist of the day and an authority on insects which are injurious to crops, though she lived only 3 miles away in St Albans. The enormous prestige and authority of Lawes and Gilbert, and their success in their own line of research, may have served to discourage the vigorous pursuit of other lines of agricultural research in Britain in the late nineteenth century. Lawes was nevertheless sufficiently flexible to abandon his dogmatic assertion, often repeated, that plants were unable to fix free nitrogen from the atmosphere, when it was demonstrated in 1891 that certain plants—the legumes—did precisely that.

Other activities, habits, and death

Lawes joined the Royal Agricultural Society of England in 1846, and became a member of its governing body in 1848 and a vice-president in 1878; he was not offered the presidency until 1893, when he declined on grounds of age. He was elected FRS in 1854, and was awarded (with Gilbert) the society's royal medal in 1867. In 1894 he was awarded (with Gilbert) the Albert gold medal of the Society of Arts. He received honorary doctorates from Edinburgh (1877), Oxford (1892), and Cambridge (1894). He was created a baronet in 1882. He served on the royal commission on the sewage of towns between 1857 and 1865, and he conducted trials at Rugby from which he concluded, egregiously, that the best way of dealing with it was to use untreated raw sewage to irrigate grassland at a rate of 9000 tons per acre per year—equivalent to a depth of about 2 metres.

Lawes was below middle height, careless in matters of dress, and very fond of salmon fishing and deer stalking. He invariably spent several months every summer and autumn in Scotland with his family—his wife painting while he shot—in the early years at Dalmally and later on at Loch Etive, where he kept a steam yacht. He was a benevolent squire of Harpenden; he started an allotment scheme in 1852, and in 1857 he built a clubhouse for the allotment-holders, who elected the management committee. Providing cheap beer, the clubhouse was a popular meeting place (it lasted until demolished in the 1950s); it was described by Charles Dickens, after a visit, in ‘The Poor Man and his Beer’, All the Year Round, in April 1859. A savings bank which he started in 1856 was also successful; but a pig club, a flour club, and the Harpenden Labourers' Store Society failed to attract support.

Lawes died on 31 August 1900 from dysentery, at Rothamsted, and was buried at St Nicholas's Church, Harpenden, on 4 September. His wife, Caroline, had died in 1895, and his son, , succeeded as second baronet.

F. M. L. Thompson


E. J. Russell, A history of agricultural science in Great Britain, 1620–1954 (1966), 88–107, 143–75, 232–4 · R. W. [R. Warington], PRS, 75 (1905), 228–36 · Agricultural Gazette (3 Jan 1888), 13 · A. D. Hall, The book of the Rothamsted experiments (1905) · J. B. Lawes and J. H. Gilbert, ‘The Rothamsted experiments … over a period of fifty years’, Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, 5th ser., 7 (1895), 11–354 · The Times (1 Sept 1900) · Agricultural Gazette (17 Sept 1900) · Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, 3rd ser., 11 (1900) · G. V. Dyke, John Lawes of Rothamsted (1993)


Herts. ALS, personal papers · Rothamsted Experimental Station, Harpenden, Hertfordshire, corresp. and papers |  Rothamsted Experimental Station, Harpenden, Hertfordshire, corresp. with Sir Joseph Gilbert


H. von Herkomer, oils, 1893, Rothamsted Experimental Station, Harpenden, Hertfordshire [see illus.] · Verheyden, marble bust, 1901, Rothamsted · T [T. Chartran], caricature, watercolour study, NPG; repro. in VF (8 July 1882) · cartoon, repro. in Punch (1882) · engraving, repro. in Agricultural Gazette (1882) [reprinted from 1871] · memorial, St Nicholas's Church, Harpenden · wood-engraving, NPG; repro. in ILN (10 July 1882)

Wealth at death  

£583,115 2s. 10d.: probate, 1 Nov 1900, CGPLA Eng. & Wales