Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Stephens, Henry

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STEPHENS, HENRY (1795–1874), agricultural writer, born at Keerpoy in Bengal on 25 July 1795, was the son of Andrew Stephens, a surgeon in the service of the East India Company, who died at Calcutta on 26 Aug. 1806. Henry returned to Scotland at an early age, and was educated at the parochial and grammar schools of Dundee and at the academy there under Thomas Duncan, subsequently professor of mathematics at St. Andrews. After spending some time at the university of Edinburgh, he in 1815 boarded himself with a Berwickshire agriculturist, ‘one of the best farmers of that well-farmed county,’ George Brown of Whitsome Hill. Here he gained that thorough and practical knowledge of agriculture which characterises his writings. After three years at Whitsome Hill, Stephens made for about a year (1818–19) an agricultural tour of the continent. In many places, he says, he was the first Briton to visit the district since the outbreak of the revolutionary wars. Shortly after his return home, in 1820, he came into possession of a farm of three hundred acres at Balmadies in Forfarshire. It was in a dilapidated condition, with no dwelling-house, and only a ruined steading. Stephens thoroughly put it in order, and introduced several improvements hitherto unknown in the district; the feeding of cattle, in small numbers, in separate hammels, and from troughs; the enclosing of sheep upon turnips by means of nets instead of hurdles; and the growing of Swedish turnips in larger proportion than other varieties. He also made use of furrow drains, filled with small stones, several years before the Deanston plan was made public by James Smith (1789–1850) [q. v.]

After managing the farm at Balmadies for some ten years, Stephens removed to the neighbourhood of Edinburgh, ultimately settling at Redbraes Cottage, Bonnington. Here at first alone, and afterwards in conjunction with other writers, James Slight, Robert Scott Burn, and William Seller, he produced that series of agricultural works of which the ‘Book of the Farm’ (Stephens's unaided work) is the best known. These books soon became popular abroad; they were translated into many continental languages and pirated in American editions. Stephens received a gold medal from the emperor of Russia.

In 1832 Stephens became editor of the ‘Quarterly Journal of Agriculture,’ and he continued till 1852 to edit the ‘Transactions of the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland,’ of which he had been a member since 1826. In his later years he sat for a long period on the society's council. He was a corresponding member of the Société Centrale et Impériale d'Agriculture de France and of the Royal Agricultural Society of Galicia. Stephens died on 5 July 1874 at Bonnington.

He wrote:

  1. ‘The Book of the Farm,’ 3 vols. 1842–4, which soon achieved a recognised position as the standard work on practical agriculture. Several editions of it have appeared, the fourth edition, by Mr. James Macdonald, being published at Edinburgh in 3 vols., 1889–91. It was reprinted in America (New York, 1846–7, 1851), and again in 1858, under the title of ‘The Farmer's Guide to Scientific and Practical Agriculture,’ with an appendix by John Pitkin Norton, the first professor of agricultural chemistry in Yale College.
  2. ‘A Manual of Practical Draining,’ 1846 (3rd edit. 1848), in which the views of thorough draining, first popularised by James Smith of Deanston, were explained at length, and other systems, including that of Elkington, discussed.
  3. ‘The Yester deep Land-culture,’ 1855, giving an account of the improvements which had been carried on since 1832 by the Marquis of Tweeddale on his estates at Yester, by means of thorough draining, subsoil, and steam ploughing.
  4. ‘A Catechism of Practical Agriculture,’ 1856, written for the instruction of children, and founded on the ‘Book of the Farm.’
  5. ‘The Book of Farm Implements and Machines,’ 1858, by Stephens, in conjunction with Scott Burn and James Slight.
  6. ‘The Book of Farm Buildings,’ 1861, in conjunction with Scott Burn.
  7. ‘Physiology at the Farm,’ 1867, the general plan and arrangement of which rested with Stephens, though ‘the execution of that plan in all its details, with the exception of such as were of a purely practical nature,’ was performed by Dr. William Seller.
  8. ‘On Non-nitrogenised Food, in a physiological point of view,’ 1867; a small pamphlet, the joint work of Seller and Stephens, defending from an attack in the ‘Field’ certain statements which had been made in ‘Physiology at the Farm’ concerning the nutritive powers of nitrogen.

[Autobiographical preface to the second edition (1849–51) of the Book of the Farm; Vapereau's Dictionnaire Univ. des Contemp. 5th edit. 1880; Obituaries in Agricultural Gazette, 11 July 1874; Mark Lane Express, 13 July 1874; Bell's Weekly Messenger, 13 July 1874; Edinburgh Courant, 5 July 1874. See also Gardeners' Chron. 6 Jan. 1872; Allibone's Dict. 1870, vol. ii. For reviews and notices of his works, &c. see Quarterly Review, March 1849, p. 389; Blackwood, lviii. (1845), 769, lxix. (1851), 590; Athenæum (1861), ii. 405–6.]

E. C.-e.