The Foxearth and District Local History Society
James Spalding Gardiner of Borley Lodge: family, farm and politics

Andrew Le Sueur


2020 marks the bicentenary of the birth of one of Borley’s most prominent men of the Victorian era. James Spalding Gardiner (1820-1910) was the patriarch of a large family, a farmer applying scientific methods, and a political campaigner. He belonged to a social class that can be described as “yeoman farmer”, situated in the rural hierarchy below the gentry but above small-holders and labourers. The 1861 census records him at Borley Lodge, aged 40, farming 524 acres. He was among the largest employers in the Borley and Foxearth area, noted as having “26 men, 6 lab[ourers], 8 boys”. The lives of most yeoman farmers of his generation are remembered, if at all, in names recorded on family trees. What opens up J.S. Gardiner’s life and times to historical exploration is his public profile in Essex and Suffolk, which has left an abundance of letters to editors and reports of his activities in newspapers such as the Essex Standard, Bury & Norwich Post, Bury Free Press, and the Ipswich Journal.


Gardiner in early middle age.

Figure 1: Gardiner in early middle age.
Photograph courtesy of Susie Butcher.

Born in Long Melford into a prosperous farming family, Gardiner grew up in Belchamp St Paul. In 1847, he married Mary Ann Hayward. They had nine children together, but tragedy struck in 1861 when, aged just 33, Mary died giving birth to their tenth child, who was stillborn.

In 1863, Gardiner married Jessie Harris, the daughter of an oil miller from Stratford St Mary. They had five daughters born in quick succession ¬– known affectionately in the family as “the Five Graces”.

Many of his adult children stayed in the Hinckford Hundred area. In a plot-line worthy of an Austin novel, three of Gardiner’s sons married three of the Ewer daughters from Ovington Hall in 1876, 1877 and 1881 and farmed locally. The family also had strong ties to New Zealand. Gardiner’s brother Henry Dent Gardiner was among the early European settlers and four of J.S. Gardiner’s children emigrated or spent several years there. His eldest son, James, died in New Zealand aged 18 shortly after making the arduous 90-days-plus sea voyage.


After several years farming in Hertfordshire, the opportunity in 1856 to acquire a 500-hundred-acre estate from Colonel Meyrick brought Gardiner back to his home parishes. The purchase included Borley Lodge and Upper Yeldham Hall; family records indicate the price was £8,250. (Using the ‘relative income’ method of comparing the worth of money over time, this equates to about £8.5 million in today’s values). Gardiner’s status as an owner-farmer was relatively unusual: the great majority of yeoman farmers in England rented their farms from the gentry or large-scale absentee landlords.

Under Gardiner’s stewardship, the farm at Borley Lodge weathered the ups and downs of the agricultural economy. His farming life spanned both the “golden age” of East Anglian farming 1850-73 (year-on-year good harvests and rising corn prices) and the reversal of fortunes in 1874-96 when English agriculture plunged into steep decline.

an Easterly view of Borley Lodge

Figure 2: an Easterly view of Borley Lodge, taken during
Gardiner’s lifetime, showing the Victorian wing.
Photograph courtesy of Susie Butcher.

His commercial success enabled him to build a new wing to Borley Lodge during the 1860s, substantially enlarging the farmhouse, which had earlier Tudor and Georgian parts.

In a letter to the Essex Standard in 1868, Gardiner describes himself as “a son of the soil”. There is no doubt that he had great practical experience and knowledge of arable and livestock farming, gained from his own work, observing how other farms operated, and by reading. In another letter to the editor of the Essex Standard in 1868, he reflected on changes in farming practices: “I recollect when many of our parishes had ... dairy cows on almost every farm. Now nearly all the farms are without if not it is exceptional, or merely for family accommodation. The consequence is that butter has done up from 8d to 9d to 1s 3d and 1s 6d per lb.”

Gardiner was strongly committed to mixed farming, understanding the synergies between livestock and arable production. He had no time for the agrochemical industry that was emerging in the mid-1860s, dismissively referring to Sir John Lawes whose research institute was at the forefront of these developments as “the chemical manure manufacturer” (letter, Essex Standard, 22 March 1865; he underlined those words).


Alongside family and farming life, Gardiner was deeply engaged in politics. He was driven by a mix of strong civic duty, a search for justice, love for the countryside (which he thought ignored or misunderstood by Westminster and Whitehall) and love for his country (which he feared would be undermined by Irish Home Rule). He was a confident public speaker and fearless in calling out what he saw as nonsense or injustice. He became a skilled campaigner, seeking to advance his causes through grassroots activism among his fellow farmers, lobbying, and through correspondence in newspapers.

Newspaper Cutting

Figure 3: A profile of Gardiner in the Essex Standard in
March 1889 on his election to Essex County Council.

He served in elected office as a member of the board of guardians of the Suffolk Union (overseeing operation of the Poor Law). For reasons that are not now clear, he was determined to serve on Hedingham Highways Board as the representative for the parish of Little Yeldham, where he owned a farm but did not live. His attempt to become vice-chairman of the Board was a step too far – the Board sought legal advice about his eligibility and the Rector of Borley commenced legal proceedings to have him ousted (and was successful). The highpoint of his service in public office was election in 1889, aged 69, to the newly formed Essex County Council, as the member for the Belchamp Division (by “a majority of two to one”, he noted in a letter of thanks to electors published in the Suffolk Free Press, 23 January 1898).

During the 1860s and 70s, Gardiner was a leading figure in local and regional campaigns on abolition of the malt tax: this was a 20-year slog of public meetings and lobbying that achieved success in 1880. In the 1870s, he became involved in the Farmers’ Alliance, a group that Conservatives warned was dangerously radical. The Alliance called for a wide range of reforms to the laws governing farming and rural life.

Towards the end of his life, there were those who chose to emphasise his membership of the Conversative Party. Gardiner’s entry in Benham, Gilbey and Pike’s Essex in the Twentieth Century: Contemporary Biographies (1909) described him as a “member of the local Committee of the Essex Conservative Association”. This is puzzling. While this may have been true at a particular moment in time, it does not capture the nuances or sense of journey in his political views. In other periods, he was an active member of the Liberal Party and later the Liberal Unionists.

In 1871, he was involved in the split within the Hinckford Conservative and Agriculture Club. The club, organised from Castle Hedingham, is described in one contemporary account as “important and influential”. It brought together men involved in agriculture from different social classes for a mix of practical activities (such as ploughing matches and thatching demonstrations) and political discussion, drawing in luminaries such as Benjamin Disraeli in 1849 – then an ambitious politician who would go on to become leader of the Conservatives, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister. In an open letter signed by 11 other members (including his brother Edward), J.S. Gardiner said that the club “has cast off the agricultural part, and become exclusively a political Conservative one” and the call to action was that “Many agriculturalists in the Hinckford Hundred are desirous, on behalf of the poor and deserving labourers, to take up the part which has been abandoned by the Hinckford Conservative Club, and establish a purely Agricultural Club, independent of politics”.

In the 1885 general election, he had a leading role in the successful campaign to elect the Liberal candidate Herbert Gardner for the Saffron Walden Division – the first time in 20 years that north Hinckford had returned somebody who was not a Conservative.

Much writing about local history stays resolutely local in its focus. Exploration of J.S. Gardiner’s political life provides a corrective, reminding us that (then and now) rural people can be deeply interested and actively engaged in national and international questions. One constant in J.S. Gardiner’s political outlook was his support for the union of Great Britain and Ireland, under threat from proposals for Home Rule for Ireland being championed by Gladstone’s Liberal government. (In our own times, it is tempting to draw parallels between the Unionist vs Home Rule debates in the 1880s and Brexit in 2016: passionate and irreconcilable views, splitting political parties and dividing families).

The Gardiner family were enthusiastic participants at a political event in Foxearth, which the Suffolk Free Press reported on 7 July 1886:

“On Tuesday evening last there was a large important meeting of the Conservative and Unionists Friends at Foxearth to hear the views of Mr Brewis the candidate, on the Irish question, the meeting was held in a large paddock adjoining the village street and the speakers addressed their audience from waggons placed at the upper end near some trees from which floated the Union Jack, Mr Gardiner of Borley displayed a large yellow rosette while his wife and daughters wore blue and tri-colour ribbons. When Mr Brewis drove into the village he was stopped near the school and his two horses were taken out and the carriage was drawn to the place of the meeting amid loud huzzah’s of the hundreds of labourers who had assembled to hear the candidate, a knot of radicals from the neighbourhood had assembled and tried to interrupt the proceedings and after the meeting they groaned and hooted as Mr Brewis and his friends drove away …”.

Figure 4: Gardiner in old age in front of Borley Lodge,
 wearing his farming clothes.
Credit: photograph courtesy of Susie Butcher.

It is interesting to note that J.S. Gardiner was wearing his yellow Liberal rosette. There were other, often stormy, local meetings on Home Rule. At one in Castle Hedingham, Gardiner mounted the platform and addressed the assembly against the wishes of the chairman, arguing emphatically for “the unity of the Empire” (Essex Standard, 1 May 1886). Soon the Liberal party split over Home Rule and Gardiner left it.

In one of his last letters to the press in December 1895, aged 75 and about to step back from public life, he described himself as a “Liberal Unionist farmer”. The short-lived Liberal Unionist Party was formed by members of the Liberal Party unable to support Gladstone’s policies on Home Rule for Ireland.

Gardiner seems slowly to have retreated from public life during his final years, living quietly at Borley Lodge and continuing to take an interest in the farm.

His wife Jessie died in 1908. He lived for a further two years, dying in his 90th year and is interred in the Gardiner family tomb at St Andrew’s, Belchamp St Paul.

About the author

Andrew Le Sueur is Professor of Constitutional Justice at the University of Essex (but writes here as an amateur historian). He would be pleased to hear from anybody with documents, photographs or family stories that shed light on 19th century life and politics in Borley, Foxearth and the parishes beyond. Address for correspondence: Borley Lodge, The Green, Borley, Sudbury CO10 7AF. Email