Thomas Bates – Premier Cattle Breeder
Thomas Bates, Britain’s premier cattle breeder was born to George and Diana Bates in Matfen, Northumberland in 1775.
Thomas began his education at Haydon Bridge grammar school but at the age of fifteen he was called home to assist with the management of his father’s farms. At the age of eighteen, Thomas became the tenant of his father’s small estate at Aydon White House, North Tyneside and here began his agricultural career.
Through agricultural acquaintances he met stock breeders, Charles and Robert Colling. In 1810 he acquired his first shorthorn cow named Young Duchess from Charles Colling and from 1810 until he died Thomas bred 63 cows over eight generations from his foundation animal and named them Duchess 2 to Duchess 64.
In 1811, Thomas had become sufficiently wealthy to buy the manor of Kirklevington, Yarm for £30,000 from John Waldy and Henry Hutchinson. The purchase included 1,000 acres of land, half the land was ‘good, old grass fields’ and the remainder ‘poor, cold clay. Before Thomas could bring his shorthorns to Kirklevington he needed to install extensive drainage schemes – he would spend the next 20 years turning this land into prime grazing that would produce wheat and the quality fodder that his cattle would need.
During most of those 20 years, he lived in Ridley Hall, South Tyneside. In 1830 he returned to Kirklevington with 50 shorthorn cattle and lived there for the remainder of his life.
Thomas believed that commerce and agriculture ought to go ‘hand in hand’. This was undoubtedly influenced by the changing nature of the country with a rise in population and the emergence of industrial centres which created a demand for food. To meet this demand he set out to improve the livestock through inbreeding or line breeding previously considered unacceptable in cattle breeding.
The line, even in Thomas’ lifetime was inbred but while he inbred his animals he did so at a steady rate – he kept the level of inbreeding at around 40%, always introducing new blood to keep the percentage from rising higher. It was his ability to balance his inbreeding that gained him recognition as a breeder of taste and distinction and a master of producing consistency of type. In choosing the aninals for his herds he stressed heavy milking qualities in his cattle and bred cattle that are the direct bloodline of those still used today.
Thomas Bates died on 25th July 1849, aged 74 and his famous shorthorn herd of 68 premium cattle was sold by auction at Kirklevington on 9th May, 1850. While Thomas was a master breeder, the men that acquired his stock upon his death were not. Thomas’s system of limiting the inbreeding to around 40% was ignored and, due to excessive inbreeding, the lines became infertile.
By 1870 there was only one of these pure inbred cows left. The Eighth Duchess of Geneva was sold for $40,600 however a few days after the sale the cow gave birth to a dead heifer and died herself shortly afterwards.
Thomas Bates’ grave near the north-east corner of Kirklevington churchyard was augmented a few years after his death by a memorial placed there by his friends who ‘appreciated his labours for the improvement of British stock and respected his character’. In the 1880s, on the instructions of his nephew due to the dates of his birth and death being recorded incorrectly, a stained-glass window to his memory was placed in the nave of the church.