Agricultural Development

The outbreak of war had an enormous impact on agriculture and the distribution of food. The reduction of imported produce, along with the volunteering and conscription of agricultural workers into the armed forces, resulted in shortages of both food and labour.

The University of Leeds played a role in the effort to improve domestic agriculture. Research was carried out in connection with the growth of flax, training was provided to women and ex-servicemen who volunteered for farm work, and support was given to local allotments and training centres throughout Yorkshire.


During the First World War, flax became a vital material in the production of a new weapon of warfare – the aeroplane. Fibres from the flax plant were used to produce linen which was stretched and treated with chemicals to construct the wings of fighter planes.

Previously reliant on imported flax, the British government was forced to expand production in the UK when flax could no longer be readily imported from Belgium and Russia after the outbreak of war. Important in the furthering of this effort was the Flax Experiment Station set up at Selby and run by the University of Leeds.

Testing stays for aeroplanes

Testing stays for aeroplanes

The Flax Experiment Station

The British Government, keen to find out if flax production could be revived as a financially viable industry, had set up experiment stations in 1911 under the Development Fund Act (1909). A sub-committee from the University of Leeds was subsequently invited to prepare a scheme to manage an experimental cultivation. The site at Selby began in 1913.
In 1915 work was in progress and the University of Leeds had received grants from the Development Commission to continue its work there. There were three aims:

  • The growth and treatment of the line crop – flax growing for fibre preparation
  • Cultivation of linseed – flax-growing for seed
  • The isolation of improved strains for commercial purposes

While improvements in domestic production were significant, flax could no longer be imported after the collapse of Russia in 1917. This was especially significant as it was thought that military demands could not be met.

Professors Julius Cohen and Robert Seton from the University of Leeds were invited to sit on the Committee for Flax Experiments. The demand for flax would see the work carried out at Selby grow by more than twenty-fold from 1914 and 1918. The number of acres managed increased from 120 to 2,600 acres, and covered parts of North Lincolnshire by the end of the war.

The home flax production experiment which was inaugurated in 1911 had come to an end by 1920 with many of the factories run by the Flax Production Branch put up for sale. Selby was no exception: notice was given that the Flax Experiment Station had been disposed of as from 1 February 1920.

Getting in vetches for calves, University of Leeds War Work 1914-1916

Getting in vetches for calves

Potatoes growing in the flower beds at the University, University of Leeds War Work 1914-1916

Potatoes growing in the flower beds at the University

Farm Work and Training

Professor Robert Seton acted as District Commissioner for Yorkshire under the Board of Agriculture for a period during the war, and Dr Charles Crowther served on the Government Committee dealing with food production.
In order to replace the male workers lost to military service, women were trained for farm work. Courses for women were arranged at the University’s experimental farm at Garforth, which formed one of twelve training centres established across the country for this purpose.

In additional to training centres, the University also supported work-based training courses. Under the Officers’ Two Years’ Residential Training Scheme of the Board of Agriculture in Yorkshire, about 100 ex-servicemen were placed with farmers to complete a two-year programme of farm training. Course material was arranged by the University’s Department of Agriculture and delivered to the officers in training by District Lecturers.

With thanks to Professor Graeme Gooday, Ruth Allison, Lee MacDonald and Dave Stowe