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John Billingsley Esq.

(Shown as 'Billingsly' in the 1794 Act of Parliament)


Biographical Details


Born: Ashwick Grove, Oakhill, near Shepton Mallet, Somerset 1747

Married: Mary Wells, daughter of Nathaniel Wells, Rector of East Allington, Devon.

Died: 26th September 1811, aged 64 at Ashwick Grove, Oakhill, Somerset.

Buried: St James Churchyard, Ashwick, Oakhill, Somerset.

Monument inside church.

Family: One daughter Marianne Seymour


John Billingsley: Victoria Art Gallery, Bath and North East Somerset Council

John Billingsley was a man of knowledge, wealth and status who pioneered progress, improvement and innovation in agriculture, industry and transport in the18th & 19th centuries; born into a wealthy family, he was the grandson of Nicholas Billingsley, a Presbyterian dissenter who was minister at Ashwick from 1699 to 1729. He was described as a leading member of the Presbyterian church although at some stage he was reconciled with the Church of England.

He was an important promoter and shareholder of the Somersetshire Coal Canal, the Kennet & Avon Canal and the Dorset & Somerset Canal. He also promoted the proposed Bristol & Western Canal project for linking Bristol with Taunton and was actively involved in the turnpiking of roads.

His shareholding in the Dorset & Somerset Canal amounted to £3,500, but the value of his shareholdings in the S.C.C. and the K&A Canal is not known.

Billingsley had many business interests in addition to canals, including coal mines, Oakhill Brewery and its public houses and farming of 4,000 acres. Possibly he had involvement in the cloth trade and a logwood mill (making dyes for the cloth industry). One of his activities was controversial. The enclosure of Mendip in order to improve farming productivity was hated by the ordinary people who were dispossessed of land by the enclosures. By contrast, his activities in the draining of Sedgemoor were beneficial without controversy.

He was a renowned agricultural expert and founder member of the Bath & West Society, now known as the Royal Bath & West of England Society, based near Shepton Mallet, Somerset. The silver cups which he won in the Society's competitions are still in the possession of his descendants, some of whom live and work in the Bath area.

Billingsley is best known as the author of "General View of the Agriculture of the County of Somerset with Observations on the Means of its Improvements" 1795. In his book and activities he advocated the modernisation of farming practices. He promoted mechanisation, ploughing with oxen, hedge and wall building, crop rotation, treatment of sick animals with medicine and the improvement of cucumber production with horse dung. His major innovation was the introduction and adoption of the double-furrow plough. The competition to demonstrate its effectiveness was held at Barrack Farm, Bath.

The chapter on political economy shows how forward thinking he was. It relates to the narrow margin of British food supplies in view of the outbreak of war with France. Today the concept is known as "Food Security".

For SCCS members the illustration of Robert Weldon's Hydrostatick Caisson Lock, which appears in Billingsley's book, is of great interest. The accompanying description is signed by Robert Weldon himself.



In the church of St. James, Ashwick there are two memorial tablets. One for John Billingsley and the other for his wife Mary and their family.

Soon after his death the Bath and West Society commissioned Samuel Woodforde (the nephew of James Woodforde author of Diary of a Country Parson) to copy in oils a crayon portrait of Billingsley. This has now been lost.

Further research
There must be a lot of information about Billingsley still waiting to be found, which would make an ideal research project for someone with an interest in the subject. Could the lost Woodforde portrait be tracked down? Was Billingsley connected with the experiments to trace the source of the water in Wookey Hole caves by placing dye in the Mendip swallets? How much was Billingsley's shareholding in the SCC ? Did he play any part in the passage of the Acts through the committee stages in Parliament? What were his friendships and business connections?






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