Gartons Agricultural Plant Breeders

Gartons Agricultural Plant Breeders


This is a short history of the United Kingdom's first agricultural plant breeding business. Dr John Garton, of the firm of Garton Brothers of Newton-le-Willows in the United Kingdom was the Originator of Scientific Farm Plant Breeding. In 1898 the business became known as Gartons Limited and was to become Britain's largest plant breeding and seed company. A public company from the start, its shares were traded on the London Stock Exchange from 1947.

[Second page of 1901 Gartons Limited spring seed catalogue]

Historic Introductions

The firm's historic introductions included Abundance Oat, the world's first agricultural plant variety bred from a "controlled" cross, introduced to commerce in 1892 [Spring Seed Catalogue 1899, Gartons Limited] .

"Among the other 170 crop varieties [ [ Gartons ] ] Gartons Limited bred and introduced to commerce were:"

Standwell Barley, introduced in 1898 [Seed Catalogue 1898, Gartons] , was the first barley bred from a controlled cross.
White Monarch Wheat, introduced in 1899 [Seed Catalogue 1899, Gartons Limited] , was the first wheat bred from a controlled cross.
Invincible Barley, introduced in 1899 [Seed Catalogue 1899, Gartons Limited] , was the first crop plant control crossed for disease resistance.
Perennialized Red Clover, introduced in 1898 [Seed Catalogue 1898, Gartons] , the first controlled cross clover.
Perennialized Italian Ryegrass, introduced in 1907 [Seed Catalogue 1907, Gartons Limited] , the first controlled cross pasture grass.
Apex Winter Wheat, introduced in 1967 [Seed Catalogue 1967, Gartons Limited] , the first wheat to be granted Plant Breeders Rights in the United Kingdom.

[Image from 1902 Catalogue, Gartons Limited]

The Garton System of Plant Breeding

This explanatory note comes from the Gartons seed catalogue for Spring 1900.

TO those who are not acquainted with the botanical construction of plants it may be well to explain that plants possess generative organs, which correspond to those of the male and female in the animal kingdom. In the animal kingdom, progeny is derived from the mating of different animals of the same breed; in the vegetable kingdom the rule is that the seed is produced through the agency of the generative organs growing together on the same plant. Prior to the commencement of the work initiated by us and carried on during the past 20 years, which has led to the production of our New and Improved Breeds of agricultural plants, it was a recognised belief that many farm plants in the production of their seed were more or less cross-fertilised. The results of our experiments however have proved that such was not the case but that constant in-and-in breeding was the rule.

Where such in-and-in breeding takes place the results are governed by the same natural laws as the in-and-in breeding of animals. In the production of New Breeds of animals the rule followed is to mate two animals of distinct breeds. The progeny, when fixity of type has been secured, constitutes a New Breed.

Under our system of plant breeding we carry the mating of varieties or breeds far beyond what is practised in the animal kingdom. In the first instance we mate varieties and also what were formerly regarded as distinct species of the same genera, and after fixation, the progeny by these combinations are further mated together.

A further extension of our system which is in itself unique and instructive, is the mating of uncultivated indigenous plants of the same Natural Order as the cultivated varieties. From such combinations most valuable results have been obtained.

For example In Southern Asia there exists a species of wheat botanically known as Triticum spelta. In some districts it is looked upon as an indigenous weed infesting the cultivated crops of wheat.

Under no climatic conditions does the grain of this species shed its seed when ripe, and even in threshing it is not possible to separate the grains, as the spikelets break off at the bases of the glumes, the grains remaining firmly enclosed between the chaff scales.

By mating the varieties of this species with cultivated varieties, new breeds have been produced which will under no conditions shed their seed when ripe, but which thresh out a perfectly clean sample with a much heavier yield per acre than common wheat.

In China there is an indigenous species of oat botanically known as Avena nuda or naked oat. The peculiar feature of this species is that the grains (which are very small) grow without any husk, being protected only by the chaff. The habit of the plant is likewise quite unique, four or five grains being suspended upon a thread-like filament about half an inch long. The mating of this species with cultivated varieties has produced new breeds giving yields 50 to 100 per cent. heavier than the original cultivated parents, with a corresponding decrease in the thickness of the skin.

The wild or land oat, Avena fatua, of Great Britain has likewise been used with marked success in the production of new breeds in conjunction with the cultivated varieties. In the wild oat there is hardiness of constitution, vigour, strength of straw, and remarkable fertility. All these qualities have been retained in the new breeds produced.

Another part of our system is the improvement of existing varieties of agricultural plants. The method is similar to that adopted by the breeder of stock for the improvement of his animals, when fresh blood of the same breed is introduced from some other herd.

By crossing two distinct plants of the same variety the resulting progeny is more vigorous and robust in constitution, whilst the habit and individual character of the variety is maintained.

Varieties Bred and Introduced [Extracted from Gartons Seed Catalogues]

Barley Varieties

Barley varieties bred and introduced to UK agriculture include Standwell in 1898, Invincible (1899), Zero (1900), Brewer’s Favourite (1901), The Maltster (1903), Eclipse (1904), Ideal (1906), 1917 (1918), Admiral Beatty (1920), Triumphant (1927).

Oat Varieties

Oat varieties bred and introduced to UK agriculture include Abundance in 1892, Pioneer (1899), Tartar King (1899), Waverley (1900), Goldfinder (1901), Storm King (1902), Excelsior (1903), Colossal (1904), Rival (1906), Unversed (1907), Bountiful (1908), The Yielder (1909), The Record (1911), The Leader (1913), Supreme (1915), The Hero (1916), The Captain (1919), Sir Douglas Haig (1920), Marvellous (1921), Superb (1923), Earl Haig (1925), Cropwell (1926), Plentiful (1927), Black Prince (1929), Progress (1930), Unique (1931), Onward (1935), Jubilee (1936), Royal Scot (1940), Spitfire (1945), Early Grey (1946), Forward (1953), Angus (1959).

Wheat Varieties

Wheat varieties bred and introduced to UK agriculture include White Monarch in 1899, White Pearl (1900), Red King (1900), New Era (1903), Reliance (1909), Victor (1910), Benefactor (1914), Early Cone (1918), The Hawk (1918), Marshal Foch (1919), Rector (1923), Benefactress (1925), Renown (1926), Wilhelmina Regenerated (1928), Gartons No 60 (1932), Gartons Q3 (1933), Redman (1934), Little Tich (1935), Wilma (1936), Warden (1938), Meteor (1941), Pilot (1945), Welcome (1950), Masterpiece (1951), Alpha (1952), Victor II (1953), Ritchie (1957), Apex (1965).

wede Varieties

Swede varieties bred and introduced to UK agriculture include Zero in 1900, Lord Derby (1900), Perfection (1900), Monarch (1900), Model (1900), Green Tankard (1901), Keepwell (1902), Cropwell (1903), Superlative (1905), Victory (1907), Incomparable (1907), Warrington (1914), Acme (1914), Magnificent (1917), Viking (1918), Feedwell (1922), White Fleshed (1933), Parkside (1951), Townhead (1951).

Turnip Varieties

Turnip varieties bred and introduced to UK agriculture include Mammoth Purpletop in 1900, Greentop Scotch Yellow (1900), Hardy Green Globe (1900), Pioneer (1903), Purpletop Long Keeping (1912), Deep Golden Yellow Long Keeping (1912), The Bruce (1917), The Grampian (1920), The Wallace (1935).

ugar Beet Varieties

Sugar Beet varieties bred and introduced to UK agriculture include Gartons in 1909, Gartons C (1941) and Gartons Number 632 (1962).

Kale and Kail Varieties

Kale varieties bred and introduced to UK agriculture include Thousand Headed in 1902, Marrow Stem Kail (1912), Gartons Hybrid (1937) and Hungry Gap (1941).

Kohl Rabi Varieties

Kohl Rabi varieties bred and introduced to UK agriculture include Large Green in 1902 and Improved Short Top in 1904.

Mangel Varieties

Mangel varieties bred and introduced to UK agriculture include Large Yellow Intermediate in 1900, Mammoth Long Red (1900), Golden Tankard (1900), Large Yellow Globe (1900), Select Golden Globe (1900), Sugar (1905), Red Intermediate (1905), Devon Yellow Intermediate (1907), Golden Gatepost (1909), Large Red Globe (1910), Large Golden Globe (1910), Nonsuch (1917), Sunrise (1919), White Knight (1922), New Combination (1924), Lemon Globe (1927), Gartons Number 432 (1928), Gartons Number 47 (1931), White Chief (1935), Gartons Number 601 (1960).

Rape Varieties

Rape varieties bred and introduced to UK agriculture include Broadleaved in 1906, Early Giant (1947) and Late Dwarf (1947).

Herbage Grass Varieties

Herbage grass varieties bred and introduced to UK agriculture include Hatchmere Perennial Ryegrass in 1899, Ellesmere Perennialized Italian Ryegrass (1907), Pickmere Perennial Ryegrass (1932), Delamere Cocksfoot (1936), Oakmere Timothy (1940), Flaxmere (1952), Gartons Tall Fescue (1955), Marbury Meadow Fescue (1957), Barmere Timothy (1958).

Clover Varieties

Clover varieties bred and introduced to UK agriculture include Giant Cowgrass in 1898, Perennial Cowgrass (1898), Perennialized Broad Red Clover (1898), Gartons White Clover (1898) and Broad Red Clover (1907).

Field Cabbage Varieties

Field Cabbage varieties bred and introduced to UK agriculture include Early Ox Heart in 1900, Extra Early Express (1900), Early Drumhead (1900), Selected Drumhead Savoy (1902), Selected Ormskirk Savoy (1902), Gartons Cattle Drumhead (1904), Giant Purple Flat Poll (1917), Utility (1924), Intermediate Drumhead (1924), Gartons Primo (1939).

Field Carrot Varieties

Field Carrot varieties bred and introduced to UK agriculture include Scarlet Intermediate in 1900, Mid Season Scarlet (1911), Mammoth White (1924), Intermediate Stump Rooted (1935), Red Cored Early Market (1935), Short Stump Rooted (1938), Giant White (1939).

Lupin, Parsnip, Potato, Sprouting Broccoli, Winter Beans and Winter Rye Varieties

Other crop varieties bred and introduced to UK agriculture include Gartons Lupin in 1922, Gartons Field Parsnips (1902), Gartons Number 12 Potato (1912), Gartons Purple Sprouting Broccoli (1903), Gartons Giant Winter Bean (1922), GS Giant Winter Bean (1950), P/L 14 Giant Winter Bean (1954), Gartons Giant Large Grained Winter Rye (1922).

History of the Business

John Garton and his two brothers, Robert and Thomas, were in business with their father, Peter, in Golborne and Newton-le-Willows in Lancashire, England, as corn and agricultural merchants.

As a young man, John Garton (1863 - 1922) [Obituary, Warrington Examiner, May 27 1922] , was the first to understand that whilst some agricultural plants were self-pollinating, others were cross-pollinating. He began experimenting with the artificial cross pollination firstly of cereal plants, then herbage species and root crops. He attracted the friendship and encouragement of a young Scottish seedsman, George Peddie Miln (1861 - 1928) [The Nurseryman and Seedsman, January 4 1919] who had trained in Dundee and was seed manager of Dicksons Limited of Chester.

Invention offered to the United Kingdom Government

Knowing he had developed a far reaching new technique in plant breeding John Garton began to carry many thousands of controlled crosses on fields at the family farm in Newton-le-Willows. So satisfied was he with the results, he and his colleagues were happy to give publicity to this new science. Indeed, In 1889 they tried to interest the UK Government’s new Board of Agriculture in the invention they called Scientific Farm Plant Breeding. But this was to no avail.

Commercial Start

Robert [Obituary, Warrington Examiner, 11 February 1950] and John Garton, therefore, made a commercial start as R. & J. Garton. [Warrington Examiner, 11 February 1950] . They launched their first variety, Abundance Oat, in 1892.

cientific Credibility is Gained in UK and USA

Generous publicity followed in the press, together with the publication of articles in the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, and in the Transactions of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland in 1894 and 1898 [] , by their respective botanists.

Further scientific credibility came with the enthusiasm of Professor Robert Wallace (1853 - 1939) of the University of Edinburgh, the oldest chair of agriculture in the United Kingdom and the second oldest in the world. He said 'Under the system originated by Mr John Garton an infinite number of New and Distinct Breeds of Oats, Barleys, Wheats, Clovers and Grasses have been produced' [Page 22, 1900 Seed Catalogue, Gartons Limited] .

In 1903 Professor Hays of the Agricultural Experiment Station in Minnesota, USA said 'No one has done more brilliant work in Agricultural Plant Breeding than Messrs. Garton, and this is from now on to be recognised.' [Page 5, 1902 Catalogue, Gartons Limited]

Her Majesty's Board of Agriculture

The introduction to their 1899 Spring Catalogue [Introduction to Gartons Limited's Spring 1899 Seed Catalogue] reads:

"Our original idea for the dissemination of the seed of these new breeds as the stocks became sufficiently large for the purpose, was through some public body as in the form of an annual free seed distribution upon similar lines to the free seed distributions carried out by the Governments of the United States, Canada, and several of the British Colonies.

"On three successive occasions we approached Her Majesty's Government with this object in view, the first occasion being on the formation of the Board of Agriculture, in 1889, when we offered to hand over the whole of the valuable results, providing that body would undertake their dissemination and the continuance of the work, either in the form of an annual free seed distribution or at current market price. ""Upon the last occasion our offer was accompanied by letters and reports from all the leading Agricultural Professors, Botanists, and Scientists in the Kingdom, setting forth the national benefit which would accrue from the dissemination of the results in the form we had suggested. The final reply of Her Majesty's Government, however, was that whilst fully recognising the value of the work, owing to their being no precedent upon which to act in such a matter, they were unable to avail themselves of the offer. This was much to be regretted for had our ideas been carried into effect the British farmer would have been placed in immediate possession of important results, which in the hands of a Public Company would not reach him for many years. ""Our efforts in this direction not having been successful, and as we were not in a position to undertake the work of distribution ourselves, we have placed it in the lands of a Public Company, and we trust that the continued efforts made by us on behalf of the British farmer will be fully appreciated by him, through his support of the Company responsible for the distribution of the seed of our new breeds of agricultural plants.""R. & J. Garton""

Launch of Gartons Limited

So in 1898 a public company was launched, Gartons Limited. It was based in Warrington. Many of the 600 or so subscribers for £50,000 cumulative preference shares of 6% rising to 10% were farmers. George Peddie Miln joined the Company as Managing Director, together with Thomas R. Garton, Robert Garton, Thomas Baxter and Arthur Smith as directors [Warrington Guardian front page, 6 August 1898] . Robert and John Garton agreed to continue to work for the Company for five years for £500 and to receive the entire ordinary share capital of the new company of £50,000.

It rapidly became the United Kingdom's best known plant breeding and seed company, and also exported seeds widely [Warrington Examiner, 26th June 1948] .

John Garton's Honorary Doctorate

The Senatus Academicus of the University of Edinburgh offered to confer the honorary doctorate of LL.D on John Garton shortly before his death in March 1922, which he duly accepted. It was proposed by Professor Wallace and approved by Principal Sir Alfred Ewing and was a unanimous decision. This was the first time a degree was conferred posthumously by the University of Edinburgh or any in Great Britain. [Warrington Guardian 26th August 1922]

Predates Mendel's publication

It is worth noting that the Gregor Mendel work on the genetics of peas was first published in 1902.

Plant Breeding Grounds

The plant breeding grounds were initially at Newton-le-Willows but moved to Acton Grange, two and a half miles south west of Warrington before settling in about 1930 at Little Leigh near Northwich in Cheshire. A seed development farm was located in Essex, and root crop trials were located on farms in the north of England and in Scotland. Traditionally groups of farmers were invited in mid-summer to inspect the plant breeding grounds and be entertained by the Company.

eed Cleaning and Distribution

Initially the Seed Warehouse for cleaning and distributing seed was in Newton-le-Willows but moved to Friars Green in Warrington in 1899 by which time the offices were at Thynne Street, Warrington [Gartons Limited Seed Catalogue 1901] . A purpose built seven story Seed Warehouse and separate Head Office were built at Arpley, Warrington in 1910 [Gartons Limited Seed Catalogue 1910] . There was an L. M. S. railway siding into the Seed Warehouse. On 25 April 1912 the Seed Warehouse burned down [Photograph in T.E.Miln's Newspaper Cutting Book, Miln Family Cartulary] but quickly rebuilt largely by the same builders. Seed cleaning machinery, some unique to the Company, ensured the purity of the product. As time went by fewer seeds were ‘picked’ or cleaned by hand by upwards of one hundred staff as machinery became more sophisticated. Across the top of roof of the warehouse was the company’s name which had to be disguised during wartime. Demolished in the late 1980’s an hotel was built on the site.

Purity and Germination Laboratories

From the beginning Gartons Limited tested its seeds for purity and germination at its own seed testing laboratories in Warrington. The 1920 Seeds Act, for the first time, made testing and declaring for purity and germination a legal requirement for all seed companies. The Official Seed Testing Station was created in 1917, firstly in Victoria Street in Westminster, London and then in 1921 within the newly formed National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge. Larger seed companies including Gartons Limited were licensed to carry out their own purity and germination testing.

An advertisement from 1935

Commercial Success and State Competition

Gartons Limited was the United Kingdom’s only major agricultural plant breeding company. But this caused them difficulties as early as in their Spring 1900 seed catalogue where a paragraph of the introduction reads:

It has come to our knowledge that nearly all the New Breeds introduced by us up to the present time have been renamed by various dealers and are being offered by them under different names. Although the honesty of this conduct is more than questionable, we are resigned for the present to regard it as a novel form of flattery, but we strongly recommend all those who wish to secure our Seeds to order them direct from us, as they cannot be procured from any other genuine source.

It was only following the UK's Plant Varieties and Seeds Act 1964 that plant breeders were able to fully protect and be rewarded for their introductions. The last variety bred by Gartons, Apex wheat, was the first British bred wheat to be awarded plant breeders rights in 1967 under this legislation.

After the Great War (1914 - 1918) the United Kingdom government funded cereal breeding at the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge which had been founded in 1912, and funded the setting up of plant breeding stations in Edinburgh (1921), Aberystwyth (1919) and in Glasnevin, Northern Ireland in competition with Gartons Limited.


Three Miln Managing Directors

George Peddie Miln

Born at Linlathen, Broughty Ferry, George Peddie Miln trained in a Dundee seed warehouse, the traditional Scottish training for a young man with ambition in the seed trade. He moved to Chester and ran one of its old established seed merchants before joining Gartons Limited as its first Managing Director. Both the Seeds Act 1920 and the formation of the National Institute of Agricultural Botany came about with his encouragement during his three year presidency of the Seed Trade Association. Of his eleven children, five trained in the seed trade. He died aged only 63 following an unsuccessful operation.

Thomas Edward Miln

When George P. Miln died in 1928 he was succeeded as managing director by his eldest son, Thomas Edward Miln (1890 - 1963) [The Field, November 25 1922] who for over twenty five years was chairman of the Retail Committee of the Seed Trade Association which proudly kept its independence from government control during World War II. A plant breeder as well as a businessman he is credited with the introduction of the sugar beet crop to UK agriculture. When Gartons Limited became a public quoted company in 1947 T. E. Miln entered into a further ten year employment contract as Managing Director, even though he was already 59, such was his reputation.

Wallace Miln

T. E. Miln was succeeded in 1961 by his elder son, Wallace Miln (1919 - 1994) [Warrington Guardian, 5 January 1962] . Wallace Miln was a founder of the British Association of Plant Breeders and twice President of the Seed Trade Association of United Kingdom. He left Gartons Limited in 1973 to join his son, Barnaby, in his seed business in Herefordshire.

Trading Success - Shares Quoted

London Stock Exchange

From 1947 Gartons Limited's shares were quoted on the London Stock Exchange. The Company's profits for the previous seven years had averaged £48,940 [London Corn Circular, 1st August 1947] .

Peter Darlington

In 1965 Peter Darlington [Financial Times, 16 September 1965] succeeded John Garton, Dr John Garton's nephew, as chairman of Gartons Limited. In 1967 Gartons Limited ceased retailing seeds directly to farmers. Instead a new brand was created, Gartons GROplan, and marketed wholesale through agricultural merchants throughout the United Kingdom. Gartons Limited continued as a plant breeding company. Gartons GROplan was sold to Agricultural Holdings Company Limited in 1971.

Ceased Trading

Gartons plc ceased trading in 1983. [Financial Times, 19 August 1983] .

Miln Family Cartulary

Barnaby Miln, Wallace Miln's elder son, holds historic documents relating to Gartons Limited in the Miln Family Cartulary in Edinburgh. [Barnaby Miln is at]


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