Cider Musings

Ralph Austen. Horticulturist and Puritan

An early and often overlooked author in orchard husbandry cider history is Ralph Austen.

Born about 1612 he was embroiled in the Reformation and the English Civil War. He was born a yeoman to a family in Leek Staffordshire in the English Midlands. Yeoman circa 1600 refers to a small freeman landowner and emerging "middle class as England moved away from a feudal agricultural system. Details of the early part of his life are unknown but after growing up in Staffordshire he moved to London and was living in Oxford by 1630 and stayed till his death in 1676.

His mother was a cousin to Henry Ireton who became an important parliamentary leader and right hand man to Oliver Cromwell. ( Henry was so closely associated with Oliver Cromwell that soon after the Restoration of the Monarchy his remains were disinterred from his grave in Ireland ( he died of plaque laying siege to Limerick on 1651 and posthumously executed in 1661 on the 12th anniversary of the execution of Charles 1, of whom he one of those who signed his death warrant).

Ralph cultivated his link to Puritan leaders to promote his horticultural views to Cromwell but alas to no effect. Austen believed that the nations problems could be solved by a state-sponsored programme of plantations—supplied by his nurseries and guided by his textbooks.

Ralph was a Puritan and zealous. He was of the Anabaptist persuasion believing in baptism after confession of faith ie re-baptism often as an adult. Although he had no formal university training he became involved with Oxford University becoming a student of Magdalen College, probably to access the library for source material for his books on horticulture. In his preface to the ‘Treatise on Fruit-trees’ he states that he ‘had set himself to the practice of this work about twenty years, endeavouring to find out things of use and profit by practice and experience, that he might speak upon better and surer grounds than some others who have written on this subject. He became a proctor in 1630. In 1647 he became deputy-registrary to the visitors, and subsequently registrary in his own right. Oxford University was seen by the Puritans and the Commonwealth as a Royalist and Anglican centre. His role was to purge these political and religious elements Which took  place from 1647, for a number of years. Many Masters and Fellows of Colleges lost their positions. This did nor adhere him to those in power after the Restoration!

His treatise was both very practical bur suffered from considerable religious overlay as common at the time. He was advised by Robert Boyle to seperate this which he did in later editions. The treatise on the ‘Spiritual Use of an Orchard,’ ‘which being all divinity, and nothing therein of the practice part of gardening, many refused to buy it'. The treatise on the ‘Spiritual Use of an Orchard’ was reprinted separately at London in 1847.

He started off relatively poor in Oxford and his financial affairs suffered several times. His orcharding book "A treatise on Fruit Trees" first publication was delayed several years due to lack of money. It was finally published in 1653 and an expanded 2nd ed again in 1657. He died with his rent in arrears. His finances must have been good in 1659 when he moved from his original house to a larger property close to the Castle between Queen Street and Shoe Lane on New Inn Hall street, and again in later life when he expanded his nurseries to 27 acres.

Although the Commonwealth Government never accepted his ideas but he did sell to many large and small customers including Isaac Newton, hence the need for further space.

He was a member of the Hartlib circle and corresponded with Rev John Beale and other horticulturalists. He knew Robert Boyle well and as above it was he who suggested separating the practical and spiritual aspects. He believed in Baconism. Sir Francis Bacon had started a critique if knowledge requiring science to be based on observation rather than quoting past sources. He even produced a book critiquing Bacon on husbandry in 1658 "Observations upon some parts of Sr Francis Bacon’s Natural History"

Austen's original Treatise of Fruit-Trees is as much a revolutionary manifesto and a spiritual autobiography as it is a technical handbook.

The horticultural part comprised one of the most systematic and detailed treatments of the subject published in England up to that time, and was preceded by an enthusiastic list of proposals to make England another Canaan, flowing with Milke and hony" in the Spirituall Use of an Orchard or Garden of Fruit-Trees , Austen portrayed wild trees as unregenerate souls and young shoots as believers grafted into Christ; alternatively the stock was the Old Adam and the graft was the spirit of Christ. In a moving passage inspired by the bareness of the trees in winter, Austen, like John Bunyan, also described a period of despair in his own life. The high fruit-yield of small trees proved to him that low-born preachers made the best ministers and that the established clergy had to be hacked down; the debris of pruning denoted the violent political changes of the revolution, which Austen welcomed as a guarantee that the coming season crop would be good and that England would soon become the apocalyptic kingdom he desired. As you can imagine that zeal excluded him from much of Society post Restoration and the restoration of the Anglican clergy. He was not mentioned once by John Evelyn an important writer and correspondent of the time in Royalist circles who in 1664 published a large horticultural tome Sylva for the Royal Society, despite clearly knowing of him . This was the first book for the Royal Society and contained a large section on cider making, Pomona collated by and a major contributer was John Beale.

Austen's significance to cider making cannot be overlooked as it was he who first described adding sugar to cider to make it fizzy in the newly developed glass bottle. His 2 editions of Treatise on Fruit trees creates a time frame. His first book on 1653 does not contain a reference to it but his 2nd edition of 1657 does as a sidebar on the page !

Austen died in October 1676 at his home, 30 Queen Street, Oxford; he had no children, and left his leasehold and cider factory to his wife, Sarah. He was buried on 26 October in St Peter-le-Bailey Anglian parish church, in the aisle adjoining the south side of the chancel, he had by then softened his religious views! As well as his rent being in arrears he left 350 gallons of cider 528 glass bottles and his "Syder house"