Should Mr Woodley be blamed for the scale of the Isle of Wight Disease?

By 1917 the Isle of Wight Disease had ravaged Britain’s honeybee population.  It was also a time when Britain was fighting the First World War and suffering large numbers of casualties.  Many bee-keepers were blaming Mr Woodley for the Isle of Wight Disease:-

This had never any right to be, and I am satisfied we should not be in the position we are today had it not been for Mr. Woodley and a few of his friends; while our true friends of the B.B.K.A. were trying to get a Bee Diseases Bill passed, a few of these gentlemen of knowledge were giving their time and money and visiting the Board of Agriculture trying to defeat this Bill.

– J. Pearman, Derby. (1)

The opponents of legislation were in the minority, but they were better organised, and by the exercise of some occult influence they were able, as Mr. Woodley claims with the arrogant assumption of the possession of a monopoly of the knowledge of bee-keeping, to thwart a measure which, would have been of inestimable value not only to bee-keepers but to the community at large.  Mr. Woodley and his clique are quite welcome to all the credit they claim for having inflicted what is in reality a serious injury upon the bee-keeping industry, and the stigma attaches to them of having been the means of allowing “Isle of Wight” disease to run its course unchecked for an additional four years, thereby reducing the number of bees and the output of English honey to such scanty dimensions that £187,000 worth of foreign honey had to be imported in 1916 to make good the deficiency.

– George E. H. Pratt, Sheinton, Salop.(2)

I should like to say how heartily I agree with Mr. Pratt [9417] for his chiding Mr. Woodley in his article “Notes by the Way,” for it is very apt to give the impression to the uninitiated that legislation is not so urgently needed as most of us think, and I must add that the standpoint taken by Mr. Woodley seems hardly in accordance with his profession.  What would he say if he heard of a case of anthrax in which the owner of the infected animals absolutely refused to take any precautionary measures as laid down by law?  Especially if he had close neighbours keeping cattle.  If we have legislation for cattle breeders — why not for bee-keepers?  As all able bee-keepers are aware, it is not the bee-keeper proper for whom we require this legislation, but to bring those careless or ignorant, obstinate or indifferent…into proper line, and compel them to reduce the danger of infection by doing away with their “died out” skeps and old box hives.  “Old Dick Welch” would have to take up that rotten old skep, and so save Mr. Woodley much needless expense in the way of outlay for disinfectants and medicines for his own bees, by way of precautionary measures, to say nothing of time and labour.

– F. M.  Claridge.(3)


Were these critics correct in blaming Mr Woodley for thwarting the Bee Pest Prevention Bill of 1905?  Much of this criticism infers that the legislation would have been beneficial in the containment and/or prevention of the spread of the Isle of Wight Disease.  To understand Mr Woodley’s role in the Bee Pest Prevention Bill, I will discus the history of the two bills relating to Bee Pest Prevention in 1896 and 1905 respectively.

One weakness in the argument of Mr Woodley’s critics is that the Bee Pest Prevention Bills only gave power to intervene in Foul Brood outbreaks and there was no provision in the bills for any other bee-disease such as the Isle of Wight Disease.  So legislation in the form set out in the Bee Pest Prevention Bills would not have been applicable to the Isle of Wight Disease.

Mr Woodley’s critics might argue that if one of these Bills had become legislation it could have been amended to empower County Councils to deal with the Isle of Wight Disease.  This argument does presume that there would have been political enthusiasm to get an amendment through Parliament yet there is no evidence to suggest Parliament would be enthusiastic to make changes if one looks at the progress of the Bills.

There were two attempts (1896 and 1905) at securing legislation for powers to intervene where there were outbreaks of foul brood.  Failure of the Bee Pest Prevention Bills had more to do with the lack of enthusiasm by the political classes than through Mr.Woodley’s perceived influence.  The Board of Agriculture were less than enthusiastic about the proposal for a Bee Pest Prevention Legislation.  Such powers would enable County Council’s: to inspect apiaries where foul brood is suspected and found; to under take necessary treatment or destruction of disease bee colonies; to pay compensation to beekeepers.(4)  The Board considered the powers of the proposed bill ‘too costly in proportion to the value of that industry’.(5)  The analogy given by the President of the Board of Agriculture, Herbert Gardner, in 1895 about the proposed Bill was this:-

“you can get a steam-hammer to crack an egg, but you would hardly buy a steam-hammer in order to crack eggs.  Therefore you will see that the machinery necessary to stamp out disease must be in some way balanced by the capital involved and the advantages we should secure.”(6)

The lack of enthusiasm by the political classes became obvious as the Bee Pest Prevention Bill of 1896 failed to get enough signatures in the House of Lords for it to commence through through the Houses of Parliament.

In 1904, interest re-emerged in Britain about a Bee Pest Prevention Bill because of a letter from Lord Onslow (Chairman of the Board of Agriculture) to the M.P. of the  Secretary of the Cumberland Beekeepers’ Association, promising to pass a Bee Pest Prevention Bill if beekeeping associations could get their County Councils to ask for the Bill and put it in force when they get it.(7)  In addition, there was a strong support for such legislation in Ireland.(8)  Ireland during that period was part of the United Kingdom and the Houses of Parliament could enact legislation for Ireland as well as for Great Britain.  It was hoped that if Parliament were to consider a Bee Pest Prevention Bill for Ireland, maybe such a Bill could be entertained for Great Britain as well.  Notwithstanding this renewed optimism, the County Councils of England were unlikely to unanimously to support the Bill, as the British Bee Journal put it:

‘It is not for us to say what Irish County Councils may  “desire” in the direction indicated; but, as regards England, we know that some County Councils have made it plain that they would decline to enforce the Act if it were passed.  Not only so, but in this threatened action they are in some cases supported by the County Bee-Keepers’ Associations.’ (9)

There is no evidence that the Board of Agriculture considered whether the public interest would be served through the powers proposed in the Bill.  The criteria was concerned about getting the support of the parties who would be affected by the proposed legislation.  This approach by the Board of Agriculture might have been because honeybees were considered by the Board as livestock that produced honey for ‘a small industry’ (10) yet neglecting to consider that honeybees provide pollinating services to the agriculture industry.  The importance of pollinating services provided by honeybees did not become obvious until the Isle of Wight Disease was at its peak a decade later.  By 1919, the Board of Agriculture’s view on the value of honeybees had somewhat changed:

‘The production of honey has decreased seriously, and the fruit crops have suffered through the non-fertilisation of blossom owing to the lack of bees.’ (11)

By that time, restocking of the nation’s honeybees had become a priority of the Board of Agriculture.

In 1905 the British Bee-keepers Association (BBKA) failed to gain strong support for the proposed Bill from the Board of Agriculture.  The ballet of members did provide a majority in support for the Bill (421 to 499). (12)  It is worth noting that of the 421 beekeepers who voted in favour of the bill had 4,447 stocks of honeybees compared to the 299 beekeepers who voted against the bill who had 7,352 stocks of honeybees.  It would appear that those against the Bill were beekeepers who had larger apiaries, like Mr Woodley.

In addition, only a small number of County Councils replied to County Beekeepers’ Associations confirming that they would support for the proposed Bill.  Eight County Councils decided in favour of the Bill with one County Council opposing the Bill.  The other County Councils failed to respond to the respective County Beekeepers’ Association.(13)  Based of these results the Board of Agricultures were unable to support the proposed Bee Pest Prevention Bill.

I believe that the absence of County Council support strongly influenced the Board’s decision not to support the Bill.  There is no evidence to suggest Mr Woodley had any influence over the County Councils’ decisions or the lack of responses with regard the proposed Bill.  In addition, Mr Woodley was on the losing side of the ballot of beekeepers regarding the Bill, therefore it is difficult to argue that Mr Woodley’s opposition to the Bill had any significant influence on the course of events which led to the Board of Agriculture not to pursue the Bill in the Houses of Parliament.

Mr William Woodley, beekeeper and resident of Beedon

In closing, Mr Woodley had no special powers or influence over the Board of Agriculture or over Members of Parliament.  Mr Woodley was vociferous against the Bee Pest Prevention Bills in his column in the British Bee Journal which led him to be the target of blame as the Isle of Wight Disease took hold on mainland Britain.  Most of the scathing criticism directed at Mr Woodley took place during wartime when beekeepers were under great pressure; beekeepers were experiencing personal losses in addition to losses of their stocks of honeybees.  The blame laid on Mr Woodley may not have taken place if times were different and people were more level headed.  Nonetheless, Mr Woodley’s critics were incorrect in blaming him for the scale of the Isle of Wight disease because the Bee Pest Prevention legislation would have had to be amended for the Isle of Wight Disease.  In addition, the County Council’s had little support for such legislation and had little interest in using its powers which made the Board of Agriculture reluctant to promote legislation.  Above all, there is no evidence that if the County Council’s had the powers they needed to intervene with outbreaks of Isle of Wight disease, that they would have had any effect on curtailing the disease.

Mr Woodley by 1917 considered himself a ‘as a scourged member of the craft’(14), notwithstanding this six years later his obituary had prominence in the British Bee Journal.  One could conclude that Isle of Wight disease didn’t overshadow Mr Woodley’s beekeeping career but I believe the criticism he received did curtail the frequency of his writing in the beekeeping journals from 1912 onwards.



1. British Bee Journal 1916, page 136

2. British Bee Journal 1917, page 58

3. British Bee Journal 1917, page 73

4. British Bee Journal 1904, page 391

5. British Bee Journal 1904, page 401 

6. Ibid.

7. British Bee Journal 1904, page 141 

8. Ibid. 

9. Ibid. 

11. British Bee Journal 1904, page 401 

12. British Bee Journal 1919, Board of Agriculture Weekly Service, page 419 

13. British Bee Journal 1905, page 281  Ibid. 

14. British Bee Journal 1917, page 30


2 thoughts on “Should Mr Woodley be blamed for the scale of the Isle of Wight Disease?

  1. Oh dear – I wonder whether Mr Woodley regretted his opposition later on or if he didn’t mind the criticism. As he curtailed his writing perhaps it did affect him to some degree.

    1. I think Mr Woodley was a man of principle, so he wrote what he thought was right, regardless of the consequences. I think by 1917 Mr W. was 72 years old, so maybe he felt it was right to call it a day with his writing. But alas, we shall never know

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