William Woodley (Beekeeper) – An Introduction

I will be publishing a series of posts about William Woodley (Beekeeper) in the forthcoming weeks and months. To set the stage for this endeavour, I summarise below William Woodley’s life-story.

William Woodley (1845 – 1923) [1,2] was a pioneer in ‘Modern Beekeeping’, a champion at the show-bench, the owner and operator of Britain’s largest bee-farm [3], was presented to Queen Victoria, an owner of the world’s first mass-produced car, and a prolific writer.  His commentary of the Isle of Wight disease, a disease which wiped-out ninety per cent of the honeybee population in the British Isles [4], is his most significant contribution to the world of beekeeping.  Woodley’s story charts the rise and fall of British beekeeping.

Modern Beekeeping

Combination Hive
Combination Hive

Woodley’s achievements centre around beekeeping, or more specifically, ‘modern beekeeping’.  ‘Modern Beekeeping’ is the practice of keeping honeybees in removable-frame box-hives.  This is in contrast to the traditional English practice of keeping bees in straw skeps.  Woodley lived through the start of the ‘modern beekeeping’ revolution of the 1860’s and 70’s, and later, through the crisis-years of British beekeeping during the first two of decades of the twentieth century.  Woodley would latterly come to believe that ‘modern-beekeeping’ led to this crisis.

‘Modern Beekeeping’ industrialised this traditional craft, and consequently, yields of honey could be much higher than using former practices.  This was because the removable-frame box-hive enabled colonies of honeybees to be manipulated for the benefit of the beekeeper.  For instance, a colony of honeybees could be manipulated to prevent swarming or to promote better strains of bee; both these examples could improve honey yields.

‘Modern Beekeeping’ enabled a dramatic efficiency of the extraction of honey from hives because the brood and honey could be segregated.  This was done by a piece of equipment called a queen-excluder [5].  In addition, the use of removable-frames coupled with the invention of the honey extractor (a piece of equipment which uses centrifugal force to spin the honey from the frames of honeycomb) [6], enabled significant time-saving in honey production.  

These development’s created a new breed of beekeeper who would run large scale apiaries know as ‘bee-farms’.

Early Life Of William Woodley

Portrait circa 1892
William Woodley portrait circa 1892

Woodley had humble beginnings, and in addition, he lost his mother at an early age. Consequently, he was sent to live with relatives, finally staying with his great aunt [7] in Stanmore (a hamlet of Beedon, Berkshire).  During the swarming season, his aunt would give him the task of ‘mindin’ the bees’, which meant giving the alert should her bees swarm [8].  Woodley’s early introduction to beekeeping would start an interest which would last a life time.  

When he turned 14, he served an apprenticeship as a grocer at a nearby village.  Later, Woodley became a self-taught watch-maker.  He returned to Beedon and set up business in the watch and clock trade and resumed his interest in bees [9].  He was encouraged to take an interest in ‘modern beekeeping’ by his cousin [10] and this was to become the start of an illustrious career.  From this interest, it was only a matter of time before he would enter honey into competitions, commonly referred to as the ‘show-bench’, and he would soon discover a talent for winning.

William Woodley: A Champion At The Show-Bench

Chester Show 1893 - Mr Woodley No. 6
Chester Show 1893 – Mr Woodley No. 6

Woodley became a prolific champion at the show-bench, winning many of the top prizes for ‘sections’ of honeycomb.  It was a lucrative enterprise both in prizes but also meeting commercial honey-buyers from the big cities [11].  Woodley became a household name in the world of beekeeping, and his talents were put to good use when the British Bee-keepers Association needed a gift fit for a Queen.

William Woodley Presented To Queen Victoria

In 1889, Woodley was presented to Queen Victoria at the Royal Agriculture Society of England’s show, held in the grounds of Windsor Castle.  He had prepared for Her Majesty a specimen of honeycomb which his bees had worked into the letters ‘R. A. S. E. Jubilee 89’ []12.  This was given to the Queen and she admired how the bees had made the lettering.  Woodley told the Queen that he lived lived near Newbury, and the Queen was pleased to claim him as a near neighbour. [13]

Britain’s Largest Bee-Farm

Mr and Mrs Woodley in their home apiary circa 1892
Mr and Mrs Woodley in their home apiary circa 1892

Remarkably in the early 1890’s, Woodley had the largest bee-farm in Britain [14] and worked between 100 – 200 hives in total at his two apiaries in the hamlets of Worlds End and Stanmore, which today are located in the parish of Beedon.  Recruits to his operation were his wife (who would package-up the honeycomb sections) and an ‘old boy’ from the village.[15] The ‘old boy’ would be paid to mind Woodley’s bees at his out-apiary at Stanmore and to collect swarms.  Often these swarms would be packed-up and sent to customers around Britain by train.[16]

The largest bee-farm
Mr Woodley had the largest bee-farm in England.

William Woodley and the First Mass-Produced Motor Car

William Woodley Driving His Benz Velo
William Woodley Driving His Benz Velo

Strangely, Woodley was very critical about the harm of motorised vehicles upon bee-forage,[17] nonetheless Woodley owned what is now considered to be a historically significant car.  From 1906 he owned a Benz Velo, and this make and model of car was the worlds’ first mass-produced motor vehicle.[18]  This fact led the Science Museum’s search for such a car for their collection.  Woodley’s daughter, Elizabeth Goodman, subsequently owned the Benz Velo, and she was approached by the Science Museum [19] about the possible purchase of her car.  The car was purchased for the nation in 1912.[20]  This car, whose registration is BW37, is on display the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu, England.[21]

William Woodley’s Body Of Writing

Best Wished from William Broughton Carr
Best Wished To Mr and Mrs Woodley from William Broughton Carr

His most significant achievement is his body of writing.  For over forty-years, (1882-1923) Woodley was a correspondent in the British Bee Journal (BBJ), the Bee-keepers Record (BKR) as well as some other minor publications.  

Woodley’s contribution to the BBJ and BKR was on a fortnightly and monthly basis respectively, which he performed on a regular basis for at least thirty years.  In addition to being a correspondent to beekeeping journals, Woodley was a prolific letter writer, both in the service of his community and privately.  Many of these letters are still in existence today, and from which we derive a more candid perspective on particular issues of the day.

Literary Contribution

Woodley’s body of written work has left to posterity a valuable time-capsule about: the developments and issues in beekeeping; the way of life of the people who lived on the Berkshire Downs; socio-economic changes from the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the first two decades of the twentieth century.

Woodley’s most notable commentary is his first hand account of the progression of the “Isle of Wight Disease” (IOW), which decimated the honeybee population of the British Isles in the twentieth century.  The cessation of the disease in about 1919, comes just four years prior to his death.  The IOW disease marks the final chapter of Woodley’s life, almost as if his demise mirrors the fortunes of the English honeybee.

The Story Of William Woodley

William Woodley portrait circa 1909.
William Woodley portrait circa 1909.

Today William Woodley is an obscure figure in British beekeeping.  Nonetheless, he might be familiar to anyone studying British beekeeping history and to some residents in his home village.  

Woodley’s work is available but not easily accessible.  His articles in the BBJ are publicly available thanks to the internet, nonetheless, each article is buried within a separate edition of the Journal.  Other parts of his written work are found in collections, books and archives, and often these documents are unorganised and/or insufficiently catalogued.  Thankfully, a small Indian publisher is reprinting the Bee-keepers’ Record, which makes this body of work accessible but at a cost.

To date, I researched this topic for nine years and it is still on-going. Interestingly, no one asks “have you written your book yet?”

The time-capsule Woodley has left deserves to be shared with the world in an accessible form.  It is my hope that one day William Woodley will become somewhat less obscure.  My writing, henceforth, aims to do that.

Want To Know More?

I will be writing more about William Woodley in the future, and here are some of my other writings about the great man:-

Around William Woodley’s Apiary, Worlds End, Beedon

His Benz Velo motorcar

Christmases At Beedon As Described in Mr Woodley’s Journals

End Notes

1 General Register Office. (1845). William Woodley: 9 March 1845, No 343, Oxford Registration District: Register of Births.

2 Heap, C.H. (1923). Obituary Notice.  William Woodley, British Bee Journal, vol.51: pp 425 – 426.

3 Cowan, T. W. (1893). Queries and Replies, British Bee Journal, Vol. 21: p236,

4 Bailey, L., (1963). Infectious Diseases of the Honey-Bee, p95, 1st ed., London: Land Books Ltd.

5 Crane, E., (1983). Archaeology of Beekeeping, pp212, London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd.

6 Wikipedia, c. (2019). Honey extractor, retrieved 4 May 2019, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honey_extractor>.

7 Cowan, T. W. (1892).  OUR PROMINENT BEE-KEEPERS.  No. 36.— WILLIAM WOODLEY British Bee Journal, Vol. 20: pp. 101 – 102.

8 Cowan, T. W.(1892).  OUR PROMINENT BEE-KEEPERS. No. 36.— WILLIAM WOODLEY.  British Bee Journal, vol.20: p101.

9 IBID. p102.

End Notes Continued

10 Cowan, T. W. (1898). HOMES OF THE HONEYBEE.  THE APIARIES OF OUR READERS.  British Bee Journal, vol. 26: p.175

11 Woodley, W. (1904). NOTES BY THE WAY.  British Bee Journal, vol. 32: p.353.

12 Cowan, T. W. (1889). ROYAL SHOW AT WINDSOR. — VISIT OF THE QUEEN British Bee Journal, vol. 17: p.292

13 Pocock, V. (n.d.). 2000 Years of Beedon History – The Twentieth Century, 1st ed., p. 21. Beedon: V. J. Pocock.

14 Woodley, W. (1893). NOTES BY THE WAY.  British Bee Journal, vol. 21: p.236.

15 Woodley, W. (1902). NOTES BY THE WAY.  British Bee Journal, vol. 30: p.124.

16 Woodley, W. (1898). NOTES BY THE WAY.  British Bee Journal, vol. 26: p.281.

17 Woodley, W. (1907). NOTES BY THE WAY.  British Bee Journal, vol. 35: p.223.

18 Danielson, C. The World’s First Production Car, The Benz Patent Motor Car Velocipede Of 1894. eMercedesBenz. Archived from the original on 24 March 2015.  Retrieved 22 March 2015.

19 Ogilvie, F. G. letter to Mrs E. A. Goodman. 27 July 1912. T.S.

20 Ogilvie, F. G. letter to Mrs E. A. Goodman. 2 August 1912. T.S.

21 National Motor Museum. (2019). National Motor Museum website. nationalmotormuseum.org.uk.  Retrieved 5 May 2019, from < https://nationalmotormuseum.org.uk/vehicle-collection/benz-velo/>


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