John Mechi certainly wasn’t born into farming stock; his father took refuge in England during the ‘Reign of Terror’ and found work in the household of George III at Kensington Palace. John worked as a clerk from the age of 16 until he had saved enough money to buy his own shop. It was here that he made his fortune by designing an innovative shaving razor, the ‘Magic Razor Strop’.
Mechi reinvented himself and constructed a model farm at Tiptree Heath in Essex (pictured above). He developed a keen love of farming and new ways of doing things. With the industrial revolution gaining force, he warned others that farm labourers would have to be paid more and housing conditions improved to stop workers drifting away from the industry. He wrote letters to The Times to canvass support from influential landowners. Donations poured in and the first meeting of the Royal Agricultural Benevolent College took place on February 7, 1860.
Subsequent council meeting reports refer to the charity as the Agricultural Benevolent Institution. A year on from his public appeal, Mechi was one of three trustees responsible for the charity (alongside the Duke of Richmond and Earl Howe), as well as being one of 35 vice-presidents that included two Dukes, seven Earls, a Viscount, nine Lords, five Knights and an MP.
Money now came in from over 700 regular subscribers and even Benjamin Disraeli indicated his intentions to get involved in the charity’s work, until his growing political commitments took over.
The charity’s purpose was straightforward: ‘To secure a home for, or pension to, the bona fide farmer or widow of a farmer and to maintain and educate the orphan children of farmers’.
The Agricultural Benevolent Institution evolved considerably with royal connections running deep to give the charity its royal prefix. Queen Victoria gave her nod of approval to the organisation just three years after it was set up and became the charity’s first patron. She made an annual subscription of £25 per year and R.A.B.I’s council passed a resolution that one duly qualified female pensioner from a selected list of candidates would be placed at ‘Her Majesty’s disposal’ to receive the subscription.
Mechi’s own personal story, ended tragically. Ironically, he suffered the same fate as so many of those he had desperately tried to help when the failure of the Unity Joint Stock Bank, of which he was a governor, and the Unity Fire and General Life Insurance Company, led to his insolvency. That, coupled with failing health, meant he died penniless ‘of a broken heart’ on Boxing Day 1880 at the age of 78.
The farmers of England raised a subscription of £5,000 (equivalent to £500,000 today) to help him out of his financial problems and this included £200 from the Royal Bounty at the express wish of Prime Minister William Gladstone. Sadly though, Mechi did not live long enough to benefit from this money and died 12 days after going into liquidation.
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