A journey down a quiet back road between Middleham and Coverham will take you past a derelict building which was once a pioneering cheese factory. Coverham Dairy was one of two dairies founded by Alfred Rowntree and his wife Margeurite in the early years of the twentieth century. Thanks to a fascinating archive of photos and newspaper clippings sent to us by their grandson Charles Rowntree, we can now tell a little of the dairy’s story.
As a young man, Alfred went to Thomas Willis of Manor House Farm, Carperby to learn farming. While he was there he was taught cheesemaking by Thomas’ daughter Margeurite , whose mother was the prize-winning cheesemaker Maria Willis. Alfred went on to farm for 20 years at Kirkby Overblow south of Harrogate where he often found his farmhouse cheese in competition with those made by Margeurite.
Having married Margeurite and undoubtedly with her advice, he realised that the way to produce really consistent cheese in quantity was in a factory setting. He set up his first dairy in Masham in 1906 and the second in Coverham in 1912 under the company name ‘Alfred Rowntree and Son’.
A newspaper article published in 1918 describes the cheesemaking process at Coverham in great detail and the thinking behind the reason for moving production out of the farmhouse:
“A cheese factory using a mixed supply of milk is handicapped to some extent compared with the farmer who deals with the produce of his farm, but the manufacturer can often win in the end by greater technical skill. One of the factors which has told against the popularity of Wensleydale cheeses in the past has been the uncertainty of their quality. The spread of scientific knowledge and training has very largely overcome this defect, and Mr Rowntree claims that he can produce a better average of quality than most cheesemakers in a farm dairy.”
Agricultural Gazette Nov 11 1918
The fact that the dairy had just one male employee to five females, several of which were college trained is interesting. Women were still considered to be the most skillful cheesemakers at this time and college-trained women were highly sought after in larger farmhouse dairies and early cheese factories:
“System, method, regularity in work, alert and intelligent interest in processes, and ungrudging industry whilst duties are being performed, are all met with in the trained and efficient dairymaids who control up-to-date dairies of the present time. It is not necessary that a dairymaid should be – practically – a chemist, or a microscopist, or a bacteriologist – work under these sciences has been done for her professionally – but she has need to study the work that lies to her hand, in order to realise what fermentation and structural changes in milk so mean, and the laws under which these things occur; and she requires to know what that microscope has revealed in the dairy, and what the functions are of the bacilli which find in milk so congenial a sphere of activity…All this is within the capacity of an educated dairymaid”
From the early 20th century ‘Standard Cyclopaedia of Modern Agriculture and Rural Economy’ quoted by Nicola Verdon in her article Women and the dairy industry in England, c.1800-1939
By the 1920s, there seems to have been a more even number of men and women employed at Coverham, though the five dairymaids are still there in their white caps and aprons. Valerie Slater sent this photo to us as it shows her grandmother Annie Mary Horner, front right, next to her friend Mary Hogg.
It seems that the men were mostly employed to do the heavy work if this photo of Valerie Slater’s uncle taken in 1941 is anything to go by. He left school in 1940 and went straight to work at the dairy.
Farmers brought their milk to the factory twice a day in carts and the churns were shifted onto a loading platform purpose-built at just the right height. The churns were returned to the farmers ‘thoroughly cleaned and sterilised’
Some of the farmers we recorded for the Dairy Days project supplied milk to the dairy in its later life. One was Michael Horner:
“We sold a little bit around the village and the rest, that was picked up by Rowantrees, Coverham Dairy, each day…I think it would be made into cheese when it got ’Coverham.”
Michael Horner (76), of Middleham House Farm, Carlton-in-Coverdale
The factory was particularly known for its ripened blue-veined Wensleydale cheese, a much sought after speciality which was stored and matured for several months before sale. It also produced young moist cheeses made and sold quickly. Rowntrees pioneered one pound cheeses called ‘Wenslets’ long before Kit Calvert’s ‘baby Wensleydales’ became popular. Charles Rowntree told us that his grandfather “…supplied major food shops in London, Fortnum & Masons amongst others for instance, and also Buckingham Palace where his Wensleydale Blue cheese was apparently a favourite of George V. The cheese also won many prizes at local, national and international food and dairy shows.”
During the Second World War the company helped save Wensleydale cheese production by guaranteeing that it would deal with any shortfall or excess in production of the cheese locally by the limited company formed by the Wensleydale Cheese Joint Conference.
Alfred Rowntree died in 1956 aged 87 and his death was marked in several local newspapers:
“WENSLEYDALE CHEESE FIRM’S FOUNDER
Death at Leyburn of Mr. Alfred Rowntree
The death occurred at Field House, Leyburn, yesterday, of Mr. Alfred Rowntree, aged 87, founder and former chairman of Alfred Rowntree and Sons Ltd., the Wensleydale cheese firm. Mr. Rowntree was a pioneer in collecting milk in the dales and the making of Wensleydale cheese with which he won many premier awards at the leading shows.
For 20 years from 1891, he farmed at Kirkby Overblow where hefirst developed the making of Wensleydale cheese. He started a dairy at Masham in 1906 and at Coverham in 1912. For five or six years he was a governor of Ackworth School and was one of the original members of Wetherby Rural Council. Mr Rowntree was appointed a West Riding magistrate in 1906 and a North Riding magistrate in 1912, A member of the committee of the Wensleydale Society, he had maintained a lively interest in its activities until his indisposition of a few months ago He leaves two sons.
Cremation is private and a memorial service will take place at Carperby Friends’ Meeting House on Tuesday at 2.30 p.m.”
Unknown source. Courtesy of Charles Rowntree
The dairy continued to produce cheese after Alfred’s death, modernising with the times, as these two newspaper clippings show.
Coverham Dairy eventually ended up in the hands of the Milk Marketing Board which in 1987 took the decision to close it down in spite of having recently upgraded the facility, as the following newspaper clipping suggests.
At that point, the factory was processing 10,000 gallons of milk a day so it must have been quite a blow for local dairy farmers. Seven members of staff put their redundancy money together and started Fountains Dairy Products Ltd at Kirkby Malzeard near Ripon. One of them, Les Lambert was interviewed in 1989 about the revival of an old variety of cheese once made at Coverham called ‘Coverdale.’ It was apparently similar to Wensleydale but with a rather firmer texture and a distinctive ‘nutty’ taste.
In 2000 Fountains Dairy was bought by the Wensleydale Creamery as this extract from the Farmers Weekly reported:
“Last year, the Creamery also bought Fountains Dairy, a 4.5-acre site at Kirkby Malzeard, near Ripon, where the bulk of commercial-type cheeses are now produced. This allows the Hawes centre to concentrate on speciality products, which are made in traditional, open-topped vats. ”
Farmers Weekly 12 October 2001
Both Coverdale Cheese and Wensleydale Blue are now made by the Creamery under its own brand name.
UPDATE February 2022
Thanks to some clever detective work by local historian Penny Ellis we now know that Rowntree family had a third dairy, located in Thoralby in an old mill building which still stands. The family owned the dairy from 1922 to 1948. Penny thinks this photograph probably dates to around 1923. Read more about the history of Thoralby Mill on Penny’s Thoralby Through Time website