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Buttermaking in Wensleydale

Tuesday 30 April, 2019, by Karen Griffiths

Wensleydale today is renowned for its cheese, but in days gone by, butter was at least as important a product of the farmhouse dairy. The nineteenth century butter market in Hawes drew traders and buyers from a wide area. Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby wrote in their book ‘Life & Tradition’ that on one day in spring 1878, 7000lbs of butter were sold at Hawes market and 3000lbs was usual. The Buttertubs swallow holes alongside the pass over into Swaledale were supposedly given that name because traders left surplus butter in their cool depths rather than haul it all the way back home after trying to sell it in Hawes.

The short-lived Wensleydale Advertiser regularly reported on the price of butter at Hawes Market – in August 1844 butter was selling at 9d/lb, with new milk cheese just 7d/lb. The editor had a keen interest in the local economy and took it upon himself to tick local farmers off for preferring to sell their butter to wholesalers rather than bringing it to the market themselves:

“Two or three letters are received relative to the remarks we made in the first number respecting a pamphlet published some time back, entitled ‘An Address to the Dairymen of Wensleydale.’ They should have been noticed [published] prior to this date had their contents conveyed any practical information on the subject.

“However, we find some pertinent remarks in one, as to the sale of Butter in the neighbourhood of Hawes. The writer states, and with reason, that we have no quality price for butter; but that the present system of collecting it, from house to house, and from farm to farm, is nothing less than a positive loss to those who manufacture a superior article. The farmer who offers a very excellent butter, which has cost much labour, and even skill to produce, receives not one half-penny more than his neighbour who has perhaps taken little or no care in its production or cleanliness of making.

There are several other minor evils mentioned attending this practice, and the letter concludes by earnestly soliciting the buyers to encourage its being brought to the market by the makers or owners, and there offered for public competition.”
Wensleydale Advertiser 27th February 1844

In spite of the editor’s opinions, the newspaper was still apparently happy to carry an advert for the services of butter factor and carrier J H Robinson of Reeth.

Butter Factor advert Wensleydale Advertiser 4th February 1845
Butter Factor and Carrier advert Wensleydale Advertiser 4th February 1845

Nora Joynes writes about these wholesale buyers or butter factors in her 2006 PhD thesis ‘The History of Carlton in Coverdale 1086-1910.’ From census data and trade directories it seems that the role was often combined with other work:

“When William Harrison bought the former inn, (the ‘XYZ’.) he was a butter factor, or ‘butterman’, as he was described in the 1851 census, with ‘cheese’ added in another hand. In later censuses he was ‘grocer and draper’, but he probably continued to collect butter and cheese as part of his grocery business; his successor in the shop, Thomas Mawer, was described in Bulmer’s directory in 1890 as ‘draper, grocer and butter factor.’”

One Carlton butter factor, Joseph Horner, became so well known he gained the nickname ‘Butter Joe.’

“Joseph Horner was born in Carlton, and his wife Margaret was born in West Burton, but they had lived for a time in the north-east, for their two eldest children were born in County Durham. In Bulmer’s directory Joseph Horner was ‘grocer and butter factor’. By 1901 the family were at the Post Office, and Kelly’s directory gives Joseph a fine list of multiple occupations: ‘butter factor, farmer and draper’ as well as being the sub-postmaster.”

He was well known to Charles Maltby who wrote about his collection round in The Dalesman:

“In Coverdale, Joe Horner, whom we called ‘Butter Joe’, used to tour the dale weekly with horse and trap and buy the surplus butter and cheese from the dale farmers. I seem to remember bitter complaints at the wretched prices paid, but world markets ruled that, and I’m sure ‘Butter Joe’ didn’t wax fat on the fruits of his labour. Butter and cheese would fetch about 3 1/2d. to 4d. per pound for the farmers.”

The editor of the Wensleydale Advertiser returns to the subject of butter selling in an article published in October 1844. It seems that his previous suggestions fell on deaf ears so he has another go, ending with the following words:

“These are a few and only a few of the evils attendant on the present custom; and the sooner they are remedied the better; the easiest and simplest way may be effected by a union amongst the farmers and others to show their butter in the market, and to allow the best bidder to become the purchaser. Such a fact as that a contrary mode should be pursued seems almost too ridiculous to be continued in – yet it is so.

We have now done with this subject for the present, but we trust the parties interested will see the necessity of acting as we suggest, and they will we doubt not by so doing be very materially benefited. Extraordinary as it may appear it is nevertheless a well known fact that although abundance of butter and milk are produced in the neighbourhood, yet there is scarcely any place where the inhabitants are worse supplied with those very necessary articles, indeed it is almost impossible for a family to obtain anything like a regular supply, and the poor man can rarely purchase a pound of good butter at any price.”

It was all very well for people to complain, but for the hard-pressed women actually making this butter, having to bring it to market and waste a day doing so didn’t make economic sense and in addition, if your butter wasn’t the best quality you might suffer the humiliation of being the last to sell. In an article called ‘Farmhouse Butter & Cheese’ published in May 1980 in The Dalesman magazine, Bill Mitchell records a memory of the market in Settle:

“It was pitiful to see the farmers’ wives standing in a row and to notice that one poor woman had been left with her butter till last. She’d be shamefaced. The quality of her butter might be poor because of the poorish land grazed by her cattle.”

When you consider the labour involved in producing butter in the farmhouse, the reasons for farming families preferring to sell to a factor or wholesaler become  even more obvious.  In his Dalesman article, Bill Mitchell described the process of butter-making starting with ‘setting t’milk up’ where the milk still warm from the cow was poured into an earthenware bowl or in the distant past, shallow lead troughs called ‘leads’, and left in the cool of the dairy for the cream to rise to the surface. In Dent, Bill records using ‘leads’ to separate the cream: “You let the bung out and the blue [skimmed] milk drained off. You took the cream off with a saucer. Reight good cream would clean off without leaving a trace.”

Cream skimmer in the collection at the Dales Countryside Museum
Cream skimmer in the collection at the Dales Countryside Museum

The cream was stored in a tall ‘cream pot’ and added to over several days while good bacteria worked to sour it. Apparently on a small Dales farm, butter-making using a butter churn took place once a week. In the summer it could be a long and tedious process agitating the cream until it ‘broke.’

Salt-glazed ceramic plunge churns photographed by Werner Kissling in the Yorkshire Dales. Reproduced with the permission of Special Collections, Leeds University Library
Salt-glazed ceramic plunge churns photographed by Werner Kissling in the Yorkshire Dales, early 1960s. Reproduced with the permission of Special Collections, Leeds University Library

One of Bill’s sources told him that it was “a hitty-missy affair. If it didn’t want to curdle you might add some hot water, or a handful of salt.” Not letting the cream sour enough might also lead to it not breaking.

Once churned, the whey was drained off and given to the pigs or used to make scones. The butter came out in a “big golden slab.” It then had to be salted to help preserve it, and worked using butter pats or ‘Scotch hands’ to get all the liquid buttermilk out.

Butter pats in the collection at the Dales Countryside Museum
Butter pats in the collection at the Dales Countryside Museum

For larger amounts of butter the women used a table top butter worker like the one we have at the Dales Countryside Museum.

Butter worker on display at the Dales Countryside Museum
Butter worker on display at the Dales Countryside Museum

In the nineteenth century, butter was then formed into large ‘rolls’ ready for selling them on. Farmer James Willis of Yorescott records that in one week, from one cow called Norgath, they churned “13 rolls of butter at 24oz each and a little print over.”

Record of butter churned from a cow named Norgath in 1842 by James Willis
Record of butter churned from a cow named Norgath during one week in 1842 by James Willis

We think by ‘print’ he may have meant a small piece of butter marked with a design using a wooden butter print like the ones we have in the collection at the Dales Countryside Museum.

According to Bill, these butter prints were used to distinguish the butter made on one farm from the other. Buyers got to know the best butter makers. Bad butter resulted from the utensils not being clean enough – they had to be scalded with boiling water after each use to keep them hygienic. Leaving too much buttermilk in also reduced the quality of the butter.

While cheesemaking was generally a summer-time occupation; buttermaking mostly took place over the winter months in Wensleydale farmhouses. Jane Thwaite in her late nineteenth/early twentieth century butter and cheese sales accounts, records the dates each year when she starts cheesemaking on her farm in Walden, usually in April, and when her first butter sales start in the November. In 1905 her winter butter sales totalled £6 1s. In 1906 & 1907 she seems to have acquired a single outlet for her butter “sold Mrs Webster the butter till last of March @1/1 per lb”

With farmhouse cheese production moving into factories from the late nineteenth century and the arrival of the railway offering a further outlet for liquid milk, butter production eventually left the farmhouse. None of our oral history participants remember butter being made commercially at home.

Mason Scarr remembers his mother making butter commercially in her dairy in Askrigg and at home, but just ‘for fun’:

“…she would have one of these tubular, like a little pump actually, just a tube, 2 inches in diameter, about a foot long? With a diaphragm in the middle full of holes on a long handle, so y’d put your cream…into that, and hold onto it and just [makes wooshing noise] just up and down. It was hard work y’know, and it slowly got thicker and thicker and thicker and then y’got a little bit of home-made butter. That was just for a bit of fun as y’might say, y’know, ‘cos mother making butter in her own dairy at Askrigg, y’know, it were just sort of second nature to her y’know, but it was only now and again. [Did she make butter to sell down in Askrigg?] At Askrigg? Yes, they made cheese and butter. And the whey was fed t’pigs. She used t’say she had the job of churning all this butter. And when she’d finished she’d take it up to the shop in Askrigg, t’grocer’s, Mr Walker, and he would plonk it onto his counter, p’raps never touch it, and he would sell it t’his customer, he’d make more money out of that butter than she did doing all the work making it.”

Mason Scarr (77) of Cravenholme Farm near Bainbridge

David Hodgson also remembers his mother making butter for home use, but that she had problems getting all the buttermilk out:

“…we had a glass paddle thing, then patting it with wooden thing with little stripes in it t’get the shape and the printing on the…[did it taste good?] oh yes and always used t’sweat, she couldn’t get the water out so it always used t’sweat, y’know.”
David Hodgson (70), of Lowlands Farm, Askrigg

Ian Millward describes the commercial butter making that went on at the Wensleydale Dairy in the 1980s. Part of the machine they used to blend the butter can be seen outside the Dales Countryside Museum.

Butter blender, specially made to mix fresh butter with whey butter at Wensleydale Dairy. Courtesy of Ian Millward
Butter blender, specially made to mix fresh butter with whey butter at Wensleydale Dairy. Courtesy of Ian Millward

“We did have a butter packing operation, on a very small scale, but there was a local demand for what [I] can only describe as home-made butter…my predecessor at the Creamery had some equipment made specially because the old equipment was getting worn out. He had some blending equipment made, to handle this small packing operation, but again, when the crunch came and the Creamery closed, the butter operation went with it.”

Ian Millward, formerly of The Creamery in Hawes now retired

Shaping and packaging butter at the Creamery. 1980s. Courtesy of Ian Millward
Shaping and packaging butter at the Creamery. 1980s. Courtesy of Ian Millward

Having been saved from closure, in 2017 the Wensleydale Creamery started making butter once again, a popular sideline to their famous cheese-making concern.

Wensleydale Creamery Yorkshire Butter promotional photo
Wensleydale Creamery Yorkshire Butter promotional photo
Picture of Karen Griffiths

Karen Griffiths

Interpretation Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority


6 Replies to “Buttermaking in Wensleydale”

  1. Shirley Pate ( nee Morphet) says:

    Very interesting – reminds me of my childhood in 1930’s living at High Bbirkwith Horton -in Ribblesdale. I watched my mother and the maid churning with the big churn then making the Ilb Pats with the butterhands and marking each one with a pattern before wrapping it in greaseproof paper ready for collection by T.D Smiths when they delivered our grocery order. We had a cream separator machine in the cool pantry. We made cheese too storing it on wooden shelves and turning them regularly until mature.

  2. Bev Toon says:

    I am trying to find out more about Joseph Horner from masham. Would this be the same man?
    I am researching the history of a property in York that he bought in 1782.
    Would he have gone to the markets in York?

    Any information you can provide would be gratefully received.
    Many thanks

  3. Bev Toon says:

    Thank you for getting back to me so quickly.
    This Joseph bought a house in Petergate York in 1782. My understanding is there was a butter market in Micklegate York, so perhaps he was based in Masham and had a town house in York?
    I thought HE was the butter maker. I find it interesting that the women made the butter and he was the ‘middle man’.
    Many thanks

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