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Milking in the fields

Tuesday 5 June, 2018, by Karen Griffiths

Most of us know a version of the folk song with the line “…it’s dabbling in the dew that makes the milk maids fair” and we may imagine that in the distant past, groups of sleepy girls in mob caps and white aprons would be seen heading out on summer mornings to hand milk the cows in the fields.
However, from the evidence we’ve gathered so far, this does not seem to have been the case in Wensleydale at all. It was much more likely that you would have seen men and even boys heading out with their milking stools and tin pails. Marie Hartley & Joan Ingilby describe ‘the men who graze cows’ on Preston Pasture:

“…anyone renting land in the village [Preston under Scar] is allowed so many cows on it, varying from one to five, making altogether between forty and fifty. They are turned out about the middle of May and stay until the middle of September, the owners going up night and morning, and milking them in the open…they employ a herdsman, called a ‘by-law man,’ to drive the cows down to the milking place, mend the walls, and cut thistles.”
Marie Hartley & Joan Ingilby (1936) ‘Wensleydale’
In this wonderful photograph recently sent to us by  local historian Liz Kirby we see men and boys milking outdoors in West Witton.

An old black and white image showing men and boys milking cows in fields near West Witton

It shows farmer Jeff Graham with milking stool and pail, near Home Barn at the east end of West Witton. The pony carries the eight gallon cans. Jeff Graham lived at Home Farm and died in 1939, aged 79. We’re grateful to Geoffrey Keeble for referring us to the photo and information which comes from the book ‘West Witton Aspects of Village History’ by West Witton History Group published in 2002. They suggest that the photograph might date to the 1920s.  Along with the farmer you might be able to spot two boys, one also milking, the other standing watching. Notice that none of the cows appear to be tethered.
In an even earlier photograph from the National Archive dated to 1910 showing cows in Redmire Pastures, a careful look again shows a man sitting milking on a stool.

Redmire Pastures 1910. With permission of The National Archives
Redmire Pastures 1910. With permission of The National Archives

Finally this cheerful photograph of an 11-year-old Matt Heseltine and his dad shows them carrying the milk from  their cows to Hogra Farm, Redmire some time in the 1930s.

Collection of Ann Holubecki

The photographs imply that cows were always milked in the open in the summer but Geoffrey Keeble has sent us this photograph showing the remains of what he describes as a field milking shed near Worton Bridge.

We presume that there must have been some sort of open-fronted shelter over the top once upon a time. It’s definitely one of the sites that we’d like our archaeology team to investigate  for us. We assume it must have been easier to tether the cows in a stall rather than train them to stand still outside as in the early photos?

Picture of Karen Griffiths

Karen Griffiths

Interpretation Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority


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