Ever since cattle, sheep and goats were domesticated sometime during the Neolithic their milk has been a valuable food source, whether raw or processed into butter and cheese. The well-drained limestone pastures of the Dales provided good grazing and by the time the Normans arrived, dairying was probably an established way of generating income on farms. Ewes-milk cheese is mentioned in an inventory for Fors Abbey in Wensleydale, dated to 1150. Accounts from 1309 for the Preceptory of the Knights Templar at Penhill show that cheese and butter was being produced there. In medieval times, sheep’s milk was extensively used to make cheese and Bolton Priory had a large sheephouse or farm on its holdings above Malham with buildings to house milking ewes at Priory Rakes. The large flocks of sheep provided the priory with a regular supply of ewes-milk cheese.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century saw the break up of the huge monastic estates and dairying fell into domestic hands. Cattle began to replace sheep as the most important source of milk as farming techniques improved, allowing more milking stock to be fed on hay and over-wintered in barns. By the 17th century, cattle were the foundation of a great deal of wealth in the Dales. The growing towns of West Yorkshire and Lancashire demanded more and more meat on the hoof. In the 18th century, the Dales became a stopping off point for Scottish cattle to fatten before being driven south. Because it travelled well, cheese and salted butter made in domestic farm dairies also came to be marketed far and wide. In the 19th century, industrialisation and massive population growth on Teesside provided a growing market for farmers in the north of the park.
From the 18th century, cows were milked out in the fields in the summer and in barns in the winter. Farmers carried milk from far-flung field barns in tin back-cans, examples of which along with other dairying equipment, can be seen at the Dales Countryside Museum. The importance of dairy herds by the late 18th and 19th century can be seen by the large numbers of cattle barns found throughout the Dales. Big Laithe, Nappa in Wensleydale dating from the early to mid-19th century is one of the largest with its capacity to house 40 cows. As demand for cheese grew, new farm dairies were built such as at Shoregill Head, Swaledale. Further down the dale, Pot Ing farmhouse was built in the 19th century with a dairy and cheeseroom tacked on at the back. Low Houses, also in Swaledale, was built in 1840 with its dairy incorporated under the same roof as the farmhouse. Many older farmhouses in the Dales still have the racks of stone shelves once used to store cheeses. Cheese presses can still occasionally be seen in farmyards in the area, although many have now been dismantled and the huge stone weights reused such as in Burtersett where several have been built into a roadside churn stand.
By this time, the farmers’ wives producing the cheese and butter were taking their products to local fairs or markets or selling to factors who travelled the Dales. Legend has it that the limestone sink holes beside the pass between Upper Swaledale and Hawes in Wensleydale are known as the Buttertubs because traders would store unsold butter in their cool depths rather than carry it all the way home.
From the late 19th century, cheese production started to be industrialised and cheese factories were set up in Hawes, Dent, Askrigg and Coverham. The building of the Wensleydale Railway line allowed factory made cheese from Hawes to be distributed on a much wider scale. As distribution became more centralised in the northern Dales, Yarm Fair, near Stockton-on-Tees, held in October, became the main outlet for their cheese.
More importantly, the Wensleydale Railway also allowed farmers to sell liquid milk direct to urban markets and this helped local farmers to weather the general agricultural depression of the late 19th century. Liquid milk sales became increasingly important and in the 1920s and 1930s, milk carts were a common sight collecting the milk churns left at the farm gate on churn stands. These stone and concrete churn stands can still be seen on roadsides beside farm gates throughout the Dales. The milk carts rushed the churns to the nearest railway station to catch the milk trains. From 1932, milk lorries took the place of the train in Wensleydale.
The 1930s saw a general slump in the dairy trade and many domestic producers ceased making cheese and butter at this time in the Dales. Some of the factories struggled on. In 1933 the Milk Marketing Board was set up to control the industry. The Wensleydale Cheese Factory in Hawes survived thanks to the farmers who supplied it with milk refusing to take contracts to send their milk out of the dale. The factory was eventually bought in 1966 by the Milk Marketing Board but again faced closure in 1992. Later that year a management buy-out took place. Today the factory is thriving and traditional products from the Wensleydale Creamery are exported all over the world.
Read our Dairy Days project blog for an in depth look at the archaeology and social history of dairying in Wensleydale
Alderson, James (1980) Under Wetherfell. The Story of Hawes Parish & People Gayle: Brian Alderson [‘Wensleydale Cheese’ pp103-107]
Hallas, Christine (2002) The Wensleydale Railway Ilkley: Great Northern Books [‘Milk traffic’ pp62-68]
Hartley, Marie & Ingilby, Joan (1997) Life and Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales Otley: Smith Settle [‘dairy work’ pp11-19]
Raistrick, Arthur (1956) ‘The great sheephouse at Malham’ Bradford Text. Soc. J. 1954-5 pp70-76
Raistrick, Arthur (1976) Monks and Shepherds and the Yorkshire Dales Bainbridge: Yorkshire Dales National Park Committee