While the past industrial enterprises of the Dales such as lead mining and quarrying have left indelible marks on the landscape, the army of craftspeople who serviced the everyday needs of the general population have left almost no trace. Their workshops have been pulled down or converted into houses or shops and the tools of their trade dispersed. Luckily, historians such as Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby took the time to record the work of the last of these craftspeople through photographs and reminiscence. Their collection of tools and products forms the foundation of the ‘Makers and Menders’ gallery at the Dales Countryside Museum in Wensleydale.
Perhaps the most important craftsperson in any agricultural community was the blacksmith. Indeed several agricultural blacksmiths still operate in larger settlements around the fringes of the park. Before the arrival of the tractor, the village smith followed an annual cycle of activity based on the farming year. At hay time for instance, scythes needed making or mending, at sheep shearing time, shears were sharpened or made from new. Work also came in from outside the immediate community. In the 18th century, drovers needed their cattle shoeing on the long road to the growing industrial towns of West Yorkshire. In 1885, the blacksmith in Hebden had the unusual job of building a Suspension Bridge over the Wharfe incorporating steel cable bought from the Hebden Moor Mining Company.
Nearly every village in the Dales would have had a blacksmith, Hawes had five in the 19th century. The village smithy was usually a low, single storey affair with a wide doorway to accommodate horses being shod. Many have been altered beyond recognition and can only be identified by their names, such as ‘The Old Smithy’ or ‘The Old Forge’. Some blacksmiths turned their hand to motor car repairs and their businesses became garages, such as Forge Garage still repairing cars in Bolton Abbey village. A few premises however, have survived as working smithies although nowadays the work is mainly art and craft based rather than agricultural.
The most complete example is probably Gunnerside Smithy. The blacksmith here is the third generation of his family to operate the smithy and his family have built up a large collection of smithing tools and products which are now on display. Gunnerside is also lucky in having a series of day books written between 1871 and 1896 which give a unique picture of the daily work of the village blacksmith. As well as servicing the agricultural community, the Gunnerside smithy had close links to the local lead mining industry. Lead mining companies usually employed their own smiths, but clearly the village blacksmith was often used by the miners themselves to make new hand tools or repair old ones. Other working smithies are to be found in Dent and Grassington. The old smithy in Malham is now run by an artist blacksmith whose work with the local primary school can be seen on the handrail of the footbridge immediately behind his workshop.
The village blacksmith turned his hand to nearly everything including the making of the iron hoops for wooden cartwheels. The arrival of better-surfaced toll roads in the 18th century led to a rise in demand for wheeled vehicles. The woodwork would have been done by local joiners while the wheels themselves were made by specialist wheelwrights. A late 18th century wheelwright’s cottage and workshop has been recorded in Sedbergh while Cage Farmhouse in Dentdale has the remains of an early 18th century joiner’s shop attached. The former cotton mill at Gayle was converted into a sawmill and joinery in the late 19th century. Local timber was sawn on the lower floor and then hauled to a joiner’s workshop on the next floor. The top floor was used as a wood store. As well as making carts, Gayle also made rollers for mangles, butchers’ blocks and items for the cheese making industry. Gayle Mill closed in 1988, but work is underway in 2004 to restore it and run it again as a working saw mill and centre for wood based crafts within the near future. In late 19th century Clapham, the Ingleborough Estate also built a water-powered saw mill, but this one has been in use ever since.
Another local craft that survived well into the modern era was ropemaking in Hawes. Records show that there was a ropemaker in the area during the early part of the 18th century and Hawes Church was certainly buying bellropes throughout that century although it is not recorded from whom. The census returns for 1841 however list three ropemakers in the town and the business eventually came into the hands of W R Outhwaite in 1905. The original ropeworks was situated at Gate House in Hawes, but in 1922, Outhwaite moved his premises to its last site at Town Foot. By this time, the raw materials including flax, jute and sisal were being brought from Burnley, with the finished product being sent off by rail from nearby Hawes Station. The ropeworks is now closed (2023), but the new buildings put up in the early 1980s can still be seen.
The ropeworks survived as long as it did by adapting to the modern market and the needs of the tourist. Tin smithing however no longer has any use in the modern world and this once important craft is no longer practised in the Dales. The copper and tin products of the tin smith had a wide use on the farm and in the kitchen. Tin back cans and pails were used to collect milk from cows overwintering in distant field barns, while the farmhouse kitchen needed an endless supply of kettles, loaf tins and tea cans. The tin smith also repaired such items. A complete tin smith’s workshop belonging to a family of tin smiths operating for 130 years in Wensleydale has been preserved at the Dales Countryside Museum. It was originally located in the upper storey of a barn still standing next to the castle in Castle Bolton village.
Some crafts people are now known only by their products, such as the 17th and 18th century clockmakers of Askrigg (examples can be seen at the Dales Countryside Museum). Others survive in local memories such as Ibbotson, a 19th century besom maker who had a workshop by Threshfield Bridge. 19th century census returns record the names of many more who have now been forgotten. Nearly every village would have had its own clog maker. Farmers and lead miners both wore clogs to work as they were hard-wearing and kept their feet out of the mud. Mine researchers exploring deep underground in the Dale have discovered perfectly preserved clog prints on the floors of some of the old mine levels although these are very vulnerable to destruction by careless exploration. Even tiny Howgill in the Forest of Barden had a cordwainer (shoemaker) in the 19th century. Farms always needed the work of saddlers and harness makers and they too must have been numerous up until the arrival of the motor car.
The motor car and train have also brought new craftspeople to the area. At the start of the 21st century, there are potters; felt makers; picture framers; rag rug makers and many more. Some traditional craftspeople have survived by adapting to changing markets. Settle still has a clog maker and several furniture makers still make a living in the area. Both visitors and locals help all these businesses to survive.
Alderson, James (1980) Under Wetherfell. The Story of Hawes Parish & People Gayle: Brian Alderson [‘Some Parish Businesses’ pp103-116; ‘Village Craftsmen’ pp117-123]
Annison, Ruth & Chapman, Leslie (1983) The Hawes Ropemakers Past and Present Hawes: The Authors
Hartley, Marie & Ingilby, Joan (1984) A Dales Heritage Clapham: Dalesman
Hartley, Marie & Ingilby, Joan (1996) ‘The Tinsmith’s Workshop’ Now Then No 5 pp13-14
Hartley, Marie & Ingilby, Joan (1997) Life and Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales Otley: Smith Settle
Joy, David (2002) Hebden. The History of a Dales Township Hebden: Hebden History Group
Loomes, Brian (1985) Yorkshire Clockmakers Littleborough: George Kelsall Publishing
Raistrick, Arthur (1991) Arthur Raistrick’s Yorkshire Dales Clapham: Dalesman [‘Besom Makers of the Dales’ pp45-51]