Local Historical Stories


Early in 1996 Alastair Robertson - one of our local historians was asked if he would write a couple of historical articles for the Alston Moor Newsletter. He thought he could manage three or four but in the event, over 20 years later, they were still going. Once, and only once, he received an unsolicited article from an outside source, this was the reminiscence of a school for wartime evacuees at Nent Hall that came from Mr. Michael Dickinson and it was gratefully included in the series.

They’re a real mixed bag, too random to put into a book, but they’re still worth keeping in a more permanent form, so the Historical Society website seemed the perfect place to have them.

Material for the articles came largely from local sources, from the Alston Moor Historical Society Archives, St. Augustine’s Church Records, Alston Library, the Cumbria County Records Office in Carlisle and the County Records Office Northumberland.

There has been editing in some cases that will be noted at the beginning of each item, otherwise the articles have been left as they were written, complete with occasional references to such things as cement lorries, the millennium, and foot and mouth disease, which are themselves now things of the past (?).
Read on …

Story No 41: Farming on Alston Moor in Victorian Times

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Farming in the district has always been pastoral rather than arable, although very small areas were cultivated for home consumption on the farm. When the first edition of the Ordnance Survey map was published in 1859 it was accompanied by a ‘Book of Reference’, written only for that edition. In it was shown the land use for the parish of Alston with Garrigill. The total area was 36,967.534 acres including the area covered by water, 247.532 acres, public roads that covered 276.117 acres and railways 14.863 acres. The amount of arable land totalled only 88 acres in plots ranging from 0.114 acre to 8.669 acres. In only one place were there adjoining arable plots; on a farm near Alston three fields accounted for a total of 13.810 acres.

An example of the types and quantities of crops grown was illustrated in 1831 when John Maughan of Kirkhaugh sold up. His auction sale bills were for the whole farm including standing crops of ½ acre wheat, 3 acres barley, 3½ acres oats, 3½ acres peas, 3 acres potatoes and 23 acres hay. There were also dairy utensils and one firkin (¼ barrel or 9 gallons) of butter. Even though the cultivated area was small, it was still worth while for Mr. Maughan to keep two draught horses, ploughs and harrows.

Then as now crops were duly affected by the weather. On 18th August 1877, the Alston Herald noted that: “The almost continuing wet weather we have experienced for the last few weeks is making the farmers in this district very anxious about their hay crops. Most of the meadows are cut and the crops lying nearly all in a state of decomposition. Some few patches are still uncut. The crop on the whole is about average on good subsoils, but on others it looks thin and short in quantity. Potatoes and turnips are very little grown, except down towards Haltwhistle; corn likewise, but what few fields there are appear to be progressing favourably.”

As the industrial revolution progressed, technology offered to improve the lot of the farmer in harvesting the hay, which was the most important crop on the Moor. But even so the Alston Herald reported in August 1874, “With a great number of people there is a prejudice against the new mowing machine, it being argued that, as a rule, they don’t do the work either so low or so level as it is done with the scythe, hence hand mowing is still in great request, and the few mowers who are in the neighbourhood are having a busy time of it, and are realising good wages”. The next year, in 1875, when “Wood’s Mowers and Reapers” were advertised, 20,430 had been made and sold in 1874. One wonders what response Mr. Wood got on Alston Moor.

With regard to the farm workers, the old system of the half yearly hirings, when people of both sexes and all ages offered themselves for hire to farmers for periods of six months or a year in return for their board and a bit of money, was in decline. At the Hiring of 13th May 1876, “There were very few present, (but) more than on an ordinary market day, the whole system here having nearly died out”, then in May 1877 hiring only two “servants” “presented themselves”. On that occasion Alston “wore nothing more than the appearance of an ordinary market day”. Wages offered were £4 to £7.10s. or £8 for well known and tried servants. Those who were engaged for both indoor and outdoor work on farms received from £8 to £9. Girls received wages “in proportion with their capabilities”. To get an impression of the value of the wages offered, in 1878 miners’ wages were about 18/- per week and, the Herald claimed, agricultural workers were better paid. This must have included the cost of food and board.

Improvements in industry had been made in leaps and bounds during the nineteenth century but agricultural development lagged far behind. Before 1836 farm tithes were paid in kind, in goods, which must have been very cumbersome and inconvenient to pay, then in that year the tithes were commuted to cash payments. By far the greatest change to this area came with the Alston Moor Enclosure Act of 1803 when 22,002 acres were enclosed, excluding Priorsdale which was a separate manor. The Commissioners started the inquiry in July 1803 with a meeting at Low Byer Manor when they invited claims from residents to land rights. Seventeen years later, on 27th April 1820, the inquiry finished, but even then the enclosures were not complete. Crookburn near Alston was enclosed in 1843 and Wanwood in 1855, while just over the county boundary, Gilderdale Pasture was not enclosed until 1877.

By these enclosures much high and marginal land was brought into use and new farms were created. Place names such as Elba, Egypt, Moscow and Leipsic show the influence of the Napoleonic Wars at that time. The enclosures were very unpopular in some quarters because many ordinary people lost their common grazing rights to rich landowners, but results soon showed by the improvement in the quality of livestock. This became possible by selective breeding when healthy, well-developed animals could be kept separate from scrawny, unhealthy creatures by the enclosure walls of the new fields.

Further encouragement to farmers was given in 1839 when “The Alston District Show for the Improvement of Stock” was established, followed by the first show of Alston Agricultural Society, held in 1846, with prizes for Leicesters and Blackface sheep, and Shorthorn and Galloway cattle, which had replaced a breed called the “Garrigill Dutch”. A photo taken by Richard von Dix in about 1870 of the eight-strong Show Committee with a poster in front of them shows the sum of £300, which must have been the total prize money to be won - a huge amount for the time. Later on, by about 1900, Shorthorn cattle and Scotch Blackface sheep were still popular but the Blackface were gradually being replaced by Swaledales.

Then, as now, weather was often a problem for the Annual Show or Agricultural Fair. On 29th May 1880 the Alston Herald reported that on the show day rain was against the attendance and that the cattle were below average quality because of the hard winter they had suffered and having been turned out to grass earlier to save fodder. Yet the show of horses, which were “small sturdy horses and ponies, suitable for the district”, was the best for a long time. Then by October that year foot rot was prevalent.

As regards entertainment for the public on Show Day, two or three ‘card sharpers’ were seen in the town but the newspaper reporter was not aware of anyone that had been “done”.

Surprisingly to us, Alston Moor was a district for dairy produce, although on 28th April 1877 the paper reported, “We are informed that the export of butter from Alston Moor is greatly decreasing. The reason for this is that a very large part of it went into the County of Durham and not so much of it is now used in that County through the fall in wages of the miners who inhabit it. The price on Saturday last was 1/- per lb.” However, things looked up the next year for in October 1878 there was an advert: “Wanted, an agent in Alston to buy and pack about 1500 pounds of butter weekly for Newcastle and Manchester Markets. Apply to William Smith, Green Market, Newcastle.”

Then again, there was the local market for locally produced milk, but the dairymen weren’t above a bit of fiddling as seen in the Herald of 29th May 1880: “Our milk vendors will have to mind their Ps and Qs, now, or they will be getting into hot water; indeed I am told two of them have got into it already. You mentioned a week or two ago that there had been hot competition between them, which had the good effect of lowering the price, but it seems some of them have been endeavouring to make it up by potations from “the cow with the iron tail”, viz the pump. Some half dozen samples have been got from as many vendors of milk in the town, and two of them will be summoned to answer the charge of adulterating this commodity with water”. The culprits were Ann Goodfellow of Low Bailes and Ann Spottiswood of Skelgill.

In 1851 the population of Alston Moor was 6,405 including 163 farmers. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, as the lead mining industry declined, people left Alston Moor and of those that stayed some took up farming, encouraged by the Lords of the Manor, the Greenwich Hospital. In 1871 the population had decreased to 5,680 but the number of farmers had increased to 187. Today there are only about 25 farms on Alston Moor for a population of about 2,100.
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Alston Moor Historical Society was founded in 1973 and, due to the nature of Alston Moor, it is a member of both the Northumberland Association of Local History Societies and the Cumbria Federation of Local History Societies.
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