Following publication of our blog post Wensleydale cowkeepers in Liverpool we were contacted by Robert Mason, a descendant of the Mason family who built the Carisbrooke Road dairy we researched. Robert turned out to be the grandson of Edward Ewbank Mason whose memoirs have been published by Dave Joy on his Liverpool Cowkeepers website – see Memoirs of Edward Ewbank Mason .
Robert very kindly provided us with lots more background information about his family including telling us about a transcript of a taped interview that local author and journalist Bill Mitchell conducted with Annie Mason nee Pratt, one of the cousins that Edward Ewbank Mason writes about meeting on his farm holidays in Burtersett as a teenager.
Annie was interviewed by Bill in 1988 and luckily for us, the W R Mitchell Archive has published a full transcription of the interview along with a clip of the original audio recording – see the Annie Mason page on the archive’s website, run by the charity Settle Stories.
It’s not clear from the website when Annie was born, but Edward Ewbank Mason describes her in his memoir as being about five years older than he was which makes her birth year about 1904. Robert Mason did a little census research for us and found her aged 6 in 1911 so that seems about right. Thus, when Bill Mitchell interviewed her she must have been about 84 years old.
She has a remarkably vivid recall of farming life at Chapel Farm, and for the purposes of our project we were particularly fascinated by her, so far unique, first-hand account of her mother Rose Ann Pratt nee Metcalfe making cheese in the farmhouse:
“Oh yes, we always had a maid that lived in, and then we always had a woman who came in out of the village, sometimes two; because we had a lot of milk and it all came into the house and we made cheese. And we used to have when I was a girl all the milk from the Auction Mart and we made cheese. I’ve seen us start in September, perhaps at half past three or four o’clock in the afternoon and make 100 gallons of milk into cheese, you see? It all used to be ‘fridged’ in a kitchen. We had a very big kitchen, well, it still is at Chapel House, a very big kitchen which had been a yard and was built with a sink and a set boiler and all the men had their meals in it.”
The cows were milked by hand in the fields in the summer. In the winter, they were housed and milked in the nearby shippon and three outlying barns and the milk carried back to the farmhouse in back cans. The field barns were up to a quarter of a mile away.
“…when it was fine, summer weather you never bothered to take the cows in. You either took them into a yard or they stood in the paddock; you brought them out of the pasture into a smaller paddock and they stood there. It was natural for them to stand and be milked and then go away. Cows are creatures of habit and they do things by habit.”
Her father got into trouble from the doctor for making her carry backcans full of milk down from the summer pastures above Burtersett. She contracted a tubercular lump on her neck and was very thin.
Once back at the farmhouse, the milk had to be sieved and cooled. We think the ‘fridge’ she mentions may have been a water-filled cooler like the one David Hodgson of Lowlands Farm showed us, but we’re not sure :
“Well, you emptied it into a can and we had a contraption that stood on a large… a wood contraption that stood on a large stone sink. It’s still there today: a very, big sink with two big stone slabs at either side. But this contraption stood in the middle, and you put your rubber onto your cold water tap and we had a stone there which you stepped onto, not quite as high as that, and then you stepped onto this slab against the sink and then you emptied it up into the… into a… you had your fridge stood in front of your wood contraption, and then you had your receiving can, and then you had the old-fashioned what we called ‘briggs’. Do you know what I mean? The wood thing that had two things across there and then two uprights this way that held your ‘sile’; you know what a sile is, don’t you, this sieve that you go through? So you had it quite a long way to tip up, and pour it through and it went in, and in those days your cans of milk that went were usually 17 gallons. When I was a girl I wasn’t always big enough to get into the bottom. I remember my youngest brother, I was washing a can and tipping down into the bottom, and he came and tipped my legs up, you see, and I couldn’t get out.”
She then goes on to describe the process of warming the milk and separating the curds from the whey in order to make cheese.
“For cheese you put it into a big cheese vat. We had a copper one. Now I don’t know what… I would think in the Second World War my Mother would give it to be sold for ‘Wings for Victory’ or something of that. But it would have been valuable now. It stood about this height and it was copper and you could make it… it shone, it was beautiful. And then we had another that was tin. And you put them onto a mat so that you kept them warm. We used to have a hessian stuffed with straw, and you stood it on this thing and if your milk… if you didn’t have enough milk you were going to make, which you sometimes did in winter, you made your cheese in the morning. So you did your night’s milk. You put it through the sieve into your cheese kettle and you left it there, you put a cloth over it and left it. Then you put your morning’s milk… now if it wasn’t warm enough, it should be blood heat, you got a brass preserving pan and you put that on the fire and you warmed, or not. And you tipped it in until you made it the proper heat, and then you put in your rennet and then you wrap it up. We used to have two oak boards that went over the top and then you wrapped it up with a rug and kept it warm. And then when it had ‘come’ which is when you can cut it with your finger, then you took your ‘breaker’ and you just broke it down rough to let the whey settle, and you took so much whey off. And then you broke it up again, and then later on. I think now the mistake they’re making in cheese that’s made now is you see the farmer’s wife was taking her curd out at dinner time, at twelve o’clock. Now you see, they do it with a starter and it’s all done quickly and this is why, to my mind, cheese isn’t mature and as good as it used to be in the old days.”
Later in the interview she describes the farm’s cheeseroom where the finished pressed cheeses were kept, in order for them to mature.
“Yes, wooden shelves, and you washed them down about once a week. And as you washed you moved those cheeses up onto another shelf; each shelf had to be dried. You see, you turned your cheeses every day. And we used to have… in this big kitchen we made our cheese in the big kitchen that had been a yard, and then in the outer kitchen we had three big iron presses, you know, where you had a big stone on the end and you put it down and you put your cheese. And we used to put two, one on top of another with the tops on, you see, and then you did it down.”
The cheeses were sold to Mr Leyland, a grocer cum cheese-factor in Bainbridge, who then distributed them far and wide.
“Well, when I was a girl it used to go to a grocer at Bainbridge, Leylands at Bainbridge, and he used to send it to Liverpool, Manchester and all over. We used to take them down in a milk float and we put straw in the bottom and then usually a wool rug, and then they were all put on end and packed very, very carefully, and then you put another lot of a straw on and carried them very, very carefully down. We used to make… some were 15lb, some were 17lb. We never made small cheese.”
We were lucky enough to be contacted by a relative by marriage of the Leylands, the Bainbridge grocers Annie refers to, and they’ve sent us various photographs of the shop and family.
We even have a precious photograph of John Leyland actually selling Wensleydale cheese at Yarm Cheese Fair in the 1930s – who knows, some of it might even have been made at Chapel Farm?
Elsewhere in the interview Bill asks Annie what the cheese they made was like.
“It was a true Wensleydale cheese, and as I say our cows would be up in the high pasture and if you didn’t know that the men had moved them to the lower pasture you would be able to tell by the cheese kettle because the cream was different. It was a different colour, it was a different texture, and it was heavier altogether.”
We’d definitely recommend reading the full interview as Annie talks at length about the quality of hay meadows; haymaking; lambing; the farm’s animals and her father’s auctioneering and cattle-dealing career amongst many other aspects of farm and domestic life in Wensleydale in the early twentieth century.