Kit Calvert and the Wensleydale Dairy

In a previous blog post Early Factory Production of Cheese, we looked at the beginnings of what today is a business with an internationally-known brand, the Wensleydale Creamery. We left the story in 1933 with local farmer Kit Calvert about to step in to save what had become a lifeline for dairy farmers in Upper Wensleydale:

“…if the creamery was shut we’d nowhere for our milk. Nobody else would buy. So we would have been at a loss because a number of the farmers couldn’t attempt to make cheese of it because they hadn’t the equipment. Quite a number of them had been selling milk for years to these away merchants, and by way of being unfortunates they’d not got the renewed contracts and they’d had to fall back on the creamery when their Manchester or Leeds buyers had plenty of milk. And so therefore they were at a loss.”
Bill Mitchell interview with Kit Calvert (1979)  

At that point the Wensleydale Dairy as it was then known, was being run by an ex-army man, Captain Goodwin. He’d bought the dairy in 1927 after staying in Wensleydale on holiday. Previous to that it had been briefly run by local farmer and cattle dealer Edward Preston who we met in David Mason’s oral history recording.

Wensleydale Dairy, 1908. Dales Countryside Museum collection
Wensleydale Dairy, 1908. Dales Countryside Museum collection

Captain Goodwin proved to be a poor businessman, not helped by the deep economic depression the country was plunged into at the time. By 1933 he was in major trouble as Kit Calvert records:

“He owed his suppliers about six months’ money and then he called us all together and said he couldn’t pay. Instead of bankrupting the captain we formed a committee of creditors to run the factory. I was elected onto the committee and we kept his place going all through the summer until the Milk Marketing Board came into being on 5th October that year. We made enough money to clear all debts and pay ourselves out, and we gave the captain his factory back, plus £60 we had left over.”
‘King of Wensleydale’ unknown source pp80-81

Here’s Kit Calvert describing the decision to hand back the factory, in an interview with Bill Mitchell:

‘Well now, we’ve so much money and it’s not our business. I think this old gentleman ought to have it back again. He can’t help but mek money for himself now. We don’t want to tek money off ‘im, so we can pay twelve shilling in the pound on his debts and we’ll give a sixteen pound cheese.’ So that’s how we settled wer debt, we gave twelve shilling in the pound for what were owing to ‘im, and one ol’ farmer ‘ad about seventy pound [of cheese]. He said, ‘What the devil is it I’m goin’ to do with 76 eight pound cheeses? I can’t eat that lot.’ He said, ‘Give us twelve bob, it’s more than I expected..'”
Bill Mitchell interview with Kit Calvert (1979)  

With government support, the newly-formed Milk Marketing Board “took full responsibility for the marketing of the nation’s milk supply” (Kit Calvert (1946) ‘The Story of Wensleydale Cheese’ p11). It bought milk from farmers at a guaranteed price and then sold it back to cheesemakers like the Wensleydale Dairy. Kit and his committee had proved that it was possible to still turn a profit making cheese under this new regime.

Unfortunately, Captain Goodwin (‘the old gentleman’) ran the factory back into the ground again just two years later. He had at least been scrupulous about paying local suppliers and farmers like Kit, but this left him with about a £4,000 debt to the Milk Marketing Board for milk supplied. In 1935, the Board decided to foreclose on the business. Express Dairies offered to take milk from the local farmers instead but this meant the closure of the cheese factory in Hawes and problems for the more remote farms:

“I realised the gravity of this changed situation, especially to many small milk producers who had no satisfactory water supplies laid on at their farms and therefore could not cool their milk for long distance delivery by road or rail”
Kit Calvert: The Complete Dalesman’ 1981 Dalesman Books

Luckily the amount of cheese stockpiled in the factory prevented an immediate foreclosure by the Milk Marketing Board:

“When they inspected the creamery they were dismayed to find the place jammed with 150 tons of unsold cheeses. This was probably the largest concentration of Wensleydale cheese ever seen, but it stopped the Board from forcing a liquidation because there would inevitably have been a slump on the market”
‘King of Wensleydale’ unknown source p81

Kit Calvert apparently then stood up in the market place in Hawes and persuaded his fellow farmers that it was in their own financial interest to keep the factory going and not to take the Express Dairies’ offer. They agreed and he led a second fight to save the making of cheese in Hawes. He had realised that Express Dairies were far too keen to get hold of their milk from the Milk Marketing Board. They were building a new dairy in Leyburn as well as the one they already had in Appleby and eager for cheap milk. In other words they were probably going to turn a tidy profit at the local farmers’ expense. When the farmers were called in to sign the new milk contract two or three at a time in a small room in the Board Inn in Hawes, Kit smelled a rat:

“… and we get notified by that morning, 28th February that would we meet the Milk Marketing Board representative at ‘The Border Hotel’ [sic] at two o’clock. And so we were all in town, but I was as being knowing amongst the farmers and I told them, I says, ‘It’s to mek money.’ I knew it would mek money with the bit of experience I’d had. Of course I did pump the ol’ man [Captain Goodwin]. I said, ‘How much does t’Milk Board sell your milk for?’ Oh, well it had got up to about thruppence ha’penny. And so I resisted, and when the Milk Marketing Board representative came he called us to come and sign this contract, two or three at a time as he only had a little room, I rallied the farmers together and said what we weren’t signing without knowing more about it.”
Bill Mitchell interview with Kit Calvert (1979)

Kit then demanded that the meeting take place as a collective, brushing aside excuses that there were no larger rooms in ‘the village’, stating indignantly that Hawes was a market town and marching across to the Hawes Market House to find space for all the farmers to meet with both the Board’s representative from Newcastle and Mr Crosby from Express Dairies.

Hawes Market House
Hawes Market House

The Board’s man then found the farmers standing in a group outside the hall and he admonished them to Kit’s obvious annoyance:

‘Now come along gentleman, the sooner we start the sooner we’ll get you all signed up because I want to be making back to Newcastle.’ ‘We’re not inclined to come.’ ‘Well,’ he says, ‘if you don’t come there’s nowhere for your milk tomorrow.’ ‘Oh,’ I says, ‘yes, we have.’ ‘There’s nowhere you can sell your milk other than to the Milk Marketing Board.’ ‘Aye,’ I said, ‘we can find a place for it.’ ‘Where?’ I said, ‘Maybe down the drain.’ ‘There’s no farmer is going to produce milk to just pour down the drain? Whose goin’ to pay for milk down the drain?’ I says, ‘Maybe the Milk Marketing Board.’ He says, ‘The Milk Marketing Board will not pay for milk that’s wasted.’ ‘Well, they do what they’re told.’ ‘Who can tell ‘em?’ I said, ‘Somebody will tell ‘em, maybe the biggest manager in the Milk Marketing Board.’ He said, ‘Explain yourself.’ ‘Aye,’ I said, ‘I can soon explain myself. You said we were goin’ to ‘ave a public meeting if I got this building, and I got it. And you said that you would bring Mr Crosby out, but you haven’t done. So you’re failin’ not me.’
Bill Mitchell interview with Kit Calvert (1979)  

Mr Crosby was eventually produced, but it took a week of hard negotiating before Kit and the farmers he represented got the deal they wanted from the Board and Express Dairies, which included a contract for 500 gallons of milk (a week? It’s not clear).

Eventually Kit and his fellow negotiators also struck a deal over the debt with the Milk Marketing Board – they got the cheese factory for free if they paid off an outstanding mortgage of £500 on the property. The deal got stuck over the fate of the mountain of cheese left in the factory. The Board wanted to leave it behind, Kit refused, “I told ’em it was cheese that sunk the captain and it would sink us if we took it.”
‘King of Wensleydale’ unknown source p81

The Board finally capitulated and the brand new owners sold shares locally at £1 each, raising over £1000 in capital with Kit buying £100’s worth. However, all was not settled because when Kit arrived to take over the running of the business, the cheese mountain was still there. He had to pester the Board until finally they sent along a fleet of lorries to ferry it away. Years later he discovered it had been sent to a Quaker charity in Whitehaven. They’d been offered 20 tonnes which they duly paid for at a much reduced price, only to find dozens and dozen more tons arriving than they asked for, filling every nook and cranny in their property:

” ‘We just couldn’t get rid of it, there was so much. Even the poor and unemployed got sick of it. Then that summer we had a really hot spell. We hadn’t realised it should be racked to allow air to circulate and the stuff started to melt. Then it began to smell so badly that I lost all my staff. The fat was running out of the rooms and into the passageway and the yard. I’ve never seen such a mess in my life.'”
‘King of Wensleydale’ unknown source p82

In the end the director of the charity was forced to bring in some unemployed miners to dig it out and throw it down a disused mine shaft!

Kit took over the management of the factory and turned a profit in his first year of over 100% on the capital invested. He’d offered to defer his salary until the end of this first year and was rather surprised when his co-directors offered to pay him just a pound a week:

“I’d been paying a man twenty-five shillings a week, plus keep, to look after my farm for me. But I said nowt and took it. At the next meeting, however, I said I wanted £3. Well they nearly threw a fit and when the next edition of the local paper came out I discovered they had advertised my job”
‘King of Wensleydale’ unknown source p83

Kit wasn’t the sort of man to take that lying down. He asserted his right as a director to help select his successor, then on the day set aside for the short-listing interviews he said he wasn’t turning up for work the following day. The directors hurriedly backed down, dismissing the four candidates who’d turned up for the interviews and offering him the £3 a week he’d asked for. To their horror, he refused, saying he now wanted £4 a week and the job of managing director. They gave in and never challenged his authority again.

Kit established a good working relationship with the Milk Marketing Board who saw the difficulties that Wensleydale cheesemakers in general were having with declining markets in the coal fields of the north east and cotton towns of the Colne valley due to the economic depression of the 1930s. They worked with cheese producers like Kit; with cheese factors and with farmhouse cheesemakers to establish ‘The Wensleydale Cheese Joint Conference’ which met at Darlington almost every fortnight from 1936 to 1939. It oversaw a voluntary system of price-fixing and co-operation among members which amongst other things helped restore the quality of the cheese being produced as well as opening up new markets.

The Second World War brought further challenges. As we discussed in the blog post Traditional cheesemaking, the need to grade cheese for the purposes of rationing in 1940, ultimately led to the end of traditional farmhouse cheesemaking in Wensleydale. Wartime conditions also meant that milk was sometimes diverted away from cheesemaking altogether:

“For long ‘a bit of Wensleydale’ had been regarded in many north country homes as one of the delicacies of Christmas fare and there was a strong seasonal demand at this time. Prior to the war tens of thousands of 1 lb and 2 lb ‘smalls’ had been manufactured each November and December, yet the supply rarely equalled the demand…The first wartime Christmas found Britain short of milk for liquid requirements, caused by the dislocation of imports of condensed milk from the continent of Europe, and the Milk Marketing Board found it necessary to divert all milk to the liquid market…no Wensleydale cheeses were available for Christmas 1939 which brought disappointment to a large consuming market.”
Kit Calvert (1946) ‘The Story of Wensleydale Cheese’ p22

When the rationing of cheese was introduced in May 1941, the far-sighted members of the Wensleydale Cheese Joint Conference forged a relationship with Professor E. Capstick, Director of the Butter and Cheese Division of the Ministry of Food. Thanks to that relationship and through fairly blunt negotiations, special measures were put in place which involved the Joint Conference setting up a trading company guaranteeing to buy the whole of the local industry’s output from the Ministry and becoming distributors of that cheese to the trade. They had to guarantee they had enough capital to do this and above all, storage space. The latter actually proved to be a great advantage – members stored cheese in their premises all over the Yorkshire Dales with further stores in Stockton and Lancashire, making them much harder to bomb than a single centralised store would have been.

The final condition of the deal with the Ministry was harder to organise. The new company had to guarantee that it could dispose of the industry’s total output whatever the individual cheese ration per person might be. Cheesemakers Rowntree’s of Leyburn stepped in by offering to balance any shortfall or excess and so the company fulfilled all its obligations:

“This was to be proved by later events, a significant achievement, as Wensleydale cheese was the only territorial type that withstood the first onslaught of rationing; Leicester, Stilton, Gloucester, and Caerphilly makes had all been obliged to go out of production.”
Kit Calvert (1946) ‘The Story of Wensleydale Cheese’ p25

Saving factory production of cheese within the restrictions imposed by the rationing scheme was sadly at the expense of the farmhouse cheesemaker as Kit reflected in 1946 with rationing still in place:

“Pickled Wensleydales accepted by the connoisseur of territorial cheeses as the aristocrat of the table, cannot pass the Ministry’s grading standards because of the high percentage of liquid left in the cheese, and the susceptibility to moulding. This high liquid content gives to the cheese a heavy evaporation shrinkage, thereby making it unsuitable for distribution within the Ministry’s rationing scheme.”
Kit Calvert (1946) ‘The Story of Wensleydale Cheese’ p28

The Wensleydale Dairy survived against all the odds and by 1953 had outgrown its former woollen mill premises besides Gayle Beck in the centre of Hawes. A brand new factory was built in Gayle that year and the business was renamed ‘Wensleydale Creameries Ltd’. Under Kit’s guidance, the business had rapidly expanded after the war, buying up other smaller dairies in the area and establishing another factory in Kirkby Malzeard.

Women bandaging cheeses. Courtesy of Mary Dinsdale. Photo possibly by Bertrand Unne
Women bandaging cheeses in Hawes Dairy. Courtesy of Mary Dinsdale. Photo possibly by Bertrand Unne

As Kit’s daughter Florence Garnett recalled in an interview with the Yorkshire Post in 2006, business in the new factory in Hawes thrived:

“In 1953 he built a new creamery in Hawes. He introduced the “baby Wensleydale”, a 1lb cheese which the average household might buy weekly. About 50,000 were sold in the first year; production rose to 250,000 per year by the 1960s. The Milk Marketing Board purchased Wensleydale Creamery for [£]500,000 in 1966 but persuaded Mr Calvert to continue to run it. In 1967 he retired.”
‘Dale hero who was one of the people’ Yorkshire Post 19 Sept 2006

Baby Wensleydale Cheese labels. 1980s. Courtesy of Ian Millward
Baby Wensleydale Cheese labels. 1980s. Courtesy of Ian Millward

Kit Calvert retired a wealthy man, and his original investors also came away well rewarded. He made certain conditions before he agreed to sell to the Board:

“Some old business connections had to be maintained, and the factory at Hawes, which took 8,000 gallons a day and employed 140 people, was not to be closed in my lifetime.”
‘King of Wensleydale’ unknown source p87

Kit Calvert in his later years. Dales Countryside Museum collection
Kit Calvert in his later years. Dales Countryside Museum collection

Kit Calvert died in 1984 aged 80. In 1980, the Milk Marketing Board formed a new processing division called Dairy Crest, and it took over running the factory in Hawes. Ian Millward joined as manager in 1983 and under his leadership the factory continued to produced prize-winning cheese.

Ian with the then Home Secretary Leon Brittan inspecting the finished product
Ian with the then Home Secretary Leon Brittan inspecting the finished product

However, farmer Neil Haworth told us that it wasn’t long before Dairy Crest began to asset strip the factory and neglect the buildings with the ultimate aim of centralising Wensleydale cheese production in their Longridge plant over in Lancashire. In May 1992 they closed the factory in Hawes with the loss of 59 jobs. Six months later, a management buy-out succeeded in re-opening the business and in the years since, the Wensleydale Creamery has gone from strength-to-strength, achieving European Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status for their world-famous Yorkshire Wensleydale Cheese in 2013. A brand new factory was opened on the Gayle site in 2015 and today the factory employs 200 people with an annual turnover of £27 million. They contribute around £12 million to the local economy. A fact that Kit Calvert would have been particularly proud of.

Kit was very good, he took on anybody who was wanting a job, and he would train them up, and probably wouldn’t be able to pay them a lot but it would give them a job and a bit of self-respect and anybody who was out of work would say ‘I’ll have to go up t’Dairy and Kit’ll set me on’ and he always did and great credit to him, that was a very good paternalistic attitude.”
David Dinsdale Mason (79), formerly of Leyburn

Wensleydale Creamery. The modern factory today
Wensleydale Creamery. The modern factory today

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