Eleanor Scarr is well-known to visitors to the Dales Countryside Museum because she does regular talks and demonstrations about life in the Dales in times gone by.
She has a remarkable depth of knowledge about domestic and farm history so it was a pleasure to record her dairying experiences for the project. Stuart Barron interviewed her on her farm near Askrigg last month.
Eleanor was born in the 1940s on a farm in Thornton Rust. Her father and uncle ran the farm together and they had a flock of 200 sheep and a herd of about fourteen dairy cows.
“The milk was picked up by wagon, and, now, where was it taken? I think it went to Express Dairies, so I think it might have gone t’Leyburn at that point. But it was picked up every day in eleven gallon milk churns. They were rolled onto the milk stand and off it went. Whether it was for, t’sell in towns on the doorstep or whatever, I honestly do not know what it was used for.”
Eleanor Scarr (nee Metcalfe) (71), of Coleby Hall, Askrigg
She talks about how hard it was to make a living in the 1940s and ’50s. The brothers grew the dairy herd to about twenty cows, but in the end her father decided to buy a milk round and retail his milk directly to the customer in order to bring a bit more money in. With several children in the family by that time, there were plenty of willing helpers.
“After that, as we started t’grow up, obviously we were…a family of four, six and seven because m’uncle lived with us, so it was a fairly, y’know, we needed more money. Well, m’dad bought a milk round, in the late 1950s. And as children, I mean, it’s wonderful even then, what a ten or eleven year old could do, because I remember well washing milk bottles; filling milk bottles; putting the tops on; having everything ready. We all had a job, and if we weren’t doing a job ‘cos m’mum was out doing it, we were in the kitchen, baking, or helping. We all had a job, and we all had t’help…”
She proudly remembers the milk bottles they had with ‘S&W Metcalfe’ on them – she still treasures one even if it is a bit cracked now.
Her father was obviously quite entrepreneurial and in the following audio clip Eleanor describes how he hit on the idea of making and retailing cream locally.
She also talks about the problem of selling the resulting skimmed milk, or ‘blue blob’ as they called it and how, much to her father’s delight, it caught on after the local vet’s wife started using it for coffee parties. Interestingly, when we look at the Yorescott farm accounts from over a hundred years earlier, we see ‘blue milk’ (skimmed milk) cheeses being sold quite regularly in Wensleydale.
Sadly, the farm in Thornton Rust was sold from under them in 1965 and Eleanor’s father aged 50 had to give up the only life he’d ever known and turn his hand to running a pub and then the King’s Arms Hotel in Askrigg instead.
“After being a farmer for 50 years, he found it very hard t’leave it behind. And every day, if any land came up for auction, he was looking at it and thinking ‘Well, I could keep a few calves, or I could do something’, but he never actually got back into farming, but he found it very hard t’leave it at that point.”
It wasn’t the end of farming for Eleanor however. In 1969, she married James Scarr, a dairy farmer, and moved to his family farm at Coleby Hall.
“… my husband is absolutely, first and foremost, a dairy farmer. He farmed with his brother, and his brother looked after sheep, but my husband, James, absolutely didn’t ever look after the children or do anything like that, he was totally committed to his cows, up t’the point where I have said I’ve spent my life being second fiddle to a herd of cows [laughing]. He would go out any time of the night. He would jump out of bed if he heard a cow calving…it was just absolutely ingrained in him, he loved cows. So, I’ve had a wonderful time here, being able t’help with the dairying process at Coleby.”
Over the fifty years that Eleanor has been on the farm and from her research into the Scarr family farm ledgers, she has built up a fascinating picture of the many changes in dairying at Coleby as we can hear in the following audio clip.
Eleanor’s great grandfather by marriage sold cheese direct to the trade. In 1888 he records in his account books that he took 224 cheeses to Yarm Fair total price paid £73 1s 3d.
The tradition of cheese and butter making continued at Coleby into the early years of the twentieth century.
“So the next generation, they’ve all been James Scarrs, there’s been six or seven in a row, the next generation, which was m’husband’s granddad, he was married in 1913. And he married Mary, and she, Mary Chapman, and she came onto the scene, onto an already thriving cheese and butter-making business. And she would have to pick up the gauntlet, and, y’know, try her hand at it. And I’ve got her Practical Cheese-making book…it’s ‘Mary Scarr, Coleby Hall’. It doesn’t have a date in it, but it is the book that anybody would’ve had of the time and I think she must’ve done very well as well and I think she must’ve made very reliable cheese.”
So Mary Scarr (nee Chapman) continued the family business of making cheese and butter with husband James. In this audio clip, Eleanor describes how the cheese and butter was sold in their day, with the travelling cheese factor being an important part of the mix.
Coleby milk is still used to make cheese, but nowadays, it takes place in the Creamery at Hawes and the Scarrs concentrate on producing milk for them. Being a dairy farmer is never easy:
“…we were told t’make as much milk as we could, and then milk quotas came in and so that stopped us increasing and it stopped us moving forward, because the only way t’keep going in this day and age is t’move forward [laughs], do a little bit more all the time, have a bit more land, have a bit more milk. It seems t’be the only way. Plus on our farm, m’husband and his brother have worked together, so we were two families, our children, our sons are all farming now, and we are now, three, five families, so it’s quite a big wage bill. But at the time of quotas, we actually bought more quota. It cost money and we bought more quota and then quotas were completely dropped, so y’might say, it was all a waste of money, y’know, we seem t’throw money away. But it kept us going and we made a little bit more milk and it seemed t’work.”
Juggling milk quotas is one thing, but the devastation caused by the 2001 outbreak of Foot & Mouth has left lasting scars throughout the dale. Coleby Hall survived almost untouched thanks to a very lucky computer glitch as Eleanor recounts in this final audio clip.