Oral History Recording: Ian Spensley

Local historian Ian Spensley has been a stalwart of the Dairy Days project right from the start due to his extensive research into early Wensleydale wills and inventories – we’ve already mined lots of information from them and there’s lots more to come. Ian wears another hat however in that he was born in the dale to a family of farm workers. His grandfather Ernest Spensley worked as a shepherd at Castle Banks Farm in Castle Bolton. Ernest and his wife Annie also kept two cows in the common pasture at Castle Bolton (the Ellerlands). The photo below shows Annie off to milk them some time in the 1930s. Read more about her in the blog post A Wensleydale Milk Maid.

Annie Spensley off to milk her cows, Castle Bolton. 1920s. Courtesy of Ian Spensley

Ian’s uncle Albert was also a shepherd at Castle Banks, and his father, Metcalfe (Mec) Spensley, was the cowman. Author John Duncalfe has sent us his wonderful book about the Castle Bolton artist Fred Lawson, who painted Ian’s uncle Albert inside one of the farm’s barns.

Albert Spensley feeding a cade [pet] lamb by Fred Lawson. From John Duncalfe's book A Painter's Life
Albert Spensley feeding a cade [pet] lamb by Fred Lawson. 1912. From John Duncalfe’s book A Painter’s Life
The farm was actually run by Ian’s Great Great Uncle Metcalfe Spensley, followed by his son John and his grandsons David and Richard. Ian grew up around the farm and those of his friends in the village, the Horns at West End Farm and the Bostocks.

Ian Spensley 'helping' round the farm, early 1960s. Courtesy of Ian Spensley
Ian Spensley as a nipper, early 1960s. Courtesy of Ian Spensley

Ian was interviewed by Sally Stone last August, and she started off by asking him what time his father’s day began on the farm:

“Generally about half-past six, he’d be up at half-past five, have his breakfast. Half-an-hour’s walk down t’the farm, then start milking. Probably come back mid-morning I think…first memories were they were all milking by hand, in the old cowhouse and that there’d be probably m’dad; Thomas Hunter; Cuthbert Kirkbride; Richard Spensley, there’s probably five or six of them milking by hand…”
Ian Spensley (64), of Redmire

The photo shows Fred Peacock, a member of another Castle Bolton farming family. He’s hand milking at around the same time as Ian’s father was.  The Peacocks farmed at  East End Farm.

Mr Peacock hand milking, Castle Bolton. Mid-twentieth century. Collection of Ann Holubecki

The milk was then taken into what used to be called the milk room, an annexe of the old cowhouse, where it was cooled using a metal water cooler “like a washboard” as Ian describes it.  The milk churns or cans, full of milk, were collected by lorry and probably taken to the Express Dairy in Leyburn.

Ian fondly remembers hanging around at the Horns’ farm and also going down with the Bostocks, father, daughter and Jimmy the donkey, to milk their cows as described in the following audio clip:

Jimmy the donkey with Terry Dodd, Castle Bolton. 1950. Courtesy of Frank Knowles
Jimmy the donkey with Terry Dodd, Castle Bolton. 1950. Courtesy of Frank Knowles

Terry Dodd who features in this well-known photograph of Jimmy, has recently written to Ian about it:

“My family came to Leyburn in 1947 when my father started as manager at Macnamee grocery shop in High Street and we left in 1959. My father delivered grocerys all over the Dales at that time and that’s how we got to know the Bostock family who became very good friends and we still keep in touch occasionaly. I know Frank [Knowles] because he lodged with us for a time in Maythorne.”

Sally asks Ian when hand milking gave way to milking machines::

“Lot of the cowhouses were built about, well, mid-50s to early 60s, so I’m guessing they, most of the milking machines were installed about that time. The ones I remember around the dale, were from Alfa-Laval, actually, thinking about it, lad I went t’school with, his father, Jack Dent, was the Alfa-Laval agent for the Dale.”

Early milking set up with water cooler
Early milking set up with water cooler and milk cans underneath. Unknown Wensleydale farm.

Sally asks Ian if any farmers delivered their milk locally:

“In Castle Bolton and Redmire you’d go to either one or two farmers within the village who would supply the milk…you would go t’them, if you weren’t a farm labourer, you would go t’farm t’get the milk.”

“When we moved down t’the pub in Redmire, t’the Kings Arms, we used t’get our milk from one particular farmer, and m’mother was a bit suspicious about it so she had her own sile [sieve] pads to filter the milk!”

As Ian says, the farm labourers had free milk as a work bonus, which they carried home in little tin cans made locally. Ian actually remembers Frank Shields the village tinsmith who is featured in Marie Hartley & Joan Ingilby’s ‘Life & Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales.’

“Yep, there was Frank Shields particularly, obviously quite unique really, he was, apart from being a plumber and electrician, he was a tinsmith. So he actually made the backcans, either for donkeys or for people t’carry on the’backs, plus they used t’make the little cans. The farm labourers who were given a quart of milk every day, t’bring their milk back home in.”

Frank Shields making a back can. Dales Countryside Museum collection
Frank Shields making a back can. Dales Countryside Museum collection

Ian emailed us about him: “I spent hours with Frank especially if I saw smoke coming out of the chimney and then I would go and watch him making cans and copper kettles”.

The contents of Frank’s workshop at Castle Bolton was saved when he died and is now on display at the Dales Countryside Museum, along with many examples of the work of Dales tinsmiths.

Backcans and wooden carrier for a donkey. Dales Countryside Museum.
Backcans and wooden frame for a donkey. Dales Countryside Museum.

Every farm in the area had cows apparently, many were grazed on communal pastures which still survived in Castle Bolton from feudal days when much of the land was farmed communally on behalf of the local lord of the manor.

“Every farm would have some cows. Will Dinsdale had a bit of a, he used t’keep so many cows down below Bolton Lane, and he would milk them down there, and then he would keep so many cows in what used t’be the communal pasture along with Horn’s cows, and Will had a ramshackle, rough stone building with a tin roof at the bottom of the cow pasture and he used t’milk his cows in there with a milking machine that attached t’the power take off on the back of the tractor.”

In winter, all the cows were kept indoors at various locations scattered around  the village. Some farmers were lucky enough to have them nearby, others not so lucky:

“Well, Bostocks obviously kept their cows out at a distance; Peacocks, now, their cows was about a quarter of a mile outside the village, they always used the same cowhouse; Castle Bank, obviously, next t’the farm; Horn’s was just across the road from the farmhouse.”

Even from a young age, Ian and the other village boys were roped in to help at haytime, gathering enough fodder to feed the cows housed in their barns over the winter.

“Well that was one of our main jobs I suppose, even as young kids, we used to, at Bostocks, all the hay that he got was loose hay, so you’d t’take it down on a sweep, then it had t’be forked into the hay shed and as kids we were encouraged t’jump up and down on the hay in the hay shed t’consolidate the hay…[what pulled the sweep?] They used a tractor, grey Fergie…Horns used t’use a horse for sweeping up the loose hay…it was all taken to field barns.”

Horse-drawn hay sweep in Swaledale c1969. Courtesy of Dales Countryside Museum

 

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