Oral History Recording: John Amsden

Farmer John Amsden was one of the many people that we met at our project launch event early last year. Sally Stone went along to interview him late last year at his home in Carperby and they had a wide ranging discussion about dairying on a large estate and the state of dairy farming in general.

John Amsden in the his milking parlour, Carperby. Courtesy of Emma Amsden
John Amsden in his milking parlour, Carperby. Courtesy of Emma Amsden

John comes from a family of farmers, with his grandfather starting out in a small way at Westfields, near Wensley, then, wanting to expand, moving to West Bolton Farm between Castle Bolton and Carperby. This was some time after the First World War – his grandfather was apparently helped to secure the tenancy by Metcalfe Spensley who we have already met in Ian Spensley’s account of his family farming in Castle Bolton.

John’s father Oliver took over at West Bolton just after the Second World War. He was apparently rather an inventive man:

“…he had a dairy herd of 48 cows then which was a lot…in double-sided byre, in which cows were face-to-face not back-to-back, with what we called a gangway in between, which was very handy at times, but it was blummin’ hard work trying t’get loose hay down. And he devised the method of bringing it by making a rail track, a single rail track round the byre and down the passage. It was quite ingenious really. Blacksmith from Preston-under-Scar developed it for him. And it also had a muck cart, where’s you used t’wind it up and it was full and then it used t’go out into the yard, but eventually he got a muck spreader and it went straight into the muck spreader [laughs], which made it a lot easier.”
John Amsden (68), formerly of West Bolton and East End Farm, Carperby

Along with the rail system in the byre, John’s father had a rather unusual milking machine, as John explains in the following audio clip:

His father was also a very early adopter of silage making:

“…he bought this green crop loader that went behind a trailer and it used t’be, come up on this crop loader onto the trailer and it all had t’be griped by hand, stacked round, and he had this silage pit made by a bulldozer into the back side. … And I can remember going on these trailers and by god it…[laughs], god, that must’ve been early 1950s, because he started cutting grass at the end of May I think it would be, or May Bank holiday, I can’t remember now, but this is what he told me and David, told me and my brother, and folks said ‘what’s Oliver Amsden doing? What the hell’s he cutting grass for at this time of year? It’s not haytime?’ [laughing] They were all curious y’see, and m’grandfather never knew about this green crop loader, father parked it behind the wood, and he thought he’d have gone up the wall [laughing].”

Along with silage, John’s father made up his own ration with bought-in and home-grown feed stuffs. During the Second World War, having more than the proscribed ration of some bought-in feed like sugar beet could be a problem, as John explains in the following audio clip:

The farm’s milk mostly went to the Express Dairy in Leyburn until the Beeching railway closures made it too difficult:

“The milk then would be going t’Hawes Dairy, some of it was, but most of it in those days went t’Leyburn, to Express Dairies in Leyburn, which was sent down t’London on the train. Where the trading estate is now, used t’be where the Express Dairy was…and most farms in the dale, at the bottom end of the dale, went down there. Farmers round Hawes, up that end, I think they went t’the Creamery at Hawes, because it wasn’t very big in those days, it was just a small dairy that Kit Calvert managed t’keep going. But most of the milk from Wensleydale went that way.”

John’s mother never made butter or cheese commercially but he remembers that she did turn her hand to butter making with the help of yet another one of his father’s inventions:

“My father used t’like t’take a bit of the cream from off the top of the cans [laughing], ‘cos he liked cream in his tea, so he just used t’scoop a little bit off each can, what was left over, my mother used t’make into butter, put into a big stone jar, keep it cool for as  long as possible, ‘cos there were no fridges or deep freezers in those days, it was on a slab in the coolest room y’could find. And he made a device out of, well, he didn’t make it, but there was a barrel, that had a special top on it and y’used to have t’twine it by hand, and it would be, what – seven gallon cask? And he put a bicycle wheel on the side of it, converted it into a churn [laughing]…oh he was [very inventive] yeah.”

In this audio clip John discusses the hard work involved in loading milk churns onto the farm’s churn stand each day ready to be collected by the milk lorry – along with the efforts made to eradicate TB in the country.

Collecting milk churns in Carperby, 1950s. Photograph by Bertrand Unne, courtesy of North Yorkshire County Council Archives
Collecting milk churns in Carperby, 1950s. Photograph by Bertrand Unne, courtesy of North Yorkshire County Council Archives
Collecting milk churns in Carperby, 1950s. Photograph by Bertrand Unne, courtesy of North Yorkshire County Council Archives
Collecting milk churns in Carperby, 1950s. Photograph by Bertrand Unne, courtesy of North Yorkshire County Council Archives

John’s father eventually gave up milking in 1959, one of the factors being the difficulty he had in finding labour.

“It was basically everything, like it is nowadays, staff, finding somebody who wanted t’milk, night, morning and with our farm being rather out of the village, had a bit of a job getting staff, so we decided t’pack up milking. We had one chap, who used t’walk from Castle Bolton, every day. Chap called Joe Hird and he’d wear clogs and I used t’know when he was coming t’work ‘cos I could hear him passing the house [laughing]. I can remember, I was petrified because it was thundering and lightening and m’father said, ‘oh, it’s just Joe, walking back home!’ [laughs]. And he worked for us for a long time and then he went t’the quarry at Redmire, so…that was one of the reasons he decided to pack up and not milk. Then went on to sucklers.”

Oliver Amsden tragically died in a farming accident when John was just nine years old. John’s brother David was older and continued to farm at West Bolton though the estate took back a large amount of the moorland for grouse-shooting. John was farming with him by this time but once he got married and the farm size was reduced, he moved to East End Farm in Carperby, early in the 1970s.

“Suckler cows weren’t very good, calves were being given away virtually for nothing two or three years, and so I thought there’s only one way I can make a living and that’s going into milk. And I said I would never milk cows! [Laughing] So I started my own dairy herd. [Quite a challenge starting scratch?] Oh, it was, b‘cos it was just the time when brucellosis scheme was in so I went clean. I bought cows that had been brucellosis-tested and there was only two or three auction marts which were clear of it, or herds and such-like. You had t’slowly build up, so most of my cows came from Hawes and Leyburn…the testing up in Swaledale, with them being small herds, they could isolate them easily, whereas your bigger herds down prosperous areas of the land [laughing], it took them a bit longer t’get it cleared. And so I started off, ’73? 4? With, what did I have? Started off with about fifteen/twenty cows…they were Friesians then, with a little bit of Holstein in them, because the Holstein was starting to come from America, and it was, I had help from an uncle who lived  in Redmire, he’d milked cows for years and so he used  t’come with me when I was buying cows [laughing] ‘cos I was as green as grass in those days, and, I seemed to get, t’struggle through.”

East End Farm had been a dairy farm before but when the previous tenant, Fletcher Perceval, sold up, all the machinery and pipework was taken out so John had to start from scratch as he describes in the following audio clip:

John weathered the vagaries of the country joining the European Common Market; overproduction and the rise of milk lakes and butter and cheese mountains; the bankruptcy of dairy co-operatives and the introduction of milk quotas and what he saw as their unfairness on tenant farmers:

“Milk quotas came in in 1983 I think it was. We had a drought that year. Not quite as severe as this last one [2018], but it made people’s, what they had before, and it was that year that was taken into account, and it just affected me a bit because I didn’t have quite as much milk as I produced the year before, so my quota was slightly less. Milk quotas were not a very good idea, because part of it went, if you were a tenant, it was taken by the landlord, and part of it was the tenant’s. Depended how much capital the tenant had put into the farm. Those who were owner-occupied had a lot. I did have a little argument with the Minister of Agriculture at the time, which was a Mr Joplin, and I said, ‘it’s discriminatory about tenants, they put the work into it, fine if the landlord has put a lot of capital in, fair enough, but if the tenant’s put a lot of capital in, who owns it? Does the landlord own it or does the tenant own it?'”

John’s milk went to Hawes Dairy for a while and then on to a dairy at Topcliffe and then “all over the place”.  The milk quotas were finally removed and John describes this as the point at which everything began to go wrong as it eventually led to the dominance of a small number of large dairies and resulting low milk wholesale prices:

“Got rid of quotas eventually, they forced everybody out and now we’re getting back t’the same system. We have two or three big dairies that have forced everybody out, I’ve, I could see what was going to happen…at a meeting in Northallerton, and I stood up and I said ‘we’ll end up back where we were before the War, 1936, when farmers were sending their milk out and they weren’t getting the money back from milkmen in the towns and cities.’ Quite a few went bust over that. And, it happened again. History always repeats itself. And it’s very disappointing that the British public do not realise the amount of effort that goes into producing food for them, they just think it’s there on the supermarket shelf. My wife used to do bed and breakfast and many a time folk used to, ‘oh, this milk tastes beautiful. Is it pasteurised?’ I says, ‘yeah, it went past mine this morning [laughing].”

He is also very critical of Margaret Thatcher getting rid of free school milk:

“…milk is a commodity that has a very short shelf-life even though it’s been homogenised and all sorts, its shelf-life can be ten days? And everything can’t go into cheese because there’s more milk. And I’ll go back to 1972/73 when Margaret Thatcher got rid of school milk, which…it only came back [later] for the younger ones, it didn’t come back totally and that came back through to farmers putting money into it…There was a levy and farmers put so much money into it, so as it wasn’t all educational money, and Margaret Thatcher, ‘the milk dispatcher’, was because she was Education Secretary then. And I think that’s been basically the start of the downfall of the milk production in this country, because we were virtually self-sufficient.”

Serving milk at Bainbridge School, 1958. Courtesy of Eleanor Scarr
Serving milk at Bainbridge School, 1958. Courtesy of Eleanor Scarr

With the downfall of the dairy co-operative ‘Dairy Farmers of Britain‘, John felt enough was enough and got out of dairying altogether:

“…it became, there was too many dairies chasing milk. I was on with Milk Mark, and then that went, because we had certain politicians said that was a monopoly, so we ended up with three different, we had Milk Link; can’t remember what the other one was down south. And gradually the bigger dairies shoved the small farmer co-operatives out, which, the government wanted co-operatives, but they didn’t back ‘em. Dairy Farmers of Britain went bust, basically because I think it was bad management, and so, I was in between going, well, I’d virtually signed up t’go to Hawes Dairy, but things rather escalated rather quicker than I’d expected [laughing]. So Dairy Farmers went bust, I managed t’get mine picked up by Milk Link for next to nothing, but at least I was getting a little bit and then I got t’the stage where, ‘what’s the point? You’ve either got t’be big or not at all?’ So I decided I would pack up, that would be 2010? Something like that…and I decided I’d give up and go into sucklers, go back to where I started from basically [laughing]…went round the clock in a sense. I was doing most of it on my own and so I thought, well, what’s the point?”

After a lifetime of dairying he reflects on the fact that only farms with large herds seem to be able to make a profit and also on the breakdown of the link between townsfolk and country people and how children seem to no longer know where their food comes from:

“And farm opposite was sold off and it ended up by being holiday cottages, and I can remember there was little lad and his father came over, and they said, ‘can we watch you milk the cows?’ And I said ‘yeah,’ so they came over that night when I was milking, and this little lad said, ‘what’s that dad? That’s milk isn’t it? That comes out of a bottle from supermarket!’ And his father said, ‘no it doesn’t son, that’s where it starts from. It starts from those cows before it gets into that bottle’.”

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