Oral History Recording: Neil Haworth

Neil Haworth’s contact details were passed on to us by a member of the National Park Farm Team who shared a train journey with him back from a conference. It turned out that he had a very interesting story to tell about his involvement with the dairy industry in Wensleydale through pig farming. He was interviewed by Maggie Townsend at his farm in Garsdale late last year.

Neil Haworth. Courtesy of Neil Haworth
Neil Haworth. Courtesy of Neil Haworth

He started by describing how, having left the Army, where he had served in Cyprus in the 1950s, he set himself up breeding pigs while working part-time on a nearby farm at Churchtown, near Garstang in Lancashire. Fate took a hand when a well-known Lancashire pig farmer, Bill Richardson, approached him with a life-changing offer. Bill sold pigs from his farm in Fylde, near Blackpool, to the Walls meat company in Manchester and he used to deal with the manager there called Harry Whittle. Bill arranged to meet Neil to discuss his proposition:

“…we met in the local pub, The Horns Inn, in Churchtown, and he said ‘You’re a young, likely lad, look as if you’ve some work about you. You wouldn’t like t’come into partnership with me? Because I’ve heard that in Hawes, in North Yorkshire, that the Wensleydale Cheese factory,’ which…was a cottage industry then…'[was] going to be bought by the Milk Marketing Board, and Harry Whittle has told me, informed me, as to what may happen’, but…what I’ve already forgot, that Bill fed all his pigs on whey, which he got out of Lancashire, which is the by-product from cheese of course, which is very good feed for pigs… there was a lot of competition for the whey in Lancashire, a lot of big pig farms, a lot of competition. And Harry Whittle had told him that, on the grape vine, and that if we’s prepared to move to Hawes … and the Milk Marketing Board got into production, there’ll be plenty of whey for your pigs.”
Neil Haworth (82) of East Bridge End Farm, Garsdale

This was around 1966, and Neil, still in his 20s,  jumped at the opportunity in spite of the massive upheaval involved in moving lock-stock and barrel into the wilds of Garsdale. He describes driving up to Hawes with Bill and Bill’s brother, where they met an elderly Kit Calvert who had sold the Hawes Dairy to the Milk Marketing Board:

“Kit Calvert was the man in Hawes. He had a clay pipe, I always remember him, he had a homburg type of hat on, a big long overcoat. He had a few teeth missing at the front and he was with Mr Preston who was an elderly man himself, he was the auctioneer, manager and the auctioneer at Hawes, and we shook hands. And I was looking at this little clay pipe on the corner of his mouth and I thought ‘Oh, well I never’ that was quite an eye-opener for me!”

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

We know that Kit Calvert knew all about the usefulness of having pigs to dispose of whey:

To the factory cheese maker whey can be either a profitable sideline to his business or an inconvenient expense. It depends whether his factory has an up-to-date piggery within easy reach of the main buildings. Without a piggery whey can become a major problem to the dairy manager. He is obliged to dispose of it, but no local authority will allow it into the town’s sewer, nor will the Fishery Board allow it to be emptied into a river.”
T C Calvert (1946) ‘The Story of Wensleydale Cheese’ p18

At first we thought that the ‘Mr Preston’, Neil also mentions meeting was  David  Mason‘s  grandfather Edward Preston. When we interviewed David, he told us that Edward ran the Hawes Dairy, years before Kit took over, and, it turns out, was instrumental in introducing the idea of feeding whey to pigs in Yorkshire:

“The dairy made Wensleydale cheese, pure and simple, and that was it. My grandfather introduced a side-line whereby they fed whey to the pigs. He read that they were doing this in Denmark. I think he would be the first person in England, certainly in Yorkshire to feed whey to pigs. So there was a little pig enterprise at the back which I don’t think Health & Safety would’ve liked today but it was alright at the time. So, the milk would come in there, and it would be processed, cheese would be made and sold and the whey would be fed to the pigs, they’d be fattened and go off to market and that’s very much in granddad’s way ‘cos he was used to livestock dealing.”
David Dinsdale Mason (79), formerly of Leyburn

However, having spoken to David Mason we’ve discovered that it was a Mr Will Preston – no relation – but another ‘big’ man in Hawes by all accounts!

Having met these two important Hawes  people, Neil and his colleagues were taken to see the old piggeries which were located at Widdale Foot:

“…they’d been put up in a higgledy-piggledy fashion, just outside Hawes on th’Ingleton road, about three miles out of Hawes. And they’d obviously, they’d had to keep pigs to try and get rid of the by-product whey which was obviously a pollutant. They couldn’t let it go in the river. But it hadn’t been going too well at all really, and I think the Milk Marketing Board thought well, here was an opportunity.”
Neil Haworth (82) of East Bridge End Farm, Garsdale

We’ve found a photograph of a small scale pig unit in Hawes, taken by Bertrand Unne sometime in the 1950s but it’s not the one Neil saw at Widdale Foot apparently.

Pig unit in Hawes. 1950s. Photographer Bertrand Unne, with permission of North Yorkshire County Council Archives
Pig unit in Hawes. 1950s. Photographer Bertrand Unne, with permission of North Yorkshire County Council Archives

Bill and Neil saw the opportunity and took the plunge. They set themselves up in business early in 1967, with Bill generously making young Neil an equal partner in spite of him bringing no capital, just enthusiasm and a willingness to graft. Bill bought Widdale Foot Farm behind the old piggeries while newly-married Neil was sent up Garsdale to look for a place to set up the breeding arm of the enterprise, as he describes in the following audio clip:

The dilapidated farmhouse and farm buildings at East Bridge End in Garsdale needed a lot of work to get them ready so Neil and a gang of three lads he employed from his hometown of Garstang set to, managing to move himself and his wife Doris in by 1968. Bill in the meantime was already up and running over at Widdale Foot:

“Bill had a wagon, and I was driving it. I had an HGV licence which I got in the Army and I went to Clitheroe, Gisburn,  those sort of places to buy pigs and bring them across to Bill in Hawes, because the Milk Marketing Board had started in a small way, making cheese, making the whey, and Bill started, we started, that’s how we started really. In the meantime, Bill was getting some men organised in Hawes, builders, who were also very good. These country builders, we were impressed with them. They were sincere men, they were on time and they worked hard and they always have done really.”

Disaster struck Neil’s side of the business however soon after completion on the farm with the outbreak of Foot & Mouth late in 1967 which prevented him moving his 70 breeding sows over from Churchtown. Work progressed on the farm in spite of the inconvenience. He bought a large Army hut for a pound a foot and organised his lads to help him bring it across from St Helens in Lancashire:

“…it was built before the war for the troops and the timber’s exceptionally good it’s Russian pine and that Canadian pine, we bought it, I got lads round Garstang, borrowed a wagon, took it all down bit by bit, every weekend, went to St Helens, loaded it up, brought it up here, and just a little, just a little something different, we broke down outside the pub called the Middleton Head [‘The Head at Middleton’], just outside of Kirkby Lonsdale one Sunday and there was a mechanic in there called Teddy Morford who has a business in Sedbergh and he came and fixed us, but through that meeting [laughing], all these farmers, we met these farmers and to this very day, lot have died since, we made friends, y’know, they were very helpful and we had a bit of a laugh, that’s how it started really that Middleton Head pub, that little chapter.”

Foot & Mouth eventually let up and with his new buildings and sow stalls Neil was ready to start breeding the pigs that Bill would then fatten for meat on the whey from the Hawes Dairy. Unfortunately Britain had by then entered a period of severe financial instability made famous or rather notorious by the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s ‘Pound in Your Pocket‘ speech. The pound was devalued and their bank came calling:

“…they wanted to double our repayments to £450 a month, which we couldn’t pay. So then we had t’do a, we went to Economic Forestry who were looking for land at the time and those trees have just been cut down in last year or two, taken roughly forty or fifty years. That’s how long it’s take[n] trees t’reach maturity. And Bill sold 400 acres at Widdale Foot at £30 an acre and we left the bank in Poulton-le-Fylde and went t’the Barclays Bank in Hawes, where we still bank, who were much more sympathetic, more understanding, and of course, with the Wensleydale Cheese down the road and taking the whey and everything fell into place really.”

Before they moved bank they did play their old bank along a little as Neil describes:

“…we did get a letter from the bank in Poulton saying, ‘we strongly advise you to discontinue your venture in farming [laughing],’ which I’ve still got actually, in a drawer [laughing]. We did meet the bank at the Fenwick Arms at Claughton on the way t’Lancaster and Bill and I had a fillet steak, knowing that we were going to leave them [laughing], but we did play them along a little while. So this is all part of living, i’nt it really?”

Even with Barclays Bank being so much more helpful, the inflation rate continued to cause them problems. Feeding the pigs on a ration and whey was crucial in keeping the cost of raising the pigs down as Neil explains in the following audio clip:

With the business on a sounder financial footing, Neil was able to begin to set down roots. The locals proved to be ‘shy’ and a little hard to get to know. Their traditional farming methods were also a bit of an eye-opener for Lancashire-born Neil:

“…they’d still just started using hay balers and they used to cock the hay [before that] and the little shorthorn cows and the farming practices were, t’me it was amazing really, the difference.”

In spite of the initial difficulties, Neil felt that he and Bill contributed a great deal to the local economy:

“…eventually we’d 230 sows here, we kept adding buildings on, and these three laddies eventually went back to Garstang, because I found more local men, so it was like a cottage industry. There was the Dairy, with the whey, and Bill was feeding the pigs out there. I was breeding them here. We were giving employment, we were continually building here, and Bill was likewise, so we’d builders here and builders there. We used to stop and start them, they were happy to do that as the finances permitted and then we took one or two men on, so it was, as I say, we gave employment,  think we improved the local, [a] lot of people in this area have worked here, a lot, probably twenty, at least twenty, so it was a good thing I thought, at the time, ‘cos we brought employment.”

Neil was proud of his modern management methods. They ran a three monthly accounting process which kept the banks happy and he weaned his piglets every 21 days:

“I mean I was used to three-a-week weaning y’see. I practised that before I came to live up here, which is a very new management tool in pig farming where every 21 or 22 [days], we used to wean every Wednesday, take the little pigs off their mothers. So therefore we were getting, we averaged about 22 pigs per sow per year, when the national average then was about 16 or 17, because you were getting that extra litter, nearly, an extra litter a year.”

Feeding whey to the pigs saved a great deal on the feed bills but it wasn’t a straightforward process:

“But as time went on, we utilised the whey to the full. The little pigs, we used to steep food [in whey], give it to the little pigs. Whey is like a probiotic, it’s like yoghurt really, so therefore, they never needed worming little pigs, because the whey saw to that, they put shiny coats on them. As I say, a probiotic, used to get the bugs in the stomach, keep them balanced and everything. But providing you knew how to feed it. You give sows too much whey they used to get haemorrhagic gut, which used to kill them…they burst y’see. So y’got to understand this whey regime. That’s why, I think, when we came up here, the people weren’t fighting over it.”

One of Neil Haworth's whey-fed pigs. Courtesy of Neil Haworth
One of Neil Haworth’s whey-fed pigs. Courtesy of Neil Haworth

One particularly useful boar called Jack, proved to have a bit too much of a liking for whey and if allowed, became so full he couldn’t ‘perform’ any more that day much to Neil’s farming friends’ amusement.

“…and I used to look at some of my [beer-drinking] friends in Sedbergh, ‘ave got big tummies on them, y’know, and I used to say, ‘well I had a boar like you boys once,’ I said, ‘and he was no good either’ [laughing]. And they still remember it, it was a long time ago, but these boys still remember it…and he did actually die with haemorrhagic gut unfortunately, he did burst himself, because he was just like these lads with 8/9 pints of beer!”

The Dairy prospered as did Neil and Bill’s business, however, during the 1980s, the then owners, Dairy Crest, began to run the business down, neglecting buildings and stripping assets. In 1992 Dairy Crest decided to close the factory in Hawes down and concentrate the cheese-making business in their Longridge factory over in Lancashire. This was a major problem for Bill and Neil as they had to travel much further to collect their whey:

“… I had to buy a bigger tanker, 2,000 gallon tanker, and I’d to hire one or two local lads who I knew had HGV licence, to go into, all the way to Longridge for the whey, which was a headache for me. It was a big headache really. And Bill was doing the same until they sorted this production, which eventually did get sorted out.”

Neil recalls in this audio clip,  the court case when Dairy Crest tried to take the famous Wensleydale calf’s head logo with them to Longridge, only to have it rejected by the judge:

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

A management buy-out saved the factory in Hawes and Neil and Bill were able to restart collecting whey locally. By this time, pig farmers from the east of the county were also collecting whey:

“And of course it really blossomed and at times, Tom Metcalfe, local lad in the dale, one of the many Metcalfes here, used to drive my tanker…they used to ring him, they used to say, ‘Tom, the tanks are full, the whey tanks are full.’ Or Christmas time, things like that, when it snowed, the man from the other side of the country couldn’t get, ‘cos it’s not a good road all the way from Bedale/Leyburn through, that road…so we have 9,000 gallon tank in the yard down here, big tank in the ground we put, 9,000 gallon it was. It’s still there. And so Tom was able to, kept them ticking over really.”

Neil is very admiring of the way the Wensleydale Creamery, as it is now-called, has prospered under the management of David Hartley who led the original management buy-out. The calf’s head logo is still very much in use too:

“…but it’s never looked back that…it’s absolutely amazing now isn’t it? When you go there, it’s absolutely amazing today, it’s main employer. But it’s amazing what a management buy-out, a successful management buy-out and a man like David Hartley is, never looked back. The Wallace and Gromit and everything.”

Wallace and Gromit models at the Wensleydale Creamery recently
Wallace and Gromit models at the Wensleydale Creamery recently

Towards the end of his pig farming career, and after the partnership with Bill had been amicably dissolved, Neil raised pigs for meat himself, selling to butchers far and wide. In this audio clip he describes how much nicer whey-fed pork tasted:

Neil gradually phased out the use of whey in his pig rearing units. The Hawes Creamery now recycles its whey within the factory, removing all the food content and using the resulting clean water to wash down the plant. Neil got rid of his last pig 15 years ago:

“Well, I saw m’last pig, I’m now 82, when I was 67…and I’ve only just got rid of m’sheep now, because I tore my achilles tendon so sheep have only been gone two years, so I kept m’sheep until I was 80…yes, I’ve had good health here, this hillside here is very therapeutic, it keeps the old heart ticking, you don’t need any medication, [laughing] no.”

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