Our volunteer Stuart Barron interviewed William (Billy) Porter last month, one of our oldest contributors to the project at 86. He was born at West Shaw Cote Farm, Abbotside in 1936.
“…m’father used t’milk cows there and take it down in a wheelbarrow, t’be picked up by Herbert Mason and his wagon…churns, aye. I used t’go t’school at Bainbridge in among the churns, the girls were in the front, in the cab in the front. I enjoyed it, anyway. In 1942, we moved to Newbiggin, and it was a farm that was owned by MP for Birkenhead, R G Russell. We had shorthorn cattle there and a Friesian bull calf came by rail, in a bag with his head sticking out [laughs], and we reared it, and y’had t’get licence, t’licence a bull then, but just over a year old it had t’be, between one and two years old, and we got it licenced. But m’father wasn’t too keen on it being black and white, and he sold it, but we served quite a few cows before we sold it and they were very good was the first cross y’know.”
William (Billy) Porter (86), formerly of Horrabank Farm, Askrigg
The family had a long association with dairying. William showed us a photograph of his grandfather Wilson G. Scarr as a young man, driving a milk cart for a Liverpool-based dairy, Kettlewell Bros of Park Road, Bromborough. Read more about these city dairies in our blog post Wensleydale cowkeepers in Liverpool
Even while William was still at school, he had to hand-milk cows before setting off in the morning, ready for the milk churns to be put out by nine o’clock for the milk ‘bus’ as he calls it. He considered himself not a very good hand-milker:
“I weren’t a really good hand-milker, m’father was a good hand-milker but, I used to sometimes fall asleep just about [laughs]…because I were up so early! But I enjoyed it and that, it was great really.”
They milked about sixteen cows at home, but once William was old enough, he left to work on other farms. His first job involved milking seventy cows and keeping the milk records, then he moved on, graduating from managing a farm for someone else, to renting his own, as he describes in this audio clip:
At his first job, every cow was named and he had to learn those names sharpish in order to keep the records up-to-date.
Later in the clip, he mentions using a hand barrow with motorcycle wheels that he used to transport his milk cans in – he apparently inherited it from the previous tenant:
“Farmer there before me, he had the same barrows, same sort of barrow, and he said his Irishman he had for haytime, a lad, take it down t’the milk stand and it ran away of them and all there was were two can lid-fulls of milk [laughing]…and he cried all day in the hayfield he said [laughs]. ‘Cos he’d milked it all by hand y’know…”
He also talks about the hard winters he has had to cope with. The terrible storm of 1947 is still vividly remembered in the Dales when it proved almost impossible to get milk away and the government resorted to dropping animal fodder by RAF plane onto the most remote farms.
In this audio clip, William recalls having to carry their milk out using back cans during that dreadful winter:
His family’s milk seems to have gone to the dairy in Hawes for cheese:
“Herbert Mason drove the milk bus that picked it up there it went t’Hawes Dairy, but m’grandmother, they lived at Newstead Farm just a little bit below, and in the ‘30s, they never got paid for two months, so she went and begged and they gave her a gold sovereign…that was the greatest thing when the Milk Marketing Board came out…set price… and y’got paid month end. It was great. It just flew off, did the milk. It made these dales what they are. Everybody benefited, y’know, by the milk price.”
Once William was established on his own farm at Horrabank, Askrigg, he seems to have sent his milk to the Express Dairy in Leyburn. From there it was transported in tankers to London, at first by rail, and then later by tanker lorry. Some farmers he knew retailed their milk locally, while others supplied the dairy in Askrigg:
“Askrigg Dairy was on the go in the ‘40s. Hugills ran that, Reg Hugill, and…some of the local farmers sent it there. They made cheese and butter, at Askrigg Dairy…it was opposite the church, about 20 yards, up between some houses. Opposite the church it was, aye. And Jackie Halton picked it up in the milk wagon, when it went there. And he went to be an ambulance driver after that. When it closed…Well it was there in the ‘30s, and it ran ‘til about ’60 or something like that, 1960. Yeah. And then it went t’Hawes after that…but our milk went t’Express Dairy in Leyburn.”
Before the days of refrigeration, the only way they could keep the milk cool in summer was to stand the churns in running water. Sometimes if a churn was returned to them by the dairy because the milk wasn’t fresh enough, it was turned into cheese, but William has no recollection of cheese and butter being made commercially even in his father’s day. At Horrabank, there was evidence of the dairy work done by previous generations of farm women:
“Previously they did [make cheese] and in the farmhouse there was one room which were made into a bathroom and everything, it was all cheese shelves, all way round. Made a lot of cheese there. The daughters there wanted t’get married and they wouldn’t let ‘em get married ‘cos they wanted to keep ‘em at home making cheese y’know, and that was a shame. It was dreadful.”
Throughout the interview, he often mentions how important the Milk Marketing Board was in fixing prices and guaranteeing an income for local milk producers. He showed Stuart a photograph of a group outing organised by a local farm feed supplier:
“…all them farmers in that picture, there’s thirty of them I think, and they’re all local farmers, every one of them sold milk… it’s quite a thing that…it’s all there was up the dales was milk selling. And when it come to a guaranteed price, y’know, at the Milk Marketing Board, people with just a few cows, two or three cows, they all sold milk. It was what made the place, aye.”
Like every other dairy farmer in Wensleydale, William started out with northern dairy shorthorns, but eventually made the change to the black and white Friesian cows which he liked. He did not, however, take to Holsteins.
“I found it very interesting, especially breeding the cows for the milk job…British Friesian came in…I’ve a picture there…the first crosses were very good and the Friesian cows were very good, but I don’t reckon much t’the Holstein myself, they give too much milk y’know and they can’t keep the condition right and artificial insemination, y’never knew which kind of bull y’were getting and I think they neglected the conformation y’know and they don’t have a long enough life, milk life, don’t wear long enough doesn’t they. They don’t come into service as easy when they give a lot of milk.”
Comparing the highly technical computer controlled feeding of cows on his daughter’s farm, he talked about his own less scientific approach:
“I like them tied up, cows. They were all individual y’know, y’had t’feed them individually…it might be me, but I think we’ve gone too far now, yes. I don’t know how they do, a lot of cows together. When they were tied up you could walk up the byre and you knew instantly if there was anything not just right or everything…they all had, fed separate, amount of hay and that…now they’re all fed together…”
William gave up milking in 1992 after his wife fell ill and retired from farming about ten years ago.