Women in the dairy

In our last blog post ‘Traditional cheese making‘, we touched on the crucial role that women played in the farmhouse dairy in years gone by. It was their craft skills, industry and attention to detail that resulted in cheeses which, when sold provided a substantial part of a Wensleydale dairy farm’s income. The men-folk stuck to the management of the dairy herd and farmland and seem at least in Wensleydale to have done the bulk of the milking. The dairy and the cheese room were apparently the realm of the women, usually a wife, daughter or well-qualified dairy maid.

Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby make it quite clear that this was the situation right up until the end of traditional farmhouse cheesemaking in Wensleydale:

“The farmer’s wife, with the help of a daughter, controlled the cheese making while another daughter, if there was no dairy maid, concentrated on the butter-making.”

Marie Hartley & Joan Ingilby (1968) ‘Life and Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales’

Illustration from ‘Life & Tradition’

It’s not clear how long women have played this role however and there is also some dispute about how important they were to the industry after the 1850s when scientific advancements and new technologies were thought to have revolutionised the making of cheese in England.

Tradition has it that cheese making was brought to Wensleydale by the French Savigniac monks who founded Fors Abbey near Bainbridge in the twelfth century. The Wensleydale Creamery claim a thousand year heritage for their cheese on this basis.

The monks certainly made cheese, Marie Hartley & Joan Ingilby refer to an inventory of stock and assets for Fors Abbey dated to 1150 which mentions cheese made from ewe’s milk (‘Life & Tradition’ 1968 p11).  When the abbey was passed from the Savigniac order to the Cistercian order, the monk negotiating from Fors,  records that they also had cows and calves which one must assume they were milking too:

“Brother Peter addressed the Abbot of Quarr, telling him that he and his two associates to whom the site had been given in the first instance had toiled there much, and that, blessed be the Most High, they had 5 ploughs at work, 40 cows with their young, 16 mares with their foals given by the earl, 5 sows with their young, 300 sheep, and 30 skins in tan, and wax and oil for two years, and they were confident that they could find bread, ale, cheese and butter for the first year, and they believed that an abbot and convent could begin with what there was in the place till it should please God to provide more bountifully for them.”

‘Victoria County History’ Richmondshire 23 The Abbey of Jervaulx

So, we can establish that cheese and butter was being made at Fors Abbey in the twelfth century. With potentially 40 cows and a lot of sheep to milk , it’s unlikely that the three male monks were doing the actual dairying. Religious houses like Fors had so-called lay brothers to do all their farm work. Did they milk the Abbey’s beasts and make cheese and butter for the monks too?

We’ve found no historical record yet that the monks or their lay brothers at Fors actually passed cheese making recipes on to local people, it’s always just been assumed that they did. By 1157 they had abandoned the site and moved up river to Jervaulx, although they retained ownership of a farm or grange called Dale Grange there and land which even today is known as High and Low Abbotside.

Medieval illustrations of the wider world  usually showed women involved in the making of butter and cheese as well as milking cows although men do also feature.

Bodleian Library. MS Bodley 764 Fol 44

By Elizabethan times, we see women very much at the forefront of dairy work. William Harrison writes:

“…I am sure herof that some housewives can and do add daily a less portion of ewe’s milk unto the cheese of so many kine [cows], whereby their cheese doth the longer abide moist, and eateth more brickle and mellow than otherwise it would.”

‘A Description of England’ by William Harrison (1534-1593). Published as ‘Elizabethan England’ (1876) ed Lothrop Withington 

By the eighteenth century, publications like ‘The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director In the Management of a House, and The Delights and Profits of A Farm’  assume that women will be in sole charge of the dairy.

“…besides the goodness of the Milk and the Rennet, if a Cheese is over press’d, it will be hard and unpleasant; but it is to be remark’d, that all Cheeses that are hard press’d will keep longer than those that are gently press’d, and bear transporting thro’ the hottest Climates, which the more tender-made Cheeses will not without corrupting…”

R. Bradley (1728). Republished by the Echo Library 2006

It’s interesting to note that in a late Victorian cheese and butter competition held in Leyburn, very few of the winners listed are women. Did all these Wensleydale farmers actually make their prize winning butter and cheeses?

York Herald 1890

Nicola Verdon has made a special study of the role of women in the dairying industry from 1800. She begins by observing that, “Women had special skills in the dairy, based on the handing down of extremely sensitive methods of ensuring the development of a quality product by word of mouth from generation to generation.”

Nicola Verdon (2006) ‘Women and the dairy industry in England, c1800-1939’  

She goes on to demonstrate, what both Kit Calvert and Marie Hartley & Joan Ingilby had already observed, that despite advances in scientific methods and technologies, women were still in sole charge of the farmhouse dairy right up until the outbreak of the Second World War despite what might have been written in contemporary literature.

Nicola Verdon’s research clearly sets the record straight. She quotes from a wonderful article written in 1917 by Margaret Shanks for the ‘Journal of the British Dairy Farmers’ Association’:

“…dairying as a whole is carried on by women and men, working together in closest partnership. Men alone cannot carry on the dairying of the country – although to read through a whole Journal one would think that there was not a woman ever looked at a cow or handled a pail of milk – nor can they tell how the partnership of women could be utilised to the highest advantage. There is no man who will say that the women’s contribution is small … But this element of just representation has not yet been even fairly grasped by the great body of farmers. They combine, and they confer, and they write as if dairying was entirely in their own hands, and purely under male control. And it is not so.”

Margaret Shanks (1917) ‘JBDFA’, 31 pp108-118

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