New evidence reveals Eighteenth century Craven drovers summer pasturing their cattle on the Lincolnshire fens

Tony Stephens
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 


The NCHT Journal of 2008 included an article by the author describing the cattle- droving activities of the Birtwhistle family of Skipton. Between 1745 and 1819, John Birtwhistle and three of his sons, William, Alexander and Robert, ran one of the most successful cattle-droving businesses in Britain. They brought Scottish and Irish cattle fattened on their holdings in South-West Scotland through Craven on their way to markets in East Anglia.

John Birtwhistle bequeathed the business to the three droving brothers as tenants-in-common and, when the last of the brothers died in 1819, there was an inheritance dispute which was only finally resolved in the House of Lords in 1841. The estate remained intact during the dispute, and the court records in The National Archives provide a detailed account of the Birtwhistle land in Craven.

By far the largest Craven holding was an 872 acre estate on the Long Preston/Airton hilltops. This comprised Crakemoor farm in Airton, purchased by John Birtwhistle in 1784, and the adjacent Langber pasture in Long Preston, acquired by the three brothers under Long Preston’s Parliamentary Enclosure Act of 1799. Although Langber Lane (Fig.1) which runs through the Birtwhistle’s hilltop holding had not been recorded as a drove road by previous authors, it must have been so at the end of the 18th century. It will have been down this lane that Birtwhistle cattle set off on their way to southern markets.

Recent researches by Professor Julian Hoppit of University College London in the Sutro library in San Francisco have led to the discovery that, for many years, the Birtwhistles pastured large numbers of cattle illicitly on unenclosed fenland to the north of Boston in Lincolnshire. Having read the on-line version of the Birtwhistle article in the 2008 NCHT Journal, Professor Hoppit kindly contacted the NCHT to make the author aware of his findings. The purpose of this paper is to discuss how Professor Hoppit’s researches extend our understanding of the Birtwhistle droving business, a business of major importance to the North Craven economy in the last half of the 18th century.

The Sir Joseph Banks papers in the Sutro library San Francisco

Sir Joseph Banks, who circumnavigated the world with Captain Cook, was descended from Laurencius del Bank who is recorded paying rent for a property in Giggleswick in 1314. The Banks family lived in Giggleswick until the 17th century, giving their name to the area known as Bankwell. It was Sir Joseph’s great-grandfather who moved to Lincolnshire in 1714, on purchasing the 11,000 acre Revesby estate to the north of Boston. With ownership of Revesby came chairmanship of the fenland court,which had jurisdiction over 40,000 acres of fenland lying to the north of Boston. Sir Joseph’s papers were offered for sale at Sotheby’s in 1880, and the fenland court records were among the lots which eventually found their way to the Sutro library in San Francisco. Fortunately, although much of the Sutro library collection was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Banks papers survived.

The Birtwhistles invest in Lincolnshire fenland

Fenland comprises some hundreds of thousands of acres of land, lying roughly between Cambridge in the south and Lincoln in the north. To understand why the Birtwhistles should be active in the northern rather than the southern fens requires an understanding of how the fens were enclosed, and how their enclosure affected property rights on them.

Today fenland is some of the most valuable arable land in England, but this was not always the case. Being low-lying and badly drained by slow moving rivers, the fens were frequently subject to inundation, making their natural state marshland. In earlier centuries fenland provided subsistence livings to residents in the small hamlets bordering the fens, their main occupations being fowling, fishing, gathering sedge for roofing and willow for basket-making, and the pasturing of a few cattle during the summer months.

The potential for the fens to be drained and converted to high quality arable land was well recognised in the 16th century, but it was not until after the Civil War that serious attempts at drainage were made. The largest and best known of the fen drainage projects was of the fens surrounding the Great Ouse and Nene rivers. This was undertaken by the Duke of Bedford and fellow ‘adventurers’ who employed Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden to devise a scheme which involved creating two twenty-mile channels to increase water flows, and sluices to avoid tidal ingress. This hugely expensive project was financed by the Duke and his ‘adventurers’ but, in return, they rewarded themselves with large tracts of reclaimed land; the ‘commoners’’traditional rights on the fens were expunged.

The fens to the north of Boston were badly drained because the slow-moving river Witham falls only 16 feet in the 20 miles between Lincoln and Boston. A drain was created between Cowbridge and Boston in 1568 (the Maud Foster drain) and this was followed in 1631 by a scheme devised by Sir Anthony Thomas under which he and fellow ‘adventurers’ claimed 16,000 of the 40,000 acres of the Wildmore, West and East fens. However, unlike in the fens to the south, the ‘commoners’ on the northern fens successfully fought back against the ‘adventurers’. They took matters into their own hands by breaking the sluices and dykes and flooding the ‘adventurers’’ land. An appeal to parliament by the ‘adventurers’ was unsuccessful, and the ‘commoners’ regained their traditional fenland rights.

Unlike the southern fens, which had fallen into private ownership on enclosure, the fens to the north of Boston were still unenclosed when John Birtwhistle purchased land in Skirbeck near Boston in 1769. As may be seen in Figure 2, this was still the case when the fens were mapped by Armstrong in 1778, and it was not until 1801 that a Parliamentary Act was passed to enable them to be enclosed. What must have influenced John Birtwhistle to purchase property in Skirbeck in 1769 was that with ownership came ‘commoner’ rights to pasture cattle on the West and East Fens to the north of Boston. At the same time as purchasing land in Skirbeck John also purchased the rectory of Skirbeck, installing his eldest son, Rev. Thomas Birtwhistle, as the Skirbeck rector.

A high proportion of Scottish cattle coming into England in the 18th century were destined for the London market, but they did not normally proceed directly there. Cattle lost typically around one third of their body weight on the long journey from Scotland, so needed fattening for several months close to their final market before being sold to butchers. The simplest arrangement was for the drovers to sell their cattle at St Faith’s Fair near Norwich. The graziers who purchased the cattle fattened them on turnips over the winter months, and the cattle were taken to Smithfields in the spring - a walk of around a week. Norfolk farmers were keen to accommodate droving cattle on their turnip fields, since the manure generated increased wheat yields later in the year.

St Faith’s Fair, near Norwich, the most important cattle market in England since medieval times, was held over a three-week period from 17 October. With Boston being only a week’s drove from St Faith’s, the Birtwhistles could take their cattle to St Faith’s Fair in much better condition than cattle which had just arrived from Scotland. Also, with access to pastureland in Scotland, Yorkshire and East Anglia, the Birtwhistles were not entirely dependent on selling at St Faith’s; they could take cattle to markets closer to London at times of the year when prices might be higher. There are records of William and Alexander Birtwhistle offering ‘strong fresh Galway Scots’ for sale in Hoxne (to the south of Norwich) in March 1782 and of Messrs. Birtwhistle offering cattle in Ipswich in December 1803.

What the Banks papers tell us about the Birtwhistle activities on the Lincolnshire fens

The Skirbeck land tax return of 1771 shows the newly installed rector of Skirbeck, Rev. Thomas Birtwhistle, paying around two and a half times the average Skirbeck land tax. This should have entitled him to put around 20 cattle on West fen, but the fenland court records show this entitlement being considerably exceeded. Because the pasture rights on the fens had never been properly defined, the fenland court struggled to find a basis for mounting a legal challenge. Describing the Birtwhistles as ‘delinguents’, a Mr Coltman complained in a letter to Sir Joseph that ‘no man has ventured to declare the law therefore it becomes necessary to ascertain and establish both the general and individual right on the commons.’

In 1784 the court was advised that 520 owners had a total of 3936 cattle on the West fen that year, 300 belonging to Rev. Thomas Birtwhistle, and no-one else having more than 60 cattle. A Table appended to the minutes showed that there had been an average of around 600 Birtwhistle cattle on West Fen during the period 1774 to 1784.

Year Number
of cattle
Table 1 Record of Reverend Thomas Birtwhistle’s cattle on West Fen 1774-1784

Because the cattle on the fen were in the name of the Rev. Thomas Birtwhistle, the older brother of the three drovers, there was justified suspicion that the rector was acting as a front man for his three professional drover brothers. Following a court meeting, Sir Joseph wrote to the Rev. Birtwhistle questioning whether ‘there has been any collusion between yourself and any other person’. He added: ‘I have before me the quantities of stock you have depastured on the fens every year for the last ten. I do not see how any jury … can estimate the profit which has arisen to you in those 10 years … as less than £3000’. Despite reminding the Rev. Birtwhistle that: ‘I stand forth in character of the Kings approver for the fens an office instituted for the express purpose of regulating the conduct of the commons’ Sir Joseph appears to have been powerless to persuade the Rev. Birtwhistle to reduce the number of Birtwhistle cattle on the fens. In 1792 the fen court recorded that there had been 568 Birtwhistle cattle on West fen that year.

After the Rev. Birtwhistle died in 1789, it was no longer possible to pretend that the cattle were his, and the fenland court meeting in 1792 recorded that the cattle belonged to Robert Birtwhistle (the former rector’s youngest brother). Benjamin Hildred, the Cowbridge toll keeper, reported to the court that Robert had come to his toll bar in person on 5 October and had paid the toll for 240 cattle taken through the toll bar towards Boston that day. A further 311 Birtwhistle cattle had been taken through the toll bar on 17 October, followed by 17 cattle on 24 October, the toll for these two droves being paid by Peter Blackburn, a Boston innkeeper, ‘on behalf of Mr Robert Birtwhistle’. A Thomas Herring advised the court that a local man, William Carry of Sibsey, had looked after the Birtwhistle cattle on the fens during the summer months, and that they had been driven out of the fen and through the toll bar at Cowbridge towards Boston by a person ‘dressed like a Scotchman in plaid’.

During the 1790s commissioners toured the country preparing detailed reports for the government on the state of the country’s agriculture. In Settle they were baffled to see cattle which were ‘long horned and seem in shape, skin and other circumstances to be nearly the same as the Irish cattle’. It is likely that these were indeed Irish cattle, brought from Galloway by the Birtwhistles. One of the attractions to the Birtwhistles of buying several large farms in Galloway had been the availability of cattle which could be purchased in Ireland for £4.50 to £5, sold in Lincolnshire for £8 to £9, or for £13 to £17 if fattened for a summer in Lincolnshire. These figures are consistent with Sir Joseph’s estimate that the Birtwhistles’ annual benefit from putting their cattle on West Fen was more than £3000. The Birtwhistles had a close relationship with the laird of Gatehouse of Fleet, who invited them to build a cotton mill in the town (which survives as the Gatehouse of Fleet Visitors’ Centre). The laird had a large but unprofitable cattle estate in Galway, and it is likely that it would have been cattle from his Galway estate which William and Alexander Birtwhistle described as ‘very strong fresh Galway Scots’ when offered for sale at Hoxne in Suffolk in March 1782.

Much of the information in the commissioners’ report about agriculture in the Boston area appears to have been derived from a visit they paid to Sir Joseph Banks at Revesby. They were concerned to see that the fens to the north of Boston were still unenclosed and worth only 3 shillings an acre, when they would have been worth 18 shillings an acre if enclosed and put to arable use. Sir Joseph explained that, although he was keen to see the fens enclosed, the 47 parishes which had commoner rights on the fens were still divided on the matter of enclosure.

Although we are aware from the Sutro archive that the Birtwhistles summer-pastured cattle on the West Fen, the commissioners’ report, published in 1799, revealed that they also placed cattle on the East Fen. ‘Mr Birtwhistle ( Robert)… is much spoken of for stocking East and West Fen, chiefly the latter with Scotch beasts… this person was a contractor for vast numbers, even to the number between 700 and 800 even 1000, which he summered here, and then drove them into Norfolk to sell for turnips; and it is said his father made much money by this practice’. It is also highly likely that they will have pastured cattle on Wildmore fen since, in addition to purchasing the rectory of Skirbeck for his son Rev. Thomas Birtwhistle, John Birtwhistle also purchased the adjacent rectory of Fishtoft for his son-in-law Rev. John Vardill. Fishtoft residents had pasture rights on Wildmore Fen.

As rector, Rev. Vardill was not required to be resident in Fishtoft, and at different times lived in London, Yorkshire and with the Birtwhistle family in South-West Scotland. It was from his London residence in 1791 that his brother-in-law, William Birtwhistle, wrote a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, expressing an interest in the enclosure of the Lincolnshire fens. However, his letter did not have the desired effect; when the fens were enclosed under a Parliamentary Act of 1801 the Birtwhistles were only allocated land due to them as Skirbeck residents. Sir Joseph is unlikely to have felt kindly disposed to the droving brothers who had, despite his remonstrations, continued to overstock the fens with their cattle.

The drove route from the Lincolnshire fens to St Faith's Fair

The Birtwhistle cattle are likely to have skirted the Wash on their route to St Faith’s, following a well-established droving route through Wisbech and Swaffham, with a rest stop at Sketchey, just to the south of Kings Lynn. Drovers needed to plan their routes carefully to ensure that there was feed for their cattle at the end of the day, and one of the attractions of Sketchey was that its farmers made their fields available to drovers. Although St Faith’s was the main cattle fair in East Anglia, there were also many subsidiary cattle fairs in villages on the way to St Faith’s (such as Sketchey), and also on the way from St Faith’s to Smithfields market in London (such as Hoxne). Although the Birtwhistles had a bank account in London, no records have yet come to light of them having taken cattle further south than Ipswich.

Concluding remarks

The droving trade was of major economic importance to the economy of North Craven for approximately a century from the middle of the 18th century to the advent of the railway age. Although John Birtwhistle and his sons were only actively engaged in the droving business between 1745 and 1819, their executors kept much of their estate intact during the protracted inheritance dispute which was only settled in 1841. Their records therefore span most of the period when droving was at its peak. Because of its fragmentary nature, droving was poorly documented by contemporaries. The importance of the Birtwhistle records is that they enable us to build a picture not only of the Birtwhistles’ activities, but also of the likely activities of Craven drovers for whom no records survive.

What emerges from the records is new insights into North Craven’s involvement in the handling of cattle in transit from Scotland and Ireland to East Anglia. St Faith’s Fair in late October is likely to have been where many of the cattle seen briefly in North Craven were sold to graziers for fattening on turnips before being driven to Smithfield market the following year.

This paper illustrates the value to authors of publishing in journals such as the NCHT whose articles later appear on-line. Without having read the on-line version of the NCHT Birtwhistle article of 2008, Professor Hoppit would not have appreciated the value of his discoveries in California relating to the Birtwhistles, and would not have fed his findings back to the NCHT. Also, as new research material continues to emerge from the archives and be placed on the web, it is possible that important additional insights into the droving trade still await discovery.

Further reading

  • Bonsor, R.B., 1970. The Drovers. MacMillan
  • Darby, H.C., 1956. The Draining of the Fens. Cambridge University Press.
  • Haldane, A.R. B., 1997. The Drovers of Scotland. Birlinn Ltd.
  • Stephens, T, 2012. The Birtwhistles of Craven and Galloway. Although this private publication is out of print, it should shortly be available on the web at
  • Young, A., 1799. General View of the Agriculture or the County of Lincoln. W Bulmer & Co. This publication is available on the web, and a lead to it may be found under

Figure 1 Langber Lane in Long Preston; an important drove road at the end of the 18th century
Figure 2. Armstrong’s map showing that the fens lying between Boston and Revesby were unenclosed in 1778 ( the original of this map is to be found at Lincoln in the Lincolnshire Record Office)
Figure 3 The sluice at Cowbridge (Lincolnshire) and ...
... a sign at the nearby Cowbridge House Inn which recalls usage of Cowbridge in droving days
Figure 4 Locations associated with the Birtwhistle droving business, 1745-1819

Figure 1 Langber Lane in Long Preston; an important drove road at the end of the 18th century

Figure 2. Armstrong’s map showing that the fens lying between Boston and Revesby were unenclosed in 1778 ( the original of this map is to be found at Lincoln in the Lincolnshire Record Office)

Figure 3 The sluice at Cowbridge (Lincolnshire) and ...

... a sign at the nearby Cowbridge House Inn which recalls usage of Cowbridge in droving days

Figure 4 Locations associated with the Birtwhistle droving business, 1745-1819