War and Peat: memories of Austwick Moss.

Molly Preston
 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

In the days when peat was the main domestic fuel, every household in Austwick was entitled to a section of Austwick Moss for the purpose of extracting peat, The turfs of peat were stacked up to dry and then transported by cart to their homes and stored in the peat house, usually a stone building attached to the house. When peat was replaced by coal, the peat pits were abandoned and wildlife took over. The pits filled with water and water-loving plants became established: being an acid environment sphagnum moss became the main plant. This plant, being water retentive and highly absorbent, was recognised in war-time as an alternative to cotton wool which was no longer obtainable.

Chris Cheetham, a well known local naturalist, was contacted and he organised teams of school children to collect moss under his supervision. His extensive knowledge of plants enabled him to identify the sphagnum. I think you had to volunteer to take part and it looked a better option than school lessons to me. I believe the year I was involved was 1940 as I had moved to Settle School by 1941. Whether it was continued after that year I have no recollection.

Austwick Moss lies south of the village and south of the A65. The sphagnum was growing in the peat pits so it was quite tricky to extract without falling in. When you look back it was a risky operation for school children, the pits were very deep and dangerous. There was a narrow grassy path between the pits so you learnt to keep to the paths. When the moss was extracted it was hung on the bushes and stone walls to dry. Then it was packed into sacks and despatched to hospitals.

Bog myrtle, an aromatic shrub grew in abundance and there was some dwarf silver birch and willow trees. We marvelled at the exotic colours of the dragonflies.

For me, as well as a fun day out, it turned out to be a life changing opportunity to learn about the flora and fauna in this area.

Sphagnum was used as a surgical dressing on an industrial scale by all sides during the First World War. In the British army it was used as a field dressing which was sewn into the inside of uniform jackets. Capable of absorbing more than twice as much blood as cotton wool it was also discovered to have antiseptic properties. The moss releases a chemical called ‘sphagnan’ which inhibits nitrogen uptake by bacteria and so prevents their growth. It has been suggested that the harvesting of moss was discontinued after the war but Moll’s memories clearly contradict this and show that the practice continued during World War II.

Chris Cheetham (1875-1954) was involved in harvesting sphagnum during both World Wars. More details of his life can be found in an obituary published in the Naturalist (79: 159-163), which is available on-line on the Yorkshire Naturalists’ website.