Austwick Agriculture

Stan Lawrence

 North Craven 
 Heritage Trust 

Throughout its life Austwick has been concerned with agriculture, sometimes as its main occupation and sometimes in a subservient role, such as in the times when the manufacture of textiles provided the main means of earning a living. Although at present farming is entirely pastoral, with a variety of breeds of cattle and sheep, the terracing on the hillsides points to earlier arable fields and this is borne out in the written record.

The earliest detailed survey of the village agriculture was in the year 1297, just after the army of King Edward I was defeated by the Scots under William Wallace at the Battle of Stirling Bridge and urgent taxation was needed to pay for the campaign. Lists were made of moveable possessions worth nine shillings or more (45 pence in modern money, although this is quite irrelevant!), and a tax of one ninth of their value was levied and sent straight to the army in the field.

In this survey Nicholas of Crombeck (Crummock) was first in the list. He shared with Henry Puckeman the role of the most affluent inhabitant with goods valued at 31s. 6d. (1.58). His dwelling, Crummock, gives us the first mention of that farm. Nicholas of Crummock was taxed on two oxen (probably part of a plough team), three cows, 17 sheep and a cartload of hay. He had the largest number of sheep (nearly 30% of the total) for the township. Another farm mentioned by name was Lanshaw (John of Lanshaw), assessed as having three cows and a stirk with a total value of 13s. 6d. (68p.). In all there were 27 oxen, 43 cows plus 22 calves, 58 sheep and nine goats, these last belonging to William Burnett. These were the only goats recorded in the whole area of what is now North Craven. Fifteen people had some hay, mostly a nominal cartload valued at 12d., while nearly two-thirds had a stock of oats.

In 1297, although most people with land had animals (cattle, sheep and goats), nearly half grew oats. The growing of corn was essential for bread and beer until communications improved enough for it to be imported from elsewhere in the country. As late as 1851, it is mentioned that Austwick had 151 acres of arable land out of a total acreage of 8000.

This combination of animal husbandry continued throughout the Middle Ages and into the times of Elizabeth and the Stuart monarchs. We have a good guide to the farming economy in the inventories of people dying during the period. Before their wills could be executed probate inventories had to be compiled by four of their neighbours with all their fixed and movable goods listed and valued; a good spread of wills and inventories is available to provide an insight into the possessions of those times from the 1550s until the early 1700s. In these inventories we find the same pattern as in the 1290s, with a predominance of animals but also a substantial amount of crops, mainly oats for bread and barley for beer.

As might be expected, most of the animals were cattle of various kinds. There were, of course, many cows, although not in the numbers one would find on a modern farm. In most cases there were less than six to a holding with the usual followers: calves, heifers, twinters, stirks often referred to as steers but bulls were a rarity, probably because there would be a township bull. This points to the usual dales pattern of dairy products: milk, butter, cream and cheese-making with the surplus cream. Indeed, there are several cheese-press stones in the area although these are mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries

It is quite possible, even likely, that as in Wensleydale, ewe's milk was also used for cheese-making, though sheep were kept mainly for their meat and wool. Where sheep were farmed, the usual size of a flock was something like 20 ewes, but there were holdings with just a few animals, each worth two or three shillings. The only large flocks were in the hands of the major landowners, in one case 104 ewes, although it is not clear whether these were all on the home farm.

During the summer months, most of the animals were kept on the upland commons: Ingleborough, Moughton, Swarthmoor, Oxenber and Austwick Common beyond Eldroth. These commons were stinted, i.e. only a certain number of animals were allowed for each holding, the number being based on the 'rateable value' of the farm. These were called 'cattle gates', not to be confused with the usual meaning of the word, which applies to barriers keeping in or shutting out from the village or a neighbouring village. Examples of these can be found in 'Hobbs Gate' (made or remade in 1690) and Skirthaw Gate between Austwick and Clapham on the old A65. There were several more!

Mention has been made of butter and cheese-making, which would mean skimming off the cream from the milk, leaving what was called 'blue milk'. It is likely that some of this milk would be fed to the pigs to supplement the food that they obtained from the woods and elsewhere. Pigs, usually referred to as swine, were often kept by villagers, but usually only one to a holding, no doubt at least partly fed on household scraps. They provided a valuable source of a family's food.

Poultry, referred to as 'pullen', occurred frequently in inventories, but with rare mention of either numbers or unit price: total value is generally given as about two shillings. Again, eggs and chickens were valuable to a family both for consumption at home and for sale at market, either at Austwick or Settle. Other domestic products were the honey and wax provided by bees. Honey was the main sweetening agent used before sugar became widely available and affordable - although mention of hives was fairly rare, and the value of a hive was at least equal to that of a sheep.

In the section on cattle, no mention was made of oxen. These were kept mainly for work purposes such as ploughing, pulling other farm implements, and for transport in pulling wagons, being cheaper than horses to operate and with the advantage that when they could no longer work, they could be used for meat, albeit rather tough. The value of these draught animals was greater than that of any other cattle. Few farmers had a full team of possibly eight beasts but would need to join with others for ploughing. Horses were also used for transport, mostly for riding - although the number of mares suggests that there may well have been some breeding. It is also possible that in earlier times the mares may have served for providing milk. As with other villages in the area, there was also a tannery downwind of the village, accounting for the skins of animals which had died or been slaughtered.

The chief food crops were oats, barley and beans, of which plenty were grown in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and probably earlier. They were grown on the common fields and growing crops were measured in acres, roods and perches. The grain crops were threshed in the barns, and ground in the Lord of the Manor's mill. The Manor Court Rolls reminded tenants that grinding their own corn was punishable by a fine. Occasionally a hand-quern is found built into a wall. A minor crop was hemp for making rough cloth and for medicinal purposes. A small amount of flax was also grown for use in the linen trade.

In 1801, the average crop acreage returns were given for the parish of Clapham (which included Austwick) as 4 acres 3 roods of wheat, 524 acres of oats and 9 acres of turnips, with a note that crops of potatoes, peas and beans were somewhat less than consumption, reflecting to some extent the improvement in transport with the canal at Gargrave, and the Keighley to Kendal Turnpike Road going through the parish.

With the coming of the railway, the need for growing corn further diminished and allowed for increased concentration on pastoral farming. Since then, apart from the national policy in two world wars, this has been the normal pattern.

(See Stan Lawrence's article on 'Austwick Weavers' in the Journal for 1995 for the textile industry in Austwick.)

By the Airton to Malham Road, at Scosthrop. A very fixed looking gate post! It has been used before and turned through 90.
Photo: Jill Sykes