Desperation and violence of past hay times in the Dales

The meadows of Swaledale. Photo: Guy Carpenter.

The parched state of the Dales this summer prompted Ian Spensley to this month look at past hay times for a parallel. He reveals an often desperate and sometimes violent state of affairs.

As one might expect most hay making seasons in the Dales were affected by rain rather than by drought, however it drought was not unknown. The summer of 1841 was dry and the hay crop light, so haymaking was postponed till August. In 1859, a dry spell had left light hay crops and little fodder for stock during the following hard winter, causing major animal welfare problems. It was fortunate that the Wensleydale Railway was under construction at this time and could bring in hay although it was at a high price, 15d per stone of 14lb at Leyburn Station. The summers of 1870-71 were also dry and where stock had been allowed to graze in the meadows until late, the following hay crop was light.

July 1873 was blisteringly hot and dangerous for anyone working out in the fields when most of the work was done by hand. There were two deaths from heat stroke in Coverdale and in Wensleydale, Anthony Weighill working in the hay field, lifted a bottle of beer to his lips and was seen to keel over backwards, dead by the time he hit the ground. Several others were taken ill and Margaret Metcalfe of Widdale and another person from Marsett also died of heat stroke.

Not surprisingly wet weather was more likely to be the problem. The summer of 1888 was very wet and although the crop was expected to be a third above average, there was said to be only one third of the crop cut by August 24. In 1891 as late as September 13 hay was still out in the fields in Coverdale and one farmer had just started to cut his.

Attempts were made to dry hay mechanically. The Rev J.O. Routh in 1880 trialled a Gibbs Hay Dryer on his estate at Gayle. In brief, hay was drawn onto a long table over which hot air from a coke fire was blown by a fan to dry the grass at about the rate of a quarter of an acre per hour.

Needless to say hay was highly valued. In 1788 Christopher Leeming stole five stone of hay at Leyburn from John Robson. He was sentenced to three months with hard labour, and at the end of the term to be publicly whipped at the market cross of Leyburn. Circumstances were worse in 1814 when John James of West Witton was charged with the murder of William Ridley of Middleham, the sheriff’s officer, on pretence the sheriff had abused his office and had arranged to confiscate corn and hay from John James for his own benefit. John James knew that he had little defence; to cause Ridley physical harm would have brought a life sentence in prison, to kill him would result in hanging. He chose the second.

At Grinton John Henry Alderson had been gaoled for 14 days in February 1890 for stealing hay. He and his sister Isabella were seen again in March 1892 stealing hay at Fremington. Having given chase,  Police Sergeant Ingoldson caught Isabella but on returning with her, her brother, from a hiding place, struck the sergeant with a pick axe and both sister and brother set about him rendering him unconscious. They were caught later and imprisoned for four months with hard labour.