Malhamdale Local History Group    





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The fertile Malhamdale fields grew a problematic, chest high crop of oats.


Malham smithy: At the outbreak of war, most farms in the Dales were still using horses although tractors were beginning to appear.  Many of the horses were taken to the smithy at Malham for shoeing.  There was also a blacksmith at Airton. Edgar Armstrong shoeing "Captain" belonging to Mr Yeadon (stood in the doorway).

Changing the hour: In order to give maximum light for work, double summer time operated during the war years.

The Agriculture Executive Committee (War Ag) supplied the necessary equipment and additional labour including Land Girls.


Land Girl, Veronica Fell, haymaking 1940's style, which still entailed horses and traditional equipment in Malhamdale. Read Veronica's wartime memories.


Sugar beet grown at Newfield Grange Farm, Calton. Tom Foster is on the left, Rob Foster on the right. Read Rob's wartime memories.


The threshing machine at Otterburn required plenty of hands. On top is John Preston a land girl and another local farmer, on the ground L-R are Edgar Milner, Ronald Ashworth, Jack Robinson and his daughter and Veronica Fell.


War Ag workers and Land Girls on a Fordson Tractor. L-R Fred Reeves, Phyllis Larrard, Charlie Stapleton, Kathleen Greaves, ?, Bob Martin.

The War Ag supplied all the necessary machinery to put suitable areas of Malhamdale under cultivation.

The Sharp family ran an extensive poultry business based at Skellands.

Rabbits provide both meat for the pot and a cash crop. Mr Cox from Burnley (L) came regularly to buy rabbits from William Blades of Capon Hall.


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Malhamdale at War


During the years of the war the face of the Dales changed enormously due to the changes in agriculture. Today, as before the war, we are used to seeing virtually all pasture, but because of the desperate food shortages during the war years, local farms had to grow crops such as oats, turnips, potatoes and kale. Whereas before the war only 30 acres of Craven’s 500,000 acres was under cultivation, by 1944 the figure had increased to 50,000 acres, 10% of the total acreage.

Local farmers had no choice about this change. The Government set up a body called the War Agriculture Executive Committee, or War Ag, whose purpose was to control all aspects of agriculture. The main office was at the Stray Hotel in Harrogate, but Malham, Kirkby Malham, Airton, Settle, Hellifield and Long Preston were administered from an office in Settle, and there was also an office in Skipton. Each farm was visited by an inspector, the acreage assessed, and a decision made on how many acres were to go under the plough. Have a look at the details for the farms in Kirkby Malham from the farm survey and see what they were told to grow. Needless to say, many farmers were not happy to see their best pastures ploughed up.

This growing of crops involved much labour in ploughing, sowing and harvesting, all at a time when labour on farms was at a minimum. Also, dales farms did not possess the equipment needed for this type of agriculture. Most were still using horses rather than tractors. To solve this problem, War Ag was equipped with all the necessary tractors and equipment to do this work along with drivers. The depot for the machinery for Malhamdale was two nissen huts up Settle Road in Scosthrop, on the site of the new buildings at Moorend Farm. Edgar Milner was in charge of men and machinery and Ronnie Ashworth was second in command. They used standard Fordson tractors and were hired, along with land army girls, to undertake these tasks.

There were several problems with growing these crops in the Dale. Firstly, the soil was very shallow so large tracts of land were unsuitable for ploughing. Secondly, the land was very fertile and crops such as oats grew too long in the stem, making them difficult to handle. Thirdly it was a short growing season often with wind and rain flattening the crop and making it difficult to ripen and harvest. Also the small fields and narrow lanes and gates made access to the fields difficult. Several farmers and land girls tell of gate posts having to be removed so that machinery could inch its way into the field.

When it came to harvesting oats, the binder made the crop into bundles or sheaves which were made into stooks, eight bundles to a stook, facing into the wind to dry. This was where the extra long stalks were a problem as it was difficult to make them stand. It was said that they should stand in the field for three Sundays, but this rarely happened with the weather in this area.

Threshing was a communal activity with the threshing machine going from village to village. At Malham the machine came in front of the Listers for a day, even once on a Sunday which upset Methodist farmers. At Otterburn the thresher came to the field behind Bodkyn House. At least five or six people were needed to operate the thresher. At least one person was needed to get the sheaves from the cart onto the threshing platform where the bands were cut prior to them being fed into the threshing box. Another worker was needed to bag the corn and move it away from the machine and yet another operated the baler, feeding in wires through three sided needles, and making sure the bales were of a reasonable size. Probably the dustiest job was raking away the chaff, but it was a hard, dusty job for all involved. The whole party was then fed by the host’s family. Later, the corn was taken to the mill to be processed, often to Preston Farmers on Marton Road in Gargrave, before being used.

The other crops grown mainly for animal feed included swedes, potatoes, rape, kale, carrots, clover and peas. The ploughing and some of the other operations were done by War Ag tractors and drivers and land girls, but local farmers and their helpers worked long, hard hours. Harvesting swedes and potatoes was heavy, backbreaking work. The potatoes were then crushed for feeding to cattle and horses. Kale was hard to harvest as it had to be cut very close to the ground where the stalks were thick, and carted for dairy cattle as needed. Rape was used for grazing sheep and was good for fattening. Clover and peas could be grown two or three times a year as they were quick growing crops, also used for cattle.

For one year only, the Fosters at Newfield Grange experimented with a crop of sugar beet which apparently grew quite well but was very labour intensive. It was harvested by hand between October and January, then loaded onto horse-drawn carts and taken to Bell Busk, where it was loaded onto a wagon to go by train for processing. Read Rob Foster's wartime memories.

At Skellands poultry farm, the Sharps grew carrots which were steamed in a large container and fed to the hens. Another unusual poultry food was made from malt combs, a form of waste from the breweries. These were rather like the outside of a coconut and needed to be steeped in water, drained and then mixed with flour. Potatoes were chopped and mixed with mash and whole maize had to be boiled to soften it sufficiently for hen food. It was a case of using whatever was available. Read Frank Sharp's memories of the war.

All these jobs were very labour intensive at a time when farms were struggling with insufficient labour. Everyone had to lend a hand at haytime, even visitors. One year 19 people staying at Newfield Hall Holiday Fellowship Centre, rallied to the request for help to turn the hay. The problem of labour was relieved somewhat when prisoners of war, Germans and Italians, were drafted in to help. They came from the POW Camp at the top of the Bailey in Skipton, but because travelling was so difficult, they usually lived in on the farm and some developed lasting friendships with their host families. The Wellock family have a poker-work tray given to them by a German POW who worked on their farm. His parents wrote to Mr and Mrs Wellock after he was repatriated to thank them for looking after their son. Some even stayed and married local girls.

All farms and many villagers kept hens and at least one pig to ease the meat situation, the pigs being slaughtered on the farm by the local pig killer. A licence had to be obtained from the food office in Settle and it was always a temptation to slaughter two on one licence, or even more if the weather was bad and there was guaranteed to be no movement of traffic up the dale! Joints of meat were shared around when there was a pig killing. The one meat which was not rationed was rabbit, and as the dale had a fair share of these pests, rabbit stew was frequently on the menu. Catches were also sold to provide a little extra cash.

Hams were cured on most farms, and in some cases, sold to the hotels in Skipton or further afield where they fetched a high price. It was certainly a seller’s market. The black market flourished in meat, hams, eggs and even in coupons for provender. Sometimes these items were exchanged for sugar, fats or other rationed items, or sometimes for cash.

Farmers were given a petrol allowance for essential use such as moving stock, and there are stories of a pet lamb or calf regularly being put in a trailer and used as the justifiable reason for using the vehicle to go to a dance or shopping to Settle.


Car ownership was not very high in wartime and petrol was very strictly rationed, and you needed coupons like these to purchase it. Fuel for private use was almost impossible to obtain, forcing some people to mothball their cars for periods of time.  In order to help his congregation get to church and the children to Sunday School, some weeks the Rev Chick organised a taxi which picked up from Otterburn, Airton and Malham.  The money for this was raised by donations and social events.  Petrol was allowed for farmers for essential business, hence the stories of putting a lamb or young calf in the trailer in order to make a journey legitimate.

There were no stock auctions as we know them today. All stock to be sold was taken to Skipton Auction Mart but it was all bought by the Ministry of Food. Beef cattle were weighed and graded and the price paid according to the grade. Sheep and lambs were given an estimated carcass weight by a grader such as Tom Foster. They were extremely accurate in their estimations, and farmers were later paid on the carcass weight, the price being fixed by the Ministry. Farmers were allowed to keep any sheep which had a broken leg, and a surprising number seemed to meet this fate!

Some farms produced milk, with most still milking by hand, although Frank Caton’s farm at Otterburn had an early milking machine. The cooled milk was put into kits and collected from the milk stand outside the farm, although for some time, Malham farmers had to take their kits to Kirkby Malham for collection.

All in all, farming during those years was extremely hard work and bore very little similarity to the farming practised in the dale today.

Read John Geldard's memories of wartime farming in Malham.


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