Farming and the Railways in Glendale 18th to 20th Centuries
Hosted by the Glendale Local History Society, the Association of Northumberland Local History Societies held a day event at the Cheviot Centre, Wooler, focused on agricultural history in Glendale from the 18th Century. Dr Ian Roberts provided an authoritative overview, underlying the significant role our area played in agricultural improvement, while Dr Bill Fawcett provided an account of how this story linked to the development of the railway network on both sides of the Border.
Dr Roberts set our local story in the context of the overall agricultural revolution in the UK. He recounted how Arthur Young, the great 18th century advocate of agricultural improvement, was critical of what he found in the south of Northumberland on a visit late in the century. He found little evidence of the new breeding practices and crop rotations being promoted elsewhere. He attributed this to the small size of farms and short leases. Landowners near the burgeoning Tyneside industrial complex were more interested in mining opportunities on their land. In contrast, Young reported significant improving zeal in the north of the county. Here landowners granted much longer leases (up to 21 years) for larger units at modest rents, and several looked out for tenants committed to improvement. This attracted farmers, such as the Culley brothers, to move into the area. At this time, the Earl of Tankerville was much more energetic in promoting improvement than the Duke of Northumberland, and there were strong linkages among the landowners and farmers on both sides of the Border. Robert Bakewell's ideas about sheep breeding stimulated both James Robson from Belford in the Beaumont Valley, and the Culley brothers, who started at West Fenton farm in Glendale. They focused both on sheep breeding and improving land quality, especially through liming. The result was a huge increase in the amount and value of both crops and stock, which enabled the Culleys to rent and then buy more farms. By the mid-19th Century, their descendents were significant landowners in Glendale themselves. With John Bailey, the land agent for the Tankerville estate, George Culley wrote the Northumberland volume of the English county agricultural reviews, produced at the turn of the century. Dr Roberts underlined that the Culley and Bailey report was considered nationally among the best of these accounts.
This increase in agricultural productivity in Glendale benefitted centres such as Wooler, where weekly and annual markets were held. The size and quality of farming in the area also enabled it to survive the recession which followed the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 much better than other areas of the country. Commentators reporting on the condition of agriculture in Northumberland in the mid-19th Century noted that agriculture in some parts of the county was in a poor state, but Glendale was praised for its productivity, which in turn increased wages for farm workers and shepherds. By this time, improvers were emphasising the virtues of land drainage, promoted vigorously by the new Duke of Northumberland. As the century wore on, and due to competition from imported grains, especially wheat, there was a significant shift from arable crops to stock. The railway came to Wooler in the 1880s, and an auction mart replaced the scattered markets.
Dr Roberts took the story into the 20th century, when the costs of labour and machinery began to affect profits, particularly after the first world war. Sheep became even more important. There was a brief return to grain production in the second world war, reverting again to stock afterwards. The major shift in this postwar period was the replacement of farm workers by machinery, with all the consequences with which we are now familiar.
So how what was happening with railway investment in these two centuries? Dr Fawcett explained the various projects which were put forward in Northumberland and the Borders, especially by the North Eastern and North British railway companies. The main promoters in these companies were 'improving' landowners and also some traders in places such as Kelso and Berwick. Early schemes were for horse-drawn trucks on rails. Landowners were particularly interested in better ways of moving coal and lime to their estates and exporting their corn. This trade carried on when steam railways were built, and special structures were provided at some stations for storing both lime and coal. But many early schemes did not get built. There were often problems with other landowners, who did not want railways built across their estates, and the 1815 recession affected investment possibilities.
In the end, apart from the east coast line, North Northumberland had only two railways which were actually built – Berwick to Kelso, and Alnwick to Cornhill. Several others schemes were promoted, mostly going north from the Tyne valley. But these never managed to make it across the border. The problem was that the trade was primarily linked to the farming year, which was seasonal rather than regular. In contrast, Dr Fawcett showed how the Newcastle to Carlisle route benefitted not just from moving agricultural produce, but from cutting down shipping routes between the west and east coasts of Britain. This route was completed before the east coast route from Newcastle to London was finished. The Alnwick to Cornhill railway was promoted by both landowners and industrialists, and built by the North Eastern railway company. Some of the stations were very grandly designed and we can still recognise the railway buildings in the landscape today. The line was primarily used for shifting goods and stock, rather than passengers, but increasingly into the 20th Century, livestock and coal were transferred to lorries, and the line was closed progressively after the second world war.
After such an intense morning, ANHLS members relaxed over lunch in the gardens of the Cheviot Centre, and then went on a self-guided tour of interesting sites and buildings in Wooler. GLHS provided a map and notes for the tour and mobilised people to be at the sites to give more information. An informative, friendly and sunny day produced a very positive reaction among visitors to our area!