In 1890

The following are excerpts from the writings of Hugh Fairfax-Cholmeley done in 1916.

The estate cottages

The cottages were let at nominal rents to labourers who worked on the estate.  The tenancy was subject to one month’s notice on either side.  No tenant might take in lodgers and cottagers might not even keep their grown up sons and daughters at home without special permission to do so.  Of the three rows of cottages at Brandsby, the newest contained three cottages built in 1875 by my cousin Francis at a cost of £600 for the row.  

Escutcheon of Francis Cholmeley from a farm building, now sited at Low Farm, original building demolished
(photogragh P. McCarthy).

They were fairly good cottages, but the plan was very inconvenient and there was not a fireplace in any one of the bedrooms.  This was a serious fault which one would hardly expect to find in such modern-looking cottages.  The rooms had good-sized sash windows and the roof was of slate;  but the slates were bad and in 1890 they were already perishing.  There were two rooms downstairs and three bedrooms above.  The staircase led out of the kitchen and was open to it, thus making the living room draughty and uncomfortable.  Some of the stone in the walls was soft and inclined to perish;  this was especially noticeable in the dairies at the back, in the piggeries and in the closets.  


    The lower row, known as the Dale Cottages had been improved by my father, who raised them and put on a good upper story for bedrooms.  When my father succeeded he was much distressed by the indecency of the scanty bedroom accommodation and he made great efforts to provide at least two bedrooms to each cottage so that the sexes might be divided.  For this purpose he raised the Dale cottages and thus made two good bedrooms with a lobby at the top of the staircase for a third bedroom.  In these cottages the staircase ascended from a little lobby into which the outside door opened.  There were two good rooms downstairs for a parlour and a kitchen, but there was no backdoor – a great drawback.  There were five cottages in this row, which was on the hillside below the level of the main road.  Outside there were some wash houses and a single cottage standing by itself.  Looking down the row and further back to the west of the single cottage was a row of pigsties with a closet and ash pit at either end of the pigsties, to serve six cottages.  The single cottage was built into the bank which rose several feet up the back, making it very damp.  This cottage had a kitchen and two bedrooms, but a certain amount of space on the ground floor was wasted by the plan. It was a wretched hovel and bedrooms were very unsatisfactory.  The roof was bad.  


    The third row consisted of five cottages containing a kitchen into which the front door opened direct and a staircase leading out of it up to two attic bedrooms in the slope of the roof.  A wooden partition had been made in the attic to provide the two compartments from the space which had formerly been all in one.  But the slope of the roof came down to within three feet of the floor and only one compartment had a window.  The other was lighted by a glass tile.  The roof was bad and got very leaky a few years later before I altered these cottages.  


    The village proper thus consisted of fourteen cottages.  The water supply for the village consisted of small dip well or spring in the hayfield below the Dale cottages and of course further from the dipper rows.  The supply could not have been very plentiful judging from the run of water to be seen now, but I believe the run was stronger when the well was used.  I think a small flag used to be placed over it when cattle were in the field.  There was another dip well in the Hewthit Wood which was used by the upper cottages for water not required for drinking, but this often ran dry and was always very stagnant and inclined to be foul.  The post office, had a well with a pump.  The blacksmith’s (W. Grainger now) had a well with a bucket and chain because the well was too deep for a pump.  This well was occasionally fouled by cats falling in and getting drowned.  

    The two ‘Ivy Cottages’ on the York Road were very bad. Each had a good kitchen about 17’ by 12’ into which the front door entered from an open porch, common to both cottages.  The kitchen was dark owing to the smallness of the mullioned lead light casements.  From the kitchen were doors on either side of the fireplace opening into two tiny bedrooms.  One was 9’ by 12’ and the other 7’ by 12’.  The were wretched, ill-lighted cells and very damp.  There was a very large larder from which was a door out to the back and there were some outhouses with a common closet and ash pit.  The trees behind and at the ends came up very close and overhung the buildings to some extent.   Water was obtained from the brook which ran below the eminence on which the cottages were built and was polluted by the surface water and drainage from the village.
    The row of six cottages at Stearsby was the worst on the estate.  they were wretched hovels with a kitchen about 12’ by 10’ and two attic bedrooms above.  The height of the kitchen was about 7’.  The bedrooms had only about 2’ to 3’ of wall below the slope of the roof and the windows were on a level with the bedroom floors.  It will be seen from this that two bedrooms, each not more than 10’ by 6’ had to suffice for families with several children.  They had back doors and behind the cottages were some outbuildings for coal and sticks with the usual common closets and ash pits.  These middens were a terrible nuisance to the neighbouring farmhouse occupied by the Cattley’s.”


Brandsby Hall in 1890: centre of the estate.

Brandsby in the year 1889 was a very different place from what it is now, twenty-six years after I succeeded my father.  To me, and to all of us who had been brought up there, it was the ideal country home, the most perfect English country, the most desirable home in the world.  Apart from the prejudice natural to us who had lived there through the best part of our childhood, it certainly had a charm and fascination for all who came to visit it, and I have always noticed that once a person took up his abode in Brandsby he left it most regretfully.  


db_Brandsby_Hall_1913 garden
Brandsby Hall gardens circa 1913

The Hall was built in 1745 by my great, great grandfather, Francis Cholmeley, on the site of an older house.  It was and still is instilled with the 18th century ideal.  The house was the hub of the Estate, which comprised practically the whole parish.  Behind the court yard, where were the stables and offices of the household, was a yard we called ‘the chicken yard’ in which were some cart sheds with an old-fashioned saw mill with an upright boiler engine.  Two magnificent walnut trees stood near the saw mill, and behind these were two cement courted dog kennels built by my cousin Francis between 1869 and 1876.  In the joiner’s shop, in this estate year, the estate joiner worked quietly and somewhat somnolently at repairs and making such gates, doors and other oddments as might be wanted for farms on the estate.  The chief part of the yard was occupied by poultry and hen coops;  the joiner’s requirements were kept tidily within a smaller enclosure in front of his shed.  At one time the cart sheds had evidently been intended to hold the carts required for estate purposes, or for the use of the family in the days when railways were scarce.  But in my father’s time the carts he used were kept at the Home Farm, a small farm of about 60 acres.  Such carting as was required was done chiefly by the tenants, each farm being liable in proportion to its size, according to its agreement, to give so many days carting to the Squire.

    The house was obviously the centre of interest in the Estate life, just as it was the geographical centre.  From the lawn or the west terrace a large portion of the parish lay in view, with hedge row timber and occasional clumps of trees carefully disposed so as to hide all buildings and farm houses from view, and even in some cases the fences were so screened by trees as to give the effect of an extensive park from in front of the house.  The cleverness of the plan was wonderful and great regard had been paid to utility in making it.   This characteristic of the older generation of squires adds greatly to the charm of their influence.  But the chief note of these dispositions of  houses, fences and trees, was that the appearances were considered always from the ‘point de vue’ of the Hall and grounds, in the first place.  As you walked over the estate you found the same attempt to conceal buildings from sight, the idea obviously being that buildings spoilt the beauty of nature. Beyond stretched the plain of York, with the Western hill in the distance.  You might see from the west terrace a good forty miles, the little sugar-loaf of Crake in the foreground only three miles off crowned with its castle, and far away in the background Ottley Sheven, the Whern sides and Penn Hill.

    The church is perhaps an interesting instance of the same attitude of mind.  It had been removed from the lawn, near the Hall door, by my grandfather,  who was the last of the landowners to whom a faculty was given for such a purpose.  He built the new church in the then fashionable ‘Classical Style’, but as plainly as was permissible.  The chief architectural feature, however, was a cupola, which was visible from various parts of the grounds and was reminiscent of those classical temples so dear to the creators of parks, at that time.”

brandsby church2


Life for a farm labourer

It will be seen therefore that the cottages were very isolated and the Brandsby end of the estate, where the village was situated was the most un-cultivated and uncivilised end.  Everything gravitated to the Hall and the Rectory.  Such public entertainments as there might be, took place at these houses, and the occasional cricket matches were played upon a rough bit of ground that had been recently levelled in the hollow of the big glebe field below Cop Howe Wood.  There was no Saturday afternoon half-day in those days, no Reading Room or Cricket Field in the village, no public entertainment except those rare events provided intermittently at the Rectory or the Hall, possibly once a year or even less often.  There was indeed little time for amusements, seeing the men must work six days a week and must not break the ‘Sabbath fest’, and certainly there was no money to pay for amusements out of fifteen shillings a week.  

    The life of the village labourers was extraordinarily monotonous.  Most of the men employed on the farms lived in the farm houses were hired year by year at Martinmas – those living in the cottages were chiefly employed at other work;  but there were four cottage tenants at Stearsby employed on the farms and one or two others in the Brandsby cottages.  They worked from six in the morning ‘till six at night, as long as it was daylight at those hours, and during other times of the year, from light to dark.  They worked six days a week, no holidays except such as were granted on application, when they forfeited their day’s pay in return for the privilege.  The wages were fifteen or sixteen shillings a week for ordinary labourers employed all the year round.  The Brandsby cottage tenants had very good gardens, with the exception of those in the new row built in 1875, and they could have allotments and hay pieces.  There was also a common cow pasture in Barfield for those who kept cows and liked to pay the rent for a ‘Cowgate’.

Brandsby allotments

    It is terrible to think of the endless drudgery of such an existence, when a man’s spare time on returning home at six o’clock at night must be occupied by attending to his cow and pig or working his allotment.  Sometimes the men got up at five in the morning to get in a brief half hour’s work on their allotment.  Beyond the pleasure a man might derive from his work there was nothing left except those of the lowest kinds and no relaxation but the Sunday, when custom and discipline compelled attendance at church at one of the services at least.  I have often heard people talk disparagingly about the low tastes, sensuality, avarice and petty dishonesty of the labourers, judging them entirely by middle class standards.  But surely living in such circumstances must naturally beget a very different code of morality and the marvel is that they had any moral code at all.  The undoubted existence of such a code is a testimony to the moral instincts of man.  In their view doles and charities and perquisites were their rightful property and the rich man was intended to be plundered by the poor, if they could outwit him without breaking the law of the land.  ‘How else could we poor folk live?’  Their instinct in distinguishing between breaches of the law was sound too.  To steal and especially to steal money was bad.  To poach might be unwise, but it scarcely carried great moral condemnation among one’s fellow labourers.  The ‘unjust steward’ who took commissions might be no saint, but the man who betrayed a fellow workman’s delinquencies was a scoundrel.  

    Order was maintained in the parish by the strictest discipline, enforced by authority.  Insobriety was severely punished and might involve loss of employment and even of cottage.  Moral lapses on the part of girls were punished, in my father’s time, by banishment from the village and the illegitimate baby was not allowed to be born in the village or brought back there after birth to the girl’s home.  

    Force and compulsion seem to have been the basis of this social system.  Under such conditions men would not work unless they were compelled; but the conditions were necessary for the maintenance of Society, therefore, in a ‘free country’, the only means of maintaining order were low enough wages and absolute control over the letting of houses on the estate.”


The farms and the agricultural land

The agricultural land was divided up among eleven farms besides the Home Farm and five smallholdings.  The farmers were mostly tenants of very old standing, two of them Cattley and Radcliffe having been on the estate 150 years or more.  The four principal tenants, Cattley, Radcliffe, Robert and Stephen Frank had enough capital to be more or less independent of their farms, and all the other tenants, with the exception of Wright at Low Farm, had plenty of capital for their farms.  There was probably no estate of the same size in the country with such good and substantial tenants.  they farmed in the old-fashioned way and kept their land in good condition with the exception of three farms I shall presently mention.  There was, however, great despondency about agricultural prospects and the farmers had completely lost heart.  They had been good farmers in their time, but they were not to be taught new ways and were sufficiently well off not to care to disturb their old age by innovations and experiments involving a change of policy and of the habits of a lifetime.  Their one panacea was a rise in the price of corn, and their method of coping with the situation was economy in the labour bill.  Landlords and farmers all round were pursuing the same course and endeavouring to meet their difficulties by economy instead of by resorting to new methods.  The result was a visible tendency for the farms to deteriorate through being less carefully kept.  Hedges and ditches were not attended to so well as they should be, and on some farms the cultivation itself showed signs of degeneration.

    The Low Farm was in a very bad state.  It was occupied by an old man names George Wright who worked it with his sons.  It consisted of 200 acres of strong and ill-drained land.  Wright was an honest hard working old man who had once been a labourer and had borrowed his capital to a considerable extent off Thomas Radcliffe.  He lived a very hard life, working like a labourer and was now very decrepit with rheumatism.  He was, of course, one of the first to feel the agricultural depression of the eighties and his farm had been going back for years.  In one of the fields for several years back, the corn had not come up to my knees, and was so bad that the old man used to ask us to walk through it when out shooting – a practice my father never would sanction.  Other fields were now beginning to show the same poverty in their crops.  There was a pasture which had been laid down some twenty years on the south side of Lockwood Rush, which would not ‘keep a goose to the acre’.  Indeed it was so bad that at one time I seriously thought of letting it go out of cultivation altogether and planting it with trees.  The buildings on this farm were appalling.  The house itself was so damp that clothes when put away in cupboards went mouldy, or required drying by the fire before they could be worn, if they were only left in the clothes-press a few days.  Adjoining the west end of the house was the stable which afterwards converted into part of the dwelling.  Close to the back door and divided only by a roadway, were two open fold yards generally full of a mixture of liquid manure and rain water.  The north side of these fold yards was bounded by a wretched low cow house, standing on the site of the present cow house.  Beyond the barn and tumbledown buildings around the horse-wheel there were practically no other buildings of any importance, except a small open fold yard with a shed attached on the north side of the stack yard.  The water supply was from a well and pump near the back door and within fifteen yards of the unsanitary fold yards I have already described.  

    Thornhill was another derelict farm containing the strongest and most promising land on the estate.  It was occupied by a sporting and drunken old reprobate named John Wilson, who was a great rustic cricketer in his day.  It was said that he and his son Abel used to practice cricket while the sheepdog fielded the ball.  One or two of the fields, which grew no crop worth mentioning, have since become profitable grass through the application of basic slag and judicious grazing.  The house and buildings were in a bad state, but the chief faults were due to clumsy arrangements, which were out of date.  However, they only required small alterations and thought to adapt them to modern requirements.  The agent, Mr Pearson, feared that the farm would be impossible to let at more than ten shillings per acre if Wilson left and Wilson was trying to get the rent reduced to that figure.  But when he gave notice soon after my succession, I let it to the present tenant, John Eales, and he now is doing fairly well.  

    Seaves Farm was also in a bad state.  It was occupied by a comparatively newcomer named William Frank who, pursuing a policy common at the time, endeavoured to get his rent lowered by keeping up a bad appearance of the land and trying to bluff his landlord into a reduction by threatening notice.  The arable field called Anasykes was often with very wretched crops of corn, something similar to those described on the derelict land of Low Farm, and the ‘Dutchin Pasture’ was a very barren field, growing little but ‘Yorkshire Fog’ grass and plantains.  Some of the fields on the West of the York road were very wet and poor and Mr Pearson was afraid of having this farm to let.  The house was damp and the buildings bad, but fairly plentiful.  

    It will be seen from this that about 600 acres of the strong land on the low side of the estate was fast deteriorating and sinking to a level very little above the ‘margin of cultivation’.

    The farm buildings on all the farms were bad – some very bad – and most of the houses were very inadequate in their accommodation, and primitive in their arrangements.  Cattley’s at Stearsby was so damp that the inmates were always ailing and some of the bedrooms were as bad as the attics described in the cottages.  One bedroom shared a sash window with the room below and the window was so arranged that if you wanted to open it in the bedroom, you were obliged to have it shut downstairs.  A very offensive open fold yard adjoined the back of the dwelling house and the dairy windows opened on to it.  The buildings of this important farm were perhaps the worst after Low Farm and they were so rambling and without plan that it was almost impossible to amend them without almost complete rebuilding.  

    On my succession to the estate in 1889, old Thomas Radcliffe, the uncle and guardian of his nephew at Stearsby, applied for the Home Farm, which I did not wish to keep in hand, and I accepted his offer to build a parlour and two bedrooms at the west end at his own expense.  I gave him the stone, the lime and the sand.  (I forget if I supplied all the material or not).  He was a very fine old fellow who had always been a friend and adviser to the family in agricultural matters, being attached by the common bond of Catholicism.  Indeed, during my cousin’s minority, when my Aunt Annie was very much pressed for money, he or his family had lent money to our family, so he told me.  I had the greatest regard for him, and when later on, as years passed, I felt it a matter of conscience to act in a way that I knew must outrage his sense of propriety and his idea of what was fitting and proper, I used to feel compunction at the thought of him and almost a kind of shame.  When he made the offer, I accepted at once without consulting my agent as to the details and I always made it a practice afterwards to place myself in his hands and trust to his fair dealing when we had any business negotiations.  had I been ready to follow the conventional ways of a Squire, he would have been a very trusty adviser, and he was in advance of the other farmers in his readiness to try small experiments, though these were mostly empirical.  He was a bachelor and his sister Miss Radcliffe, kept house for him.  They were descendants of the house of the Earls of Derwentwater.  

    John Cattley of Stearsby was the tenant of the farm adjoining the Radcliffe’s (i.e. the farm which was occupied later by Tom Radcliffe’s nephew) and the Radcliffe’s and Cattley’s had always had a sort of rivalry for precedence on the Estate among the farmers.  The Radcliffe’s were the superior family, but being papists they were at some disadvantage among the other tenants and Cattley had a stronger hold upon them.  Next in order to these came the two Franks, Robert and Stephen, who held Spella Park and Snaregate Farm.  They were very inferior in character to Cattley and Radcliffe, amiable and weak.  As cultivators they were held in poor esteem by all the tenants, but they made up for their incapacity by keeping safely to the lead given by Cattley and Radcliffe and kept their land in good condition.  They had inherited a considerable amount of money from old Sam Wiley, the famous shorthorn breeder who used to live at Spella Park.

    The Bland of the Hagg Farm kept his farm in beautiful condition, working it with his three sons.  John Maskill was another old tenant, who thoroughly sloven in his farming, bread some very fine shorthorns, which eventually formed the herd of his grandson, J.M. Strickland.  John Johnson had been a labourer and worked his way up till he became tenant of Maidensworth Farm, in the days when it belonged to Mr. George Wilson of Gramston.  He was now tenant of the High Farm and was a good tenant for the landlord because he was lavish in his expenditure on manures, worked hard on his land and lived in a very simple way.  Jonathan Hicks at the Mill Farm and William Frank at Seaves, were both newcomers since my father’s succession.  They were slovenly farmers, but had what was considered to be plenty of capital.  Maskill’s, Hick’s and W. Frank’s farms were in more of less slovenly state, the landing ‘dirty’.  The prospect, therefore, was not cheerful, the tendency being towards deterioration in the capital value of the farms.”

1890; management of the estate and prospects.

The prospect, therefore, was not cheerful, the tendency being towards deterioration in the capital value of the farms.  Knowledge of agricultural science was very low at that time, and so called scientific farmers had a bad reputation for success.  There was no real knowledge in this neighbourhood, and most landlords and agents thought that artificial manures ‘exhausted the land’.

The farm agreements were complicated by clauses for the purpose of preventing farmers from ‘robbing the land’ of its accumulated fertility and it was customary to make a tour of the estate every year and to note down in the Squire’s ‘Cropping Book’ the crops in each field, so as to make sure that the tenants were not departing from the established rotation.  

The farmers themselves knew nothing about the analysis of cakes and manures – they did not even know the meaning of the term analysis.  The landlords and agents did not encourage them to improve their knowledge, their chief object being to get them to keep a large head of cattle to make plenty of farmyard manure.  The landlords and agents did not encourage them to improve their knowledge, their chief object being to get them to keep a large head of cattle to make plenty of farmyard manure.  

The farmers themselves spent great pains in intrigues for obtaining a reduction of rent.  They were always crying poverty and trying to conceal any profitable enterprise in which they had succeeded.  They were no doubt, to a great extent, given to these shifts by the methods of the agent.  In those days very few, if any, agents had any real knowledge of farming.  Certainly, they did not know farming from the inside as a means of making a livelihood, and in assessing rents they were dependent upon indirect means of knowledge as to what a farm was really worth to a tenant.  

It was, as a rule, a game of bluff and cunning between agent and tenant, and it was impossible for the landowner to know with any certainty how far he was treating a tenant unjustly in refusing an application for a reduction of rent.  

The Brandsby Agent at that time was a Mr. Robert Pearson, a very worthy man, whose idea of estate management consisted of keeping the tenants quiet by granting each in turn the smallest possible concessions.  He explained to me that I must be careful not to do ‘too much’ for one man or it would make the others jealous and they would all clamour for improvements or repairs.  

As for encouraging agricultural science, no practical agriculturist would have dreamt of such a thing in our neighbourhood.  Scientific farmers were spoken of with scorn and pointed at as an awful warning to innovators, and truly such examples as I knew were not an encouragement to any would-be reformer.”

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