BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK, Derbyshire

This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 29th January 1996 (p.3), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)

BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK: CHEESE MAKING

Cheese is referred to in the Old Testament so we can be certain that it has a long history. Greek and Roman warriors ate cheese to give them strength, and in spite of today’s move away from fatty foods, there are now more varieties than ever before.

For hundreds of years cheese making was a particular skill of farmers’ wives; some produced only enough for their own family but cheese was far easier to sell than surplus milk and brought in useful income to the dairy farmer. Weekly cheese markets took place at Derby, Ashbourne, Bakewell, Chesterfield, Uttoxeter and Leek, with annual cheese fairs held in and around the Peak, including Bakewell, Tideswell and Winster. Along with oatcake, Derbyshire cheese formed the staple diet of both Peakland lead miners and coal miners in neighbouring counties. Great quantities of Derbyshire cheese were always taken to Nottingham Goose Fair.

Cheese making was very strenuous work, though generally left to the farmer’s wife, daughter, or dairymaid. On a larger farm the process began with the dairymen bringing milk straight from the milking sheds to be poured into a huge vat. The addition of rennet turned the milk into a solid mass of curd. Until rennet became commercially available as an essence or powder, it had to be obtained more directly. Typically this involved nailing the dried and salted skin of a calf’s stomach to the kitchen wall, with a piece of newspaper behind to keep it from marking the paint. A piece of skin would be cut off and left to soak in water overnight; it was this liquid which was poured into the fresh milk.

The resulting curd was thoroughly broken up then lifted out and placed in large sieves lined with muslin, or cheese-cloth as it was called. The corners of the cloth were tied over the curd before it was weighted down and left to drain for a short while. Next it was cut into slices to be worked into fine crumbs with the hands, then salted and tied up again, this time with a metal hoop between cloth and sieve to give the cheese its final shape. Finally, the last drop of whey had to be pressed out. One distinctive method, called ‘queedling’, involved placing the cheese on a rigid perforated board beneath a queedle - a strong plank several feet long with one end firmly bolted into the wall. The dairymaid, and often a farmhand or two, sat on the loose end of the queedle and moved it up and down like a see-saw, pressing the cheese against the perforated board.

It only remained to place the cheese into a large stone press. Presses had heavy weights attached to their sides and could be further tightened by means of a screw. They often held several cheeses; as a new one was added, the oldest was taken out to be stored in a cool garret or cellar. Every morning the dairymaid had to sweep the stored cheeses with a clean soft brush, turning them over about once a week.

Derbyshire cheese was uncoloured and heavy in texture, with a generally mild flavour. John Byng, having dined at Ashbourne in 1790, wrote: ‘the cheese of this country pleases me much; being a medium between the Cheshire and the Stilton’. In fact Derbyshire cheese was often passed off in London as the more expensive Cheshire. As far back as the late 17th century, London cheese-mongers were spending up to £500 on ‘Derbyshire and Staffordshire cheeses and butter’ at Uttoxeter market in a single day.

Trade gradually came under the influence of cheese factors, whose price-fixing activities alternately incurred the anger of producers and consumers. The food riots of 1766 were partly directed against these middlemen. Matters obviously settled down, for in the 1790s Robert Thornhill of Great Longstone regularly had cheese brought from Longnor by packhorse, possibly to be resold around Longstone but also further afield. A record of 1796 refers to 12 cwt delivered from Bakewell to Longstone and then sent on to Sheffield. Within a seven-day period the following year, Thornhill paid for three tons of cheese to be taken directly to Ashford from Longnor. Between 1814-18 he was also selling cheese to Matthew Furniss of Chesterfield, presumably a retailer. Quite a number of cheese factors were in business around Longnor, Hartington and Sheen in the mid-19th century.

CHEESE FACTORIES

A 1794 report on Derbyshire farming stated that cheese was ‘the chief, if not the only article of provision which the natives can spare out of their own country’. The Dove Valley, with its good grazing, was particularly productive dairying country, and it was a member of an old Sheen family who introduced pioneering manufacturing methods to the Peak. William Gilman by name, his speciality was a 40 lb Derbyshire cheese; in 1862 he won first overall prize at an international exhibition in London. Gilman studied and demonstrated cheese making methods in Russia, America and Holland. He maintained a lengthy correspondence with Russian cheese makers, one letter referring to more than 130 cases of Derby cheese sent to Mockba. A Mr Veristchagin wrote: ‘ ... we shall never forget the service you rendered’ and from Anna Muromsoff came: ‘... the Dairy business is making rapid progress in Russia, my Moscow friends who you know, are now very well-off and living as Lords ... and that our Russian Derby-cheese had the prize in the cheese show.’

Gilman is credited with establishing England’s first purpose-built cheese factory in 1870 at Longford, near Derby. Others followed and within a few years Derby cheese was being produced by Gilman and others in factories at Hope Dale, Ecton, Reapsmoor, Gratton, Woodeaves, Grangemill, Glutton Bridge and Hartington - where pigs were kept to consume the whey. As an indication of what the industry meant to local farmers, three out of the four farms at Hollinsclough sold their entire milk output to the Glutton Bridge cheese factory.

A good annual average of cheese per cow was around 3 cwt, but cheese was made for only 7/8 months of the year due to the poor quality of winter milk, at least until the advent of improved winter cattle feeds. Between mid-April and mid-November, milk arrived at the factories in anything from buckets slung from shoulder yokes to 30-gallon churns. Factory hands put in long hours and seven-day weeks to keep pace with supplies.

Reapsmoor cheese factory, near Sheen, was run on co-operative lines. A number of farmers contributed labour towards its construction, others bought £5 shares. Originally called the Hulmes Dairy, it changed name and ownership several times. Between 1936 and 1950, as Express Dairies Ltd, the factory produced the original Derby cheese as well as Cheshires, Cheddars and Caerphillys. Right up until its closure the factory was buying milk from over 30 farmers; it continued as a milk depot for a further two years.

Ecton cheese factory stood on the site of an old ore smelter, above an adit connected to abandoned copper workings. Following complaints that factory waste was polluting the River Manifold, a pump was installed to discharge the whey below ground into the Clarion Mine. Explorers who visited the ‘Whey Level’ in the 1940s came across a ‘peculiar smell and whitish stickiness underfoot’.

During the past century, cheese making in the Peak has almost come to an end. The decline set in as urban growth brought increasing demands for fresh milk. Whereas lack of fast transport had once made it impossible to sell milk any distance from the farm, the railway could deliver supplies into the industrial towns and cities of the North and Midlands. The morning milk train became a way of life for dairy farmers, and was far more profitable than supplying local cheese makers.

Factories gradually closed down until only Hartington was left to keep Peakland cheese on the map. After standing empty between 1894-1900, the factory was taken over by Thomas Nuttall, a Stilton cheese maker from Melton Mowbray. He began producing Stilton at Hartington and the business was later expanded by his son, John M. Nuttall. In the 1920s/30s Hartington cheese was supplied to King George V by Royal Warrant. Hartington Blue Stilton is now world-famous, though the factory produces a range of varieties, bringing 21st-century technology to this age-old skill.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 29th January 1996;
Updated 17th January 2005.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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