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 28th September 1998 (p.unknown), 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: PEAT CUTTING

Mention peat in the Peak District and thoughts turn to the bleak northern moors where peat literally lays the foundations of the landscape. Denuded of trees now, these same uplands were once thickly wooded with oak, elm and lime until about 3000 BC when prehistoric farmers began a long, slow process of land clearance. Without trees the ground became boggy and provided ideal conditions for the formation of peat from decomposing vegetable matter. In places it can be found up to fifteen feet thick.

Fortunately, peat extraction has never been a large-scale industry in the Peak but it was a useful fuel for localised lead smelting and lime burning. Demand dropped off from the early 17th century as coal became affordable with the construction of new roads and, later, canals. However, peat continued to be cut for use as a domestic fuel, mostly by individual users. Cut into oblong bricks and stacked to dry in the sun and air, it loses its soft, spongy texture and shrinks to become brittle and inflammable.

Peat pits have been worked at Crookstone Moor, below Ringing Roger and on Grindlow, all on Kinderscout. A 70ft-wide trench known as Back Dike on Ridge Nether Moor at Bleaklow possibly marks the large pits referred to in the early 19th century by Farey. Another large area of perhaps thirty acres used to be worked near Lockerbrook Farm above Derwent and seventy years ago was still talked of by older people as Rowlee Peat Pits. They provided fuel for several generations of the occupants of five farms - Hagg, Bell Hagg, Rowlee, Fairholmes and Lockerbrook Farm. About a dozen people used to work together in pairs, some digging the sods, some stacking and wheeling them away, and others heaping them up to dry. Peat was still being burned as many households changed to coal - Willis Bridge of Lockerbrook was still fetching peat around 1910.

A first-hand experience of communal peat digging at Edale in 1851 is one of the local stories published by Tom Tomlinson of Hathersage in recent years. One of the participants was ten year-old Nicholas Tym whose family had farmed at Barber Booth for generations.

The boy understood from his father that for many years the Champion family of Grindslow House, owners of most of the land and farms in Edale, had allowed the inhabitants to dig peat from Peat Moor for fuel. This right to cut and burn peat was called "turbary" and Nicholas was told that on the big estate map at Grindslow House this word was written around Peat Moor. There was said to be a clause relating to turbary on the estate deeds, indicating a well-established usage.

Nicholas Tym would later recall how at the end of April 1851, as soon as lambing was over, all the farmers and cottagers gathered one Monday morning to walk up Peat Lane, carrying their peat spades, cutters and prickers, onto Peat Moor. Peat Lane was sometimes called the Sled Road because horse-drawn sledges often brought the peat down this way.

All the children had a week off school to help and the boys were kept hard at work beside their fathers, first cutting away any overlying loose peat then using the strength of their arms to push the cutter into the deeper layer, ten feet deep in places and often wet. But it 'cut like butter' and was dug out in blocks about 12" x 6" although the exact size was determined by the worker's spade. The blocks were simply called 'peats' . As they were cut out they were taken away by the womenfolk and propped one against the other to dry, lined up in neat rows known as 'footings'. Work finished for the day when it was time to walk back for milking.

Over the next few days there was an early start each morning after milking but on the Friday afternoon Nicholas spotted old Bardsley, the schoolmaster, coming across the moor. The boy kept on digging with his head down as old Bardsley stopped to talk to other children before he finally stopped in front of the Tyms, watched for a while and remarked with a laugh that Nicholas got on better with peat digging than with his school work. The teacher and the farmers knew which was more important for these few days and it was arranged to let old Bardsley have a supply of peats when they were taken down to the village.

On the last day the footings had to be stacked into well ventilated piles called 'pikes'. All the peats were laid flat, pointing downwards and inwards, forming a huge pike which grew narrower towards the top until it was finished off with a single peat. Gaps were left for the wind to blow through and the pikes were left to dry until after haymaking or about the end of August.

Then, when all the hay and corn was in, the farmers took the wheels off their big haycarts and replaced them with sledge runners.The cottagers had smaller sledges and everyone made their way up the narrow Sled Road to Peat Moor. Practically every house in Edale had a peat house where the new supply was piled to capacity, kept separate from the previous year's dry and raggy stock which would be burnt under the oven on baking days and under the copper on washdays. The Tyms brought ten loads down and that just about filled their peat house. Some of the larger farmers had fifty loads and at least one household got through a load a week.

Edale farmers always made sure that any person too old or too infirm to cut their own had a share of peat; nobody went without a fire in the winter-time. This example of community support continued even when the railway brought coal supplies into the Hope Valley at the end of the 19th century. Instead of spending a week cutting peat up on the moor, farmers just took their carts to Edale station yard and filled them up with coal as needed. Once people no longer exercised their turbary rights, a wall was built to stop them going onto Peat Moor and an old tradition came to an end.

PEAT BATHS

One of the most recent descriptions of peat cutting appears in Walks with George (Hollinsclough Methodist Publications, 1998). It relates to one fine day in June 1938 when Mr. Tunnicliffe of Black Bank near Quarnford was 'busy cutting peat out of the ground with a hay knife. He was cutting round a big square piece of peaty pasture ground; he kept cutting round in thin slices about a foot square and setting them up on edge in fours to dry while the weather was at its best; and when dry, he carted them across to the house to back the fire up at night all through the winter months.'

Other specialist uses for peat include use in the garden, though alternatives are now available, and peat baths for relief from gout, rheumatism, lumbago and sciatica - still a popular therapy in continental spas.

Nowadays peat erosion is a matter of grave concern. Some blame has been laid at a number of activities, from moorland manoeuvres by military vehicles in World War I to the long-standing practice of controlled heather burning on the grouse moors; a report of the early 1960s concluded that following burning on Houndkirk Moor, 4-5 feet of peat had been stripped, in places down to the bedrock. But the continuing problem in the Peak District is erosion caused by walkers and this threatens a far more significant area than all the old peat diggings put together.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 28th September 1998.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

This is a Genealogy Website
URL of this page: http://texts.wishful-thinking.org.uk/BygoneIndustries/PeatCutting.html
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library