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A rural scene near Muker in Swaledale, the valley of the River Swale in the northern part of the Yorkshire Dales..

This scene would be much as it was in Victorian times, with pieces of agricultural land enclosed by dry stone walls, and little two-storey stone barns dotted around the fields for storing straw and hay, and sheltering cattle in the winter: "By this system a huge amount of unnecessary carting is avoided" (Home 7). Parts of the oldest walls may predate the medieval period, while some of the older barns would have been there in the seventeenth century (see Scholes 12). But the Yorkshire Dales are not as timelessly idyllic as they look. People have always worked hard here, and life in Victorian times could be very tough indeed, both for farmers and others who worked amid this scenery. There have been changes, too. Notice the paths winding up into the hill: there were many lead mines in Swalesdale. Mineral extraction made a major contribution to the economy of the Dales in general, and lead continued to be mined here even after the 1870s, when it became cheaper to import it. The industry declined during the period, so much so that the number of lead-miners almost halved between 1851 to 1881 (Hearfield, "Swaledale and Arkengarthdale"). But this brought its own problems. By 1906, lead-mining was being mentioned in the context of the area's "former prosperity" (Home 60).

Highways and Byways

Left: A flower-filled hay-meadow beside the Pennine Way, Swaledale. Right: Rampsholme footbridge, near Muker, across the River Swale.

The Pennine Way is a 268-mile walking route from the village of Edale in Derbyshire to that of Kirk Yeltholm just inside the Scottish border. Although this route was only fully opened in the twentieth century, along much of its length it makes use of tracks that would have been well-known to earlier generations: "footpaths, old miners' and drovers' tracks, Roman roads and green lanes" (Collins 10). The Victorians would have traversed such rural byways on foot, on horseback and sometimes with packhorses, for reaching workplaces, markets, schools and churches. Sometimes they would have to cross rivers. The River Swale, which gives this valley its name, is one of the main rivers flowing down from the Pennines. It is famous for the hay meadows on its valley floor, where wild flowers like buttercups, red clover, meadowvetch and others flourish — nowadays, farmers receive subsidies to keep the meadows in flower until they reseed. But, again, appearances can be misleading. The river in this beautiful spot is narrow and could be forded in places, but the Swale is notoriously unpredictable and swift-flowing (see Smith 9).

View from the Buttertubs Pass, which connects Wensleydale and Swaledale.

Described in 1897 as "a very old highway ... doubtless a foot-track in pre-Norman days" (Speight 273), the pass is said to have taken its name from the resemblance of the potholes here to butter tubs, or perhaps from the fact that people carrying butter to market rested their burden here at the summit of the road. But in Victorian times such routes would have be plied by carters, carriages and omnibuses, too. For example, a coach to Wensleydale is listed in Bulmer's Directory of 1890 (see Hearfield, "Transport and Communications"). This was all the more important because, despite persistent calls for it, Swaledale never had its own train service.

Left: A horse-drawn coach ascends Stanedge in the Pennines. The male passengers have dismounted to lighten the horses' load (second frontispiece illustration, by H. J. Rhodes, in Keeling). Right: Another form of transport popular by the end of the period. Here, two men are cycling into Dent on one of the early 4-wheeled tandems, probably carrying something in the mid-section (illustration by J. A. Symington, in Thompson, facing p.256)


Left: A shaft and dressing plant for lead-mining. This was in the Wanlockhead and Leadhills mining district over the Scottish border (Mitchell 19), but similar ones would have been found here. Right: Hill-farming area in Reeth, Swaledale, where the fells still show signs of lead-mining. As lead-mining declined, livestock became the main source of income for the area. Hay was the most important crop on the valley floor, while sheep and cattle grazed on the hill farms — Reeth Show is still a popular annual event.

A cobbled road in Dent; the shop in the middle is a wool shop.

Wool was especially important, and Dent was famed for its "terrible [i.e. terribly quick, skilful and hard-working] knitters," though here again these are described as "fast vanishing away" in 1892 (Thompson 257). The late 17c./ early 18c. cottage that houses the wool shop shown here is, unusually for the Dales, whitewashed like its neighbours, and has many-paned sash-windows and a big slab chimney. It was probably altered in the early 19c. ("The Wool Shop, Dent"). Notice the red wall post-box a little further along. Dent, where hill and valley roads converge, was once a busy and well-populated place, seen as the "Capital of the Dales" (Scholes 28). Other craftsmen here included shoemakers, joiners, wheelwrights and marble workers — this last referring to the men who worked with the very dark fossilferous limestone quarried in the area. For the many traditional skills of the dalesfolk in general, from ropemaking to cheese-making, see Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby's indispensable Life and Tradition on the Yorkshire Dales. There were the usual trades and professions too, of course, with clergymen, doctors, teachers, solicitors, postal workers, shopkeepers and so forth all serving the Dales communities; and the census returns from Swaledale show that many women, as well as being busy with their domestic duties, were dressmakers (see Hearfield, "Swaledale and Arkengarthdale, 1841-1891").

Left: The unobtrusive three-storey building in the middle here, partly hidden by a tree, is Gayle Mill in Wensleydale. The lively Gayle Beck flows down towards it between steep banks. Right: The vortex turbine first patented by James Thomson in 1850, with its cover removed. This is seen as "the only water turbine type really native to this country" (Garnett 69; illustration on following page).

The Dales remained overwhelmingly rural. Yet nestled in this peaceful village beside the market town of Hawes is an important piece of our industrial heritage. Gayle Mill houses what is thought to be the world's oldest operational in situ water turbine. The mill was originally built in 1784 by Oswald and Thomas Routh to a Thomas Arkwright design, for cotton-spinning. It was later used for flax and, for a longer period, wool. But another local resource besides wool was wood, and this, like flax, could be supplemented by imports, which at first came to the mill on horse-drawn timber wagons (see Butters). So in 1879, the water-wheel was removed and a Thomson double-vortex turbine, built not far away in Kendal, was installed to run woodworking machinery. In this way, Gayle Mill became a state-of-the-art mechanised sawmill, producing carts and other locally useful farm equipment like hay sledges. So impressed was William Armstrong when he visited the mill that he ordered an identical turbine for his Northumbrian home, Cragside, which was duly installed there in 1885 (see Alderson).

Another incursion from a changing world had come with the opening up of the Dales by railway: a huge number of navvies were brought in during the 1870s, mostly from Ireland and the Welsh mining communities, for work on the new lines. Many lived in shanty towns at points along the lines, over 2000 on Batty Moss in Ribblesdale alone (Toothill and Armstrong 8), where a school and hospital facilities had to be provided, not to mention a "multitude" of policemen (Williams 418)! No account of work in the Dales in Victorian times would be complete without mention of these sometimes unruly labourers.

Related Material


Alderson, Brian. "The History of Electricity Generation at Gayle Mill." Friends of Gayle Mill. Web 25 August 2011.

Butters, Linda. "Spinners and Sawyers." Friends of Gayle Mill. Web 25 August 2011.

Collins, Martin. The Pennine Way: A Practical Guide for Walkers. 2nd ed. Milnthorpe, Cumbria: Cicerone, 2003.

"Gayle Mill: Brief History." Web. 25 August 2011.

Garnett, W. H. Turbines. 2nd ed. London: Bell, 1908. Internet Archives. Web. 25 August 2011.

Hartley, Marie, and Joan Ingilby. Life and Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales. London: Dent, 1968.

Hearfield, Marion. "Swaledale and Arkengarthdale, 1841-1901." Web. 25 August 2011.

_____. "Transport and Communications." Swaledale Villages. Web. 25 August 2011.

Home, Gordon Cochrane. Yorkshire Dales and Fells. London: A & C Black, 1906. Internet Archive. Web. 23 August 2011.

Keeling, Annie E. William Dawson: The "Yorkshire Farmer" and Eloquent Preacher. London: Charles H. Kelly, 1894.

Mitchell, John. "The Wanlockhead Lead Mines." The Mining Magazine. Vol. 21 (July 1919): 11-20.

Scholes, Ron. Yorkshire Dales. 3rd ed. Ashbourne, Derbyshire: Landmark, 2008.

Smith, Roly. Swaledale. London: Frances Lincoln, 2008.

Speight, Harry. Romantic Richmondshire: Being a Complete Account of the History, Antiquities and Scenery of the Picturesque Valleys of the Swale and Yore. London: E. Stock, 1897. Internet Archive. Web. 23 August 2011.

Thompson, William. Sedbergh, Garsdale, and Dent: Peeps at the Past History and Present Condition of Some Picturesque Yorkshire Dales. Illus. J. A. Symington. Leeds: Richard Jackson, 1912. Internet Archive. Web. 25 August 2011.

Toothill, David, and Marian Armstrong. The Settle-Carlisle Railway: A Guide to Your Journey: Leeds. Settle. Carlisle. The Settle-Carlisle Railway Development Company, 2010.

Williams, Frederick Smeeton. The Midland Railway: Its Rise and Progress. A Narrative of Modern Enterprise. London: Strahan & Co., 1876. Internet Archive. Web. 25 August 2011.

"The Wool Shop, Dent." British Listed Buildings. Web. 25 August 2011.

Last modified 3 September 2011