Farming – The Landowners

by Alan Postlethwaite

Mechi Farm, Blennerhasset. (23-270)

The Monks

For most of the past 7,000 years inhabitants of Cumbria have supported themselves by farming the land. Much of the county is hilly or marshy, with poor soil, harsh climatic conditions and long had indifferent communications. Most farming was small-scale and subsistence in character. It was the monks who brought change and fashioned farming into an industry. Drainage and land improvement was put in hand. Stock-rearing became a feature of the economy of many monastic communities from which developed commercial milk and wool production. In Lakeland the Cistercian community at Furness planted a series of granges on its outlying land holdings and established fell-sheep ranches. The wool produced gave a reliable source of revenue and the cereals, meat and cheese produced fed the brethren and other dependents.

Land of the Lakes : Melvyn Bragg:, Hodder & Stoughton, 1983
Barrow and District : F Barnes, Barrow Corporation, 1968

The Yeomen

Poor returns and a lack of capital inhibited the majority of small Cumbrian tenant farmers from improving their lot, and Scottish border troubles created unsettling conditions especially in the north of the county until well into the 17th century. With the coming of more tranquil times there began a period of stability with the prospect of benefits being had from the burgeoning woollen industry. There were fewer large estates in Cumbria than in almost any other part of the Kingdom. The class of customary freehold tenants – often referred to as ‘statesmen’ or ‘yeomen’ – seemed now to come into their own. The firmer rights of family succession enjoyed under manorial custom by many Cumbrian farmers encouraged them to invest in their farms and houses. The so-called ‘great rebuilding’ which during the previous century had progressed through much of the more prosperous parts of rural England now reached Cumbria and saw many of the simple cruck-built timber-framed farmsteads replaced with masonry-walled slate-roofed buildings of the ‘statesman’ pattern with accommodation for both the family of the household (‘the fire-house’) and the farm stock (‘the down-house’) within the one structure.

Old Lakeland (chapter 2 on ‘The Lakeland Yeoman’) : J D Marshall, David & Charles, 1971
Vernacular Architecture of the Lake Counties : R W Brunskill, Faber,1974
Life and Tradition in the Lake District : W Rollinson, Dent, 1974


Prior to the eighteenth century Cumbrian farming followed a very traditional pattern with husbandry divided between the cultivation of strips in a ‘townfield’ and the grazing of animals on stints of an ‘outfield’ of common land or unenclosed fellside. Higher land on the fells would be grazed in summer with herdsmen lodged in simple shielings. By comparison with other parts of the country Cumbrian farming was regarded as backward. Little was being done to adopt modern techniques of crop rotation and livestock breeding. There were, however, a few notable local pioneers of agricultural improvement. One among these was John Christian Curwen (1756-1828) of Ewanrigg Hall who established the Home Farm at Schoose, near Workington where he experimented with the feeding of cattle and inaugurated regular agricultural shows. Another significant pioneer was Sir James Graham (1761-1824) of Netherby who reconstituted his large Border estate into holdings each of 300-400 acres with new stone and slate buildings. Sir James’ brother-in-law, Sir Wilfrid Lawson (1795-1867) of Brayton, also owned a large landed estate and took a deep interest in agricultural progress and land improvement. Sir Wilfrid was an enthusiastic breeder of Shorthorn cattle and experimented with early reaping machinery. William Lowther, 1st Earl of Lonsdale (1752-1844) initiated between 1800 and 1820 a survey and valuation of all his estate farms by the estate offices at Lowther and Whitehaven. While the primary object of the exercise was almost certainly to reassess the rental value of the farms, the reports of the surveyors shed light of the changes then taking place in the industry. The quality of the land was being improved. The range of crops was becoming wider and storage was needed for potatoes and cereals. With winter forage now available more stock was being retained year round and covered accommodation was needed to house it and to handle the valuable manure that was generated. Alongside these demands for new investment the traditional securities of customary tenancy were losing their strength and removed from the farmer his incentive to improve the property. The most efficient form of farmstead had become a topic of public discourse at this time and only the aristocracy and wealthy landowners could afford the cost of building such ideal premises.

The Farmers Guide . . Also Plans of Farmyards etc : Arthur Young, London, 1770
Lowther Farmstead Plans : P Messenger,CWAA Transactions, 1975
The English Model Farm : S Wade Martins, Windgather Press, 2002

Estate Holders

The old counties of Cumberland and Westmorland were not characterised by large landed estates. The appropriation and redistribution of monastic property at the Dissolution led eventually to the emergence of some large land holdings such as the ‘King’s Manor’ as which the Furness Abbey estate passed successively from the Preston family to the Lowthers and finally to the Cavendish estate at Holker. Late in the eighteenth century Arthur Young, the agricultural improver, noted that, as he journeyed between Keswick and Penrith, most of the surroundings were uncultivated moorland. At that date the Cumbrian region had the highest proportion of unenclosed upland waste of any part of England: in Westmorland 79.7% by area and in Cumberland 50.5%. Pressures from the growth of population in the new industrial centres for greater agricultural productivity as well as farming changes required by technical innovations were now exposing the limitations of the area’s traditional patterns of land use. Traditional manorial rights were increasingly being disregarded. Commons were overgrazed and stints were leased or ‘agisted’, sometimes even to outsiders such as drovers who were moving lean cattle south from Scotland to provide fresh meat for London and the industrial towns. The enclosure of common land began as an unregulated process by local agreement but by 1770 enclosure by Act of Parliament became the chief means of reshaping the upland landscape of north-west England. In all, 127 Enclosure Acts were passed for Cumberland covering 277,000 acres of land, 98 for Westmorland (101,000 acres) and 31 for north Lancashire (5,000 acres). Inevitably farmers with the more substantial holdings on the commons gained most from the parcelling out of the land and manorial lords could sway allocations in their favour. As well as providing a pattern of ownership better able to facilitate land improvement and changes from pasture to arable use, enclosures also initiated widespread dealings in farm land and its acquisition by those with available capital.

One of the largest landowners in Cumbria was Sir James Graham of Netherby, with as estate of 30.000 acres, who was foremost among the progressive agriculturalists of the the county. He borrowed £200,000 from Equitable Insurance and from 1820 installed 1,500 miles of new clay drains on his lands. Lord Frederick Cavendish (1836-82) erected model farm buildings at Flookburgh which comprised a range of buildings on a U-shaped plan around a courtyard. He was also a prominent improver of his Holker estate by reclaiming and draining marginal land on the edge of Morecambe Bay. On the Lowther estate the extravagance of Smirke’s Castle was not matched by any corresponding agricultural ouvre, although plans for a substantial Home Farm and even a ferme orneé are in the Lowther muniments. At nearby Greystoke, Charles Howard (1746-1815) eccentric 11th Duke of Norfolk, built a cluster of castellated folly farmsteads – Spire House, Bunkers Hill and Fort Putnam – and a fine planned farmstead near his park. Although the model farm included a facility for harvesting methane from the stables to light the house these developments seem to have been designed chiefly to promote the Duke’s political and personal views rather than to embrace agricultural advances. (The Spire House seems to have been deliberately conceived to irritate its Quaker tenant!)

William Lawson (1836-1916) second son of Sir Wilfrid Lawson of Brayton, was a progressive agriculturalist and pioneer cooperator. In his youth Lawson travelled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. Later, after an active role in field sports, he gave up hunting and shooting and in 1861 and became a vegetarian. Having thus lost most of his friends he set off on a pony on his own ‘rural ride’ to London. There he heard of the experimental farm of Alderman Mechi at Tiptree in Essex and paid it a visit. Mechi’s methods included fertilising the land with liquid manure, careful sowing of seed and the housing of cattle on boards clear of the ground. Returning home William and a neighbour George Moore set up at Blennerhasset their own Mechi Farm. The best advice was sought and the most up-to-date techniques employed. Unwanted hedges were grubbed out, better means of access created, machinery was powered by a water turbine, an internal railway system was built, tons of stone were removed from the land and modern drainage installed. Not all went well. Lawson was cheated in a deal over some low-priced guano. His purchase of a steam plough proved a mixed blessing. [Lawson engaged in a memorable compensation claim with the Maryport & Carlisle Railway Co. when the steam plough he had consigned to his uncle Sir James Graham at Scots Dyke Station was wrongly delivered to Scotsgap Station in Northumberland, losing him several days of hire.] The Blennerhasset estate included a market garden, an artifical manure works, a laboratory, a free library and school, a gas works, a dispensary, a flax works and several grocery stores for his estate families. Lawson was more an idealist than a practical farmer and cared little for the value of money. His model farm at Mechi was full of bright ideas but once it was set up he quickly lost interest.

Transforming Fell and Valley : Ian Whyte, CNWRS, 2003
Cattle Droving, Cotton and Landownership : P Roebuck, CWAAS, 2014
Schemes for the Reclamation of Land from the Sea in North Lancashire during the 18th & 19th Centuries :  W Rollinson, THLC Vol. 115, 1963
The Buildings of England: Cumbria : M Hyde & N Pevsner,  Yale, 2010


Fundamental to William Lawson’s model farm at Blennerhasset was that it should embody principles of cooperation. He was much influenced by the example of a co-operative farm established by Sir John Gurdon at Assington Hall, in Suffolk. What Lawson termed the ‘Public Good’ was a business economy aimed at maximising returns to shareholders, improving the earnings of workers and securing the maximum dividend for the purchaser. Using public meetings, he was instrumental in starting a Co-operative Store system in Aspatria and encouraging the planting of similar stores in Dearham, Wigton and Alston. Less success greeted his ‘Society Farm’. When a secret ballot of his eleven workers was held only one voted for ‘cooperation’ the other ten opting for ‘every man for himself’. A poll of the wider village community over profit-sharing also gave a lukewarm response with the general verdict being “If all people were equal today, they would be unequal tomorrow”. Undeterred Lawson announced that he would, in any event, apply all profits above 2.5% to the public good and after making a payment to each full-time employee the remaining balance went to support the foundation of a cottage hospital. In the end the dividend scheme fell victim to potato blight and a disastrous fire at the gas works, which destroyed the barn holding the year’s harvest. What did survive, and outlived the founder himself, was Lawson’s ‘people’s shop’ in Blennerhasset village. One aspect of J C Curwen’s initiative at the Schoose Farm, Workington was that it would provide a resource for the local farming community. Curwen publicised the farm trials in his writings and promoted an early agricultural show to bring farmers together and display the benefits of the ‘new husbandry’. Workington Show began 35 years before the Royal Show. It was a two-day event, described as the ‘Holkham or Woburn of the North’ and attracted Ministers of the Government and members of the aristocracy. No fewer that 460 persons sat down to dinner at the inaugural show. At Netherby, Sir James Graham established an agricultural society that opened his well-managed estate to neighbouring farmers. It is probable that the diffusion of agricultural knowledge owes as much to the multiplication of local farming societies as any other agency. From a mere 25 such societies in 1800, by 1870 there were 600. Agriculture had also developed its own literature. An important figure in farming journalism was Carlisle-born Henry Hall Dixon who wrote on a wide variety of country and agricultural topics. “Saddle and Sirloin” written in 1870 provided a lively insight into rural society and farming developments in Cumbria and beyond.

Ten Years of Gentleman Farming at Blennerhasset : W Lawson et al.,  Facsimile edition, 2012
Saddle and Sirloin : H H Dixon,E-book, 2013

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