Northumbrian Farming and Fisheries

Northumbrian Farming and Fisheries

After the turmoil of Civil War and Commonwealth, the later 17th century saw a number of improvements in the farming landscape of Northumberland. In many villages on the coastal plain and in the Tyne valley, the open fields were enclosed by agreement and divided into individual consolidated farms. At Preston, Tynemouth, and Earsdon this was completed as early as 1649. Beadnell was enclosed in 1701, Acomb in the Tyne valley in 1694, and Ovington in 1708. Rennington, Cheviot Ram near Embleton, was enclosed in 1720, and a 1727 survey said the tenants ‘were very poor and scarce able to pay their rents, but since they divided their farmes . . . they have improved their tenements to be worth £25 per annum, and some improved to £30’, Agreement to enclose was often easy to secure because many villages had only a few landowners: when Embleton was enclosed in 1730 there were only six proprietors.

These changes only affected a small part of the landscape. The lowland village fields were simply oases surrounded by much larger unenclosed commons, which completely dominated the upland moors. In the early 18th century the Northumbrian landscape was largely one of open moor and heath, without the hedges, trees and neat fields of today. In the following century this farming scene was transformed by the revolution in agrarian organisation and agricultural techniques. The growing demand from the new industrial regions (like Tyneside itself) led to rising food prices, and good farming profits, especially after 1750. The enclosure of open land allowed better husbandry, and the introduction of sown-grasses, clovers and turnips encouraged new crop-rotations, increased yields, and provided winter feed for the sheep and cattle, so solving one of the major problems of medieval agriculture. As early as 1727 John Proctor of Rock, near Embleton, was growing turnips to feed cattle, and his gardener was in great demand in the locality.

The Stuart enclosures left few open fields to be enclosed by the formal machinery of Parliamentary Enclosure Acts that began to dominate after 1750, but vast moorland areas of Northumberland were enclosed in this way. John Horsley, the Morpeth antiquarian, wrote in about 1 729 that ‘Great part of the county on the western side is yet waste and almost uninhabited, but much of it has been improved of late years, and the proprietors and inhabitants are yearly improving it still more and more. They have just now this very year divided a large common near Elsdon, and Framlington Moor (part  of Rimside) in order to enclose and improve’. Around Wallington, Sir Walter Blackett transformed large tracts of bare landscape with enclosures, farm-buildings and tree and hedge-planting, as did other progressive landowners like the Swinburnes around Swinburne, and the Allgoods around Simonburn. To the south of Hexham the East and West Commons were divided and enclosed in 1752, and many of the individual farmhouses appeared, like that at High Shield built by William Bell. An Act in 1790 enclosed the Shire Moor, near Tyne mouth, and amongst other Acts there were 5,000 acres around Tosson in 1805, and the 6,000 acres of Rothbury Forest in 1831.

Farm rents increased earliest on the lowland farms of Bamburgh shire and the Tyne valley. Around Corbridge rents doubled from5s.-7s.  (25p-35p) an acre in 1700 to 10s.-15s. (50p-75p) in 1760, and doubled again in  1760-80 with improved farming methods. Although the county continued to have a strong pastoral emphasis, there were many more arable fields than today, even in quite upland areas. Not only was corn grown for home consumption, but an export bounty on corn (in force from 1689 to 1766) encouraged corn exports, and a good deal of corn was shipped from Ainmouth (which began to thrive again as a port), Beadnell and Berwick, to Scotland and to foreign ports. The growing agricultural prosperity and shipments on both sides of the border led to the re-emergence of Berwick in the 18th century as a significant town.

Yields were improved not only by the new rotations, but also by treating the soil, adding marl to light soils and liming heavier soils. Lime had long been used on the Bamburghshire farms; now it became the general practice. Lime-kilns were constructed at Beadnell and North Sunderland, supplying lime to Northumbrian farms, and exporting it to Scotland. At Bent Hall farm near Beadnell the lease in 1800 obliged tenants to spread four double cartloads of shell-lime and eight loads of small lime per acre on fallow land. Turnpike trusts record the carriage of lime across the county, and the small coalfields near Ford were exploited to burn local lime.

One of the later regions to be improved was Glendale and Tweedside, which had been prosperous in 13th century, but had suffered greatly in the Scottish wars. On his travels in the 1770s Arthur Young saw large areas here covered in broom and gorse. Agricultural techniques were backward and rents low, but the loamy and sandy soils had a lot of potential and the large areas available attracted enterprising farmers from Scotland and the south, who turned it into the best farming land in the county. The Culley brothers, Matthew and George, came from Darlington, and beginning at Fenton, near Wooler, in 1767,  they worked a number of large farms in Glendale and Tweedside on long leases. They cleared large areas for cultivation, dug drainage ditches, embanked streams and introduced their variant on the famous Norfolk rotation involving a five-six year rotation based On oats, turnips, and barley or wheat, with the other years pasture, so creating the sheep-and-turnip husbandry for which the region became famous.

The Culley’s main contribution was in stock-rearing. They bred carefully, creating the Border Leicester sheep as a cross between the Bakewell Dishleys and the Teeswater breed, giving a relatively hardy sheep that fattened rapidly for the Tyneside and West Yorkshire markets. Drill-sown turnips provided winter-fodder. With farmers like the Culleys, John Bailey of Chillingham, and others, the rents rose rapidly, especially during the agricultural price rise of the Napoleonic Wars: farms on the Learmouth estate rose from 5s. (25p) an acre in 1760-80 to lOs. (50p) in 1780-1800, and £1 in 1800-1820. The Culleys’ stock was worth X1,297 in 1767, but over £9,000 in 1798, and in 1801 their profit was £4,750. They became landowners, buying Akeld estate and Fowberry Tower, and in 1810 George wrote to his son: ‘Whenever I am at Fowberry, I am struck with astonishment, when I reflect on our beginning in Northumberland 43 years ago. To think of my son, now inhabiting a Palace! aitho’ his father in less • than 50 years since worked harder than any servant we now have, & even drove a coal cart!’.

The change of Northumberland into an efficient farming region-is illustrated by the new harvesting technology. Traditionally the grain had to be separated from the straw and chaff by flailing, but in the late 18th century a number of threshing-machines were invented. Northum­brians like Thomas Ilderton of Ilderton and Robert Smart of Hobberlaw pioneered some of the designs, but the first patented working machine was by a Scot, Andrew Meikle, in 1788. The thresher, situated in a wheelhouse, was driven either by horses, water, or wind-power, or later by stationary steam-engines. Many old wheelhouses and chimneys survive on farms, often indicating the former extent of arable farming in areas now mainly pasture. At Harehope, near Eglingham, the four-acre pond constructed to supply water-power to a thresher can still be seen. Northumberland, with its large farms let on long leases, became an early adopter of the machines, and by 1794 Bailey and Culley noted that threshing-machines were ‘now becoming common in northern parts of the county’, in contrast to the labour-surplus regions of southern England, where there was strong resistance to new machinery. Similarly, when the mechanical reapers of McCormick and Hussey (based on an 1812  design by a Northumbrian millwright John Common) were introduced in the 1850s, they were rapidly adopted in the county.

The heavier clay soil areas remained a problem until underfield tile-draining was introduced in the 1840s and 1850s. The Duke of Northumberland was particularly active in this: at Longhoughton 77 per cent. of the acreage was underdrained, at Tynemouth 75 per cent., and Shilbottle 69 per cent., and nearly £1,000,000 was invested on his estates. The improvements were most obvious in south-east Northumberland, but tile-drains were also used to improve loams and ‘turnip soils’ in Glendale at farms like Learmouth. The downward pressure of rents in the 1840s through fear of Corn Law Repeal meant these investments did not pay off immediately: at East Chevington £1,642 was spent on draining between 1840 and 1851, but net rent to the landlord fell by 29 per cent. Even in the longer term, much of the investment had not paid for itself by the 1880s (the Duke’s million yielded only 21/2 per cent.), when the era of High Farming gave way to agricultural depression as foreign grain made home production uneconomic. Northumberland, because of its mixed arable and pasture husbandry, did not suffer like the East Midlands, and there were relatively few farming bankruptcies, but the arable acreage contracted, to make Northumberland the dominantly pastoral county it is today. Marginal fields were left to the bracken, and in the coastal plain the arable proportion fell from two-thirds in 1870 to less than one-third by 1929.

There is a long history of fishing on the Northumberland coast. The Lindisfarne monks used to send fish to Durham Priory, and porpoises and seal-calves for special festivals, and in 1225 Prior Germanus of Tynemouth was creating his fishing port at North Shields. Along the coast there were numerous fishing villages, such as Cullercoats, Newbiggin, Alnmouth and Boulmer. The fish caught were mainly for local consumption, though even in medieval times some fish were sent to London. Local salmon caught in the Tweed or off Berwick were renowned, and as late as 1715  Warburton recorded rich salmon catches in the lower Tyne, as many as 265 at one draught. Some local fishermen went further afield: in 1528 six ‘craylers’ from North Shields were sent to join the Iceland fleet. The fishing villages were also used for smuggling, especially in the 18th century. In 1722 Anthony Mitchell, customs officer at Cullercoats, was murdered by ‘two villains that used to run brandy’, and in 1762 the customs men seized 400 gallons of rum and geneva, and 2,700 gallons of brandy from Scottish smugglers at Beadnell.

The rise of urban-industrial markets made fishing a focus for com­mercial investors, and in 1788 John Wood of Beadnell formed the Northumberland Branch of the British Fishery to fish from Beadnell and from Ullapool in Scotland, and built an improved harbour at Beadnell. After this both white fishing and herring fishing expanded along the coast, based especially at Lindisfarne, North Sunderland, Beadnell and North Shields. The herring season in late summer, when the herring came in shoals for spawning, attracted many foreign boats. In 1828 over 100 were using Beadnell, and Scottish girls came to help with the herring curing. At Lindisfarne in the 1860s the harbour might accommodate 100 French boats, and all the local boats’ catch was sold for the Stettin market in the Baltic. The coming of the railway made marketing easier, but, together with the increasing size of fishing boats, encouraged concentration on fewer harbours, notably North Shields and North Sunderland. The cobles gave way to larger, decked boats with 40- to 60-foot keels, and in 1877 William Purdy of North Shields converted the Tyne steam-tug Messenger into a steam-trawler, and the steam-drifter for herring fishing came in 1907. The number of boats fishing from the smaller harbours like Lindisfarne and Cullercoats declined, and the decline was especially notable at Ainmouth. The inshore herring fishery was over-exploited and the white fish over-trawled, so that by 1914 the fishing fleets were looking further afield, and the coastal fisheries never regained their former importance.