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The Birtwhistles of Craven and Galloway

 

 

 

 

 

Introduction

 

Despite the fact that the droving of cattle significantly changed the physical appearance  of northern Britain  in the second half of the 18th century, it  was of surprisingly little interest to contemporary  biographers. To build a picture of the droving business, we are forced to rely heavily on records  such as property deeds, wills and law suits.

Because of the extent and longevity of their involvement in droving, the best such records would appear to be those relating to the Birtwhistle family of Skipton. Over a period of three quarters of a century, John Birtwhistle and three of his sons handled an estimated 20% of the cattle coming into England from Scotland, on their way through Craven to northern industrial cities and the south of England. A particularly important source of information about how the Birtwhistles operated their business comes from a lengthy and celebrated inheritance dispute in the third generation; although the family were no longer involved in droving, the law suit revealed the locations of the land from which they had  operated  in the previous generation.

Nor is it only their droving interests which are revealed in tracing the Birtwhistle family records over three generations. We shall see that the wealth generated by the cattle business enabled them to become important industrialists, the largest investors in Skipton in the Leeds Liverpool canal, and the builders of a cotton mill at Gatehouse of Fleet.

A son-in-law of  John Birtwhistle  was already a senior and highly successful spy for the British government when he married Agnes Birtwhistle, John’s daughter, in Skipton in 1778. His operations included spying against America and France  when Britain was at war with those countries  and, later, against potential revolutionaries in England and Scotland during periods of political  unrest. The eventual inheritor of much of the Birtwhistle estate in Craven was John Birtwhistle’s grand-daughter, Anna Jane Vardill, a prolific writer in Regency London. She contributed some 200 pieces to the European Magazine between 1809 and 1822, six of which had Craven themes. One of these pieces was written in Skipton in 1819, is discussed later, and reproduced in full in the appendix. It is unlikely that the records of any other Craven family provide such rich insights into  life in the period in which they lived; insights into the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and into the politics and the arts of the times.

 

The evolution of farming in Craven

 

The Parliamentary Enclosure of Long Preston, under which the Birtwhistles acquired one of their more important Craven holdings, brought arable farming to an end in the township;  a  method of farming  practised in Long Preston  since Anglo- Saxon times. Before discussing the Birtwhistles’ droving activities, it is worth considering first what is known about the agricultural practices in Craven which were displaced by the expansion of the droving trade in the middle of the 18th century. To do so, we shall consider the history of farming in Long Preston rather than another township, partly because Long Preston was the township in which the Birtwhistles’ largest Craven land holding was located, and partly because it is the Craven township for which we have the best information about early farming practices.

         At Domesday Ulf had three carucates of land in Long Preston, 24 oxgangs. Since an oxgang was the amount of land on which a subsistence farmer could support his family, this suggests a subsistence village of around two dozen farmers. The next meaningful records come from the end of the 13th century. As in the rest of England, there had been prosperity and a population explosion in Craven during the 13th century, leading to most cultivatable land being under the plough by the end of the

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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