Historical background | Incredible Edible Todmorden | History

Historical background

Medieval Todmorden

Most early settlements in Todmorden faced south and were situated on the shelves of land above the valleys. Common place names give a clue to the landscape – Royd means a clearance within a wood. There was a cornmill at Hallroyd from 1266, and one of the largest deer parks in the country in neighbouring Erringden.

Before 1850: Oat cakes and Porridge

As the sun slants low on the hillsides at certain times of the year, it is still possible to see the traces of earlier farming practices. The long shadows reveal a pattern of ridges and furrows underlying the grass that show fields formerly under the plough.

Oats were grown in the area until well into the 19th century, and formed a staple for the local population. Thus the local regiment of the Duke of Wellington were known as the Havercake lads, because the recruiting sergeants used to carry these oat cakes on the end of the swords to entice new recruits. Oatcakes and porridge feature in the writings of the Brontes.

In 1801 Stansfield and Langfield had 306 acres under oats, and the parish of Rochdale, of which Todmorden and Walsden formed a part had 1,490 acres. Other arable crops in the two areas accounted for only a few acres. However, by 1866, the first year for which agricultural returns are available local arable farming had virtually ceased.

1850-1900: The growth of dairy farming

milk cart 1908

Apart from 1898, when twenty-three and a half acres of oats were grown, and the odd acre of potatoes, turnips, Swedes and cabbages, its almost total demise is confirmed by the returns for the rest of the century. Between 1866 and 1905 an average of one thousand six hundred milk cows was recorded annually within the local townships. Hay became the dominant crop.

The two factors driving this change were the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1849 that had encouraged the cultivation of poor marginal uplands because they kept the price of corn artificially high, and the growth of the industrial towns who increased the demand for milk.

(Statistics taken from the autobiography of Samuel Fielden, (P Foner, ed), in the autobiographies of the Hay Market martyrs, p.136) quoted on p. 190 ‘A History of Todmorden’ by Malcom and Freda Heywood.

1900-1950 Growing for town-dwellers – the rise of Allotments

Walsden Horticultural Class 1912

Photographic evidence suggests that the interest in gardening grew during the earliest years of the 20th century. New allotments were created at a number of sites around Todmorden, for example Pudsey and St Peter’s Field, and horticultural classes were started. More allotments were opened during the first world war, as there was a point when it was feared that Britain would starve or have to surrender because one ship in four leaving British ports failed to return. In 1917, there were only six weeks of wheat stock remaining. An allotment was opened at the back of the Cricket Club, only to fall into disuse after the First World War.

The depression years showed a revival in interest in allotments for use by the unemployed, and the Cricket club allotment was reopened. According to Barbara Diggle, she can remember allotments at Portsmouth recreation ground, Cornholme at the back of the Church, Lineholme off Church Road, in the Park, (she used to buy onions there during the war years to make onion and potato pie at the cafe where she worked), Spring Gardens, at the back of Rochdale Fire station, up Meadow bottom, at Copperas House, on the other side of the railway at Walsden and at Ferney Lee, at the back of Walsden School and at the back of St Peters.

The pressure to increase food sufficiency led once more to the cultivation of marginal land, for example kale was grown just below Coal Clough. The interviewees in the people (link) section recall other local crops such as carrots or swedes as the government insisted that a certain amount of land went under the plough. Many of them also recall the taking over of spare patches of land, and there being used for growing vegetables or keeping a few hens.

The interest in growing your own continued after the war into the 1950s, when rising living standards, full employment and increasing pressure on land for house building led to a gradual decline. The Cricket Club allotment was closed in 1959, when the pavilion was rebuilt. This decline shows signs that it is being reversed, due to rising demand for the remaining allotment plots – which could be the reason why I have been on the waiting list for a Council allotment for five years.