Yeoman Farmers 1500-1850

by Emma Bray

Banner Image: Glencoyne Farm © Anne Clarke

A prosperous class of yeoman farmers emerges

The system of land-holding that developed in Cumbria was known as customary tenancy, which meant that the tenant could bequeath or dispose of his property at will. The origins of this have been debated, but may have been in return for the tenant farmer providing military support to the landlord against the Scots. When more peaceful times emerged following the accession of James I in 1603, landlords began to dispute the tenants’ customary rights, but the matter was settled in court in the tenants’ favour in 1625. Their legal position confirmed, they enjoyed a level of autonomy over their own affairs which was uncommon elsewhere in England and they prospered as a class. Their simple way of life remained little changed until towards the end of the nineteenth century.

Entitled to cut peat, coppice wood, graze animals on common land

By custom, tenants were required to make certain payments to their landlord and in return were granted entitlements such as the the cutting of peat for fuel, the harvesting and coppicing of wood and the right to graze a certain number of animals on stinted pasture on the common land. Arable fields were sometimes shared in the valley bottom and livestock was kept out until after harvest by means of a ring garth – a stone perimeter wall which divided the fell grazing from the cultivated fields. An example survives in Hartsop in the valley to the north of Brothers’ Water.

The traditional Cumbrian farmhouse emerges

The period from the mid 17th to late 18th centuries saw widespread reconstruction of yeomen’s farmhouses. The reason for this is unclear, but coincided with the Great Rebuilding which occurred throughout England at this time and may have been spurred on by the security that the 1625 court ruling gave the tenant farmers. The traditional Cumbrian farmhouse emerged during this period. Typically, houses were built in stone and slate and often white-washed.

Old Fireplace Glencoin Farm. From the Chronicles of Patterdale, with thanks to Patterdale WI

There were two principal rooms – the fireroom and the parlour. The fireroom often contained the sole hearth of the house. Here, cooking and domestic chores would have been carried out over a peat fire using a tripod, pot hooks and a girdle-plate on which clapbread (oat cakes) were cooked. Next door was the parlour which served as a principal bedroom. Other bedrooms and storage were situated in the loft, accessed by a ladder or later by stairs, often built in an “outshut” – an extension to the rear of the house which may also have housed a scullery. Animals were overwintered in a byre which was often a linear extension to the house, separated by a cross-passage. Entry to the main house was originally via the cross-passage and front porches tended to be a later addition.

Many examples of traditional farmhouses survive throughout the Ullswater area. One of the best known is Glencoyne Farmhouse on the western shore – a white-washed longhouse with byre, a slate roof, stepped gables and cylindrical tapered chimney stacks on a square base.

By Emma Bray

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