Coping through – commemorating the craft of dry stone wallers

Dry stone wall near Howarth, Yorkshire © Adèle Emm

Another eclectic post. Sorry!  I had the most fabulous day in Yorkshire yesterday: sun, sky and dry stone walls, the iconic feature ooop in t’north...   Who would have thought there were so many styles of walls  all built without mortar?

Such walls, often constructed hundreds of years ago, were constructed to contain  sheep – England, of course,  amassed vast amounts of money through the wool trade but subsistence farmers up in such inhospitable terrain had little money;  they needed to protect what livestock they had.  Drovers’ roads were walled to prevent sheep straying onto another man’s lands. These walls provide shelter for ewes and their lambs when the weather – as so frequently does up here – suddenly turns nasty.  The walls also act as firebreaks (wooden fencing is merely more tinder, fire fodder for flames) and, when Lyme Park has just lost acres of vegetation just this week, Ilkley Moor is still burning at the time of writing and Saddleworth Moor  similarly and disastrously affected last year, such firebreaks are indispensable.

The golden age of professional dry stone wallers was the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when fields were expanded to  encompass  larger mechanised agricultural machinery developed, by necessity, during the population explosion of the industrial revolution.  Today,  few people want this job.  It’s generally poorly paid, hard physical work often under  appalling weather conditions.   Dry stone labourers were itinerant,  travelling through remote areas lodging when and where they could.   Take 70 year old Lancashire born William Angus.   In the 1851 census, living with his family at 38 Craven Street, Bradford, Yorkshire, he was enumerated as dry stone waller. The visible work of such men is a testament to their skill although their names are forgotten.   Marvel at their results.

Dry stone wall near Haworth, Yorkshire, clearly showing copestones at the top and throughstones in the middle. © Adèle Emm

Let’s name some  more Yorkshire dry stone wallers as enumerated in the 1851 census.

  • William Brook, 55, living at 32 Rantnor Street, Bradford; born Settle, Yorkshire
  • James Schofield, 54, at Waterstalls in Todmorden, Yorkshire, born Lancashire
  • John Howarth, 29, of Frenches, Saddleworth, born Bolton, Lancashire
  • Yorkshire born John, 54, and son Thomas Sunderland, 23, living at 12 Delph Terrace, Leeds

They are forgotten no more…

yet another dry stone wall near Haworth, Yorkshire.  © Adèle Emm


For more information about dry stone walling, visit the Dry Stone Walling Association or the National Trust which has volunteering schemes.

Passing through…

The Cockaynes lived here in 1939

A few months ago, I wrote of a young man who lived in my house in 1911 and died aged 17 in World War 1.  This year marks the centenary of the start of WW2 so it seemed fitting to look into the life of someone else who lived in my road but in September 1939.  Preferably a happier story!

War was declared on the 3rd September and on the 29th, a register taken of everyone in the country exempting those already in military service. There were two purposes; to issue National Identity cards and subsequent ration books.  In 1948, three years after the war ended, the number on the ID card became their National Health Service number.  However,  records were amended right into the 1950s; so, should a woman marry, her new name was superscribed over her maiden name – really useful for family historians.    Access to the 1939 Register is via subscription sites Ancestry and FindMyPast.

In 1939, the residents in my leafy suburban Stockport street included a retired umbrella factory manager (it’s always raining in the North West), a retired head postmaster and a barrister at law.  Considering the proximity of the local station, it’s not surprising several commercial travellers also resided here and in neighbouring roads. Three minutes’ walk and the rail network could transport them countrywide.  Several households had live-in servants, somewhat of a feat considering how difficult it was to retain them after the social upheaval of WW1.

As befitting the start of a war, there were two ARPs (Air Raid Precautions i.e. wardens) in the road; one full time and the other working in ‘control’ in Manchester.  It’s the story of the full-time ARP I’m writing about today.  Just another ordinary chap from an ordinary family in an ordinary suburban street.    Or was he?

The head of the Cockayne family was Thomas Strafford  (also recorded as Stafford and Stratford) Cockayne, the aforementioned retired head postmaster.  He lived in an Edwardian semi with wife Christine and their 32 year old unmarried son Leslie, a solicitor’s clerk, our ARP.

Checking daddy in the 1881 census, 14 year old Thomas lived with his parents, lowly lodgers in Stockport Road, Gorton, a far earthier working class area than their 1939 home.  Thomas’ father was a master tailor born in Glossop, Derbyshire, employing three men and a boy.  A decade earlier and this family, with 4 year old Thomas in tow, lived in the Cheetham Hill area of Manchester – even grittier than Gorton.   His father, a jobbing tailor, provided for wife, several children, his wife’s mother and her sister.  Digging into the archives a little more, Thomas’ grandfather was a silk weaver.  Now these were highly skilled craftsmen but by the middle of 19th century industrialisation, their livelihood was increasingly threatened.

In 1901, Thomas was living with his in-laws and their unmarried daughters two roads from his future 1939 home.  He describes himself as a ‘civil servant,’  a world away  from the son of a tailor albeit a master.   Upwardly mobile, he’d married the daughter of a print agent.  Eight years later, and he is living in his own house, 11 Harley Street, Victoria Park, Manchester, a swish address though less so today.   He’s a government overseer and son Leslie is two years old.   The 1911 census records them still there;   he and his wife had had two children but only Leslie survived.   Was Thomas aspiring to relocate to that leafy suburb where he’d lived just ten years earlier?

Fast forward to Thomas’ death in November 1952.  He died in Shaw Heath in the former workhouse now hospital,  his home address the same as in 1939, and he bequeaths over £2,799 to solicitor son Leslie.  What a success!  A jobbing tailor’s son rises to a high level job in the Post Office, one of the most prestigious employers of the day.

I can’t find records of Leslie marrying but he dies in Stockport Infirmary in 1963 having lived in the same house since the start of the WW2.  He left over £2,852.

I’ve long believed  that we don’t own our house.  We just pass through.  This sentiment is endorsed in the second BBC series of the fabulous A House Through Time  presented by David Olusoga.  My Edwardian street is testament to this.