Friday, June 26, 2015

Raising the Calf, 1887 and 2015

by p.d.r. lindsay

I had a wonderful topic all sorted for this blog piece. The history of gingerbread, in particular the development of ginger bread from bread crumbs to cake. The eponymous heroine of my novel, Tizzie, spent much of her time in the kitchen and the dairy, and as it was 1887 the methods of making butter, cheeses, baking, and cooking were quite different from the ones I use today. Tizzie’s favourite recipe was for gingerbread. I had my copy of Mrs. Beeton’s Household Management, an 1880s version, all ready, along with Elizabeth David’s excellent book on bread, (from B.C. to today) a 1940s Cordon Bleu recipe book and my grandmother’s family gingerbread recipe from the 1880s. A little history of baking was going to be fun. Or it was.

Then I had a Tizzie week and had to play dairy maid and nurse to my calving heifers. I have a lifestyle block of 12 acres without modern conveniences like electricity outside, modern barns or mechanical aids. Even my house is 19th century and so it’s a hands on place, just as it would have been in 1887. The methods I use are the same as those used in the 19th century.

In my novel Tizzie was the dairymaid and general helper on her brother’s farm. The story begins as Tizzie is learning to remove her rose tinted spectacles, helped by her beloved niece, Agnes, and see that she is actually more a slave than a beloved sister-aunt. But she does love her cows. She hand rears them as calves and gentles them until they are heifers, and she finally helps them through their first calving. Once bonded with their first calf, through Tizzie’s help, she then has a useful and gentle cow for the rest of its life.

Have you any idea of just how much work that actually is? Well, I thought I had a fair idea, having done some of it. I hand raised my heifers from tiny calves. I did this as Tizzie did, as good dairymaids have done since cows became the prime farm animal. The advice is briefly mentioned in the farm manuals. Henry Stephens’s Book of the Farm (first published by Blackwood in 1844 and Hillyard’s Summary of Practical Fanning (1836) make mention of this aspect of dairy work, but Tizzie and her farming community would probably have garnered their information from the many farming journals, newspapers and periodicals published by agricultural societies formed in the 1840s. The Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England would have been too grand for Tizzie but the Yorkshire Agricultural Society’s pamphlets and papers would certainly have been available to her. Then there were the local agricultural shows which allowed a sharp eyed dairy maid to compare her cows and calves with others and learn new skills. Like Tizzie I also had knowledge passed to me by experts. Tizzie’s mother and grandmother passed on their knowledge to her as she was now teaching Agnes. I had done brief stints as a student on a dairy farm, but we used milking machines, modern feeding systems and dealt with the milk in a stainless steel dairy. Still calves were always handled carefully. I made pets of mine, fed and groomed them, spent an hour or two each day with them so that I would be able to manage with them full sized, but I only have two heifers not Tizzie’s ten. Her day was full; so was mine during calving time. What a performance, and one which has not changed much from Tizzie’s day.

Littlest heifer, Holly, kindly had her calf early in the morning so that when I went to call the heifers for food she was struggling to deal with this…thing? Imagine being a heifer who nine months previously had had fun with a nice friendly bull which popped into her life for a brief period of 6 or 8 weeks all those months ago. She had forgotten Murphy the Dexter bull, and now his gift to her scared her silly. I spent most of the morning coaxing her to lick the calf dry and let it nudge her udder. The ginger calf, the image of his Dad, knew much more than his Mum and tried to latch into a teat. I found myself stroking the udder, massaging teats and calming the heifer. Just as Tizzie and every dairy maid has done over the centuries. The 1887 Paget Report earnestly recommended the provision of county agricultural schools, something which Sir Charles, Tizzie’s village landlord, was busy trying to implement.The report wanted knowledge like Tizzie’s to be handed on so that people knew the best practices.

Once Holly had accepted her baby I had to separate her from the other heifer, Curiosity, who lived up to her name and kept poking her nose in between calf and mum. Holly would follow me to the shippon (cow shed), but the calf would not. Have you ever tried to pick up a calf? Even new born it weighs far more than you think. I am so pleased I deleted a passage where Tizzie was carrying calves about like bundles of hay. Nervous cows tread all over your feet as Holly did. I had remembered that, and Tizzie had strong boots.

Worse was yet to come. Two days later Curiosity attacked Holly and chased the calf all round the field. Holly dived back into the shippon, and I managed to get the calf in after distracting Curiosity with food. How had Tizzie managed with ten calving around the same time? Poor Curiosity wanted privacy for her calving, hence the chasing off of her companions. Alas, after one hour she was distressed, and I was not Tizzie who could slid a greased arm inside the cow and set the calf right for its birth. The vet came, and together with ropes and chains and a thing like a car jack we hauled one large bull calf into the world. It took two hours of really hard work, me pulling along with the vet. I am ashamed to think I had Tizzie doing a similar though less complex birth more quickly. The vet did assure me that if a calf is turned to present itself properly in the birth canal the cow can usually deliver it herself with just a little gentle tugging. Curiosity’s calf was too big, and she had no hope of delivering it without our help. In the 1880s soft calving ropes were available to tie round the forelegs and head of a stuck calf, but it would have taken two strong men to release a calf the size of Curiosity’s. I cannot find details of this kind of calving to know if they bothered. Tizzie would have tried, but natural selection was allowed to take place so that only the cows capable of easily birthing calves would survive.

Both heifers have now settled into being anxious mums watching over their crazy little calves, and I wish I had added something somewhere in the novel about Tizzie having fun watching the comical antics of day old calves as they skip, hop, leap and chase each other. It’s a sight to make anyone smile.

Why would a farm dairy maid spend so much time and effort on a few calves? Most of those small farms in the Yorkshire Dales ran only three, no more than ten cows. But, like today, calves in 1887 were worth a lot of money. An extract from the 1883 ‘The Leeds Mercury’ newspaper for Monday 22 October has a report on Gunnerside Fair, "There was a large company present and an active business doing at this fair. Calving cows made up to £22, calving heifers £17 to £20, calves from six to ten months old up to £8, two-year-old bullocks £12 to £14…" That was a fair sum of money for a small Dales farm, and many of the small farms were only 30 acres or so. They needed every penny they could make.

Then consider the price of the produce. Again an extract from ‘The Leeds Mercury’ on Monday 7 July, 1884. "Richmond, Saturday:-Butter 1s to 1s 2d per lb; eggs 12 and 13 for 1s;…Swaledale and Wensleydale cheese 80s to 86s per cwt." (s stands for a shilling and d stands for a penny or pence.) Dales farmers needed good and careful dairy maids to earn them top prices for butter, cheese, cream and the milk they sent to the large towns on the new railway. Money, actual cash in hand, was important when most farmers had to buy in hay, and hay prices fluctuated wildly depending on the weather. An extract from ‘The Leeds Mercury’ in 1889. "The price of hay has worked its way up from 4½d to 9d per stone. It costs some of the farmers over 1s per stone and means ruination to many."

When these Victorian Dales hill farms ranged from 30 to 100 plus acres, usually of pasture and meadow land, they could only manage to farm small numbers of animals. One farm of about 110 acres hoped to farm 300 sheep, milk 9 or 10 cows and "bring up a good few young calves." There was great value to a farming family if they had healthy contented calves and cows to sell. There still is today.

The Development of the Victorian Agricultural Textbook by Nicholas Goddard
Department of Geography, Anglia Polytechnic University.

‘The Leeds Mercury’ newspaper
Archive access at the site.


p.d.r.lindsay's title Tizzie was a semi-finalist in the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction.

p.d.r. lindsay (no capitals please in tribute to one of her favourite poets, e. e. cummings) makes New Zealand home. Born in Ireland, educated in England, Canada, and New Zealand, and having worked in many different countries, she calls herself a citizen of the world.

As a novelist she prefers writing historical stories about ordinary people, the ones whose names and lives we don't know much about. Major events and political figures, kings and queens are well chronicled in the usual history books. It is how those events affected ordinary people which stimulate her to first reading the diaries and letters of parsons and farmers, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters, merchants and tradesmen and then finding a way of telling their stories.

When home in New Zealand, p.d.r.lindsay tutors would-be writers and promotes New Zealand novels and their writers, especially the Independent Published writers. Originator and founder member of Writer’s Choice Writer’s Co-operative, she works with her colleagues to publish the best quality fiction, professionally edited and designed, for readers’ enjoyment.

Find p.d.r.lindsay and the Writer’s Choice novels at:
Writer’s Choice


  1. I really enjoyed reading Tizzie, and appreciated that you'd done many of the tasks you describe her doing. Having run 10 cows on our small farm in Cumbria for nearly 15 years I could tell that you knew what you were talking about. Great post.

  2. Thanks so very much for your lovely post. I have fond memories of spending my summers on the farm with my aunt and uncles and one of my tasks was feeding calves. They were always so impatient! Butting their heads against me and the pail of milk I had brought them. I guess they were being weaned as they were separated from the cows in a different barn.

  3. Thank you for your kind words Sue and Donna. Some things, like young animals, never change, thank god! we have robotic milking sheds here in NZ but the calves always need the personal touch.



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