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Heritage 47: "Dales in Her Veins", a Celebration of the Life of Hannah Hauxwell, Dales Farmer Without Equal

Updated on January 30, 2019
alancaster149 profile image

Some of Alan's family were farmers and farm workers. Here he tells of a woman who fought the elements on her own to scrape a meagre living

"In the summer I live, in winter I exist"

The farm - Low Birk Hatt, Baldersdale

Low Birk Hatt, the buildings set against the wintry Pennine foothills of Baldersdale
Low Birk Hatt, the buildings set against the wintry Pennine foothills of Baldersdale | Source
A sparsely furnished bedroom in the farmhouse reveals little comfort aside from the bed itself
A sparsely furnished bedroom in the farmhouse reveals little comfort aside from the bed itself
Downstairs in the farmhouse, Hannah has had electricity installed after a local firm organised a collection for her to afford a few luxuries
Downstairs in the farmhouse, Hannah has had electricity installed after a local firm organised a collection for her to afford a few luxuries | Source
Hannah and companion take a short rest outside the farmhouse
Hannah and companion take a short rest outside the farmhouse | Source

In a quiet nursing home at West Auckland, County Durham, England, a life ebbed away.

It was a chill January day, almost at the end of the month that saw Hannah Hauxwell slip away almost unnoticed from this life in her ninety-first year.

Who was Hannah Hauxwell? You might have seen television documentaries presented for Yorkshire Television by Barry Cockcroft that charted the last years of a long and arduous working life. . You might even have followed her on a cruise paid for her by Yorkshire Televeision. Or you might have read articles about her in the Yorkshire Post or the national press. If you had you would never forget how cheerful she had remained even after years of grinding poverty and frustration on a small farm without running water, gas or electricity.

Indomitable is one word that says a lot - it says much about her. To understand her character let's go back in time, to see how Ms Hauxwell fared, and the poor hand that fate had dealt in the 'card game of life'.

Hannah Bayles Tallentire Hauxwell was brought into the world on 1st August, 1926 in the village of Sleetburn, Baldersdale, North Riding of Yorkshire. Her father William Bayles Hauxwell was a tenant farmer given the option of buying Low Birk Hatt farm. Whatever plans he had for the small holding died with him in 1933. As it was the land and its buildings hardly measured up even for what nowadays we would consider subsistence farming. He would have had to have envisaged something better for it than he saw, and to him it wasn't the most hopeless prospect at 80 acres or 32 hectares that lay west of and uphill from the village of Cotherstone near the south bank of the River Tees.

Probably because of its dilapidated state the owners had decided to sell Low Birk Hatt to someone they thought might make something of it. The task was not one for the faint-hearted. It was hardly worth the description of 'farm' as I've mentioned, not one that a modern landowner would sell rather than incorporate it into another tenancy. Anyway, Hannah's mother Lydia, nee Sayer Tallentire, could not cope and her brother-in-law Thomas came to the rescue. Yet there had been little visible improvement in the holding William bought when Lydia died in 1958, Thomas three years later. The thirty-five year old, still single Hannah was left to fend for herself.

She struggled to eke out the £240-280 annual income from her domain at a time when the average UK family income amounted to £1,339. Severe Pennine winters did nothing to improve the lot of a subsistence farmer. The few cattle and smaller animals needed tending to, and the thick ice on a pond close to the farmhouse had to be smashed with a heavy hammer for them to drink and for her to wash or cook. Lighting in the house - as with many in these parts - was by hurricane lamp downstairs and by candle upstairs. Peat or pieces of timber did for heating and cooking, and the rags she wore day in, day out barely kept out the gnawing cold over seven months in the year.

Cotherstone

As seen in one of my TRAVEL NORTH pages, this is the High Street in Cotherstone... the white fronted cottage with bay window was Hannah's after she sold Low Birk Hatt
As seen in one of my TRAVEL NORTH pages, this is the High Street in Cotherstone... the white fronted cottage with bay window was Hannah's after she sold Low Birk Hatt | Source

The Media descends.

A Yorkshire Post article described her existence when, by then 46, she eked out her life at Low Birk Hatt. In 1972 the friend of a Yorkshire Television researcher came across her whilst walking the northern Dales.

The researcher contacted Barry Cockcroft, who put forward the project of covering Hannah's life on her own. The resulting television feature began with her leading one of her small herd into a shed during one of the bleak blizzards that she had to endure. Following this screening in 1972 the YTV switchboard was jammed and sacks of mail bore gifts and cash for "the old lady in the Yorkshire Dales" (remember she was still only 46). A nearby factory raised cash to install electricity at Low Birk Hatt and the funds still streamed in, along with letters from well-wishers everywhere - not just within the UK.

Nearly twenty years later the same crew arrived in Baldersdale to see how Hannah fared after "Too Long A Winter" . A new documentary titled "A Winter Too Many" showed she had a little more cash, that had been spent in increasing the herd. The crew went with her to London where she was guest-of-honour at a Women of the Year gala. Away from al the attention she kept up her work on the farm, each winter becoming harder to bear. She said once, "In summer I live and in winter I exist".

With her health failing, strength ebbing she faced the fact that she would have to sell the farm and the herd she'd nurtured. A warm cottage would await in nearby Cotherstone, almost opposite the village store and post office.

In "Hannah Goes To Town" footage of her attendance at the Women of The Year" gala at the Savoy Hotel in London was added to new footage that chronicled her trip. Amongst others at the gala she was introduced to HRH the Duchess of Gloucester. Barry Cockcroft entered Hannah's life again in 1992 with a documentary on her first adventures beyond Yorkshire and the UK's boundaries. In it her tour crossed through France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy - where she was given an audience with the Pope - or was he given an audience with her? The programme was popular enough worldwide for YTV to fund a crossing of the Atlantic in, "Hannah USA".

Media coverage and retirement

A rose by another name... fate decided Hannah would never find a suitor
A rose by another name... fate decided Hannah would never find a suitor | Source
Hannah in the Alps on her tour of Europe, "Innocent Abroad" would show her to be anything but innocent, just not far-travelled
Hannah in the Alps on her tour of Europe, "Innocent Abroad" would show her to be anything but innocent, just not far-travelled | Source

After the farm

Having sold Low Birk Hatt after much soul-searching Hannah was reasonably well-off for the first time in her life.

Her white-fronted cottage with a large bay window* faced the main street was less than five miles (8 km) from the farm, where land designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest has since been named "Hannah's Meadows". A book published by "Dalesman" editor W R Mitchell in 2008 was titled "Hannah Hauxwell - 80 Years In The Dales". Additionally a DVD compilation celebrated her life under the heading "Hannah Hauxwell - An Extraordinary Life" which featured the documentaries "Too Long A Winter, "A Winter Too Many" and "Innocent Abroad". She was interviewed on the radio for BBC Women's Hour in March 2008, and to mark the 80th year of her life the Yorkshire Post interviewed her, showing she still maintained a frugal existence and kept an abiding interest in radio.

In 2016, with her health failing to the extent she was unable to maintain her independence, Hannah was admitted to a care home in the nearby town of Barnard Castle, before being taken to a nursing home further afield in West Auckland where she died early this year.

*I visited Hannah in February, 1999 where she lived in Cotherstone. All the furniture from the farmhouse was stored in what would have been the living room, although she remained cheery and we chatted a while about this and that. When visiting Cotherstone in 2017 to buy some of the locally made cheese I stopped off at the Fox & Hounds down the road towards Middleton-in-Teesdale. I was told by the barmaid that she'd been taken in to the Barnard Castle care home the year before. To her knowledge nothing had been arranged about the cottage and Hannah's estate.

Postscript

At a book signing after her "Innocent Abroad" tour, including an audience with an admiring Pope
At a book signing after her "Innocent Abroad" tour, including an audience with an admiring Pope | Source
A personal memento of a visit to Hannah in Cotherstone, early 1999 - a picture postcard of the village I sent to the family
A personal memento of a visit to Hannah in Cotherstone, early 1999 - a picture postcard of the village I sent to the family | Source

Books

Title.............................Available through

A Winter Too Many - Amazon UK

Daughter of the Dales - AbeBooks

Hannah Hauxwell - 80 Years... (W R Mitchell) - Goodreads

Hannah In Yorkshire - Dalesman Magazine

Hannah's North Country - World of Books

Hannah The Complete Story - World of Books

Innocent Abroad - AbeBooks

Seasons of My Life - AbeBooks

Too Long A Winter - Amazon UK

Comments

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    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      15 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Well Bill, the answer is she was put in that position by circumstance - her father, mother and uncle dying on her by the time she was in her mid-30s - and felt she ought to make a go of it. Many these days would have looked into the option of selling up rather than brave the dismal weather conditions up there in the sub-Pennines (google it) around Upper Teesdale. It can be bad there even in mid-year! In the farm house she had it would have been a trial to get through a week, never mind decades.

      Good of you to stop by and drop a few words.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      15 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I love her quote at the opening of this article....what a pioneer spirit that woman had. They don't make them like that anymore, I'm afraid. Loved learning about her.

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      15 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello Mary, you were quick off the starting block! A little anecdote I learned from watching her on the cruise: a woman who'd never heard of her moaned about what she'd had to put up with in her life. She then asked Hannah how she fared. When Hannah told her about winters on her holding in Baldersdale the woman was 'gobsmacked', didn't know where to put herself.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      15 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      We were just in that area last March and I can imagine Hannah in her farm and then her life going to different places. I wish I had met her. What a remarkable woman.

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