Heritage 47: "Dales in Her Veins", a Celebration of the Life of Hannah Hauxwell, Dales Farmer Without Equal
"In the summer I live, in winter I exist"
Low Birk Hatt, Baldersdale
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. Uncrushed by adversity and lack of modern facilities to live her life in any kind of comfort, the barest of means. By 'modern' I mean the basics such as heating, electric light and internal access to a water supply. 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, then in the North Riding of Yorkshire - the district transferred to County Durham in 1974 with the county boundary changes that angered many. 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 around him on the property, 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. He may even have envisaged adding land as the occasion arose - such as in buying some of a neighbour's land if illness or old age prevented them from continuing. It could be hard up here in the upper northern Dales.
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, or demolish it altogether and build anew. 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.
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
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.
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