Marie Hartley, Audio Clip

Marie Hartley
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Marie Hartley (MH) talks to Bill Mitchell (WRM) about the use of ‘back-cans’ used for milking cows out-doors. 

In the interview with W.R. Mitchell, Marie and Joan acknowledge how much the Dales changed during the years they were writing their books. For example the use of back cans, depicted in many photographs of the area, which are no longer used. A back can consisted of a can with leather straps, which was designed to hold as much milk as possible while also keeping it fresh. Farmers would milk their cows in fields or in barns, then use a back can to carry the milk. Their use declined due to the introduction of modern technology and law changes in regard to hygiene regulations, as cows now have to be milked in milking parlours which make the back can redundant.


WRM: So here’s a back can, tell me about it.

MH: You might be interested in it because it was made by Frank Shields of Redmire in 1967, and it so happens that the Dales Countryside Museum have very recently been able to buy the tinsmith’s workshop from... it’s near the Castle really, but it was run by the Shields family of Redmire, and we’ve had this back can of course ever since 1967 and it’s going to go in the Dales Museum with a beautiful allotted space for the workshop from Castle Bolton.

WRM: Oh, wonderful.

MH: Isn’t it marvellous?

WRM: How do you spell Shields?

MH: S-H-I-E-L-D-S.

WRM: Ah yes; and you knew the family did you?

MH: Oh, very well. We knew Frank, who died some time ago now. He has two sons, and then there’s a grandson who continues the work, but of course instead of being tinsmiths they’re plumbers and oil-fired boiler representatives. [Laughs]

WRM: Do you remember the back can being used?

MH: Ooh yes, they used to come up our road with back cans on their backs; the farmers, you know? There were fields of hay where they milked the cows. It isn’t allowed now to milk cows out of doors, is it? Did you ever know Tom Kirkbride?

WRM: I knew the name.

MH: You would. I have a photo of him, I’ve lost the negative. And another one you might have heard of, [unclear 00:01:33 - Terry Kearrton] over at Thwaite, who lived right out at Moor Close, a very lonely farm. We’ve photos of him carrying a back can, and we’ve another photo that was taken by Bertram Unne, a very close-up, nice photo of a man carrying a back can at Middleham, and then of course there are all the donkeys at Redmire. They always used to have the back cans.

WRM: Were they just back cans that were attached to the donkeys, they were nothing special were they?

MH: Oh, no, they were separate things like that. They were very cleverly made because they were worn like a rucksack with straps. All that braid stuff, that webbing; you either had leather straps or you had webbing. And then they also had handles so that you could tip it, you see, and inside there’s another lid so that the milk didn’t slosh about too much. They’re awfully well designed. You can see how it fits the back.

WRM: Are they to be found anywhere else but the Dales?

MH: Well, it’s really quite a mystery. We were once asked to write an article for ‘The Society for Folk Life Studies’ on the back can, and you know, we really knew very little about it. But I would suspect that long, long ago they would be wooden, in the Middle Ages. They would always have them because there was always milk to carry about, wasn’t there?

WRM: And of course it was quite general to milk cows out of doors.

MH: Yes it was, very general.

WRM: To save the meadowland and let the grass grow more fully...

MH: Yes; and then there were these stinted cow pastures that went on for quite a long time at Castle Bolton and Preston-under-Scar and Redmire. Well-organised people in fact used to fetch the cows to the standing and that sort of thing.

WRM: They brought the cows to a specific point for milking, did they?

MH: Yes, for the men to go up and milk, and then they all carried the milk away in a back can. Or it could be used for water. If you were short of water... we have another photograph of a pony in the river at the Swale, with people filling back cans for water.

WRM: That was taken by Mr Ambler in 1900.

MH: Was it? I’ve never known that and I’ve always wanted to know.

WRM: Yes, it’s one of a set actually, which was taken by a Mr Ambler and...

MH: Who was he?

WRM: He was a Bradford man. He was related I think to a Beresford who I used to know quite well at Hellifield, and this Mr Beresford’s sister had the originals.

MH: Well, I don’t know how he got them.

WRM: He came up in 1900...

MH: So that’s the date...

WRM: ...and they’re the most wonderful photographs.

MH: They are; they are.

WRM: There’s a beautiful one of a horse and sledge up in Langstrothdale. There’s another one of a farmer. I think there is somebody with a back can too come to think of it. I’ll see what I can dig out.

MH: Oh, I’m very pleased to know that.