Swaledale - 19thC transport and communications

This essay is about how people moved themselves and their goods around in 19thC Swaledale, and how they kept in touch with each other. As well as census data, I use information from the local trade directories, from a local (modern) map, and from 19thC newspapers.

Much of the early traffic in Swaledale was concerned with moving out either lead or wool, or taking cattle and sheep to market. So I will start with just a snippet of information which is not from the censuses, but from a lecture given by Dr Christine Hallas to a Dales group in the summer of 2008. She calculated that by the 1870s, with lead output falling, there had to be the equivalent of 20,000 pack horse journeys, or 2,000 carts, each year, to get the smelted lead to Richmond for onward transmission to Teesdale. This is astonishing, and an impressive piece of research.

But apart from the lead carts, many farmers had a sideline in moving goods and people around. Full-time carters and waggoners travelled up and down the dale, and regularly into Richmond. The distances were not great: Richmond - Reeth about 11 miles; Reeth - Gunnerside just over 5 miles, Gunnerside - Muker about 3 miles, Muker - Keld about 3 miles, Keld - Birkdale about 3 miles.

horse-drawn cart

There was a daily carrier service between Richmond and Reeth, and daily postal services between the villages themselves and out to Richmond. But anyone who has driven those roads recently will know how very narrow they are, and steep, and single-track by the time you get to the head of the dale.

I expect many dale villagers travelled into Richmond for the big market days, or to the bank or the chemist or the barber, or had goods delivered from the Richmond shops. You can find more about what Richmond had to offer in my Who did What? essay.

This picture of a carter in York is from the York Press archive and is dated 1863.

Bridges and fords - and floods

The road distance from Birkdale, above Keld, to Marrick, where the dale road meets the main Leyburn-Richmond road, is about 20 miles. In that distance, a modern map shows just five bridges, plus one more at the Richmond end of the dale.

Coming from Richmond along the south bank of the river, the first crossing is just before the start of the dale road at Downholme bridge, leading to Marske and Marrick. The next bridge is about 7 miles up river at Grinton, crossing to Fremington, Reeth, and Arkengarthdale. A further 3 miles takes you to the bridge at Low Whita, then another 2 miles to the Isles Bridge at Smarber, 2 more miles to Gunnerside Bridge, a further 1 mile to the Mill Bridge at Low Oxnop. Then the river goes round one side of Kisdon Hill whilst the road goes round the other side, through Muker, Thwaite, Angram, and they join up again at Keld.

It was possible to cross the river at other places, if you didn’t mind getting wet. Modern maps still show fords, and Christine Amsden has a 1977 interview with one of Swaledale’s many James Spensleys, then aged 86, who talked of early morning working in the family fields at Feetham Holme before wading across the Swale to go to school in Low Row.

Christine also directed me to an 1866 letter from Ralph Daykin, in which he writes of being piggybacked across the Swale by his brother on stilts, and how the stilt broke and tipped them both in the river. This letter, and more, are on the Gunnerside village website.

But the Swale is reputed to be the fastest flowing river in England. In 1909 Richard Bogg wrote "the power of the Swale in spate is tremendous; at times it will sweep away every obstacle, rolling ton-weight boulders as if marbles, and dumping on the land along its bank with thousands of tons weight of debris. The fall of the Swale from Keld to Richmond averages 34 feet per mile."

This was the river which swept away the Thwaite and Gunnerside bridges in the floods of 1883, and which caused such awful damage in the whole dale, when the Leeds Mercury reported (3 Feb 1883):

"Thousands of acres of rich pasture land all the way down each side of Swaledale have been rendered perfectly useless, the soil having been washed off and replaced with sand."

The significance of the sand was explained in a dramatic two-column report in the Northern Echo, which said

"We have alluded to the deadly deposits of sand, and here let us explain that this poisonous nature is caused by the leadmines; the effect to the land being that it poisons the grass, and means death to either sheep or cattle, a period varying from three to ten years being required to eradicate the deleterious chemical."

I write about this flood in more detail in my Migration in the 1880s essay, because it was at this point that many families simply gave up, and moved what was left to a place where there was less chance of flooding.


Turnpikes came late in Swaledale. Forty other turnpike trusts had been set up in the North Riding, the first being in 1741. The NYRO holds accounts for the Arkengarthdale toll bar for 1786-1791. The Richmond-Reeth turnpike was not started until 1836.

There were two toll houses mentioned in the censuses. One was on the road from Richmond to Reeth at Hegs Gill Toll Bar (Ellerton Abbey) on what is described in 1861 as "the New Road". The other was at Punchard, high up in Arkengarthdale where the road goes up and over the Pennines from Reeth to Kirby Stephen and Westmoreland, past all those big sheep and cattle farmers who would have to use the roads to get to market.

In 1851, David RAINE collected the tolls at Punchard Toll Bar and, with his son and two local labourers, had the road contract for the Arkengarthdale turnpike. Two other men - one in Low Row and the other in Marrick, also said they were road labourers. Ten years later there were still only two full-time roadmenders in Arkengarthdale, and one living in Grinton. Ann ROBINSON collected the tolls at Hegs Gill, and John CALVERT at Punchard, but nobody claimed the road contracting work in the census. By 1871 Punchard Bar was occupied by a coal merchant, his wife and their coal-mining sons. There was no mention of a toll collector but there were now four road-menders. Duncombe BIRKBECK manned the gate at Ellerton and by 1881 Ellerton had a new road contractor. In the 1891 census, there were five road contractors and three roadmenders in Swaledale, so either the census enumerator was being more specific or local protests at the awful roads had finally had results.

Every turnpike was controlled by its own board of directors, which set the conditions and toll rates for their customers, so they may well have varied regionally. The North Yorkshire County Record Office has published a very detailed account of one Yorkshire turnpike - from York to Oswaldkirk, so my example is from much further away.

Here is a set of exemptions from an Aberystwyth toll house now to be seen at the National Museum of Wales:


I like the nice distinction that vagrants or prisoners were transported by cart or waggon, but if you were respectable enough to have a vote you would be travelling by Carriage. Some of the other conditions may reflect the interests of the Turnpike directors - maybe one was an ordnance manufacturer, or made soldiers’ boots, or used large amounts of manure. But on the whole the exemptions show a thoughtful attitude to local needs as opposed to the money-making opportunities of long-distance travellers, the rich folk, and animals going to market or slaughter. The York-Oswaldkirk exemptions were very similar (apart from the ordnance and soldiers boots), with the further condition that anyone falsely claiming an exemption could be fined forty shillings!

The (undated but probably early 19thC) charges for the Aberystwyth toll gate were 6d for every horse-drawn carriage; 4d for every horse-drawn cart; 2d if the carriage or cart was pulled by an ass, 10d for every 20 cattle; 5d for every 20 pigs or sheep. In 1768 the people on the York-Oswaldkirk turnpike were also paying 6d for a one-horse carriage, 8d for 20 cattle, 4d for 20 pigs or sheep. By 1825 the York-Oswaldkirk animal toll had risen to 2s 6d for 20 cattle and 1s 3d for 20 sheep.

At the NYCRO, I found the following interesting information in the Bishopside township accounts (Pateley Bridge but close enough). In 1846 Bishopside township employed two full-time stone-breakers called John Hirner and John Robinson. John Hirner was paid a daily rate of 1s 6d and worked six days each week. John Robinson, who was described as a 17-year-old stone getter in the 1841 census, supporting his (presumably) widowed mum, was paid 2d per day, which seems a bit mean, although this was doubled to 4d per day in 1847. (Can anyone explain why their pay was so different?) Each week they worked on a different road, and each week the Bishopside clerk recorded their pay. For six weeks in June/July of 1846 the township employed an additional team of eleven men, each paid 4s per day. They did not each work a whole week but they did put in about 24 man-days between them for each week of their contract. Both full-time men continued to work for the township for a number of years. Their pay did not change much.

An aside: I note in my farming essay how Ann Buxton used the word "fall" to mean "autumn" in a letter in 1881. "Turnpike" is another word which is no longer used in England, but is still very much in use in the United States, with exactly the same meaning as the original, as anyone who has paid to drive the New Jersey Turnpike down to Philadelphia can confirm (and we very nearly missed the only off-ramp!).

Another aside: Since I first wrote this essay John has written his own story about Turnpikes, and about an earlier John Hearfield whose turn it was to be Otley Vestry's Surveyor of the Highways.

And a Postscript: In 2013 Jocelyn Campbell wrote a story for the Swaledale Museum about her greatgreat-great grandfather James Cooper, the toll house keeper at Hags Gill. Jocelyn kindly sent me a link to the Museum's newsletter - James Cooper is on page 4.

Local and long-distance travel

If you could get into Richmond you could get anywhere, even in 1868. Here are the lists, from 1823 to 1890, of local carriers going up Swaledale, and long-distance coaches. Please note that the only Swaledale directories available on Genuki are dated 1890, but the Richmond ones start in 1823.

RICHMOND in Baines's Directory of 1823

Carriers: to and from Reeth, John Spenceley every day except Friday and Sunday

Coaches offering twice-weekly services to: Darlington, Durham, Leeds, Leyburn, London, Middleham, Newcastle, Northallerton, Stockton, York

RICHMOND in Pigot's Directory 1829

Carriers: to and from Reeth, John Spencer [sic] every day from the Red Lion, except Friday and Sunday


There were also two- or three-times a week services to: Barnard Castle, Bedale, Darlington, Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Leyburn, Middleham, Newcastle-on-Tyne, Stockton, Yarm, York

RICHMOND in Pigot's Directory 1834

Carriers: to Marsk and Wray, John Spenceley, from his house, every Monday & Saturday (had he got bored of the road up to Reeth? Maybe someone else was now offering that route but if they were they had not told Mr Pigot.)

Coaches offering two- or three-times a week services to: Askrigg, Barnard Castle, Darlington, Durham, Hawes, Kirkby Hill, Lancaster, Leeds, Leyburn, Middleham, Newcastle-on-Tyne, Northallerton, Oldborough, Stockton, West Witton, Yarm

RICHMOND in White's Directory 1840

Carriers, on Market days, from the Inns to most of the surrounding towns and villages.


There were also two- or three-times a week services to: all parts of the kingdom, Darlington, Durham, Leeds, Hawes, Northallerton, York

And by 1890, the volume of local trade had really picked up.

RICHMOND in Bulmer's Directory 1890

Carriers (local):

Also coaches to: Aldbrough, Barnard Castle, Barningham, Caldwell, Dalton, Darlington, Stockton, Leyburn, Marske, Middleham, Ravensworth, Redmire, Scorton, Tunstalle, West Witton and Wensleydale.

Post and telegraph

Richmond’s 1823 trade directory shows a daily postal delivery service to Swaledale villages up as far as Muker. By 1881 Reeth had a telegraph service with 17-year-old Margaret as telegraphist in the family-run post office.

In 1860 the Post Office Savings Bank was introduced nationally. At last people had somewhere local to keep their money safe and they could buy postal orders and money orders to pay for goods being delivered from Richmond and beyond. Not quite eBay yet, but inexorably on the way.

Here are details of the Swaledale village Post Office services (postal, savings bank, money orders, telegraph):

ARKENGARTHDALE in Bulmer's Directory 1890

Post, Money Order Office, and Savings Bank, Mr. Geo. Stubbs, postmaster. Letters arrive via Reeth and Richmond (week days) at 10-45 a.m., and are despatched at 1-45 p.m. No Sunday business. Reeth is the nearest Telegraph Office.

GRINTON TOWNSHIP in Bulmer's Directory 1890

Post Office at Mrs. Jane Hillary's. Letters arrive, daily, via Richmond, per mail gig, at 8-25 a.m.; and are despatched, week-days, at 3-40 p.m., and Sundays, at 2-50 p.m. Reeth is the nearest Money Order and Telegraph Office. Letters for Whitaside, Crackpotside, and all places west of Low Whita, should be addressed via Reeth.

MELBECKS TOWNSHIP in Bulmer's Directory 1890

Post, Money Order Office, and Savings Bank, Gunnerside; William Stinter, postmaster. Letters arrive by mail cart via Reeth and Richmond, at 10-35 a.m., and are despatched at 2 p.m. No Sunday business. Nearest Telegraph Office is at Reeth. Post Office at William Gill's, Low Row. Arrival, 10 a.m.; despatch, 2-30 p.m.

MUKER TOWNSHIP in Bulmer's Directory 1890

Post Office, Muker; John Dunn, postmaster. Letters are despatched, week-days, at 9-20 a.m., and they arrive via Richmond and Reeth at 11-35 a.m. No Sunday business. Postal Orders are issued here, but Gunnerside is the nearest Money Order, & Reeth the nearest Telegraph Office.

Post Office, Keld; John Rukin, postmaster. Letters arrive via Richmond and Reeth on weekdays only. Time of despatch is 8 a.m.; arrival, 12-45 p.m. Postal Orders are issued here weekdays only.

MARRICK in Bulmer's Directory 1890

Post Office, Marrick; Miss M. Langstaff, postmistress. Letters via Richmond daily, per foot messenger, from Marske, at 10-25 a.m. There is a despatch every morning at 7-20. Letters for Hurst arrive by foot post via Reeth, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; and the Wall Letter Box at the Board School is cleared on the same days at 12-0 noon.

REETH TOWNSHIP in Bulmer's Directory 1890

Post, Money Order, Telegraph Office, and Savings Bank; John Thomas Ward, postmaster. Letters arrive daily via Richmond, per mail cart, at 9-5 a.m.; and are despatched - weekdays, 3-35 p.m., and on Sundays at 2-45 p.m. Letters are despatched to Arkingarthdale and Gunnerside, on week-days, at 9-35 am., and to Hurst, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, at the same time. The letters for Fremington should be addressed via Grinton, Richmond,

The Wall Letter Box at Healaugh is cleared at 2-40 p.m. on week-days.

REETH POST OFFICE in Slater 1849

Ottiwell Ward, Post Master. - Letters from LONDON and all parts arrive (from RICHMOND, by horse-post) every forenoon at twenty minutes after eleven, and are despatched thereto at a quarter before four in the afternoon.

This timing explains the notice in the Wensleydale Advertiser of Feb 5 1848: "The messenger John Woodhall leaves Reeth at half past eleven o'clock every forenoon, Sundays excepted & returns in time for the letters etc to be forewarded to Richmond the same evening." (thanks to Christine, again, for this one).

RICHMOND in Baines's Directory of 1823

Post Master, Matthew Craggs, Office, Finkle street.

Letters from all parts are conveyed from Catterick to Richmond, at which latter place they arrive every day except Tuesday, at half past 6 morn, in Summer, and half past 7 morn, in Winter, and are sent off every day except Friday, at 1 aft.

There are five Walking Postmen - One for Gilling West, Hartforth, & Sedbury House. One for Reeth, Marske, Marrick, Fremington, Grinton. Muker, and Swaledale. - One for Kirby Hill, Washton, Newsham, Gailes, Ravensworth, and Layton. -One for Aldbrough, Melsonby, Forcett, Stanwick, and Carlton Hall. - And one for Middleton Tyas, Halnaby, and Moulton.

RICHMOND in Pigot's Directory 1829

Post Office, Market-place, Matthew Craggs, Post Master. Letters for all parts are despatched at six in the evening, and arrive at half-past seven in the morning.

RICHMOND in White's Directory 1840

Post Office: Market-place, Reuben Metcalfe, post-master. Letters arrive 6 mng., and dispatched 5 evg., by mail-gig from Catterick Bridge.

RICHMOND in Bulmer's Directory 1890

Post: Post, Money Order, Telegraph Office, Savings Bank, &c., Millgate; Thomas Walker, postmaster.


The railways gradually came close to Swaledale. On 27th June 1845 a group of local landowners (including familiar names: Morley, a couple of Robinsons, Knowles, Birkbeck) advertised in a Liverpool newspaper that they had provisionally registered the Manchester, Liverpool, and Great North of England Union Railway with a capital of £1.6m in shares of £99 each. This exciting new line would run from the North Western Railway's line near Settle up to Hawes, across to Muker, down to Reeth and on to Richmond and then join Great North of England railway. Unfortunately, on 5th July 1845 some much bigger names (the Dukes of Devonshire and Cleveland, the Marquis of Londonderry and so on but no Swaledale names) placed a similar advertisement in a Preston newspaper, for the proposed Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle-upon-Tyne Junction Railway with a capital of £2m in shares of £25 each. This line would run from Preston to Settle to Hawes to Askrigg and Richmond and join the Great North of England railway. And this is the route which eventually got built.

In 1868 there was a newspaper mention of a North Eastern company line to Reeth (which came to nothing). By the 1870s lines crossed the Pennines to the north, via Bowes and Kirby Stephen, and to the south via Wensleydale. Arkengarthdalers could go up and across Tan Hill to Stainmoor station; Swaledalers had a 7-mile climb over the moors to the railway station between Askrigg and Bainbridge. Or anyone could catch a ride with one of the carriers going down into Richmond.

In the east, Richmond linked to the main north-south line giving access to the West Riding, York and London. To the west, Kirby Stephen linked to the main north-south line giving access to Manchester and Liverpool. So Swaledalers took advantage of both, particularly in sending cows to the Liverpool area to supply the milk dealers who congregated in West Derby (often called cowkeepers - see more in my Migration in the 1880s essay).

Railway plans were revived in October 1882 and, as the Northern Echo reported, on Thursday 30th November 1882 there was an enthusiastic local meeting at the Queen's Arms Hotel, Low Row, Melbecks, to gather support for the proposed branch line through Swaledale.

"The Rev R V Taylor, vicar of the parish, was appointed chairman, and present were: Mr John C Birkbeck of Hazel Brow, Mr Edmund A Knowles of Gorton Lodge, Dr F J Turner and Mr Wm Cottingham of Gunnerside, Mr Luther Broderick of Summer Lodge, Mr J A Clarkson of Strands, Messrs Edmund Coates, James Woodward, Richard Peacock, Simon Cherry, John Coates, William Whitfield, William Alderson, James Harker, John Reynoldson, John and Thomas Whaley, James Bearpark, Matthew Fawcett, Frank Metcalfe, George Peacock, James Pratt, John Alderson, Thomas Sunter, John Atkinson, Christopher Calvert, Ralph Place, etc, all of whom subscribed towards the preliminary expenses of obtaining the Act, which will amount to about £1,500. About £640 have already been promised in Richmond, £145 in Reeth, £55 in Low Row, and £51 at Gunnerside (both in Melbecks parish), and about £21 at Muker - making already a total of about £910, with many additional subscriptions yet to come in. Plans of the proposed line were exhibited at the meeting, and canvassers were appointed to wait upon the outsiders for their subscriptions."

The Newcastle Courant, Friday, December 15, 1882 printed:

newspaper 15Dec82: new Swaledale railway line

Richmond Town Council held a meeting on Tuesday, 19th December, to discuss the railway's crossing council land. Councillor Fryer said they should not offer to put any obstacle in the way of the proposed new line. Alderman Robinson said the new line would be a great advantage to the town. Dr Carter said a line to Richmond would do good but if ever it went through to Stockton and Darlington it would be the last nail to the coffin of the trade of the town. People would go to Barnard Castle market! Councillor Raine said a railway up the dales would be the means of attracting visitors from Newcastle, Sunderland, Hartlepool, and other places about the north-east coast. The Town Clerk explained that Lord Zetland had subscribed £300 towards the preliminary expenses and all along the proposed new line the landowners were in favour of the scheme [well they would be, wouldn't they?] and said the proposed authorised capital of the company would be £666,000 in £10 shares.

Then... nothing. Maybe this cutting from the Leeds Mercury's 29th April 1884 obituary of local James Robinson TOMLIN gives a clue:

newspaper 29Apr84: planned Swaledale railway line

The next Liberal candidate for Richmond is reported in 1892 as saying that if returned he would pledge to bring the [railway] matter forward in the House of Commons. (Loud cheers.)

Then more nothing until, on 19th January 1895, the Leeds Mercury reported:

newspaper 19Jan85: proposed Swaledale railway line

On the 9th February 1895, the Mercury reported that Sir Joseph Pease, Bart, MP and chairman of the railway company, had written to Mr E A Knowles asking for a deputation to wait upon him on the question. The cost of the proposed new railway would be about £40,000 and the local people would be expected to provide one-third, the landowners one-third, and the remaining third by the County Council. And on 27th February, a crowded meeting in Fremington was told that Mr Whitelock, of Cogden Hall, had that very day told Mr Knowles that he was willing to take out in shares the value of his land required for making the line (Applause). Mr Knowles, Rev J Baker, Rev T H Heap, Mr J W Close [of Leeds, but a local landowner] and Mr Simon Coates (of Richmond) would constitute the deputation.

By July 1895 there was yet another election for Richmond [I do hope the absent railway was not the cause] and yet another candidate promised to "work hard to obtain from Parliament a grant in aid of the construction of a railway up Swaledale, which would have the advantage of bringing the agricultural produce into the markets, and would also improve the local industry and mineral resources of the dale. (Cheers and applause)"

In November 1896, a deputation of Mr Hutton (the new MP), Col Charlesworth MP, Sir Francis Denys, Bart, Mr E Ridley (Marrick Park), Rev J Baker (Arkengarthdale Vicarage) Mr F Garth (chairman, Reeth RDC), Mr J W Close, Mr E Umpleby,and Mr S Coates of Richmond went to see Sir Joseph Pease, chairman of the North-Eastern railway company. Mr Hutton pointed out that the District Council was too poor to borrow any money to assist in the construction of the line which it was desired should be made up the valley and the inhabitants of the dale hoped that the company would take the matter up themselves. He was aware of the restrictions of the Board of Trade but hoped they might be removed [doesn't sound hopeful, does it?]. Col Charlesworth said that all the principal landowners from Richmond to Reeth were favourable to the line being made. Sir Joseph Pease replied that all he could say was that the directors would take the matter up seriously with the general manager, and would see what could be done.

And then it all went quiet again. And it has been quiet ever since.

A final aside:In the course of separate research about another part of my family, I came across the story of the trans-Pennine railway line via Stainmoor, and added an essay about the influx of railway workers who appear in the 1861 Staimoor census, and in my great-grandparents' household. The full story of this, the highest railway line in England, is at the Cumbria railway website.

Copyright © Marion Hearfield 2008/2012