Ancient craft keeping Lancashire warm

Peat farmers Jim and Emmanuel Nicholson, New Union Farm, Pilling
Peat farmers Jim and Emmanuel Nicholson, New Union Farm, Pilling
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Local historian John Grimbaldeston looks back at the era when peat farmers tended Lancashire’s marshlands

The peat moss which once formed such a part of the Fylde was both a boon and a curse for the sparse population.

It consists of sphagnum moss and other decaying plant material such as heather and brushwood, and as vegetable matter has the sponge-like quality to absorb large capacities of water, the waterlogged conditions would kill the forest trees and also make farming difficult until drainage techniques improved in the first half of the 19th century.

The tree trunks preserved in the peat are known as “bog oak,” though, as ever, Lancashire has its own vocabulary and they are “moss stocks” in some parts.

The moss was an area where strange, mystic phenomena occurred. On January 28, 1744, a long period of heavy rain and snow soaked the moss and turned it into a liquid quagmire which overflowed like a tidal wave into the adjoining land and swamped about 40 acres of pasture.

Rev Legh Richmond, Vicar of Garstang, reported that the moss continued to undulate and threaten over the next week, rising “to a surprising height,” and then sinking an equal distance below the norm. A family had to flee their house, residents feared they might by swallowed up by the morass.

However, during drier spells the peat also provided essential fuel for the inhabitants, and in the isolated world of Over Wyre a unique, peat-related vocabulary evolved, along with an equally unique range of tools to perform the tasks of gathering the turves.

Other turf cutting areas such as Wicken Fen, in Cambridgeshire, developed their own entirely different words for essentially similar processes. The Over Wyre peat vocabulary passed through the generations as an essentially oral tradition, so any spellings are approximate and phonetic.

Turf digging was “torf delving” and began in spring so the summer season could dry the turves out. “Delve” is an ancient word for a time-honoured activity and has been traced back to the ninth century, “dig” is later, originating in the thirteenth.

When John Ball argued for historical equality during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?” he was harking back not just to the Garden of Eden, but with his choice of words to an earlier, simpler time. The first job was “feying,” taking off the topsoil to open up the upper surface of the peat bed.

Then the peat was marked into blocks measuring about 7” by 9” by 2” thick. The block of peat was then put on a special “torf barrow,” a long low barrow without sides. The peat was then taken to the area selected for drying the fuel, and tipped edge up where it was allowed to dry for a few days, after which the turves were turned over and the edge which had been in contact with the ground was allowed to dry. The turning of the turves was, apparently, known as “bullernecking.”

After the turves had dried for a few weeks came “meemowing,” building the blocks into small pyramids of nine turves to get the turf off the ground to help the drying.

By late summer the peat was hopefully dry enough to build into a “howk” or “round robin.” This consisted of a base of 11 turves on which was built the howk, to a height of about six feet. The turf was packed loosely so the air could circulate and hopefully complete the drying process, and then the turf would be carried to the farm or cottage and stacked for a final time ready for burning.

Peat gives off considerable heat and has a distinctive and pleasant smell, though the ash is very fine and light and can coat the household furniture, so the house-proud Lancastrian had to work hard to keep the house clean. In the 19th century owners could sell their peat, and cottagers, nearly always tenants rather than householders, had the right of “turbary,” the right to cut peat for their personal use.

This could cause conservation problems, and in 1808 the Lord of the Manor of Pilling took out an order of court forbidding the “whole of the inhabitants” from selling turf, and when gathering for personal use only to get moss from the face of the moss, working backwards, not just to gather from anywhere.

From 1809 the Lord’s agents were to designate a specific area where the Pilling population could dig, and oversee the work to ensure compliance.

A final stipulation was that turf gathering should not interfere with any drainage work being undertaken by owners of the “interior mosses.”

With the coming of the railways and cheaper coal from the south Lancashire fields the use of peat as a fuel declined, though there was a temporary resurgence in the Second World War because of the exigencies of war, and that is when most of these photographs were taken.

The coal fires by that time installed in most houses were not really suitable for peat, so the wartime revival was never likely to last, and the last time peat was dug on the Moss was in the 1960s.

In an attempt to conserve the moss environments of the United Kingdom, peat extraction is now limited to certain sites only. The mosses of the North Lancashire Plain, to use Defra’s terminology for the Fylde, are not one of those sites.

* With thanks to Brian Hughes, late of the Museum of the Fylde, and the Lancashire Archives for their help in compiling this article.