George Bancroft - Farming life in the Upper Worth Valley

George Bancroft and friend outside Deanfield Farm

I recently was given details of several interviews given to a local magazine in the 1990's by George Riley Bancroft, which tells of some chilling tales of farming near Haworth in the Upper Worth Valley, where he grew up. He described in fascinating detail the hard winter days when milk froze solid, as well as the tough times that moorland sheep farmers had to endure in his farming lifetime. George is remembered locally as one of the last farmers in the area to retain the traditional dialect, which I have tried to use in this article when quoting him.


George Riley Bancroft was born on 4th March 1911 at Intake Laithe Farm at Oldfield near Oakworth, Keighley, the home of his mother's Riley ancestors. He came from a long line of local farming stock, on both sides of his ancestry. His parents John and Mary [nee Riley], and his paternal grandparents had  farmed at Hoyle Farm near Haworth, and then moved to the nearby farm called 'Sowdens', when George was a young boy. His mother Mary Riley's family had farmed at Intake Laithe, in the nearby hamlet of Oldfield, since the 1780's.

 Sowdens Farm is widely know locally because this was where the Revd. William Grimshaw, Haworth’s other famous incumbent who proceeded Patrick Bronte, once lived and George remembered sleeping in rooms occupied by that famous man, and always used to say “We might be better off today it there were one or two o’t’ same sort abart”. The seventeenth century farmhouse was occupied by Rev'd William Grimshaw from 1742, until his death in 1763, and he used it as the Parsonage for Haworth Parish Church, because neither the Church Trustees nor the Vicar of Bradford had seen fit to provide the incumbent or curate of Haworth with a dwelling house as part of the job. In those days the Haworth incumbents were expected to make his own living arrangements to attend to their duties. It is said that when Rev'd Grimshaw had visitors to stay, the house was so crowded that he would have sleep in the adjoining barn. On his death, his son became the new owner of Sowdens.

Sowdens Farm

Sowdens, in George’s time, was quite a small dairy farm of about 14 acres, devoted to Shorthorn and Ayrshire cattle and it was one of the few diary farms in the area. Farmers at that time just milked a few cows and transported a lot of the milk to the milkmen in Bradford in kits [by rail]. The Bancrofts hand-milked their cows and had a lively trade in Haworth area, selling milk at “ three-hawpence a pint”. The milk was delivered by cans, from which milk was taken using a pint or gill measure. George remembered “You dipped a measure or two out of t’can, and tipped it int’ jug…and that were it!”


George’s family also started breeding sheep during the 1914-18 war, and the family took on a lease from Keighley Corporation to graze their stock on the moors surrounding the 'TopWithens' farmhouse, which was made world famous because of its link to the Bronte Sisters book  'Wuthering Hights'. He remembered it as “Good land, but t' Corporation’s policy were to let it go back …we hadn’t to repair ony walls, it was just land fo' keepin' sheep”. When George’s father took on the lease at first, the agreement was “ Fifty sheep, at a rent the equivalent of £7.50 a year…we may have kept a few more, but restrictions were imposed because just after t' war there 'ad been gross overstocking by some local men”

Top Withens  c1920's
Top Withens plaque
The Bancroft family originally took on leases for all three Withens farms, Top, Middle and Lower, and George remembered that the Middle and Lower Withens were demolished, but Top Withens, which even in those days was a popular tourist site with visitors, was left standing “ for t’ Bronte fans…When I took t' tenancy of it, it were getting middlin’ dilapidated.... well it had got vandals in at it, and you can’t beat them. So I asked 'em what they wanted to do abat it…it was'nt safe, and I didn’t want to be responsible for onyone getting killed. They said they would take that property out of t’agreement, and they’d be responsible for that…but, well it’s more or less tummelled dahn now….and it 'ad bin a grand little place.” He remembers a time 60 years ago, when Top Withens had a peat house, where the stock of winter fuel was kept and also remembers visiting the place lots of times when the last tenant, Ernest Roddy, a tall affable man lived there. Ernest had been gassed during the war, and fresh air was a necessity, so the authorities set him up at Top Withens where he was a poultry farmer, keeping hens. He had previously been a French polisher in Haworth, as well as a postman, and hawker of yeast, and every Tuesday he visited all the outlying farms selling his yeast because home bread-baking was the norm in those days. His yeast was sold for one penny an ounce and George remembered “when he 'ad landed home after tramping miles over t'moorland, he wouldn’t be worth robbin'… He would be there for five or six years and left in 1926. He 'ad a pony and cart to go to and from Stanbury and Haworth, and kept a lot of white leghorn hens, and when he returned to Top Withens, an’ got in sight of it, those hens saw him coming and flew darn to meet him”

When asked if he’d had any bad winters up at Top Withens, he laughed and replied: “ Aye, we had one o' two bad winters…the worst spell o' weather was in't early part of 1947. It began at t’latter end o’ January, but before then it were a reight keen frost for two or three weeks. Soon after Christmas it’d start. It started coming from over yon moortop , and when it does that, it’s north-east , you can expect summat. It niver gave ower till April. An' even in July there were t' remains ow a snow drift up aboon Ponden Kirk. It were sudden...we weren’t expecting it...not so bad. You couldn’t round your sheep up…you couldn’t get theer! There’s been loads a'snow where there’s been more snow than then, but t’north-east wind niver let up. You could see t'snow being blown ower t'fields. Down t’middle of t' field there was very little snow, but under t’walls and main road…well it were hopeless!.”

George was always fond of sheepdogs, and one of his more unusual sheepdog tales was of the time one June day when he decided to clip some sheep up at Top Withens, and went up there by horse and cart, with his dog [Ben] riding along side him. He noticed some sheep had strayed onto Haworth Moor, so spent about an hour rounding them up with Ben. When all the sheep had been clipped, he loaded the wool onto the cart, and Ben jumped on, as they made their way back to the farm at Stanbury. Ben untypically did not jump down from the cart when they got home, but just lay there. George thought “Begger you!”, left him and went in for some tea. Afterwards, the dog was still sat on the cart and George therefore knew “ summat were up…after running on t’ling for an hour, every one of his feet were red raw…chopped i’bits” ['Ling' is the name for the rough heather which grows on the moor]



One day he left a small flock of sheep grazing at Top Withens, and lost them. "Good God where can they have gotten to"…then he saw the kitchen door at a nearby farm was open, and the sheep had gone inside. He therefore marched into the kitchen, round the large kitchen table, rounded them up and out the door with a bright “Mornin” to the speechless farmer’s wife. 

Present-day Top Withens and the moors

George married Hannah Whittaker, daughter of Whitley Whitaker in 1933, and they had four children, two sons and two daughters

George &  Hannah's Wedding Day


He remembered one bad winter at home, when he had four pigs in a “pig-oil” at the bottom of the famyard. He sold them one Friday night, and they were supposed to be going on Monday morning. “ Onnyway, they nivver went. We took a ten gallon can o’milk to t’roadside for t’ milk wagon  on Sunday morning, and we nivver saw that can again for a fortneet. It was just snowed ower and the milk was refrigerated and taken to t’dairy by a neighbour, and was accepted as being in good condition.”

Whilst still on the subject of milk, he recalled the ways they had of keeping milk during bad winters,as the cows still had to be milked, even when the roads were closed,which prevented it being collected….” Milk was stored in all sorts of peggy-tubs, baths and one thing and another….when we were going to put it in cans, you had to break the blooming stuff up wi’ a hammer and shovel it in…the milk were frozen solid!”


 George’s family moved to Deanfield Farm near Stanbury in 1924, and he took over the running of the farm from his father in 1940. Although very isolated, Deanfield had wonderful views over Ponden Reservoir.
He recalled his early days in the valley, when life was much harder, but there was more fellowship in those days with everyone looking out for each other….” Fifty years sin’ we were all strugglin' on together... not thinking abart going on t’world’s end to find some'at better”

For farmers like George, farming for over 60 years in the Upper Worth Valley, with the land very much as it always had been, with  stones just below the surface when ploughing, he knew had its limitations. "When its ploughed time after time, it gradually moves down t’ hill till you’re down to nowt at t’top. During t’ war each farmer had to plough a certain acreage, regardless of need, and a farmer across the valley accordingly did just that. They’d gotten it reet grand, then during t’neet came a thunderstorm and washed all t’top soil down t’ bottom in a heap…it were a reet mess!” 

1- Deanfield    2- Scar Top Chapel     3- Top Withens

When the family move from Sowdens Farm to Deanfield Farm, overlooking Ponden Reservoir, he  remembered being visited by an old man, who had lived there as a boy when the reservoir was being constructed. There had been an encampment of over five hundred navies occupying fields around the farm, likening the area to the Wild-West. A Brewery was constructed in the area, to try and keep the navies from straying too far away, and a single policeman had to be brought in to quell any troubles! The old man remembered collecting handfuls of small grey worms from freshly dug trenches, which the navies ate, still wriggling! [I wrote an article about the construction of Ponden Reservoir previously, which can be read by clicking here.]
View over Ponden Reservoir from Deanfield

George, after a lifetime of toil, eventually decided to take things a bit easier, so reduced Deanfield Farm down from about 50 acres to 20, and he remembered the doctor calling one day in the Spring of 1995….”just a casual visit to see if I was still living, because he hadn’t seen me for a while….I told him I was going to have a sale, but he advised me against selling up altogether as too many of his patients had done that, moved away, and that were the end on ‘em!



The picture to the right shows George and Hannah standing outside Deanfield Farm, one cold winter's day....which is evident from the size of the icicles hanging from the  gutters !













After his wife Hannah died, George made the decision to spend a couple of weeks in a local nursing home, and liked it so much there that he stayed there for the remaining four years of his life. He passed away in April 2000 at the grand old age of 89 years and his funeral was fittingly held at Scar Top Chapel., where he had been a trustee for over 50 years.

Scartop Chapel




















His obituary in the Keighley News said:
 “He took away with him a great wealth of local knowledge and intrigue.”

[I am grateful to Adrian & June Bancroft, and also David Riley for the information and photographs they provided to help with this article]
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