Backford, Mollington & District Local History Society

Cheese Making

Cheese making around Backford and Mollington.
Early Cheese Production

Behind our parish history has been the good farming land of Cheshire. Communities like Backford originally grew all their own food. Later came specialisation, and for those in this area, its deep lowland soil coupled with a damp climate meant the bet crop was lush, rich grass. Arable crops were not excluded, but conditions were more appropriate for animal husbandry, especially dairy farming, and thus for milk and cheese production. In an ideal "Cheshire System", pigs also were included to eat up residual whey from cheese production.

In the 18th century Cheshire cheese, which keeps well over a winter, was sold all over Europe, much being shipped out from Shotwick. Before refridgeration, nothing else kept so well, and everyone ate Cheese. It was a large and important interest for Cheshire. Then America started producing and undercut Cheshire on price, rapidly destroying the export business from this county. Other outlets for cheese were sought, notably the growing towns of the industrial revolution, and sales continued.

However, in the 19th century railways were built. Liquid milk could be delivered very quickly to the towns, and demand for it gradually changed most Cheshire diary farms to milk alone. By the 1920s Mollington had eleven farms, Backford ten, Lea nine, Chorlton fiv and Caughall two, with much commitment to milk production. The number of dairy farms has declined since the war. In Mollington Home Farm, Rose Farm, Crosslooms and Well Farms have all gone (in 1928 there were 33 farms in the parish, by 2000 only 9, and not all of those handled milk production).

In the 1930s milk was handled in churns. A local business man, James Pownall improved things by starting milk collection, where previously each farmer had to use a horse and cart to deliver his own milk on a daily basis to Mollington Station, James delivered the milk directly to Birkenhead dairy for bottling and distribution. He then brought compound feeds back from Merseyside docks and mills as a return load. From the 1950s milk was collected in bulk, and taken by road to the dairy.

The foot and mouth epidemic of 1967 hit only 2 farms - Lodge Farm and Grove Farm at Chorlton. Fortunately, the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth did not hit Cheshire as badly as many other areas in the county and none of the farms in the parish were affected. With the decline in dairy farming, sheep are often seen in the fields now, and there is more arable farming, especially of maize. On the other hand many of the farms have sold off their land, and, together with their barns, have been converted to homes.

Cheshire Cheese Production.

As early as the sixteenth century surplus Cheshire cheese was being produced and put on sale at fairs and markets for the benefit of townspeople. Its reputation grew and as a result of the gentry taking or sending the cheese to London the arrival of the first ship load of cheese in October 1650 was favourably received. From about 1652 onwards regular shipments were being made to London and because cattle disease and floods had adversely affected the Suffolk cheese market, the full milk Cheshire cheese began to supplant it in popularity, even though its cost was more than one penny per lb over Suffolk cheese. The diarist Pepys visited one of the eating places which came to be named after the cheese - the "Cheshire Cheese" he visited was probably in Crutched Friars near his home beside the Tower of London. For the first twenty years until about 1670, all Cheshire Cheese was shopped from the port of Chester, but although warehoused in Chester, this cheese came not only from Cheshire but also from Flint, Denbigh, Montgomery and Shropshire and the name Cheshire cheese was applied to all these cheese and continued to be so during the 17th and 18th centuries.

By 1729, the tonnage of heese shopped to London had more than doubled in size since the 1680's and even the Navy bough Cheshire rather than Suffolk cheese! However, the growing industrial population around the Mersey resulted in substantial quantities of cheese being diverted to the local market - particularly in the north and east of the county.

Another important advantage fo the Cheshire cheese trade during the 18th century was the innovation of larger cheese that were 5 - 8 inches thick and these rich moist cheeses kept better than thin cheeses which quickly dried out. However heavier cheese presses were required to press out all the whey from the centre of the cheese which seems to have been peculiar to Cheshire in the 18th century, and the cheese had to be repeatedly skewered to release the trapped whey. But pressed think cheese of 1 1/2 to 3 inches thick continued to be made in Derbyshire, and Gloucester cheese was still produced in the old thin moulds. Stilton and Cheddar were also produced during the eighteenth century and were consumed in London but only in small quantities because the production was so limited.

Quality of production of the Cheshire cheese does seem to have been a bit hit and miss and the judgement of the chees maker was crucial, for neither quantities nor temperature were measured. Two local proverbs illustrate this reliance on providence - "The dairy maid's elbow is the best thermometer" and "A diary maid's thermometer is at her finger tips". Inevitably there were some bad batches of cheese! By the middle of the 18th century, most of the farms had cow herds of from 12 to 16 in number, and with better management the herds became capable of pruducing cheeses of between 30 and 60 lbs in weight which were usually turned by women. THe farmers must have found ways to keep the cows in better health during the winter so they yielded more milk in the following summer and learnt how to increase the grass in the pastures so it would feed more cows, for records from farms at the beginning of the 18th century indicate a yield of 1.6-2cwt of chees per cow compared to a yield of 2 1/2-2cwt output in the second half of the 18th century. Usually one dairymaid was appointed in ratio to 10 cows and on the smaller farms her duties would have included farm work or textile manufacturing in the winter. There was not a large butter production in Cheshire and it was always subordinate to the production of cheese. It was made to supply the needs of the farmer's household but as butter does not keep as well as cheese it was not marketed for long distances. Sometimes whey butter was made on Cheshire farms from the whey which had been pressed out of the chees.

In the late 18th and 19th century, many of the dairy houses were replaced or reconstructed, flag stones replacing the cobblestone floors and slates the thatched roofs. At first the meticulous cleanliness adhered to nowadays was not appreciated as necessary to prevent the souring of the milk, but by the 19th century it was realised that unhygienic conditions did not lead to good results. By the 1840's many diaries in Cheshire were improved with running water to facilitate cleanliness and coolness.

Converting the old medieval farms into slightly larger farms capable of cheese production had been a gradual process. In Cheshire where less than a quarter of the land was arable there was no need for much temporary labour of harvest workers and so, except on the home farms of the gentrym, the system of farms run by single families employing little or only family labour became the common pattern. These individual farms producing cheese as a staple commodity became a characteristic of Cheshire and the social grouping of the farming community remained for the most part unaltered into the twentieth century because the dairy farm could be managed as a small unit.

Cheshire Ch​eese

A CHESHIRE man went o'er to Spain
To trade and merchandise
and when he arrived across the main
A Spaniard there lie spies'
Thou Cheshire man' quoth he, 'look here
These fruits and spices fine
Our country yields these twice a year;
Thou hast not such in thine
'The Cheshire man soon sought the hold,
Thence brought a Cheshire cheese,
You Spanish dog, look here,' saith he,
You have not such as these
'Your land produces twice a year
Spices and fruits you say.
but such as in my hand I hear
Our land yields twice a day.'