Robin Longbottom explores how a village textile worker became a leading local authority in the world of beekeeping
On Saturday June 16, 1906, Jack Barrett – of West Lane, Sutton-in-Craven – celebrated his 90th birthday, making him the village’s oldest resident.
Born in 1816, a year after Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, he received an early education first at ‘Owd Mary Harrison’s School and then at Wilberry Kendal School, which had opened in the village in the early 1900s. 1820. He dropped out of school around the age of eight and began winding bobbins at home and later weaving for a maker called Billy Walton, who had a hand loom shop at Dolphin ‘Oyle in Ellers. For most of his life he worked for T&M Bairstow’s of Sutton Mill. His recipe for a long life was to be temperate in all things and he had “nivver bin a drinker… and nivver mis a rick aht of his mouth sin 1851”.
However, Jack’s main claim to fame was as a beekeeper, which had been his lifelong hobby. His experience and knowledge were such that he was recognized as a local authority and was a regular honey judge at the annual Glusburn Athletic and Horticultural Show. He kept his hives in the back garden of the house and still housed them in what were then considered old fashioned straw skeps. Most progressive beekeepers now used square section hives containing frames in which the bees built their combs. These had been perfected in the second half of the 19th century, but had to be bought from specialist suppliers and were largely out of pocket for cottagers like Jack. One of the main problems with the old straw skep, which was little more than an overturned straw basket, was to extract the honey without destroying the bees. Two-part skeps had been developed where the upper part could be lifted to remove the honey, leaving the lower part intact, but it is unknown if Jack used this system.
When Jack was asked if beekeeping was a profitable business, he replied, “Well, in particular. It depends on the season, sometimes it’s a little in the pocket and sometimes it hurts a little. But lunatics these days aren’t bored without being able to do a little copper, and that takes away the main value of a hobby.
Until the arrival of large quantities of sugar from the plantations of the West Indies, honey was much more than a hobby – it was the main sweetener and many households, especially the wealthier ones, had their own bees. . Beeswax was also an important commodity, not only for candles but also for waxing thread (to preserve it) for saddlery and footwear. Until the late 18th and even early 19th century, yeoman farmers and nobility kept their hives in special alcoves built into the walls to protect the skeps from wind and rain. These alcoves are commonly known today as bee casks and a number still survive in the Keighley and Craven area. The simplest are no more than a square recess raised above ground level, such as those at Ponden Hall, Stanbury; Street Head Farm in Oakworth and Cowburn Beck Farm in Silsden Moor. At East Riddlesden Hall, the bee barrels are constructed of blocks of fine cut stone with curved ogee tops, indicating the importance the family who lived there placed on their hives.
To keep his hives off the ground, Jack Barrett placed each skep on an old wooden crate and to protect them from the weather he covered them with broken cooking bowls.
Jack died just after his 91st birthday, in 1907.