John Harrison talks to Margaret Swift

John Harrison talks to Margaret Swift

This is the first in a series of chat/interviews with Rathmell residents that we’re planning to record and add to the website. We’re sure you’ll agree that there is no-one better qualified than John Harrison to start the series off!

Listen to John

Or read on…

John: Well, this is the story of my life. I was born at a very early age. July 19, 1923. On Wooddale Farm in the wilds of Keasden.

Now do I put all the bits of jokes in? 

Margaret: Why not? Yeah. 

John: All right. My great-great-grandfather was here when the Vikings came over. Coming up the beach with their horns and helmets, he was heard to say he didn’t know whether to fight them or milk them. 

Schoolday memories. One and a half miles to walk. I fed cows at Robinson Den, which was the little farmstead next to Wood Gill. On my way to school, we had two geese and a gander had their nests in this place. And this gander used to come out and try and, you know, it was a right fighting thing. 

Margaret: oh right, they are that, yes.

John: I made a sword to fight it with [laughter]

I wore clogs, but changed into pumps for P.E. 

Dinner: we took a potato, we’d carve with my initials, to roast in the school range.

Learnt catechisms and psalms. Vicar came to test our bible knowledge about once a month. This is a true story, that Mr Calkin told me, when he was a pupil at Dalehead School and the Vicar used to come around and he was a really stern, obnoxious type of fellow. And anyway, he was asking them, “Who is God?” and he addressed this to the lads, then this lad didn’t know, but his pal said “God is a spirit”, you see, and so anyway, the Vicar he says, “Come on boy,” he says, “Who is God?” And [the boy replied] “God is a ferret”. He’d mis… mis…, uh, you know, when t’other lad told him God was a spirit. 

Margaret: oh a ferret! 

John: He’d got it as a ferret, y’see!

Margaret: Oh gosh!

John: And that’s how it had come out… 

Margaret: Deary me! It’s amazing what you remember. 

John: Right, we did the three R’s, went for nature walks, and did plays, I was the donkey’s head in a Midsummer Night’s Dream,

Then… teachers. The senior teacher was Miss Whiteley from Giggleswick and the junior teacher was a Miss Thompson from Bentham. They came by train to Clapham station and it was a mile away. It was a happy time, apart from the weather in winter. Thursdays were baking day at home and a good smell of cooking, when I’m on my way home and I got back home.

At 11 I moved to Ingleton secondary modern school, taken by bus. It had a junior section, but we were placed in either A or B stream from 11 onwards. A1, A2,  A3, or same in the B class. The more brilliant scholars were started in A1… in which I happened to be placed. 

I was always interested in mechanical things and I’d watch the school bus driver. A little old Chevrolet bus, it was. I’d watch him, uh, double-clutch it when changing gear and everything. And I thought, “well I could do that,” and so one day I was, I was going to be the last drop off. This was up Keasden. And I said, “will you let me have a go?”, and he said, “all right”. So I did, I drove the bus. 

Margaret: You were only 13, were you?

John: I was 13, I was. Move on to the mock exams for grammar school, which I passed comfortably, but not allowed to go as my parents decided I was needed on the farm. In those days, this was more important than further education.

I left school in July, 1936. And I was always good at athletics, and I won one small trophy, which was a replica of the big cup, which was presented each year. I won five times out of six. We had tests twice each year. I did enjoy my three years at Ingleton. Made many friends, including the teachers and learned a lot, I did. 

Did I ever get the cane? Yes. Just once. The story moves like this. One of our, uh, school mates had usually got plenty of spending money. And we helped him to spend it. They bought cigarettes and distributed them out, and this particular day, we were on the school bus and Miss Kendall, who was from Newby, she came on the Pennine bus. Our bosses both coincided that afternoon. Now she got off the bus. Apparently there was smoke coming out of our bus, and so she reported this to the headmaster, of course, the following day and we all had to go up before the beak, and that’s the only time as I got the cane.

We moved from Keasden to Rathmell, to Layhead Farm. This was the land of Canaan after the moorland farm at Keasden. And we had both farms that summer. We had two farms to look after.

Now I was still at school. So my sister and I looked after the livestock at the Wood Gill Farm while Dad and a hired haytime man, got the hay at Rathmell. I used to bike the 12 miles most days to Rathmell to help them, then back to Wood Gill at night. I could do it in three quarters of an hour.

We finally got settled in at Layhead, moved all the stock and tackle, mostly by horsecart, but the railway wagon from Settle brought the furniture. And we called the man, we christened him “Soin” because that was his pet thing, when he was delivering stuff how you had to “soin” for it  Cappleside Estate was owned by the Geldard family and most of the farms in Rathmell, and most of the cottages too. They had a good system with the farms, all had some lowland, middle land and high land. The village had the village hall and Reading Room, there was a church, chapel, post office and shop, and a pub called the Cross Keys.

My dad, Thurston and mother Janey were staunch Methodists. So we had to go twice to chapel on Sundays, and Sunday School extra. Only very essential work was done on a Sunday. My sister complied with all this, these rules, but I did not always. 

No hay-making on a Sunday but the Anglicans did.

I was taking my air-gun out one Sunday morning and the punishment for that was a table-spoonful of castor oil, and sent to bed with tummy ache for the rest of the day. [you’d have them up for child abuse now] 

By now I had a motorbike and I nearly got disinherited for putting a new clutch into it, instead of going to chapel… this was my friend Kenneth Garnett helped me. He was the main mechanic. 

Dad never slapped us or anything. But we did respect his words of wisdom and caution.

Now, 1940s and wartime, I was in a reserved occupation, so luckily I was not called up, but the farmers were called upon to produce more food; milk, beef, lamb, etcetera, and plow up… a lot of the fields had to be plowed up and to grow cereals and vegetables like kale and turnips. 

I’ll just tell you this story of a country lad, who went to join the army and the interviewing officer were looking through his credentials, and some of the parentage was a bit dodgy … in doubt, yes. So he asked the lad, he said, “were you born out of wedlock?”, and he said, “No, out of Matlock”.

Cottages could keep a pig for their own use. And this is another little story. They used to send an inspector around every now and again, just to see that you just had the one or whatever. And the story is that the inspector called on this farm, and he said “I’ve called to see the swine.” And the wife said, “Oh, you’re just too late! He’s just got up yon field” [laughter].

1943 I was elected first chairman of Rathmell Young Farmers’ Club, and this opened my horizons considerably! We had dances, debates, stock-judging sports, public speaking, and many inter club activities. Sheep-shearing and talks by various people, and of course… girls. 

Still wartime. I was in the A.R.P., and … [laughing] … it’s not Dad’s Army, is it? Home Guard. I was going to join the Home Guard, but when they found I were in the A.R.P., they wouldn’t have me. The RAF took over Falcon Hotel, Settle, and 40 landgirls were billeted at Cappleside Hall, so things began to liven up a bit! Evacuees from  Bradford…about 20 and a teacher, who was my wife Olive’s sister. More about that later!

I’ll tell you of my first love. She was a local, a farmer’s daughter called Marjorie, same age as myself, secretary of YFC. So we met up quite a lot. She didn’t enjoy perfect health, plagued with bouts of asthma, especially in pollen time, but she was a grand lass and I courted her for two years.

Not like the couple who courted for 10 years, and the girl said to the lad, she said, “Isn’t it time we were getting wed?” And the young man said, “Nay lass, who’d have us now?”. 

I was very well-received by her parents having supper there about once a week. Mostly toast and baked beans.

Thoughts of marriage were high on the agenda until her mother intervened. She claimed to be able to see into the future – a clairvoyant or whatever – and said I was not the one for her daughter. Persuaded Marjorie to end our romance. I must tell this mother-in-law joke now! This chap he said he had a soft spot for his mother-in-law… and it was a swamp at the bottom of the garden! [laughter]

I was almost heartbroken for a time. And then I thought, blow it, there are plenty more fish in the sea. I didn’t have a stable relationship with anyone until Olive came along … A.R.P. dance in the Reading Room, and I felt quite smart in my blue serge uniform and badge.

Margaret, Olive’s sister, introduced us and we danced gaily and got to know each other. Olive asked me if we had an air raid siren in the village and I replied, “No… it would wake everybody up!” She never forgot that. I walked her home, and that was the beginning of a lasting relationship, not without its hiccups.

Olive was still at Avery Hill College in Huddersfield teacher training college and in digs at a private house. Her landlady, a Mrs Rainer was intercepting some of my letters during the last year she was there. So this spoiled some of our communication to each other… No mobile phones then!

Olive finished college and started teaching at a church school Hanging Heaton, Batley, commuting from home in Bradford by bus every day. In the ensuing two years, we met fairly regularly. She came and stayed in Rathmell and I also went to their home in Eccleshill, Bradford.

We had a week’s holiday in Bridlington. I am still  working onDad’s farm –  Layhead when  Gawthorpe Farm came available and I was successful in getting the tenency thereof, but not till the spring of 1948. I’m going into this spring of 1947 or the winter of 1947 was a terrible winter, even in Rathmell, everything was snowed up. I think it was several weeks before I could get our milk away. And we had to took it by a horse and cart, and some to Giggleswick station sometimes. Yeah. And the road was full, and we had to go across the fields to do it. 

And I helped on several occasions where I helped to dig Rathmell Brow out… I can remember doing that, I mean the snow was level full, right across. From one side to the other. It was a fair thing.

Our marriage, at Eccleshill congregational church, on the 5th of April, 1947. Jimmy Frankland was my best man and Margaret Summers and my sister Ava were bridesmaids. Olive was given away by her dad, Eli Summers. It was a cold, showery day. The heating boiler in church had packed up, so we were trembling at the altar with cold rather than emotion. However, it all went off very well…. reception, etcetera. For the honeymoon, we went to Bowness on Windermere, and our landlady, Mrs Raven, had put us a huge stone hot water bottle in bed; something like Ayres Rock! We explored some of the Lake District, as the weather permitted. And came back to our temporary new home at Sunnybank, near Hollin Hall, for the first year of our marriage. I worked at Layhead till the spring of 1948 when Gawthorpe became available. The land 14th of February, but not the house until the 12th of May. Savings of £500 to start farming, and to buy furniture did not go very far. We bought a bedroom suite new and all the other dining room and kitchen furniture were bought at sales, or given by family. 

I’ll move on to the livestock… the very first animals that I had at Gawthorpe. Dad lend me some money and I bought seven milk cows – Ayrshires from Scotland – procured for us by a Mr. Brown of Ingleton. He was a farmer-dealer whom we could trust. I had five cows in calf and two in milk, and then of course they were all tuberculin-tested, which had just come in a year or two before. And out of this, the in-calf ones they provide produced four heifer calves, and one bull calf… that was lucky! And the start of my herd. I had to have the cow sheds altered to conform with accredited standards. I was allowed a milk license and was now in business… Milk by hand! What a job.

So I got 30 ewes with lambs, some hens and the hens had been on the farm before

Cappleside Estate. The farms were so allocated that we had three sorts of land: lower-Ribble land, middle land and highland. This was a very sensible idea and full marks to our landlord. Rent paid twice a year, May and November and reviewed every three years by qualified auctioneer.

Our second child, Ruth, a lovely blue eyed blonde was born in August, 1949 but she was brain damaged at birth and had several severe epileptic fits during her short life. She died when she was eight years old. A very sad time for us all. After deciding not to have any more children, Sheila came, unplanned and in perfect order on October 18th, 1954. God must have smiled on us on renewed our hope for the future.

I’ll tell you the story of the Ayreshire cow. Caroline. 

Nearly every time she calfed, she went down with milk fever. This particular day she went down, and we had a little croft just below the house on the road side, and we put her in there… that’s where she was. Anyway, she couldn’t get up. And well, it’s rather an amusing story between the doctors and the vets and Olive… and the cow. This particular day, there was a strange doctor and a strange vet as well… and there was a knock on the door and it was the new doctor, and she said, “Where is she?” she asked me and I said, “Oh, she’s down in the croft, propped up on two bales of straw,” referring to the cow of course! We laughed at that many a time. Yeah, so that was that. 

Such is life! 1956… three cows killed by lightning – very severe thunderstorm, damaged a lot of electrics and fuse boxes, et cetera – below what was the lower cow pasture, they were and you could see where the lightning had struck and gone along the ground… it had ripped the turf up, from one cow to another, you know, that was terrible, really. You got insurance on them, of course, but that didn’t replace the cow by any means.

The seasons came and went, and by now, I had acquired more stock and an RAF Fordson tractor. Holidays… very few. We went to Butlins and we liked it so well, the first one was at Filey in North Yorkshire and then Ayre in Scotland and Skegness, which is, on the Lincolnshire coast, isn’t it? Pwllheli and Minehead. And when we got a car. We did go out for the day, on Sunday night runs, and local shows.

Olive at the Yorkshire show. this was a really fine day, and we went to the Yorkshire show at Harrogate, and if you’re familiar with the set-out, there’s the main ring and a sort of bank around it… grass banks… and Olive says, “Oh, I’ll sit here”. Well, I went to watch what was going on in the main ring, which I think was the army display and horses and gun carriages and stuff, tearing round.

Well, so I left her sat on this bank and when I came back to her, she said, “I’ve had a kind gentleman came and asked me if I wanted help to get up.” … And she says, “no, I’m like a cow. I get up back legs first!”

Both Olive and I were highly involved with the Young Farmers, being club leaders for several years, and various other offices.

Our second son, Andrew was born on May 2nd, 1959. This, and farming, took up a lot of our time. Yet Olive did some relief-teaching at  various local schools. In Rathmell, Settle Primary and Horton, and Tosside. She was offered the headteacher’s post at Tosside, but did not accept, feeling it was more important to be at home, bringing up the family and it would have meant moving and having another car, which we could not afford. 

The chapel and Sunday school. January prizegiving. A fine, clear starry night. Sheila and Andrew and me, walking down to chapel. Sheila looked up at the night sky and asked, “Does God live up there?” Andrew replied, “Yes. Right at the bloomin’ top!”

He did not relish having to sing or recite poems. Six and a half years passed, and now our last child, Janie, named after my mother was born 17th of February, 1966 and made our family complete. Now they are all married and we have nine grandchildren, four great grandchildren.

There is much more to tell and time is running out!  So I will briefly slide over the following years. We survived one lot of foot & mouth epidemic. Also Ribble Valley threatened to be flooded for a reservoir. The NFU Settle Branch… I was chairman twice and a delegate to Leeds County Branch. 

I was not really cut out to be a farmer… I would have liked to go driving motorcoaches, but this never materialized. I enjoyed the work among stock, but more-so all the machines and mechanical things, tractors, et cetera. Olive did the books and financial accounts, and she had a marvelous  mathematical brain, adding things up as she went shopping. And she didn’t need a computer or adding machine.

Farming has altered a lot… even before I sold up. Nowadays, you seldom see a farmer walking… quad bike or Land Rover, there are machines to do  nearly everything. I did not make a fortune at farming, but we were never in debt either, and I was able to retire after 40 years at Gawthorpe. By 1987 when I sold up, our stock had increased to 84 head of cattle – and we’d started with about five! Oh, a hundred mule and half bed of ewes and 150 fat lambs. Two dogs and two cats… I don’t think we sold… no, I gave one dog away. I gave him one dog to Ian Wright. And I think we must kept the cats. And the bales of hay, which were made in that summer amounted to 3,549 bales, which were sold in the sale. And the machinery that we had: a pipeline milker and a bottling plant, two refrigerated bulk milk tanks and we had two tractors then, and haytime machinery: balers, and hay-bobs and stuff. Krugers for spreading hay out. Bale transporter, two hay trailers, one cattle trailer, muck-spreader, one fertilizer-spreader, Fergie plow, electric welder and small tools. 

The cars I have had… There was first a Standard Vanguard, a Morris pickup – that was an ex-Army one – a Vauxhall Victor and Morris Oxford saloon car and a Ford Granada, and a Ford Escort Ghia and an Austin Maxi and Renault 19, and then Renault Clio.

After retiring, I helped Andrew and Linda with the milk round every Tuesday, worked for Tim Hislop at Layhead with a hundred-cow herd. Did all of his walling, and some for other neighbours too. I didn’t do the milking, but scraping-out in the big building, and feeding young stock.

We were now living at Mill Bank, near Saw Mill, bought earlier in the year… and Ian and Edith Wright came into Gawthorpe Farm. I still rented Oak Leigh Meadow from Miss Savein and got six ewes to eat it. 

Life was much easier in retirement, but I was still involved in NFU, Young Farmers, Chapel and Thursday Club activities and Olive’s health was failing. She had diabetes and high blood pressure. So I gave up working for Timothy so I could help her more, and did so til her death in May, 2002. 

What have I learned from my life? My Christian faith has served me well both in times of sadness and joy, and I believe and know that God does answer prayer and causes miracles to happen, and enables me to love and be loved by my supportive family, and to be of service to others as the years swiftly pass. Those of you who know me well, know I have a humorous side and also a serious one and my wish is that I can strike a right balance in all that I do. 

I’m 96, and feeling my age a bit 


The story of our holiday in the car, relying on bed and breakfast accommodation in the early 1960s. Olive was fed up and feeling really ready for a holiday. So we set off in the car with two children, not having any destination in mind, but to get away for a few days. We took the road down to the M6, and then to Knutsford and Hartford in Cheshire. This was mid afternoon, I think. I don’t know why we stopped, but we did… And we discovered that we were outside the house of Mary and Richard Johnson. Mary Mansour married Richard Johnson. And they invited us in for tea. 

We did bed and breakfast in Shrewsbury, Bristol, Minehead, Devon, Lynmouth and back up to Bath on the way back, and this was in Wigan, and the car brakes stuck on  and it got so you could hardly take it in first gear, they were so hard on, anyway I pulled up at the nearest… what I thought was a garage in Wigan, and they said, “Oh, well we are only a petrol station, but we have a garage just round the corner. If you can take it round there, I’m sure they’ll do something with it.” Well, I struggled around there, the cars behind pippin’, because I couldn’t go that fast, you know. We got it round into the proper garage, and it was five o’clock at night and all the mechanics were just knocking off, and the foreman and says, “Oh, I see. If you can bring it in onto here, we’ll put it upon the ramps”, and they bled the brakes out, and they did that and they never charged me a penny. That was one miracle. Well, it was the second miracle; the first  miracle was the one when we arrived at outside Mary Mansour’s house; the second one was when we had the car at the garage and the brakes done up. 

And then, on the way back… we’d been away down Devon way, and back up again and of course, we were relying on bed and breakfasts every day really, and we hadn’t a mobile phone so you could ring forward and like they do nowadays and whatnot. Anyway, we were on our way back up; this was in Bristol, or in the outskirts of Bristol anyway, and it got to 9 o’clock at night. And we hadn’t got anywhere to go for the night and we were just outside a biggish house with a big lawn in front, and we were on our last legs really, and we offered a prayer to God, if he could help us out. Anyway, I went to this house and the lady says, “I’m sorry, I’m full up at the moment,” but she says, “I’ll ring my mother on the other side of town.” And she rung her. And she said, she’d just let a couple have the main bedroom, the family bedroom, but she said the couple, agreed to go into the smaller room to allow us to come into the other one, and she got in her car and took us right across town to our mother’s, which was lovely, really. And we spent a lovely night there and breakfast and whatnot. And she was called Mrs Toogood and she said, “I don’t know why, but I felt that something was telling me to accommodate you.”  Of course she was thankful for the, the couple that she’d already taken in that went into the smaller room.

So that really was a miracle. And she was called Mrs Toogood. She made us so welcome and put on a huge breakfast next morning and I am sure that God was with us on that holiday and did answer our prayer. 

Next in the series will be Bryan Procter!