Exhibit of the Week: Butter making - Woodhams Stone Collection

Specialised butter making equipment in the Woodhams Stone Collection include wooden stamps with various motifs.
Specialised butter making equipment in the Woodhams Stone Collection include wooden stamps with various motifs.

Dairy work formed a traditional part of the farming economy in the region surrounding Malton and Norton. At one time every farm had its own dairy, usually attached to the coolest part of the farmhouse and managed by the women of the household. Milk was poured into large shallow pans and the cream was left to rise to the top before it was skimmed off and churned to make butter. Butter continued to be made in this way well into the 1930s.

Butter making required both skill and specialised equipment. Many of the items that were needed are represented in the Woodham-Stone Collection. They include a plunge churn – the earliest type of churn common from the 16th to the late 19th centuries – milk pans, milk thermometers, other types of butter churns, butter hands, a butter mould which produces a 3D cow, and many butter prints and rollers, including one with a cross shaped motif typical of the area around the North York Moors.

For the Malton and Norton area butter was not just an important product inside the farmhouse. Malton town hall in Market Street, initially built in the 16th century and partly rebuilt in the 18th century, was first used as a butter market. At this time butter was one of the main products produced by farmers in the area. Malton’s importance as a regional market centre in the post-medieval period made it attractive to both producers and butter merchants.

In the 18th century the town revived as a result of agricultural improvements and, most importantly, by the River Derwent being made navigable. This meant that by about 1725 goods and produce could move much more easily. Until 1810 the river was not navigable beyond Malton, so the town was an important collection and distribution point for goods in the whole region.

Butter is continually listed as one of the main items exported by sloop and boat from Malton. It is possible to get some idea of the scale of these exports from the agricultural writer William Marshall. He wrote in 1808 that: “Many thousands of firkins (of butter) are sent from Malton” to York. Each firken weighed 56lbs (25 kgs). And Thomas Moule wrote in 1838: “The river here is navigable to the Ouse, and large quantities of corn, butter and ham are shipped for different parts of the kingdom.”

The arrival of the railway in the 1840s meant that trade could continue with even more ease. The export of butter continued into the 19th century and as late as 1892 George Marfitt of Langton Road, Norton is listed as a butter merchant for example.

However, by 1870 dairy factories near cities had begun production. Large scale commercial butter making meant that farmhouse butter was gradually superseded. Changes in hygiene regulations and continued centralisation of production throughout the 20th century had a major impact. Most of the smaller farmhouse dairies closed down or supplied only enough for their own domestic use. Mass produced butter has now become the norm.