Cheshire Cheese

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Cheshire is a cheese characterized by a moist, crumbly texture and a mild, salty taste. The main difference between the "Cheddaring" and Cheshire process comes in the late slow acid development where the Cheshire curds sit for another day at warm temperatures to drain and develop the final acid before being salted and pressed. Cheshire cheese is made in three levels of moisture for different lengths of aging. The primary difference in these three is the milk quality (time of year): the final moisture in the cheese determining its aging potential. Cheese destined for export to London, through Chester, would have been made to ripen slowly. The early-ripening cheese may be cured for as short a time as 3 weeks, the medium-ripening for about 2 months, and the late ripening for at least 10 weeks and often for 8 to 10 months.

"Nothing is more certain than this, that in the late wars both Scotland and Ireland were conquered by timely provisions of Cheshire cheese and biscuit." - said of the English Civil War.

Every Roman legionary got an ounce of cheese in his daily ration. With 5000 men in a full-strength legion, that’s 5000 ounces or about 140 kilos a day. Only hard cheese can be cut into one-ounce pieces, and because the Romans also introduced large-scale sheep farming to the British Isles, it is possible that much of this was sheep based. Roman era cheese moulds have been found at both Corbridge Roman Town on Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland and Wroxeter Roman City in Shropshire, both of which are associated with Legio II of Chester. Palladius who is dated variously to the later 4th century or first half of the 5th century AD discusses cheese extensively in his book on agriculture, Opus agriculturae. Some writers suggest that Palladius in his 14-volume Latin text actually mentions "Chester", although they fail to give a precise reference. The Cornovii, who were the indigenous population of the Cheshire Plain in Roman times are known to have kept cattle and may well have made Cheese.

Gerald of Wales appears to be the first writer to associate cheese with the City of Chester. He visited Chester in 1188 and records:

  • "We saw here, what appeared novel to us, cheese made of deer's milk; for the countess and her mother keeping tame deer, presented to the archbishop three small cheeses made from their milk."

Gerald is sometimes an unreliable witness, but adds the detail that the doe cheese were made in small wicker or wooden contaners, very much like those still used for Norman cheeses. Unfortunately there are all sorts of issues with the identity of the "Countess" at the time and place mentioned.

Cheshire cheese, as made from cow's wilk, is one of the oldest recorded named cheeses in British history: it is mentioned, along with a Shropshire cheese, by Thomas Muffet (also Moufet, Mouffet, or Moffet, c.1553 – 5 June 1604) in Health's Improvement (c. 1580). It is sometimes claimed – without evidence – that the original "Little Miss Muffet" was Patience, Thomas' daughter, but the rhyme seems to date from much later.

The importance of Cheshire as a major diary-producing region in England was highlighted in William Malmesbury’s Gesta pontificum Anglorum (‘History of the Bishops of England’) in the mid-twelfth century. William is another historian who is sometimes less than accurate, and William Camden (1607) refers to Ranulf Higden (writer of the Polychronicon) when he starts a debate about the origins of the cheese and says:

  • "Whatsoever Malmesbury dreamed (saith hee) upon the relation of others, it aboundeth with all kind of victuals, plenteous in corne, flesh, fish, and salmons especially, of the very best. It maintaineth trade with many commodities, and maketh good returne. For why, in the confines thereof it hath salt pits, mines, and mettals. And this moreover will I adde: the grasse and fodder there is of that goodnesse and vertue that cheeses be made heere in great number of a most pleasing and delicat tast, such as all England againe affourdeth not the like, no, thought he best dayriwomen otherwise and skilfullest in cheese making be had from hence. And whiles I am writing this, I cannot chuse but mervaile by the way at that which Strabo writeth, That in his time some Britans could not skill of making cheese , and that Plinie afterwards wondered That barbarous nations who lived of milke, either knew not or despised for so many ages the commodity of cheese, who otherwise had the feat of crudding it to a pleasant tartnesse, and to fat butyr. Whereby it may be gathered that the devise of making cheese came into Britaine from the Romans."

Cheshire cheese was originally the generic name for cheese produced in the county and surrounding counties including Flintshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, and Denbighshire. It has been said that the cheese is mentioned in the Domesday Book, but this is not true and it is impossible to say how and why this often repeated myth arose.

Many references will state that Cheshire cheese's rise to prominence began in the 1650's, but evidence suggests that significant trade began a decade earlier during the Civil War. After 1650 cheese had a significant impact on the economy and landscape of Cheshire. In 1732 cheesemongers would assert, with what appears to be some considerable exaggeration that cheese accounted for:

  • " least nine-tenths of the Goods exported from the said City of Chester".

This last comment was made in the context of a debate about the state of the River Dee and introduces the thread that cheese had a sigificant effect on the economic and social development of the region.


In the early twenty-first century, cheese-making in England is dominated by industrial scale operations, with just 2 percent being attributed to artisanal producers located on farms or in specialist dairies. During the seventeenth century, the English were amongst the first to specialize in commercialized forms of cheese-making and marketing, but production in England remained overwhelmingly farm-based and un-mechanized until the mid-1930s.

The oak chest at St Oswald’s, Lower Peover. Tradition holds that the bride of a farmer needs to be able to lift the lid with one arm due to the weight of the cheeses she will be required to turn.

Cheese made its way into local folklore. St Oswald’s at Lower Peover is famous for its "bog-oak, dug-out chest", now in the Shakerley Chapel in the south aisle. It is believed to be older than the church itself and was used for many years to keep Parish Registers, vicars’ robes, chalices and church documents. Tradition has it that if a girl wished to be a farmer’s wife she should be able to lift the chest lid with one arm. One explanation given for this tradition is:

  • "It is believed that this tale originated because it was said that a farmer’s wife in those days needed to be strong enough to be able to lift the large cheeses made in the area."

In the past, milk production was far more seasonal than it is today. Lots of milk was produced in the summer months, when there was plenty of grass. Much less milk was produced in the winter, as the hay made then was a poorer feed than the silage made today. The farms made cheese in the summer, to use up the surplus but perishable milk and lay down a store of food for the winter months. Salt, which is freely available in Cheshire, helped to preserve the cheese. Men traditionally played virtually no part in the production or processing, which - from milking the cows to selling the products at market - were mostly controlled by women. Dairy farming to produce cheese for the London market was different from traditional farming: it required unremitting attention to the health and well-being of the cows, combined with skill and care in making the cheese. A typical dairy farm would also keep pigs as these would consume the whey.

The author of "European Agriculture and Rural Economy", Henry Colman, an American pastor, got some instructions for the making of Cheshire Cheese from a dairy wife in 1851. He was travelling through Europe and recording agriculture in detail. He reproduced the instructions for Cheshire "verbatim and in full" in his book:

  • “Take thirty gallons of new milk to make a good-sized cheese, and then put the rennet into the milk. When come into curd, break it very small; then bring it together into one side of the tub; then dip the whey from it, and put it into the cheese, with a cloth inside of the vat, and put it under the press one hour; then take it out and break it up very small, and warm a small quantity of whey and pour over the curd, and stir it around; then take the whey from it, and put the curd into the vat again, and squeeze it well with the hand. When putting it in the vat the last way, take a small quantity of salt, and put it into the middle of the cheese, and put it under the press. Apply dry cloths to it several times, and salt it every twelve hours four tiimes. A little flour is a very good thing to put in the middle of the cheese with the salt – about one tablespoonful.”

Colman notes:

  • "What the use of the flour is in this case, it would be difficult to say. It may be like the horse-shoe upon the door-post. But I chose to give her directions verbatim and in full. Her cheese is of the best quality, and her dairy-room a model of neatness and order."

The texture of a cheese, such as whether it is rubbery or crumbly, is partly determined by the calcium content and the acidity. These in turn depend on the point at which the curds and whey are separated, and the combination of further steps such as pressing, heating and cutting the curd. Cheshire cheese is manufactured to keep the curd particles separate, whereas Cheddar curd particles are spread out and matted together in the "Cheddaring" process. In 1852 another American visitor to Cheshire, Frederic Law Olmstead, was struck by the absence of any uniform method of cheesemaking: for example, quantities were estimated by experience and temperatures determined by feel. Cheesemaking is a delicate process and, to give a further example, if too much cream is taken for butter or too much salt added the quality will suffer.

Commercial cheese production started on a small scale on the large farms which already had dairy herds and would have a surplus of milk which could be made into cheese for sale, rather than just producing the cheese needed for the farm's own use. By such simple techniques as hurrying the calves off to the butcher they could increase milk available for cheesemaking and so switch from meat to cheese production. These were mainly freeholds but the dairy herds seem to have been quite small, averaging only six cows in 1664. Until 1674 the average size of herds increased, and between 1675 and 1686 a large number of small cheeses were produced. From 1687 cheeses grew steadily in size until by the end of the century an average weight of 20-24 Ib. became standard. This implies a growth of the average herd to ten to twelve cows, which would inevitably have involved the creation of larger farms as ten acres per cow seems to have been needed in the seventeenth century. However there was also a period in which farms started to pool their milk to make large cheeses for export in specialised dairies, a practice then sufficiently unusual to draw comment from travel-writer Celia Fiennes when she visited Chester in 1698:

The local climate means that the valley of the River Dee contains some of best dairy farming land in the country (shown on this 1945 map in the darkest green), hence its traditional fame for cheese. Other regions noted for cheese include Leicester to the east of this map and Cheddar in the extreme south.
  • "This is a pretty Rich land; you must travell on a Causey; I went 3 miles on a Causey through much wood Its from Nantwitch to Chester town 14 long miles, ye wayes being deep: its much on Enclosures and I passed by severall large pooles of waters, but what I wonder'd at was yt tho' this shire is remarkable for a greate deale of greate Cheeses and Dairys I did not see more than 20 or 30 Cowes in a troope feeding, but on Enquiry find ye Custome of ye Country to joyn their milking together of a whole village and so make their great Cheeses. "

Many historians of the North-West have described new enclosures in the period 1660-1750 and have noticed the reduction in the numbers of small farms. An important driving force for these enclosures in Cheshire was the desire to create viable dairy farms with herds of ten cows or more. Both the market and the production techniques favoured this size. The London buyers preferred larger cheeses (they would lose less weight while being transported) and so paid a higher price for them, and a dairy-woman was not fully employed with fewer than ten cows.

Different styles of Cheshire were made depending on the various markets into which the cheese was to be sold. The three main types were known as ‘early ripening’, ‘medium ripening’ and ‘late ripening’ Cheshire. The first was made in early season when home produced cheese was in short supply and was usually sold at between 2 and 6 weeks of age; medium ripening cheese would be put onto the market during the summer usually at between 2 and 3 months of age whilst late ripening Cheshire (usually at up to 12 months of age) was suitable for selling early the following year until new season cheese was available.

Consumers have slowly lost the opportunity to buy Early Ripening and Long Keeping Cheshire. It comes as no surprise then, that the Cheshire we now consider to be ‘traditional’, is likely most similar to the Middle Ripening cheeses of the early 20th century. If the modern consumer were confronted with either an Early Ripening or a Long Keeping Cheshire today, they would likely not recognise it as Cheshire.

Red Cheese

Red Cheshire, coloured with annatto to a shade of deep orange, was developed in the hills of North Wales and sold to travellers on the road to Holyhead. In cheese, the yellow and orange hues naturally vary throughout the year as the cow's feed changed: in the summer, with fresh grass and its natural carotene content, the milk produced would have a natural orange tint, as would the cheese made from it, while at other times of the year, the tint would be greatly reduced. As the pigment is carried in the cream, skimming the milk, which some farmers did to make butter or to sell it separately, the lesser-quality cheese from such milk would be white. To "fool" the consumer, the cheesemakers introduced colorants to imitate the more intense colors of the finer summer cheese. Initially these colors came from saffron, marigold, and carrot juice, but later annatto began being used. This trade was so successful that the travellers came to believe that all Cheshire cheese was orange, and producers in its home county were obliged to dye their cheese in order to match the expectations of the market. The white (actually ivory to pale yellow in colour) and artificially coloured red (deep peach to orange in color) cheeses are identical in flavour. The red variety is not made any more (except by some artisan producers) although the artificial colour is still used in "Red" Leicester.

Blue Cheese

Like many of the historic blue cheeses, Blue Cheshire was often an accident arising from the traditional Cheshire making process. Whole cheeses would be stored in barns and as they dried out their coats might crack and allow environmental moulds to enter the cheese. The penicillium roqueforti mould is endemic and particularly so in areas where leather saddles and reins might have been stored. Some cheeses went blue and were seen as a highly desirable accident.

The Old Port of Frodsham (from a map dated to 1753) showing the Z-shaped cheese warehouse next to the bridge. By the time this map was made the warehouse (dating from c.1670) appears to have been already converted into a mill. The mill leat can be seen running along the road from the mill, away from the bridge.


Cheshire cheese captured a large share of the London market after the supposed first shipload arrived in 1650, such that the principal cheese eaten in London in the late 17th and 18th century was Cheshire. However there are many gaps in the series of port books surviving for Chester and Liverpool and it is possible that there may have been shipments before then. A stable series of port books only begins in 1674. Cheddar and Stilton were also known in London during this time, but were extremely expensive - three to four times the price of Cheshire.

The new cheese gave its name to many eating places. In 1678, Samuel Pepys is recorded visiting "The Cheshire Cheese", probably in Crutched Friars near his house beside the Tower of London. In September 1678, Dr Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith (Robert Hooker’s diary 1678) often dined together in the Cheshire Cheese Tavern in Wine Office Court, Fleet Street: now Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub at 145 Fleet Street. Apart from some very early shipments, cheese was not sent by land, unless as an extra in a carriers’ cart – the carrier would have to buy a few cheeses at £20 a ton.

Whether cheese was made for export from Cheshire can also be gauged from inventories made post-mortem for farmers who died in the years 1588-1649. These show that for many houses with dairy herds the size of the herd and the inventory of cheese held was comparable with what would be needed to supply the related household. Cheese making equipment also becomes more common in the inventories. The cash crops being produced were corn, meat and hemp or flax. However this was about to abruptly change. For context 1649 was the year of the Execution of Charles I (30th January).

It is recorded that the ship James (Robert Mills master) arrived in London with 20 tons of cheese on 21 October 1650 (PRO, E190/45/6, London coastal for 1650). This was a marketing coup for William Seaman, a London merchant who came from Cheshire – his family financed the voyage. Cheshire was an instant hit: in 1660 Samuel Pepys wrote in his famous diaries “Hawley brought a piece of his Cheshire Cheese, and we were merry with it”. Port books for Chester show no less than 364 tons of cheese was sent to London in 1664 - the first year for which the books survive. They also show that sales increased rapidly – ships from Chester brought 1000 tons in the 1670s and nearly 2000 tons by the 1680s. Cheese was virtually the only regular freight going from the north-west to London. The type of ship used in the cheese trade throughout this period was the ketch. It was, without a keel, a manoeuvrable vessel that was extensively employed in the coasting trade. It drew 11-13 ft when laden so it could take refuge in shallow bays and estuaries when storms threatened, and it had a flat enough bottom to lie upright on the mud at low tide. It increased steadily in size from 20-30 tons in the 1660s to 50-100 tons in the 1740s. A ketch usually carried ballast to compensate for its lack of keel, so when Welsh lead also required transport to London it could be accommodated as ballast in addition to the normal cargo of cheese.

The "Cheese Stage" (here shown in 1867) was served by a three-bay warehouse at the bend in the Dee Navigation where the Canal and the Dee link up. The building in the lower left is the Watertower. All of the land in the upper part of the drawing was reclaimed from the River. The "Sluice House" (not shown in the drawing) controlled the flow of water in "Finchetts Gutter" (see Flookersbrook).

With the right weather, the voyage of ketches to London could be as little as nine days from Chester in the 1680s, but the average voyage (from Port books) was 26 days. Return loads to the north-west for cheese ships were sometimes a more exotic cargo of teas, spices, currants and silks although some ships simply returned in ballast of rocks. In the 1650's and 1660's all the cheese ships sailed from Chester or possibly its outports in the Dee. However in about 1670 (or perhaps earlier) sailings began to occur from Sutton Weaver near Frodsham. Port Books for both Chester and Liverpool survive for the four years from June 1685 to June 1689 provide a good picture of the cheese trade. The dominant figures were nine London cheesemongers. Much the greatest was John Ewer (1652-1724), who had started as a tallow chandler but shipped 2,741 out of the 6,613 tons of cheese recorded in these four years, or more than 41% of the total. He shipped cheese from via Liverpool and from Chester. Two other merchants, Jeremy Ives with 954 tons and Richard Halford with 870 tons also shipped from both ports.

In the 17th century, a cow probably produced 240lb (109kg) of cheese per year. So 1,000 tons of cheese represented the output of some 10,000 cows. Dairy herds in the Northwest, therefore, must have been increased by some 20,000 cows between 1650 and 1688. However, in 1689, French privateers and war meant trade virtually ceased by ship. The land carriage, always more expensive than coasting, put the cheese up by £5 – £8 a ton, and slowly reduced demand. With the end of the long war with Louis XIV (the War of the Spanish Succession), in 1713 the cheese ships started to sail again, and at least 2,600 tons were shipped from the Northwest in 1717 and 18. The market had more than doubled since the 1680s. Because the efficient operation of ships required a stock of cheese to be ready in a warehouse for them to load, the London cheesemongers soon realised they had to employ "factors" to buy cheese in advance of the ship’s arrival. These factors were often dairy farmers of sufficient financial and social standing engaged in collaboration with the London cheesemongers, and responsible for purchasing cheese and arranging for its delivery to ports.

Originally factors bought cheese from fairs and markets, but buying directly on the farm became universal in the 1700s. By the mid 1740s a wharf had been reestablished west of the Roodee and there were large timber yards near by. About 1760 the city built a new warehouse for cheese, with its own quay, just to the north, and was planning a further dock, warehouses, and a new road from the Watergate, later called New Crane Street. The "New Cut" made the city accessible during spring tides to ships drawing up to 15 ft. in the 1770s. Further cheese was shipped down the Trent or from Bank Quay at Warrington. Irrespective of where the came from in Cheshire or the surrounding counties it was known as Cheshire.

As well as the cheese sent to London, much was eaten locally – 40lbs a year consumed by each inhabitant (of Arley Hall) in the 1620s. This total rose to over 120lbs in the 1750s and 60s. To accommodate this local consumption, there must have been about 20,000 cows in Cheshire, occupying a third of the suitable land in the county, and the rest of the area around. There was a driving force to create viable dairy farms with herds of more than 10 cows, so mergers of those with freehold took place.

By 1870, the Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales estimated that over 12,000 tonnes of cheese were produced each year. 100 years later and this reached an astounding 40,000 tonnes, at the peak of sales. As more and more cheese varieties were introduced, including the likes of Cheddar, Cheshire cheese faced strong competition, but still remains one of the most popular varieties.

Cheese and the Military

Cheeses native to England were ideal for military transportation and storage. They were salted, hard-pressed and long-lasting, and could be stowed in the hold of a ship for delivery overseas, or for use by the ship's company. The realization of this advantage came as early as Henry III's reign, when the commissariat ordered 20 weys of hard cheese for his maritime expedition to Gascony in 1253, but the use of Cheshire as a "military" cheese did not really take-off until the Civil War.

One of the first "Cheese Factors" recorded is the same Captain Thomas Steele who was some time commander at Beeston Castle and was shot for dereliction in January 1644. Parliamentarian accounts dwell upon the sinful and unmoral ways of Steele, noting how before being shot he had confessed various misdeeds:

  • "Being a cheese factor, he was about in the country and came late to his inn. The maid of the house got up to let him in, and was all bare, and partly undressed. He took fire at this sight of her and offered lewdness to her, which she resisted not; and so whenever he came that way, he lived in this sin with that woman. And now the Lord hath brought this shameful and untimely end upon him, as he acknowledged, in just judgement for that foul wickedness he lived in"

Whether there is any truth in this is unknown, but it does provide an early reference to cheese factors.

In November 1644, William Harris and partners were paid £833, 16 shillings and 11 pence to take Cheshire cheese to Ireland – the first shipment of the Civil Wars to have had a named source. Previous shipments had just been called "cheese". In 1646–1650, there were cheese shipments from Chester and Liverpool to Dublin and Derry, which were presumably of Cheshire cheese. These were shipped by various parties, including John Davies and Charles Walley, the latter being a sometime mayor of Chester during the Civil War.

Cheese continued to be an important military staple as an alternative to meat. The cheese ration in Nelson's navy was 4oz every other day. Prior to 1758 it is not clear which brand of cheese the navy purchased for supply, but it may have been Suffolk as mentioned in the 1745 edition of the "Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea". A contract to supply Essex and Suffolk cheese to the people of Calais was concluded after the Treaty of Leulinghem (1389) briefly ended the war with France. In October 1595 the Suffolk Justices of the Peace were instructed to give the navy victualler first choice of cheese, with all other sales to be held back.

Suffolk was a very hard cows' milk cheese, possibly similar to Parmesan, the unique hardness and durability of which was celebrated, or decried, in poems, songs and jokes. It was commonly known as "bang". In 'The Hampshire Chronicle' - Monday 19 December 1825:

  • "As characteristic of Suffolk cheese, it said that a vessel once laden, one half with grindstones and the other half with the above commodity, on arriving at its destination it was found that the rats had consumed all the grindstones, but left the cheeses untouched."

By comparison with Essex and Suffolk, Cheshire cheese was a relative newcomer. It was as late as 1607 that William Camden commented:

The Old Port of Chester (artist and date unknown) looking upstream to the Portpool from near the Cheese Stage. The railway viaduct and steam train in the background date it to after 1846, while the size of the turrets on the Cathedral tower dates it to before 1876. The triple-bay Cheese warehouses are as shown in McGahey's 1867 sketch reproduced above. One the extreme right the surviving warehouse building at "New Crane" can just be seen. In the center is the Workhouse. The 12-gunner brig alongside the cheese stage is unidentified.
  • "..the grasse and fodder there is of that goodnesse and vertue that cheeses be made heere in great number of a most pleasing and delicat tast, such as all England againe affourdeth not the like, no, though the best dayriwomen otherwise and skilfullest in cheese making be had from hence."

Suffolk cheese is no longer made. By 1850, most of the pasture land of High Suffolk was gone, long since ploughed up for crops. There were frequent complaints against it, and in 1758 the decision was taken by the Navy to switch to Cheshire and Gloucester Cheese, even though they were considerably more expensive and probably did not keep so well. It may be significant that two early sources instruct that Cheshire Cheese be issued at two thirds the weight of Suffolk, whereas none of the later sources mention any such provision. The reasons for the change appear to have had little to do with the complaints, cattle disease and floods in the 1640s seriously affected the Suffolk cheese trade. Not only that but Suffolk cheese doubled in price and farmers skimmed-off the cream for more lucrative butter production (Robert Royce ‘Breviary of Suffolk’). This reduced the quality of Suffolk cheese so much that by the 1660s "even servants complained about being asked to eat it" (Samuel Pepys’ diary). Cheshire cheese, unlike the Suffolk cheese of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, was made with whole milk. There was not much of a local butter trade in Cheshire in the 1660s when the first surviving recipe for making the cheese was reported to the Royal Society by William Jackson, so the eating quality would have been noticeably better than cheese made with skimmed milk.

Somewhat similar developments took place in The Netherlands. "Boeren Leyden", for example, was a high acidity, low fat and firm structured, cow’s milk cheese. It was perfect for carrying on Dutch navy and merchant ships. Despite the extremely high temperature and humidity of the tropical seas, the cheese kept very well and was used to nourish ships’ crews throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and traded in the country’s overseas colonies. The Dutch and the English experienced a broadly similar pattern of early commercialization, with volume production becoming concentrated on specialized farms within their main dairying regions. As both were transporting cheese of relatively long distances a uniformity of flavor and texture evolved. However, while the later English experiments with cheese factories faltered, commercial cheese-making in the Netherlands was more readily translated onto an industrial scale during the second half of the nineteenth century, displacing much of the country’s farm-based production. French cheese-making presents another contrast, retaining a relatively pure artisanal character into the mid-nineteenth century, initially with little in the way of commercialization or regional specialization, and a wide range of local cheeses.

Dennis Gauden

Another influence on this trade was the adoption from the early 1640s by England's state-appointed military victuallers of Cheshire cheese as one of their standard commodities. They then supplied it in bulk to the navy and also to army garrisons in theatres of war such as Ireland and Scotland. The victualler who played the principal role in this provisioning from the 1640s to the 1670s was Denis Gauden.

Gauden played a minor role in supplying Royalist troops in the First Civil War (August 1642–June 1646). Because of its portability, cheese was important in the commissariat of both sides in the War. The two-hundred men on the parliamentary side garrisoned in Wiltshire were provided with 5,300 pounds of cheese and 400 pounds of butter. The footsoldier contingent recieved 16 pounds of cheese a day along with 8.5 pounds of butter, 13 pounds of bread and 40 pints of beer.

Cromwell was set against his army plundering in his Irish campaign and therfore ensured his troops were well supplied with food. In 1646, Gauden and two colleagues proposed shipping cheese at their own risk to the English garrisons in Ireland. They wanted £3,000 at three and three-quarter pence per pound (approximately equal to 85 tons). They did not specify a source of the cheese but their rival, John Davies, suggested sending £1,500 worth of Lancashire and Cheshire cheese at the slightly higher rate of four pence per pound. These offers were discussed first in the House of Lords in 1646 and then in the Commons the following year. Gauden's main chance came later, with much activity recorded in the State Papers between April 1650 and October 1652. In 1650, he became the dominant supplier of cheese among the five recognized naval victuallers. He was appointed to weigh and receive into the stores the cheese of other merchants and:

Samuel Pepys was made surveyor general of victualling in October 1665. He was, by today's standards somewhat corrupt in the way that he effectively sold lucrative contracts including those for the supply of cheese.
  • "also to take warehouses, and employ persons to dress and look to the same until shipped for Ireland, and also to hire vessels to transport the cheese, and to set carpenters on work to fit the vessels"

Gauden became the main supplier of cheese to the armies in Scotland and Ireland, some of which was "upon his own adventure". On the march General Monk ordered Colonel Cooper to furnish the soldier's snapsacks with seven days bread to be carried on horseback". Gauden shipped 7,000 tons and more to Leith, Berwick, Dublin, Limerick and other ports, to a total value of over £70,000. The two main sources, at over 2,000 tons each, were Suffolk (for the unfortunate) and Cheshire. The gross yield for Gauden from cheese in this period was £56,828 but it is not known how much profit he made. He bore much of the risk, which was considerable, given the possibility of shipwreck, piracy and delays due to adverse weather.

One risk for Gauden was the possibility that he might not be able to procure the cheese in the vast quantities required. In this he had help from a Captain Whitworth, newly appointed in 1650 as commissary at Chester and Liverpool. Gauden also worked with Timothy Liveing and Francis Chaplin, the government's agents in Cheshire and Lancashire for shipping cheese and meal to the army in Ireland. An officer claimed in 1650:

  • "Nothing is more certain than this, that in the late wars both Scotland and Ireland were conquered by timely provisions of Cheshire cheese and biscuit." (Swinburne, Dancing with Mermaids, 317, citing C. H. Firth 1992, Cromwell's Army, 3rd edition, 223.)

Gauden continued with his duties throughout the 1650s and, after the Restoration, was appointed the "surveyor general of all the victuals to be provided for His Majesty's ships and maritime causes". Samuel Pepys was made surveyor general of victualling in October 1665. In his diary, Pepys detailed what in modern terms looks like a corrupt relationship with Gauden. In 1665, for instance, Pepys received the ample salary from the government of £300, but this was dwarfed by a payment of £500 from Gauden. In 1668 and 1673, new naval victualling contracts were issued, with Gauden again responsible and now at sixpence per diem per man in harbour and eight pence per diem at sea. This equated (at sea) to one pound of biscuit, one gallon of beer, two pounds of beef or pork and one pint of peas daily for four days, and one-eighth of a stockfish, two ounces of butter and four ounces of cheese daily on the other three days. There are several other instances of Pepys selling lucrative gpvernment supply contracts for personal gain.

Gauden's downfall came during the Third Dutch War (1672–1674), which increased state outlays at a time when it was still dealing with the aftermath of the Plague and the Great Fire of London, and its debts from the first war. Such was the financial crisis that a stop was put on the Treasury in January 1672 – a temporary measure that was eventually made permanent. Gauden struggled on through a number of Chancery lawsuits before his final financial ruin in 1677. The fall of Denis Gauden did not mean the end of cheese supplies to the navy, or even the end of the Gauden name in victualling. Two of his sons carried on the family business: Jonathan and Benjamin were both prominent in the maritime supply of Cheshire cheese to Tangier towards the end of its occupation by the English (1661–1684).

The consequence of the growth in both the military demand for Cheshire cheese and the delevopment of a large market in London established its production and transport as a significant source of wealth.

Cheese and the River Dee

The complication with the Cheshire cheese trade was how to move the stuff. At the time when the trade first developed shipping by sea was the best economic option.

John Mackay's chart of the River Dee.

The greatest factor bringing about the relative decline of the port of Chester was the poor channel through the sands of the River Dee. Had the river been confined within a narrow estuary, as was to some extent the case with the Mersey, it is possible that navigation might have been very much easier, since the scour created by the flow of the Dee would have served to keep the channel relatively free; but the sands of the estuary were unconfined and tended to shift with every variation of wind and weather. There was another contributory factor: at one time the Dee Mills, owned by the earls of Chester, operated 11 waterwheels and the earls also constructed a weir across the river at Chester, which reduced both the tidal limit and the scour of the river. There were several times when attempts were made to have the weir removed so as to allow a better flow, but plans were always resisted by the owners or operators of the lucrative mills.

The difficulty of navigating such a devious and inconstant channel limited the trade of the port, for larger vessels were in constant danger of becoming beneaped and shipmasters and owners must have displayed increasing reluctance to risk the delay or loss of ships and cargoes. As early as the fourteenth century, ships with heavy cargoes had to unload below the City. In 1357, for example, slates for Chester Castle were unloaded at Shotwick, and millstones for the Dee Mills at Burton, where, in 1373, the ships to convey troops to Ireland were ordered to assemble. The building of the New Quay at Neston, starting in 1547, was the first serious attempt to cure the river's ills. By 1565 the work was incomplete when a major storm swept away much of the work. The port at Neston was never really finished due to shortage of funds and a bad choice of site.

Various schemes to improve the navigation of the Dee were proposed. In November 1695, Francis Gell, a London merchant, obtained a grant from the Crown of a tract of marsh and common twenty miles long and, in several places, six miles wide, mostly on the Flintshire shore of the Dee. In January 1696, Gell reached agreement with the city authorities to make the Dee navigable for vessels of 100 tonsIn 1699 Francis Gell's proposal was opposed by the inhabitants of Flintshire stated that there were "about 10 harbours and several docks upon the said river". Most of these harbours and docks must have been primitive structures, and little more than quays upon the river, but the number of places where vessels loaded and discharged does suggest that trade was extensively deployed, if not very considerable in volume. Almost every tidal waterway through the sands seems to have served as an outlet for local industry.

In 1670 it was proposed to make a channel on the Welsh side from just below the Watergate to Flint Castle from where a cut in the estuary bed would lead across to Parkgate. Pamphlets flew back and forth with various interested parties arguing the justice of their own case and the shortcomings of the plans of others. Eventually a route on the English side was proposed, but this appears to have failed. Other routes were apparently being developed at the time: in his "Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain", first published between 1724 and 1727, Daniel Defoe described the cheese routes from Cheshire down the Trent to Hull then by sea to London. Matters would come to head in 1732

In 1732 there were serious efforts to obtain another Act authorising improvements to navigation. It empowered Nathaniel Kinderley and his assigns to begin work by appointing undertakers to cut a new channel. One condition of the new act provided that, if Kinderley's channel did not provide access for cheese vessels drawing four feet of water, the commissioners appointed had power to order him or his undertakers to make a wet dock capable of holding at least twenty ships. The plan was now again for a cut on the Welsh side. Sea captains complained that the weakness of the scheme lay in the false hopes that the river would find a good deep channel for itself between Flint, and the Wirral coast, in the vicinity of Parkgate.

The wider political background at the time is important. To some extent this was due to the relics of the independence of the Palatinate and the peculiar independence of the City within that, as well as the absence of any Earls of Chester for much of this period. Cooke (writing between 1802 and 1829) sums up the history of these later earls as follows:

  • ...Arthur (son of king Henry the Seventh) was next created, who was succeeded by his brother Henry, in the year 1504. A long period was suffered to elapse ere the next earldom took place, which was in the person of Henry Frederic Stuart, son of James the First, in 1610; he dying without issue, Charles, his brother, succeeded, in 1616, afterwards Charles the First, who, 14 years after, transferred the earldom to his son Charles, afterwards Charles the Second. A period of more than 80 years elapsed, ere the next earldom was created; which was not till the present illustrious House of Hanover ascended the throne of the kingdom; when, in 1714, George, son of George the First, succeeded; and after him in 1728, Frederic, our second George’s eldest son; in his hands it remained till the year 1750, when his present majesty succeeded to it; and in 1762, it was translated to George Augustus Frederick, prince of Wales, his eldest son, the present earl.

In 1714, soon after George I had arrived in London after ascending to the throne, he dismissed the Tory cabinet and replaced it with one almost entirely composed of Whigs, as they were responsible for securing his succession. The election of 1715 saw the Whigs win an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons, and afterwards virtually all Tories in central or local government were purged, leading to a period of Whig ascendancy lasting almost fifty years during which Tories were almost entirely excluded from office. Many Tories still supported the Jacobite position and there had been a major rising in 1715. The Grosvenors were Tories (but only weakly Jacobite) and Thomas Grosvenor (3rd Baronet) had been elected in Chester several times. In effect, as regards Cheshire and Chester, the lack of an Earl had allowed both the county gentry and the city bourgeoisie to develop alonng somewhat independent lines. The Grosvenors were now poised to effectively replace the Earls with their own family.

Upon the third Baronet's death (1700) the youth of his sons precluded their immediate entry into politics, but in 1715 the Grosvenors re-entered local politics when Richard Grosvenor (4th Baronet) was elected. One of the political allies of the Grosvenors was Watkin Williams-Wynn who became MP for Denbighshire in 1716 and was a far more active member of the Tory Jacobite faction. His money and connections made Williams-Wynn a formidable local political power; in 1722, nine out of eleven Parliamentary seats in North Wales returned Tory candidates.

The opposition to the Grosvenors and his group of largely Tory country gentry were the Whig Freemen of the city who sought to reduce the influence of the Grosvenors on local affairs and maintain their own economic privileges. Despite this polarisation both sides were deeply factionalised.

The Case of the Cheesemongers

The improvement of the Dee was not to be plain-sailing. A chart of the mouth of the River Dee was prepared by mathematician and surveyor John Mackay in opposition to "A Bill to Recover and Preserve the Navigation of the River Dee, in the County Palatine of Chester, 11 June 1732". It is likely that the chart was commissioned by the London Cheesemongers, to accompany The "Case of the Cheesemongers", in and about the Cities of London and Westminster, relating to the Bill to recover and preserve the Navigation of the River Dee, in the County of Chester; the Cheesemongers conducted their trade through the port of "Parkgate" on the northerly approach, and they feared this route would become silted up by the new works.

"Flint from Parkgate" (published 1797) engraved by Walker after a drawing by Joseph Mallord William Turner. Flint, with its castle, is to the left of center and the smoke from the Gadlys Lead Smelting Works can be seen to the right of center. The large ship is in a typical mooring location for the "port" of Parkgate, and a small boat can be seen between the ship and the shore (between the two figures in the foreground).

There were other reasons why the two sides in the litigation were opposed. On the Cheesemongers side they had a monopoly on the supply of cheese into the London market, and the people of Chester complained that:

  • “Farmers in Cheshire are obliged to sell their cheese to the factors or brokers of the cheesemongers at their own price, upon trust, with very long credit ... One good end to be expected from this bill, will be the destroying of that monopoly.”

The smallish network of wealthy London Cheesemongers owned, rather than chartered, their twenty or so ships, with which they claimed to each make three voyages to London a year: thus maximising profit, and effectively controlling the entire market for cheese, forcing very harsh terms on the producers.

  • “The most considerable cheesemongers in London have formed themselves into a club. They are owners of about 16 ships which are employed between London, Chester and Liverpool. They employ these ships chiefly in bringing up cheese to London. They have factors in Cheshire who buy up the cheese for them and lodge it in their warehouses in Chester.”

From the aboveit can be seen that there is a clash of evidence as to exactly how the trade was conducted. The people of Cheshire were stating that the Factors terms included not paying for the cheese until it had been sold, and not paying for losses at sea, whereas the Factors were claiming that they were taking on the risk in transit. The real situation was probably a mixture of the two with contracts being verbal and argued over when the time for payment came. However one common ruse would be that the factor would refuse to recieve ther farmer's cheese until well after the agreed date, so that it had lost weight and became cheaper.

Then to add more confusion in July 1732 Sir Richard Grosvenor died, and his successor took gravely ill (and died soon after). Riots broke out in the run-up to the elections in October, and the mayor called for dragoons from Warrington to help restore order.

At Parkgate the cheese ships would frequently take on lead as ballast. This was smelted at Gadlys near Bagillt by the London Lead Company, but needed to be taken over the Dee for loading. There were significant local interests in the form of the Mostyns - with Sir Roger Mostyn being Lord of the Manor of Neston (which included Parkgate). The Lead Company was well aware that the boatage for the three mile crossing from Bagillt to Parkgate was 1s. 6d. a ton.

  • “... do now convey their lead ore, litharge and calamine to Bagillt Mark, lying upon the said river, from whence it is carried by boats and lighters to Parkgate, at present the safest harbour for ships within the said River Dee, and where the same is put aboard the cheese ships which take it in as ballast; to be conveyed to London.”

They were anxious that so heavy a commodity should not have to travel more than the shortest distance and were afraid that the River Dee Bill would cause cheese ships to deal directly with Chester, omitting Parkgate, and so increase the lead freight costs. The Bill was amended in their favour so that cheese "brought to and put on board such ships or vessels by boats or keels" outside the Cut, paid dues at a special rate, and lead was similarly protected.

Surveyor John Mackay seems to have genuinely believed that the plan to go down the Welsh side would be of detriment to Parkgate and his views were supported by other surveyors, who were keen to point out that a previous scheme involving Kinderley had caused flooding at Rye. In spite of the criticisms, work on the scheme continued with vigour. in April 1737, the river was diverted into the New Channel. This work of Kinderley seemed to offer great promise, but success or failure lay very much in the state of the channel below the exit from the New Channel, where the river was expected to carve out its own deep trough across to the Wirral side. The following year a new survey of the river was conducted and the state of the estuary had changed considerably with the navigation having become worse. A new "River Dee Company" was formed to try to correct problems in 1741, but the work was ineffective. Admiralty sailing instructions for Parkgate in 1794 advised:

  • "Vessels must lie aground on the beach below the houses, because the strength of the stream would make a vessel drag her anchor".

The canals (see: Canal and Boatyard) also provided an outlet for cheese from after the 1770's and again there were disputes between various parties as to who would control the lucrative trade. Eventually Whitchurch became a collection point for farms sending cheeses to market by boat. Canal boats collected cheese from farms on all parts where Cheshire was made but mainly from Shropshire. The bottom floor of the Shropshire Union Canal Warehouse was used for storing and checking the cheese. Once it had been examined, it would be sent on to Ellesmere Port docks and then on to Liverpool for export. The boats would leave Whitchurch on Wednesdays and arrive at Ellesmere Port on Fridays.

Despite these disadvantages, Parkgate remained a fashionable as a port for Ireland, and passengers preferred the easy access from Chester and accept 120 miles by sea to Dublin, as opposed to a difficult land journey to Holyhead followed by only sixty miles by sea.

The 1822 Hurricane

The Dee estuary can be a precarious anchorage as the following example demonstrates. On 5 December 1822, a storm developed, initially from the south and then veering north-east with extremely strong (hurricane force) gusts. There was much damage on land: roofs removed, walls collapsed and trees uprooted. Nelson Burt (nine-year-old son of Albin R. Burt) was one of those killed. The following report appeared in the Chester press:

  • The cheese Brig Britannia, John Nield, Master, which was driven ashore below Parkgate by the storm, in our River [Dee], on the Thursday evening. The Brig was loaded for London, with 105 tons of cheese, from Chester, 29 tons of ginger, 10 tons of raisins, etc; from Liverpool. They are getting the cheeses out as well as they can, but they are much damaged. Two flats arrived at Chester, with part of them. It much feared the ginger, etc. will not be got out, as the vessel is broken through the middle, and gets worse every tide. We have this moment a letter put into our hands from the Captain, stating the distressed state she is in. (All hands are saved). Great praise is due to the Captain, and Capt. P. Evans of the Mars, of the same trade, for their able and their very active assistance saving as much of the cargo as possible, and Mr. Win. for paying all attention to getting a number of hands to clear the cheese when landed at Chester by the lighters.
The once thriving port of Parkgate is now fronted by a saltmarsh which only rarely floods.

It is possible that the Britannia was refloated and repaired after being driven ashore although she is described as "broken" and does not appear in later Lloyd's Registers. Also a report claims that a vessel (erroneously thought to be the Packet Hero) had run aground on Salisbury Bank in the lower Dee Estuary during the storm on 5 December. This report might have arisen from confusing the Britannia with the Hero - they were both 2-masted vessels of around 100 tons burthen. The Britannia, with her 13 ft draught, might well have been moored for loading at Dawpool where there was deeper water - this is near Salisbury Bank.

How bad the Dee Navigation had become, was clearly indicated in tho minutes of evidence of the Tidal Harbours Commission in 1846. Sea-captains spoke unitedly of the difficulties; one claimed no knowledge of any-river so bad as the Chester River, and he would havo refused freights, were he not in, the cheese trade; another emphasised that it was unsafe at night; and a third was reminded that fifty years before, he "could then beat with cheese brigs up to Connah's Quay in a foul wind, at moderate spring tides"; but this was no longer possible. There were winners as well as losers: reclamation of land, and the new course of the river brought prosperity to the Shotton area, including a steelworks, on a scale it had never seen before. New farms were built on the highly fertile reclaimed land and industry was attracted to the area because of the "newly" navigable river.

The silting of the Dee was was exacerbated by the introduction of Spartina grass to the estuary in 1928 and has arisen mainly from net import of sediment from the Irish Sea, although erosion of the glacial till cliffs and the suspended load of the River Dee provide secondary sources. Modern data shows that flood tidal currents are stronger than ebb currents in most of the estuary, encouraging net sediment import and retention within the estuary. Residual currents within Liverpool Bay contribute to net landward transport of sand and silt into the estuary. The estuary is currently continuing to import sediment with saltmarshes showing vertical accretion of 2 to 8 mm/yr. The rate of marsh expansion near the estuary mouth has decreased in recent decades but accumulation of windblown sand continues to occur near the Point of Ayr and at Hoylake. The saltmarsh edge along the western side of the estuary is generally eroding where not protected by rock armour, but sedimentation continues in the sub‐tidal area around Mostyn Docks, which require regular maintenance dredging. Future sea level rise will tend to increase the tidal volume and, in the absence of compensating sedimentation, could cause the tidal channels to widen and/or deepen, leading to increased saltmarsh edge erosion along the Welsh side of estuary (where not protected) and further reduced marsh expansion on the Wirral shore. However, it would be unlikely to have a significant impact on the extent of saltmarsh as a whole, and any negative effect could be offset if the rate of sediment movement into the estuary.

It is impossible to say whether better management and less factional strife could have led to a situation where the port of Chester could have prospered more than it did, but it is clear that the interests of those involved in the cheese trade played a part in the events which transformed a relatively busy estuary into a hardly navigable nature reserve.

Cheese and Agriculture

It is also interesting to consider the extent to which the growth of cheese production brought about a partial "agricultural revolution" in Cheshire.

From the earliest times Cheshire has been described as grassland country, and it is often said that there was no more land under the plough than was necessary to feed stock - or as put in a local saying "the plough was the servant of the milk pail". This view appears to be based on the work of H. J Hewitt, who published his "Medieval Cheshire" in 1929 and who possibly based his argument on the work of William of Malmesbury which described the region around Chester as barren and unproductive of corn. This is now not thought to be the case, as there is now extensive evidence for ridge and furrow cultivation over much of Cheshire, showing that different forms of agriculture were practiced before the land was put down to pasture. Specialist dairy farming only appears to have emerged in the late middle ages, with cheese production only becoming predominant later. Hewitt's view may also have been influenced by his perception of the modern landscape as being somewhat unchanged from earlier times, whereas in fact the "natural" landscape has been significantly modified.

LIDAR shows the remains of a rectangular Roman camp at Stamford Heath in the Gowy valley just outside of Chester, and "ridge and furrow" remnants in the adjacent field. Close inspection of the LIDAR imagery shows that the ridge and furrow are crossed by a broad trackway (or possibly a buried water-main). To the right the marks are interupted by a "marl-pit", but follow the same line on either side, showing they are of an earlier date.

The modern landscape is in origin a landscape of enclosure and very high levels of dispersed settlement (as in the southern half of the adjacent Lancashire Plain), with blocks of more large-scale and regular enclosure such as on the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge and in areas profoundly affected by farm amalgamation and the activities of estates. Traditionally – and since the 14th century – cattle rearing and fattening has taken place in the north of the county and dairying in the south and west where soils are heaviest. By the 16th century families with 10 to 50 acres and generous common rights formed the stable core of Cheshire’s rural communities. In the forests of Macclesfield and Delamere a different system of grassland farming was adopted, where both cattle and sheep were reared and forest husbandry employed. During the 17th century red clover gradually improved the nutritional value of Cheshire grasslands. It appears to have been introduced from the Netherlands. Clover can triple the amount of available nitrogen in the soil and substantially enrich pasture. The nitrogen fixing bacteria in the clover and other plants have a narrow tollerance for acidity, so "marling" would be practiced on acid soils.

Marling was the excavation and spreading of carbonate-rich deposits on fields. It is a laborious process that involves digging out and spreading the naturally occurring lime-rich sub soils, or marls, that underlie much of Cheshire. It was carried out by a group of five or six men under a leader known as “The Lord of the Pit”. The marl remained effective for about twenty years before "sinking". The "marlers" had a folklore and culture of their own, with many marling poems, songs and dances. The once-a-generation marling gangs were accustomed to ask for gifts of money, which Ormerod states was spent in the local inn with much ceremony. The Lord of the Pit, on gaining the gift (even of a few coppers) would shout "OYEZ! OYEZ! OYEZ! This is to give notice that Mr------- has given us Marlers part of £100 and to whosoever will do the same, we will give thanks and shout". Then, like the harvesters, the rest of the gang would join hands and shout "Largess, Largess!". Gifts of more than sixpence were praised as "part of £1000". The whole ceremony would be repeated in the local inn prior to the money being spent on ale. Christina Hole in her "Traditions and Customs of Cheshire" records some of the songs of the marling gangs and she adds the fact that marling customs included may-poles, bull-baiting, dances in barns, "sword dancers" and processions of (supposed) virgins with garlands.

Many of these marling holes became farm pits from which stock could be watered. Pits were also dug near farmsteads to assist in ‘swilling out’ the shippons and to provide water for stall-fed stock during the winter. Agricultural developments to meet the demand for cheese were spearheaded by large farms (including tenants renting them from the demesnes of gentry) and estates, notable features being a massive increase in the dairy herd sustained by improvements in the management of cows and pastures, and the development through amalgamation and enclosure of ring-fenced dairy farms.


A roan shorthorn heifer. The breed originated in the North East of England in the late eighteenth century. The breed was developed as dual-purpose, suitable for both dairy and beef production; however, certain blood lines within the breed always emphasised one quality or the other. Over time, these different lines diverged, and by the second half of the twentieth century, two separate breeds had developed.

One economic difficulty with the production of cheese as a source of wealth is that there are clear limits to growth. Land used for tillage can be turned over to pasture for cheese production, and some improvement of land by the use of marl or other fertilizer is possible, but land is a finite resource and can be over-grazed. There are economies of scale but the one applied in Cheshire was the concentration of land-holding in fewer hands having a plurality of tennants. The actual business of cheese production was left to these tennant farmers with the only interventions of land-owners sometimes being little more than the collection of rent. However, given that the land-owners were generally local they did have a better integration with the farmers than in some other places.

In addition, the landed gentry of Cheshire were often involved in complex Fee tail trusts involving the land, to ensure that the social standing of the family, as represented by a single patriarch, continued indefinitely. These arrangements established by a deed or settlement which restrictrd the sale or inheritance of an estate in real property and prevented the property from being sold, devised by will, or otherwise alienated by the tenant-in-possession, and instead caused it to pass automatically by operation of law to an heir determined by the settlement deed. An entail also had the effect of disallowing illegitimate children from inheriting. It created complications for many of the lesser propertied families, especially from about the late 17th to the early 19th century, leaving many individuals wealthy in land but heavily in debt.

The tennant farmers formed a class beneath the landowners and had varied rights as regards passing on their tennancy to sons. By custom, a tenant who worked the land well could expect to be able to keep his farm to the end of his working life and then pass it on to a younger generation, whether his son or another relation, and the level of continuity suggests that few had greater social aspirations. Beneath the farmers were the farm servants and labourers who typically had very few rights.

Chamber's Book of days (1864) is a much quoted work but is often problematic as a source because it does not give its own sources except in a few places. It is therefore difficult to determine whether the information given is reliable. One such section is that under December 24th for farm labourers. Chambers states that:

  • "From a contributor to Notes and Queries, we learn that on Christmas Eve, in the town of Chester and surrounding villages, numerous parties of singers parade the streets, and are hospitably entertained with meat and drink at the different houses where they call. The farmers of Cheshire pass rather an uncomfortable season at Christmas, seeing that they are obliged, for the most part, during this period, to dispense with the assistance of servants. According to an old custom in the county, the servants engage themselves to their employers from New-Year's Eve to Christmas Day, and then for six or seven days, they leave their masters to shift for themselves, while they (the servants) resort to the towns to spend their holidays. On the morning after Christmas Day hundreds of farm-servants (male and female) dressed in holiday attire, in which all the hues of the rainbow strive for the mastery, throng the streets of Chester, considerably to the benefit of the tavern-keepers and shop-keepers. Having just received their year's wages, extensive investments are made by them in smock frocks, cotton dresses, plush-waistcoats, and woolen shawls. Dancing is merrily carried on at various public-houses in the evening. In the whole of this custom, a more vivid realization is probably presented than in any other popular celebration at Christmas, of the precursor of these modern jovialities—the ancient Roman Saturnalia, in which the relations of master and servant were for a time reversed, and universal license prevailed."
Cheesemaking equipment as featured in Palin's report on Cheshire Farming.

However this annual influx of droves of farm-workers is not represented in the vast majority of other works, including that of the farmer Palin (cited below). In many places in east Cheshire the hiring year was from October to October, and while Hole mentions hiring from January 2nd to the following Boxing Day, she does not give her source either - it may be Chambers. Counties for which data is available have types of agriculture which is quite different from that of Cheshire, and the records which are available show that yearly hiring may have been a relatively short a short-lived phenomenon which occurred at a time when farming was becoming intensified and labour was scarce due to migration to industrial districts.

What we do know about the economics is that it was quite marginal for a small farm at or close to subsistence level. A 25-acre dairy farm devoted to cheese functioned with 9 cross-bred Cheshire short-horns, 2 yearling heifers, 2 heifer calves, 10 pigs and 20 hens. The labor force were the farmer, his wife and a boy (at £6 a year) and girl (at £4 a year) living-in. Another £5 a year would be spent on part-labour, totalling £15 a year. Rent would be possibly a little above £40 a year and additional feed the same. So the total outgoings would be c£100. The dairy herd would bring in c.£120, leading to the farmer earning about £20 a year and his landlord about twice that. Whilst tenants might be allowed to run up arrears in poor years (these arrears were rarely paid off), this provided only a limited cushion to protect the farmer from output and price volatility. In short, the landlord’s rent had a higher claim on farm income before the tenant’s return on his capital. Despite this land-owners did spend money on improving their land such as by dusting with fertilizer or putting in drains and in some cases improved their estates by building schools.

The largest landowner in Cheshire in 1871 was John Tollemache of Peckforton, with 25,380 acres, followed by the Marquess of Cholmondeley (16,842 acres), the Duke of Westminster (15,001 acres), Sir Henry Delves Broughton of Doddington (13,832 acres) and Lord Crewe (10,148 acres). Between them these five men owned 13.3 per cent of Cheshire. Thus for much of Cheshire great estates were still the rule, and the structure of local society, the character of agriculture, and the location and design of build­ing were all determined by the policies of landowners. The imprint of this is still fundamental to the Cheshire landscape, even though many of the estates have been broken up or reduced in size, many of the families no longer live in their ancestral homes, and some of the houses are themselves no more.


The Balderton Cheese Factory built in 1874–75 for the 1st Duke of Westminster. There had been some English interest in "factory" methods starting in the late 1860's but in Cheshire the traditional methods were hung on to. It was felt that an average product would pull the better quality producers down and that sending milk away to make cheese would mean the end of the pig side of the dairy.

By 1850, Cheshire cheese was being overtaken in popularity by Cheddar from Somerset, and over the following decades there was also increasing competition from cheeses made in the Netherlands and America. Cheshire dairies began to adopt modern production practices pioneered by Somerset innovator, Joseph Harding, but were slow to adopt industrial cheese-making practices developed in America. Some cheese factories were built such as the Balderton Cheese Factory built in 1874–75 for the 1st Duke of Westminster in a village on his Eaton Hall estate. It was designed by the Chester architect John Douglas. A newspaper account from 1943 refers to change that happened in 1875 to the way the cheese was made. This was the shift from a slow ripening variety that held a lot of material as inventory to the variety which could be brought to market without a long period of storage:

  • “Mr W.H. Ankers, Walpole Street, Chester, and formerly of Oscroft Tarvin, is 90, but his complexion is that of a man thirty years younger. His eyes twinkle and his step is brisk. He is a man of parts. As a retired cheese factor he knows more about the Cheshire cheese trade than most people and he was for many years a follower of hounds…. Mr Ankers started business on his own account with premises in Manchester. Once a month he went to Chester, staying at the Blossoms Hotel. In those days many people connected with the trade did not go to bed for the cheese fair opened at 3 a.m. and continued until 10 a.m. Mr Ankers recalls how he used to stay up chatting until breakfast was served. Then in all weathers, they would make their way to the fair. He regretted the change of make of Cheshire cheese which became fashionable in 1875. Up to then the county made a fine long-keeping cheese but it became fashionable to make an early ripening variety which was not in the interest of the industry. In fact, some farmers suffered heavy financial loss. The value of cheese in a short time dropped from 80s a cwt. to 35s and 40s a cwt….” (Recollections of Cheshire Cheese Fairs. Crewe, Cheshire, England: The Crewe Chronicle. Saturday, 9 October 1943. Page 3, col. 6)

Whiile Cheshire cheese was made in the adjoining counties (and in Somerset) the farmers in Cheshire itself seem to have taken a particular pride in their cheese. When the Royal Agricultural Show was held in Hoole in June 1893 the first prize for Cheshire Cheese was won by farmer Thomas Houlbrooke, Calverley Farm, Tarporley and of the 32 class prizes 27 were taken away by Cheshire farmers (among which Houlbrooke had 12 of the second prizes).

The Duke of Westminster's farmers were a considerable source of cheese.

The proximity to rapidly growing urban centres, together with the expanding railway network, also led to an increase in the production of milk for sale during this period, although cheese remained the county's major dairy product. Epidemics of cattle disease, including foot and mouth disease in 1839, several outbreaks of pleuropneumonia, and rinderpest (cattle plague) in 1865–66, led to the formation of numerous friendly societies and mutual associations to provide assistance to farmers; several were sponsored by the landowners of the county's major estates, particularly Cholmondeley, Crewe and Peckforton. A short-lived cattle insurance company was also established in Knutsford in 1865. The 1865–66 rinderpest epidemic affected much of England but was particularly devastating in Cheshire; entire herds died and the county's economy collapsed for 18 months.

The "rinderpest" cattle plague of 1865-66 left the county of Cheshire in debt for thirty years, and the strains arising from both the epidemic itself and the need to repay the debts incurred sharpened feelings between farmers and other sections of the community. The outbreak stemmed from a group of infected cattle imported into Hull from the Baltic in May 1865. Although the outbreak had taken hold in other areas by June 1865, it was October before it reached Cheshire, but once there it raged until the middle of 1866. From then on fewer cases were reported each month until the end of the year. The disease was almost uniformly fatal and affected 68% of cattle in Cheshire, which had largely dairy based agriculture. In all, the county lost 84,159 beasts through death by disease or preventative slaughter.

Because Cheshire was affected far more than any other county, feelings ran strongly, and in particular there were the questions of who was to blame for the disaster and who was to bear the cost. Estimates vary but total loss of stock amounted to more than 66,000 head, and it was necessary to obtain from the Treasury a loan of £270,000 on the security of the county rate, for purposes of relief and compensation. The 1865 outbreak of cattle plague was claimed by Cheshire churchmen to be divine retribution for the sin of making cheese on a Sunday, leading to Cheshire cheeses being marketed as "made without Sunday labour" or described as "Monday Cheese".

Cheese and Industry

That Chester did not develop its industry in certain ways as other market towns did has led commentators to argue that the city was an industrial "failure". Similar arguments for "failure" can be made out for Bristol where writers have cited competition from Liverpool (beginning around 1760), disruptions of maritime commerce due to war with France (1793) and the abolition of the slave trade (1807) as having contributed to Bristol's failure to keep pace with the newer manufacturing centres of Northern England and the West Midlands. Comparisons with other county centers and market towns, such as Worcester show a pattern of development similar to Chester and perhaps there is an element of prejudice in some of the commentators who were writing at the time when industrial development, in the form of construction of large mills and factories was seen as the only measure of "progress".

House on the corner of Dee Lane and Foregate Street, possibly including elements of the home of Charles Walley. It was captured during the Civil War (and with it the civic sword and mace) and became the parliamentarian commander Brereton's forward headquarters. Royalist Walley is rumoured to have sent information to the parliamentarians towards the end of the seige and afterwards eventually became the agent for the government involved with both the payment for the diet of troops in Chester and the provision of local cheese to troops in Scotland. Prior to the Civil War he appears to have been the innkeeper at the Red Lion in Foregate Street.

However, the cheese trade can be seen to have many characteristics of a modern industrial market system. These included:much greater regional specialization in the production of cheese, with corresponding increases in the volumes of cheese manufactured and in the average distances that products travelled in order to reach the end consumer; the introduction of intermediaries—cheese factors and cheesemongers— specializing in the purchase, transportation, and wholesaling of large volumes of cheese; modifications to products and production practices in order to satisfy the requirements of cheese factors and consumers; the introduction of regulatory regimes to protect commercial interests; and changes in consumption patterns, as the country’s urbanized population became increasingly accustomed to the principal varieties. Other "industrial" features of the cheese trade include forward purchase of materials. However, notwithstanding the changes in distribution and consumption, and the ways in which some aspects of production was adapted to the new market environment, the underlying techniques of cheese-making remained resolutely artisanal. Even on the commercial cheese-making farms, there was still a considerable reliance on traditional working practices, localized knowledge and manual labor. The cheese dairy continued to be closely integrated with other farm enterprises, notably pig-rearing on whey. Unfortunately, the "industry" only existed because its raw material, milk, could not be transported any significant distance for separate sale.

The debate can be divided broadly into two theories to account for the city’s apparent "failure" to fully or even partly "industrialise" (and even these seem to disregard the development of the Leadworks and its role as a railway hub).

Firstly, there is what might be termed the "transport geography argument". This model proposes that the progressive silting of the Dee estuary led to the decline of the port of Chester in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in consequence starving the city of investment in transatlantic-related industries and infrastructure at the expense of its rival, Liverpool. Attempts to revitalise the port through the canalisation of the Dee channel, the building of the Chester Canal and the expansion of the port and canal basin were a failure due to a mixture of poor management, political inertia, the expansion of competitors such as Liverpool and Whitehaven, the growth of other forms of transport and changes in coastal geography. The cheese trade was involved with some of these aspects, with the London Cheesemongers being frequently opposed to any attempt to meddle with the course of the river. The Cheesemongers also had alternative routes to get their produce out, via the docks at Frodsham (built c.1670 for cheese) and later along the canal system. The development of the canal system after 1770 allowed new areas to supply cheese economically to London. It also gave Cheshire cheese access to new markets in growing industrial centres like the Potteries and Birmingham.

While Victorian milk could be a hazard, so could cheese. The 1857 treatise by Arthur Hill Hassall recorded the addition of red lead to cheese. The Farmers Directory argued that this was due to series of blunders. Other sources suggest that adulterated colouring, which was a significant expense to the farmer, was at times quite widespread.

Secondly, there is the "landed-interest opposition model", where it has been argued that Chester’s failure to fully industrialise in the nineteenth century was influenced by active opposition from major landowners in and adjacent to the city. These landowners included representatives of the local gentry and religious elite who held large estates immediately to the north and south of the city and had significant influence on the city council. This influential group included the dean and chapter of the cathedral, the Earl of Kilmorey, the Earl of Shrewsbury, the Grosvenor family, William Hamilton and Lord Howe. Documentary evidence indicates that during the mid- to late nineteenth century they actively discouraged industrialisation on their lands (Herson 1996a; Lewis & Thacker eds 2003, 177–9). Instead, they supported redevelopment schemes that focussed upon Chester’s traditional roles as an administrative, elite social and retail centre, especially higher-class housing and retail outlets. A variant of this theory points to the monopolistic nature of the guild system in Chester which discouraged the entry of external industrialists.

Both of these theories fail to consider cheesemaking as an industry, with specialised producers, purchasers, distributors and wholesalers to eventual consumers.

The shift to milk

The county was surrounded by growing urban areas to the north, south-east, and west, and the agricultural economy during the 19th century became closely tied to supplying the demands of a vast urban market. Changes in farming to accommodate those demands reached a crucial phase around mid century, the key being improved accessibility to markets brought about by the expanding rail network. Cheese became relatively less important but its sale price seems to have risen from the 1830s to a peak c. 1860. Liquid milk increasingly replaced cheese from the 1840s, and market garden produce was also more important in the Chester area, though some of the development predated the railway. Disposing of milk meant a reduced workload and a more regular income. Farm productivity improved, rents rose, and rent arrears fell. All the indicators suggest an increasingly prosperous rural economy.

However, although Chester's rural hinterland became generally more prosperous, wealth was not evenly distributed. Prospects for farm labourers probably worsened as farms became more capital-intensive and as liquid milk became more important at the expense of crops demanding more, if seasonal, labour. Farm labourers were forced off the land, and in Cheshire as a whole their number fell by 17.1 per cent between 1851 and 1871: the time that Chambers was writing of in his Book of Days. Many people left the area east and south-east of Chester, where the population stagnated at c. 17,000. Between the 1860s and 1914, national butter and cheese production declined by 40 percent while liquid milk production quadrupled. The shift to milk sales was not without its downside: adulteration and lack of sanitary storage and conveyance of milk, both reduced its value as a source of nuitrition, especially for children, and made it a major cause of often fatal diseases. The addition of only ten per cent of water increased profit by forty per cent. It was estimated that seventy-four per cent of milk was adulterated with water, in a ratio of anything from ten to fifty per cent water to milk; an 1863 report claimed milk had been diluted by the addition of water four to six times” making it “nutritionally deficient in both vitamins A and D, so rickets became common among working class children”. In addition, flies attracted to the improperly protected milk spread “gastritis and enteritis which killed one-third of infants before 1914”. Finally, Mycobacterium bovis spread tuberculosis.


The problems of hygiene, adulteration and cattle disease were largely overcome. Around the turn of the century, there were efforts to improve the prospects of farm-based cheese-making. Agricultural societies and local councils helped to set up dairy education courses, including itinerant schools that visited local farms, in part with the aim of preserving traditional rural skills. By the 1920s, and after more than five decades’ experience, English consumers were fully accustomed to imported factory-produced cheese. As a relatively cheap, and increasingly uniform product, the New Zealand and Canadian Cheddars matched the requirements of the new multiple food retailers, such as Liptons and Maypole Dairies, whose business models were based on consistently-packaged and branded mass-market products. Another approach was adopted in the late 1920s, when the English Cheddar Cheese Federation, and its Cheshire counterpart introduced voluntary grading schemes, similar to those previously established in exporting countries such as New Zealand, whereby farm cheese was assessed by independent inspectors. Farms still accounted for 75 percent of output, with only 18 percent coming from specialist cheese factories and the balance from milk distributors.

There is evidence of 405 farms making Cheshire cheese in 1939, but the Second World War resulted in the end of cheese production on farms and was only re-started at the end of rationing in 1953 by the Milk Marketing Board. In the intervening post war years, imported cheese was freely available "off ration" and helped to create a market for such cheese at the expense of traditional British varieties.

Sources and Links

Manufacturing Cheshire cheese in England (chromolitho) by European School. This Liebig card, was published in late 19th or early 20th century, from a series on cheese. For most Cheshire cheese made in England this would have been an innaccurate description as production remained largely artisanal with the work being performed by women.

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