By Gail Falkingham, Record Assistant
Hird’s Annals are a rich source of local and social history for the North Yorkshire market town of Bedale and surrounding areas. They provide a fascinating insight into daily life in the first half of the 19th century. Robert Hird, a local shoemaker, wrote them between c.1808 and his death in 1841. What makes them stand out from other journals and diaries in our collections is that they are written in verse.
The annals are a rare survival, written in two notebooks and a small diary. They found their way into the archives of the Beresford-Peirse family, who have been resident in Bedale since the 15th century and were major landowners in the area in the 17th century. Their family archive was deposited with the County Record Office in 1951 [ref: ZBA].
ZBA 27/1/17-19 The notebooks and diary which are together known as ‘Hird’s Annals of Bedale’
The town of Bedale lies in the former North Riding of Yorkshire, seven miles to the south west of Northallerton on Bedale Beck, a tributary of the River Swale. The village of Aiskew lies across the Beck to the east.
Robert Hird (1768-1841) and his family lived in Emgate in Bedale all their lives. As one of the local shoemakers, he would have known most, if not all, of the inhabitants of the town. Around the year 1808, he began to write his autobiography with a general history of his family. Over the next thirty years, this expanded into a collection of tales and reminiscences about the history of the town and surrounding area, the daily life of the inhabitants and their local environment.
Hird’s area of interest extends to a radius of about ten miles from Bedale, the distance he could walk in a day. This encompasses the neighbouring villages of Aiskew, Leeming, Snape, Firby and Great and Little Crakehall, Kirkby Fleetham, Pickhill, Masham, Well, Thornton Watlass and Patrick Brompton amongst others. On occasion, he also travelled further afield to the towns of Richmond and Ripon.
Hird’s Annals of Bedale
The rather tattered and worn appearance of these notebooks belies the content within. The pages are filled with beautiful handwriting, neatly organised and painstakingly written in closely spaced straight lines. This was most likely the result of a process of neatly writing up or copying from other notes. A typical page is comprised of the verse on the left hand side of the page, with additional notes and information relating to the verse on the right hand side, often in much smaller writing tightly squeezed onto the page.
The verse is written in quatrains, a type of stanza or poem consisting of four lines in which alternate lines rhyme. Each quatrain is numbered, as are the pages. The whole work comprises three parts, each of which contains a thousand quatrains, making a total of three thousand in all.
The content of the verse is wide and varied. Hird writes about his childhood and the changes he has seen throughout his life, about his relatives and family occasions, and about births, marriages and deaths, especially the latter! He talks about his neighbours, who lived where, their occupations, trades and crafts. Hird describes the weather, who sat where in church, and what they wore. He notes the construction of new buildings in the town, the new bridge in 1828 and the introduction of new gas lighting. He mentions the town’s inns and public houses, the meeting of the court leet and describes local events and festivals, morris dancing and processions. In 1824, the coming of the circus to town with a fully-grown lion is recorded, as are eminent visitors such as the Duke of Sussex, who came to Bedale on 24th October 1827.
National events, including the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838 are noted. There is also an element of humour in some of his writing, for example when, during the Easter fair on 12th April 1814, a carriage transporting an elephant tipped over whilst crossing the beck. Hird describes how all the townsfolk had to come help to rescue the poor animal.
There is a vivid description of the activities one bonfire night, with a note alongside recording that
Gate and stack rails did fuel make, Nothing they thought too good, Unto the fire they ought did take, So as it was but wood.
Simpson’s cowhouse they set on fire, We saw it to the town, The blazing flames did high aspire, In haste the folks ran down.
I once did see an aged man, Squire Frankland did employ, With water in pail he came, The bonefire to destroy.
p.103, Volume I, Quatrains 282-284
It is now 1839, and bonefires have been suppressed in almost every town in England through the passing of the Catholic emancipation bill, but the boys of Bedale are still indulged in their favourite amusement on the 5th of November. The bells have ceas’d to ring on that day, ever since the year 1828.
Buildings and environment
The appearance and rebuilding of properties within the town are described in verse on the left and his notes on the right even provide archaeological observations of the remains of former buildings
I think I here may safely say, All houses near as one, One story high; Roof windows they, Into the chambers shone.
I cannot think in all the town, That houses more than one, Hath e’er in wall two stories shewn, But now that house is gone.
It was the White Horse publick house, The framework was of oak, Both strong and fit for any use, Many it did provoke.
To see such timber taken down, And there; to build a wall, Which greatly does disgrace the town, A chagrin it’s to all.
p.179, Volume I, Quatrains 48-51
In the year 1839 Robert Eels, in cutting a drain across the market place, from the South grate at Emgate end to Mr Blyth’s cellar (third house South of the Wind) he was greatly obstructed by two stone walls which lay hid under the pavement. And a few years before Robt Johnson, in making the drain from the same grate to the Wind, took up the North foundation and doorway which had been the entrance of Grace and Mary Smith’s house, which was taken down in 1762.
On the same page, the quatrains describe the local environment:
There then grew ling upon the site, With all its pretty flow’r, On which the bees do take delight, For there they get great store.
Plenty of whin and butcher’s broom, Did then grow all around, Wild flow’rs too of diff’rent bloom, All o’er the ground was found.
The little hills grew the wild thyme, Where bees delight to sip, Beedale, to call the town, was prime, The name was just the tip.
p.179, Volume I, Quatrains 44-46
There are descriptions of some of the local characters of the town, such as ‘old Kit’, Christopher Collison the blacksmith:
Johnson’s bakehouse is clear’d away, The old wood bridge is down, And stone one built, it’s carriage way Betwixt each village town.
We pass’d the bridge, all things were fine, Not what was won’t to be, When old Kit, he kept gamecock’s prime, And had his old Smithy.
Blacksmith by trade was Collison, Great cockfighter was he, Terry, and Wray, and John Pearson, Such was the company.
p.139, Volume II, Quatrains 171-173
As can be seen from our very first blog post, Surviving the pandemic, outbreaks of plague and disease were not uncommon in the past. Hird recounts an outbreak of typhus, an infectious disease spread by body lice, and the measures taken to avoid people meeting up in Bedale on market days:
It says, the plague did greatly rage, And that in Bedale town, And neighbouring people did engage, The market to disown.
And they agreed, market to hold, Where the white cross doth stand, And merchandise it there was sold, So is the story plan’d.
Be it a truth, or be’t a lie, There’s one thing we do know, For many years have not gone by, Since Typus laid men low.
And it was not in Bedale town, But did in Aiskew rage, Then bills were posted up and down, That folks should not engage.
On market days, or otherwise, At Bedale for to come, Tradition does me here assuage, For t’truth, that there is room.
Then Bedale was a crowded place, Houses did crowd the town, And no conduits, the town to grace, The sludge quite open run.
An epidemic at such a time, Had plenty it to feed, But now we’ve neither sludge or slime, From pestilence thus freed.
pp.146-7, Volume II, Quatrains 249-254
The Plan of Bedale
At the time Hird was writing, in the first half of the 19th century, Bedale Beck provided water power for a number of local industries. This included several mills, as well as weaving, dying, fulling and tanning trades.
Aspects of these industries are shown on a charming watercolour plan of part of the town. This plan features within the pages of Volume II of the annals, the only deviation from the hundreds of pages of handwriting which are to be found throughout the notebooks.
The left hand page of the plan depicts Bedale Beck, the mill and the dyers platform, off which Hird notes “young Nixon was drowned about the year 1762”. To the left of the mill are Nixon’s yard and orchard, flanked by Francis Whitling’s dye house and Nixon’s house on Emgate end. A horse is drinking from the water, and a man is shown fishing in “the old wath as in the year 1780”, near to “the old bridge, as in 1828”. To the right of the mill, the mill garth, the dyers stream, stones and bye beck are labelled.
The right hand page of the plan shows the road to the dye house, the press house and dwelling house with Mr Longhorn’s garden to the front. The great stone causeway leads to the old elm tree on Aiskew bank. Below this, at the foot of the page are Wells’ house, Richardson’s house, Corbitt’s house and coopers shop with garden, and an area of wasteland upon which a horse is grazing. Various individuals and livestock are also depicted.
There is an early plan of Bedale and Aiskew dated c. 1772 within the Beresfore-Peirse collection, which provides a useful comparison with the features on Hird’s plan. From this, Hird’s plan can be seen to be remarkably accurate in its detail. Today, the area looks very different due to the building of the railway in 1855, and other modern development.
The 1808 Diary
This tiny, leather-bound diary, like modern diaries, contains a variety of general information for the year 1808, as well as some light verse, songs and instructions for country dances. Hird has used it to keep notes on past and current events. He has, for example, listed the names of all the rectors of the parish of Bedale from 1570 to 1797, by whom they were presented and, for some, the year they died.
Hird’s Annals of Bedale are an essential resource for anyone interested in the history of Bedale and surrounding area, and for those researching the social history of the first half of the 19th century. That Robert Hird spent much of his adult life compiling the information, and composing the verse is a notable achievement. This rare survival of the writings of a working man, his reminiscences and observations on daily life and the world around him, makes fascinating reading.
Here is a short video of Gail talking about Hird’s Annals.
A fully indexed transcription of Hird’s Annals is available to purchase from our online shop
Hird’s Annals of Bedale, from the papers of Robert Hird, 1768-1841, shoemaker of Bedale, North Riding, Yorkshire, edited by Lesley Lewis, with drawings by Kathleen Ashcroft, 1975, North Yorkshire County Record Office Publication No. 2.
Hird’s Annals feature as the ‘Gem from the Archive’ in the October 2020 edition of Who Do You Think You Are? magazine (pp. 50-51, Issue 170).