Lancaster nostalgia: poultry keeping

Poultry Farming in Lancaster. Newton Rigg Agricultural College, Penrith, 1930.
Poultry Farming in Lancaster. Newton Rigg Agricultural College, Penrith, 1930.

In a one-off special, Wray historian David Kenyon looks back at poultry keeping across Lancaster

Britain saw a dramatic expansion in poultry keeping from the 1880s onwards.

Poultry Farming in Lancaster. Harry Dodgsons joiners workshop, Hornby, 1959.

Poultry Farming in Lancaster. Harry Dodgsons joiners workshop, Hornby, 1959.

This was in response to the increasing availability of imported processed poultry feed and the availability of cheap, imported timber from Canada and America.

By the early years of the 20th century most farmers kept hens for their own use. The surplus eggs would be sold at local markets or collected by egg dealers to sell in nearby towns.

Poultry keeping as a part-time occupation was also much practised in Lancashire at this time and Wray had several workers who subsidised their income in this way.

Land for hen huts could be rented from local farmers or smallholdings purchased for the rearing of poultry.

Poultry Farming in Lancaster. Disused poultry cabin, Roeburndale West, 2007.

Poultry Farming in Lancaster. Disused poultry cabin, Roeburndale West, 2007.

The poultry would be fed and watered in the morning before the part-time poultry keeper went to work and the process repeated on his return in the evening.

In the dark winter months the keeper would use paraffin burning ‘storm lanterns’ for this task. Thus enabling them to see more clearly as he went from hut to hut.

Larger tasks, such as the cleaning of the huts, could be carried out during the weekends.

Up until the start of the Second World War, most larger poultry keepers hatched their own eggs in incubators on the farm.

However, the opportunity to buy day-old chicks from specialist hatcheries was becoming more popular.

The railway network enabled these chicks to be delivered all over the country.

When the keeper received the day-old chicks, they were placed in a ‘hover’. This piece of equipment was fitted with a paraffin burner to give warmth to the small chicks.

Later the ‘hay box brooder’ was used which used hay to provide the insulation to keep the chicks warm.

During the Second World War the government introduced restrictions on the number of poultry which could be kept.

Poultry feed was rationed and the use of timber for building poultry houses was stopped. It was not until timber rationing ended in the early 1950s that there was a resurgence of poultry keepers.

Although fashion always played a part in poultry keeping, with systems gaining popularity one year and being out of favour the next, the overarching principle of the traditional poultry system was to rear the birds in a strong and healthy condition.

Giving the birds access to plenty of fresh air and exercise was an essential element of the process.

However, by the end of the war years more cost effective farming methods were being introduced. Larger buildings, known as the deep-litter system, started to become more popular during the 1950s.

This method was less labour-intensive as the buildings were only cleaned once a year and could contain up to 1,000 birds.

The deep-litter system eventually gave way to the modern-day battery system.

The traditional poultry keeper still existed but found that unless he had thousands of birds, it was difficult to compete with large scale operations and was no longer a profitable occupation.

In late 1959, after completing my national service, I went to work for Parker Foxcroft.

Parker Foxcroft was a local joiner and builder, who had a workshop in Wray village.

By this time the construction of farmer-size poultry cabins had come to an end. But fortunately our links with the poultry industry were not yet over.

Around 1960 Sterling Chicks built a large hatchery behind Felstead’s house at High Bentham. This hatchery was built by Harold Slinger and Son of Bentham, with the joinery work and roof by Parker Foxcroft of Wray.

This building was much larger than anything we had worked on before. It was around 120ft long by 100ft wide. During the construction a severe gale occurred one evening, causing considerable damage by blowing over one of the gables.

We erected the steel roof trusses using the old method of a single timber pole, with a block and tackle to lift the trusses to roof level.

In 2016 the former hatchery was demolished with the land being used for housing.

The last link with the British poultry industry that we worked on was around 1962-63. Parker Foxcroft received an order from William Norris of Strands Farm, Hornby, for two very large timber poultry houses.

These were to be used for supplying hatching eggs to Thornbers of Mytholmroyd, near Halifax.

At this time Thornbers were possibly the largest supplier of day-old chicks in the country.

By the end of the 1960s the collection of hatching eggs was in decline.

So when Mr Norris needed a new use for his redundant poultry houses, he found they made excellent buildings for rearing calves.

Today, smart new office buildings have been built where these poultry rearing houses once stood.

The small poultry keeper has not entirely disappeared. There has recently been a resurgence of domestic poultry keeping, as anyone who visits a local agricultural show will have seen.

On sale are many small huts and arks.

Some are made of plastic to enable people to keep a few hens, providing eggs for their own use.

Today, even among the very large egg producers, there has been a move away from the highly intensive systems of the past to a more traditional free range method of poultry keeping.