Barry McKay: sheep type
Rough Fell Typography: The Shepherds’ Guides of Cumbria.
I would like to begin by reminding those of you who know, and informing those of you who don’t that Cumbria is a county whose newspapers have ‘spot the sheepdog’ rather than ‘spot the football’ competitions. It hosts the world championships in both lie-telling and face pulling (Gurning as it is technically called), and whose most esteemed sportsmen wrestle each other while wearing embroidered long-johns. It is the county that claims the highest mountain, deepest lake, smallest house and biggest liar in the country. It also has more sheep than people.
‘The printing of these uncommon books is an exceedingly difficult and tedious task, so much so, in fact, that some of the few who have been through its throes declare that it nearly broke their hearts.’
Thus wrote R H Lamb in 1935 in an article in The Whitehaven News. Lamb was touching on the technical difficulties that faced the compositors and printers of the shepherds’ guides of the lake counties. The books he was discussing are not guides to the effective breeding, care, and management of sheep. Rather they are detailed catalogues of the various combinations of marks that distinguish the separate flocks of sheep that graze the unenclosed upland areas of the northern counties of England. For almost two centuries periodical new editions of the guides have kept the farmers and shepherds of the fells and dales up-to-date with the changes of ownership of the numerous and often widely dispersed flocks of sheep that make such a significant contribution to the landscape of the region.
These guides describe, in a somewhat bizarre code peculiar to the region, the smit or pop marks, lug marks and, where appropriate breeds are concerned, burn marks. Each combination of these marks is both unique to and part of the freehold of any particular farm. Since they allow for no duplication, the registered marks on any lost, or perhaps more importantly stolen, sheep are easily identifiable.
The smit marks were originally applied to the fleece with rudballs made from red haematite ore, or from graphite from the Seathwaite wad mines in Borrowdale, or occasionally from tar. Until well into the twentieth century, many farms used to make their own ruddle but these days chemical dyes are used. Indeed a recent circular from the Ministry of Agriculture advised on the use of an Australian water-based dye for the fleece marks as it was less harmful to the wool. A British Wool Marketing Board notice of 1985 stated ‘we are constantly getting complaints from buyers who cannot understand why the producers of such splendid raw material want to ruin it by plastering on great blobs of irremovable paint.’ ‘Consultants’ secure in their centrally-heated air-conditioned London offices were obviously unaware of typical weather in Cumbria. Three days after the peak of lambing, with the fellsides echoing to the sound of baa-ing lambs, it rained. As my friend Jonty Bellas recalled, ‘Tom frae Howgill rang us up and said get theesen ere lad. T’fell’s awash wi dye, and none of t’buggers ont lambs.’ Nonetheless the old rudball has today been replaced by ‘New Formulation Flockmaster Marking Fluid for Sheep.’
The ear, or lug marks are pieces clipped from or patterns cut into the ears of the sheep when they are lambs. These marks follow prescribed patterns and each has its own style-name: fold bitted, ritted, sneck bitted, and so-forth. Horn or hoof burns and the occasional face brand generally use the initials of the farmer or farm name.
Two distinct groups of Guides appeared in various editions over 170 years between 1817 and 1990. One group, that which is receiving attention today, covers the farms lying within or adjacent to the Lake District National Park, an area covering parts of Cumberland, Lancashire North of the Sands and Westmorland on the west side of Shap Fell. The other group covers the eastern side of present-day Cumbria: the North Pennine area of Cumberland, Westmorland east of Shap Fell and parts of Northumberland, Durham and Yorkshire. Shap Fell provides a cultural divide in Cumbria that extends beyond breeds of sheep. Indeed, as a West Cumbrian I am firm in the belief – inculcated since birth – that ‘nowt good ever kyam frae tother seed a Shap Fjell.’
A late nineteenth century writer recalled that in 1816 or 17 Joseph Walker, a ‘statesman’ of Martindale near Penrith
‘…first sketched a sheep on a piece of paper, with his own mark, and sent the paper to his neighbour… who sketched his sheep facing the other way, and showing the reverse side…’
This method of showing two sheep, positioned to display both sides of an animal, was accepted as the best method to illustrate the first ‘shepherds guide’, and has remained the standard method of illustrating the combinations of marks of sheep ownership up to the present day.
Even quite late editions of the guides are uncommon and earlier examples are of near-legendary rarity so I have been unable a copy of the first guide, compiled by Joseph Walker in 1817. Fortunately, a copy is described in Garnett’s Westmorland Agriculture, which quotes the title thus: The Shepherds’ Guide or a delineation of the wool and ear-marks of the different stocks of sheep in Martindale, Barton, Ashkam, Helton, Bampton, Measand, Mardale, Long Sleddale, Kentmere, Applethwaite, Troutbeck, Ambleside and Rydal. Printed by William Stephens in Penrith, it provided coverage of quite a small area of the Lake District encompassing the parishes from just below Penrith in the North to just above Windermere in the South, and from Long Sleddale in the East almost into Langdale in the West.
Joseph Walker died in 1820 and in the early 1820s, another guide, also printed by Stephens, extended the area covered to include some 240 marks from farms in the north and central areas of the region. This edition, compiled by William Mounsey and William Kirkpatrick (both of whom had assisted Walker) retains the original introduction in which Walker had written:
‘My object in bringing this work before the public is to lay down a plan by which every man may have it in his power to know the owner of a strayed sheep, and to restore it to him, and at the same time, that it may act as an antidote against the fraudulent practice too often followed, – in a word, to restore to ever man his own.’
The ‘fraudulent practice’ referred to is probably that of cutting off the whole ear to remove the principle mark of ownership. The basic rule of thumb appears to have been that if a sheep lacked an ear, or ears, then its provenance must be in doubt.
At about the same time Stephens printed a third Guide. Although the book is anonymous, it is attributed to James Whineray, a farmer of Lowick near Ulverston in Lancashire. Whineray’s guide was substantially the largest yet produced recording the marks of some 587 farms in thirty-seven parishes and extended coverage to a large area in the west and south of the region.
An illustration of Walker’s original guide shows that the blocks of two sheep were printed three to a page. These were printed from wood engravings cut by the Cumbrian-born Newcastle engraver Isaac Nicholson. The letterpress descriptions of the owner’s name, farm, and the specific marks are printed below each cut. Such smit and lug marks as were wanted in a more graphic form were added by hand in pen and ink. Indeed, it appears to have been the practice with all of the earlier guides to leave the illustrations blank for the purchaser to add such marks as he wished. For as one late-Nineteenth century shepherd recalled ‘Sheep smits were a real thing… you had to know the mark of every farm for miles around.’ While a shepherd earlier in the same century noted ‘A shepherd’s first job in the spring was to collect the sheep and to get to know their marks.’
However, in each of the Stephens’ printings a different method of presentation is used. Walker’s Guide of 1817 has the letterpress details printed below the engravings’
Mounsey and Kirkpatrick’s Guide has the text and engravings printed separately and numbered to relate to each other. Whinnery’s Guide has the engravings on the recto with the letterpress descriptions on the facing verso. Furthermore, some smit marks (presumably those that defied easy written description) are represented in the letterpress on both the Mounsey and Kirkpatrick, and Whinneray’s Guides with specially cut reproductions of the marks.
In 1827, James Brown of Penrith printed an unillustrated guide to the marks of the Saddleback and Skiddaw area. His widow, Hannah issued a revised edition in 1848 when she reverted to the use of illustration and used the blocks that Stephens, who had ceased trading in about 1827, had employed in the Guides he printed. As is usual the illustrations are printed three to a page. One of the blocks (the top block on the recto of each leaf) is severely split. There is also some lesser damage to another block, which first appears on page thirty-three of Brown’s Guide, and continues to the end.
Coverage of the Lakes region was now virtually complete and some revisions had been undertaken. In 1849 William Hodson of Corney compiled a compendium of all the region’s marks that was printed in 1849 by Stephen Soulby of Ulverston. Soulby was the youngest son of John Soulby and was the inventor of the ‘Ulverstonian’ printing press, the forerunner of the ‘Wharfedale.’ Hodgson’s Guide was by far the largest yet produced; it ran to 751 pages covered seventy parishes or townships, and recorded over 1,100 marks. Soulby used new blocks, again printed three to a page on the rectos, with the descriptive text printed on the facing versos. The lug and smit marks, in red or black, were added by hand.
By 1879, thirty years had passed since the first comprehensive guide and a new revision was needed. Daniel Gate, an agricultural merchant of Keswick, compiled this and some documentatary evidence has survived to shed light on the production and distribution of this book. Gate took as his model Hodgson’s Guide of 1849 but returned to form of three blocks to a page with letterpress descriptions underneath. The coverage, like that of Hodgson was restricted to the Lake District fells and recorded some 1,500 marks from ninety-eight parishes or townships.
Gate had new line-blocks made which were pierced to take the lug marks which in turn were printed from specially prepared slugs, and the smit marks were overprinted with type or printers’ rules or, where they were more complex, added by hand in either black, red, blue or green.
In April 1878, Gate wrote to the Brash Brothers of Cockermouth:
‘I find that the old Book contains 752 pages but with the letterpress under the prints that number would be reduced one half (376) … & say 30 more pages for extra blocks.’
He also states that he will ‘provide the cuts & ears with their separate marks’, and discusses the type of binding and paper, adding that he ‘does not want an expensive paper or binding.’
In an undated draft of the estimate, sent from their Lancaster office, Brash Brothers quoted prices for production of various numbers of copies: £35 for 300 copies, £50 for 500 and £63 for 700.
On the reverse of this draft estimate is written:
‘The binding in above estimate would be cloth boards turned in and letter on back "Shepherds Guide" They would come in 3d or 4d cheaper in cloth boards cut flush. [the style of binding eventually adopted] With respect to the red marks, letters, &c we should charge according to the time it took about 6d [2.5p] per hour and as we have no idea how many of them are to be marked, we of course can’t tell how long it will take.’
The printing (which was done at Brash’s Lancaster office), marking, and binding of at least part of the edition had been completed before mid-August 1879 the bookbinders, Leighton, Son and Hodge of London, sent three delivery notes to Brash Brothers in Cockermouth, all dated August 14, which account for 103 copies.
In the same month, Brash Brothers prepared a draft invoice, amended to make the final price fit the estimate. This shows that production of 500 copies of a 488 page book, bound in cloth, had cost £55.10s., with the addition of the marks and other odd and ends bringing the final bill up to £99. 4s. 6d. Therefore it appears that the printing, binding and marking; together with the costs of printing notices, specimen pages, order forms, &c brought the book in to Gate at a unit cost of around four shillings per copy. To this sum must be added the unknown costs of producing the blocks, and any advertising. Since the retail price was ten shillings and six pence (52.5p) it would appear that the production cost per copy was around half the retail price.
Both Gate and Brash Brothers seem to have been responsible for receiving orders and sending out copies of the book. This seems to have led to some confusion. In October and December four people wrote complaining that they had subscribed to the book but not received copies while a Mr Parkin of Penrith wrote to complain that he had had the book, but had neither paid in advance nor been billed!
One copy went to William Ritson of Wasdale Head. Ritson the onetime landlord of the Wasdale Head Hotel, was famous for winning lie-telling contests – indeed once his reputation was well established he won one contest by claiming he was ineligible to take part as ‘he could not tell a lie.’ Ritson wrote to Brash Brothers on 12 December 1879:
‘to inform you that when Mr Gate was at Wasdale Head he got 3/6 in debt and he said that he would allow it when he sent the Guide Book and if you will allow the 3/6 you may forward me a Book at the same time as you send Mr Tyson’s and I will send you 7/- being the difference.’
Despite his reputation, Brash Brothers obviously took Ritson at his word as the letter is annotated: ‘Book sent.’
Gate’s credit-rating with Brash Brothers may have been a trifle unsteady for when he wrote on 5 September 1879 for ‘a fresh supply of books to-day’, and again on 10 October for ‘40 or 50 more Books at least,’ only twenty copies were sent. That said, he probably did not help his case by ending the second letter ‘in haste – off to Otter hunt.’
An undated memorandum, which from other evidence is dateable to shortly after 12 December 1879, suggests that by then 154 copies had been sold. So, and, despite 1,000 notices and order forms, and some 1,400 entries (which presumably meant 1,400 potential purchasers) only around one third of the edition had sold.
This perhaps helps to explain a letter of 5 August 1880 when Gate wrote to Brash:
‘Enclosed please find Bill duly accepted on the terms you mentioned which will be attended provided you let me have all the blocks & marks & Books in your Possession to make up the number. I have not yet recd. The copyright which you will oblige by sending.’
Gate wrote again on 2 November:
‘The Bill is due today & I am unable to meet it as I have not yet got my money in. I am sorry you did not remind me of it so that I could have it so that it could be [?remitted] as I have sent a lot of Goods away this week & I have also commenced delivering Books with Horse and Trap. Kindly renew the bill if possible to give me time.’
Gate was in debt to Brash Brothers for some part, if not all, of a bill of £99 4s 6d for over 500 copies of the book. The last copy offered for sale in Cumbria commanded a price of £285 several years ago.
In the Lake District there was only a new edition of the ‘small Skiddaw’ book in 1892 before the next major revision of the whole region. This was instigated by the Buttermere Shepherds’ Meeting in 1906. Thomas Wilson of Keswick agreed to undertake the task.
Printing of the new edition began in late 1908 or early 1909, initially by Brash of Lancaster who re-used the blocks and lug marks of Gate’s Guide of 1879, so presumably Gate did not ‘get back all the blocks’ as he had requested in August 1880. For this edition, the smit marks and letters shown in black appear to be overprinted by letterpress while any red smit marks were added by hand.
Wilson died in the midst of these labours and production ceased in late 1908. At some time thereafter John Simpson of Borrowdale and Thomas Bennett of Threlkeld took the matter in hand and came to an arrangement with Wilson’s representative to purchase the part already printed. George Watson, who had assisted Wilson, completed the work and brought it up to date. Brash was unable to complete the printing which was taken over and finished by Easton and Bulfield in Lancaster and the book finally appeared in 1913. This is the first guide to contain a subscribers list, which shows that 284 copies were taken up. While this may perhaps seem a poor response for a guide with around 1,600 entries, it does reflect the initial sales of Gate’s Guide.
Furthermore, and it is perhaps an interesting point when one considers that it is frequently held that Lake District farms stay in the same family for generation after generation. A comparison of those listed in Whineray’s Guide of 1819 and Wilson’s of 1913 show that of 1,204 farms named in both editions, only around twenty-four are still in the ownership of the same surname.
R H Lamb produced a revision of the ‘small Skiddaw’guide in 1927 before undertaking the next comprehensive edition in 1937. This was so well regarded, that it remained definitive until the most recent guide that appeared in 1985. Of the problems involved in printing the various marks, Lamb wrote:
‘Three separate operations are necessary and only a few pages are done at a time, while considerable care is needed to place every mark in its proper position; and then the compositor has to grapple with the strange language of the shepherd.’
The last Lake District Guide appeared in 1985, lithography has taken
over from letterpress and the sheep have taken on a certain
‘post-modernist’ charm. Nonetheless, it remains a worthy descendent of
almost two centuries of examples of the printing trade responding to
the needs of a localized and remarkably specific market.
Times have changed, and are still changing. It is too early yet to see what effects the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease will have on the traditional sheep flocks of Cumbria. Less dramatic, I suspect, in the Lake District where most of the indigenous and beautiful Herdwick and Rough Fell flocks survived, than on the east fellsides.
Sheep and shepherding practice have contributed to the evolution of the Cumbrian landscape and to some of its vernacular ‘architecture’. Inspired by the pinfolds of the region, the artist Andy Goldsworthy is presently involved in reconstructing some of the derelict ones as works of art. While smit marking has reached both new ‘heights’ and ‘meanings’ through Valerie Laws’ ‘concrete’ or should I say ‘woolly’ poetry.
But these days nowhere, it seems, can one avoid the diktats of the eurocrats of Brussels. The romantic ownership mark of ‘double-bitted underside, [capital letter] A far rib, rud mark pop on shoulder’ has been replaced by ‘UK 104018.’
The Shepherds’ Guides we have may well mark the end of an era, but, as I hope I have shown, they also have other points of interest. The method of production, even in times of comparatively cheap labour were labour-intensive and therefore relatively expensive. If Gate’s Guide of 1879 is typical, then the cost of adding the smit marks accounted for around a third of the entire production costs. Today they remain of use to the agricultural, property or family historian as they enable the identification of the occupants of many, if not all, of the farms in the upland areas. They have, to my mind at least, great charm, and to collectors, considerable interest and financial value. Finally, as my wife put it when she first looked at one, ‘they are, surely, the ideal bedside book for insomniacs.’
Barry McKay is a bookseller specializing in all aspects of the history of the production and distribution of print, senior editor of the Print Networks series of papers from the annual conference of the British Book Trade History Seminar, and a print historian with a particular interest in the history of the book trade in the Northern counties.