Memorable trio of characters left their mark on the farming world

Robin Screeton, and Willie Houseman with Mavis Davison, below.
Robin Screeton, and Willie Houseman with Mavis Davison, below.
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Last July, Yorkshire’s farming fraternity lost some real characters. Chris Berry pays tribute to three unforgettable figures.

When I first ventured into rural journalism one of the initial comments I received was that there were no longer the characters in the industry.

Two decades on I can understand how that feeling comes about as wonderful personalities that have been known for years slip away from us.

I’m still firmly of the opinion that farming has great characters in every generation and I’m certain there are many more to come even though there are fewer farmers about, but the loss of three truly great men during one month in 2013 had a considerable impact on the farming world in Yorkshire.

Robin Screeton was undoubtedly one of the finest livestock auctioneers Yorkshire has ever produced and is credited with making Selby Livestock Auction Market the success it has become today.

He retired in 2005 and cancer finally claimed him last year but he was still smiling and telling stories despite its debilitating effect when I last saw him, with his lovely partner of twenty years Val alongside, at Easingwold Point-to-Point Races just two months before he passed away in July.

It was his style, determination, commitment, delivery and no-nonsense approach to the business that won him hundreds of admirers.

Robin wasn’t the tallest of men but he stood tall and proud wherever he went. He was also one of auctioneering’s snappiest dressers, in a profession not always noted for such, cutting a dapper appearance and by all accounts not without his share of female admirers at one time as a result.

I had the pleasure of his company on many an occasion and interviewed him at his home in Howden three years ago.

He would smile as he talked about his life with great affection and never lost that spirit he started out with when as a farmer’s son of tender years at Eastrington he used to create mock auctions of chickens, calves, farm machinery and implements from the granary steps, selling them to his brothers Geoffrey and Derek.

“I’m just doing the same thing as I was when I was ten years old,” he would say as though it was something that came naturally, which clearly it did.

But Robin’s professional achievements should not be forgotten. Along with colleagues he saved Selby Livestock Auction Market from closure and also saw its move to new premises. Without his energy and passion Selby would quite possibly have been another to join the long list of livestock markets whose doors once closed have never reopened.

Those with memories that stretch much further back will also recall his years auctioneering for Frank Hill & Son of Patrington at Hull and Beverley livestock markets; his 38-year stint at Doncaster and 30 at Newark as well as spells at Thirsk, Brigg and Hellifield. He also started his own estate agency business that is run today by his son Ian.

Whilst Robin’s work was sadly never honoured by way of a Yorkshire Agricultural Society Lifetime Achievement Award nor an MBE in the Queen’s Honours – surely a gross injustice in my book – Willie Houseman received both.

Willie was a farmer’s son from Darley in Nidderdale and made his name in two main areas, transport management and his support of the young farmers movement that he was involved with for over 60 years.

Thirty-plus years ago he became a director of Ripon Farm Services alongside Maurice Hymas and managing director Geoff Brown. Their partnership saw the farm machinery company blossom into a huge turnover business with centres now throughout each of the traditional county ridings.

But once again it was his personality that marked out Willie for me, one that made him such a giant in the agricultural community.

His confinement to wheelchair or sticks never stopped him from getting on with life and his smile, in much the same way as Robin’s, always radiated a warmth that others would do well to replicate.

When Ripon Farm Services’ annual Open Days take place this week it will be the first since his passing in July. It won’t feel quite the same without his outstretched hand greeting everyone and inviting them to sit and talk.

Leonard Abel of Wath near Bedale may not have been as well known as either Willie or Robin but if ever there was a character in farming with greater love and enthusiasm for farming and its folk I have yet to meet him.

My abiding memory of Leonard will be of him wearing his little hat with a feather in it, talking excitedly about everything from sugar beet to combine harvesters, his local Methodist chapel at Snape, his family and the work of the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution.

With his long-time friend Canon Brian Abell there was a special bond, but surely his most special of all was with his wonderful wife Mary.

Leonard was all that used to be right about farming and hopefully still is in many places.

He also had one other talent that is often forgotten and sometimes not thought of in relation to those with big personalities. He listened and in so doing would always try his best to help others. His smile too will live long in my heart.

Robin, Willie and Leonard were three great farming characters. They contributed so much in their lifetimes and I was honoured to count each of them as a true friend as well as a colleague in the countryside community.

I’m sure there are others who we all know that passed away last year that were also great characters. Long may farming produce such men and women.