Nostalgia on Tuesday: For peat’s sake

Workers gather peat on Thorne Moors
Workers gather peat on Thorne Moors
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Peat, an accumulation of partially decayed vegetation, especially bog-moss, has been extracted by various means over time. Until recently, a flourishing peat industry was a common sight on Thorne and Hatfield Moors, forming the largest area of lowland raised peat bog in Britain. The moors are located in South Yorkshire, East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, and are part of the historic Hatfield Chase.

Until recently, a flourishing peat industry was a common sight on Thorne and Hatfield Moors, forming the largest area of lowland raised peat bog in Britain. The moors are located in South Yorkshire, East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, and are part of the historic Hatfield Chase.

When peat was first cut in the area is unknown. Grants of turbary, the legal right to cut turf or peat, are known from the late 12th century onwards. The drainage of Hatfield Chase in the early 17th century by Cornelius Vermuyden brought extensive changes to the landscape but peat cutting continued. A decree and award issued by the Court of Exchequer in 1630 firmly stipulated that the tenants of the manor of Hatfield were to retain their turbary rights.

George Stovin in the mid 18th century noted that labourers dug their turf in the summer, and their wives and children made them ready for sale. When the harvest was over, the men brought the turves in small boats from Thorne Moors down the Boating Dike to Thorne and then to the River Don. They were put on board keels and other small vessels, which carried them to markets in York, Selby, Leeds, Wakefield, Hull and Lincoln.

By the 19th century the area’s peat- cutting industry began to decline, largely due to the growing availability of West Riding pit coal and sea coal.

By the 1860s local historian William Casson noted the peat fuel trade was then concentrated in only three or four hands, but at a low ebb.

Fighting a peat stack fire on Thorne

Fighting a peat stack fire on Thorne

In the 1880s the peat trade was revived as it became widely used as animal bedding, in particular for horses. Over the ensuing years at least seven companies leased parts of the moors to work peat. They transported it to their respective mills via tramways; wagons being drawn along by horses.

On August 24, 1889, The Yorkshire Post reported that the Peat Moss Litter Works (on Hatfield Moors) at Hatfield Woodhouse had formally opened a few days earlier. All commercial exploitation until 1889 was on Thorne Moors. This was the first time that Hatfield Moors’ peat was removed on a large scale.

The company’s plant could raise around 60 tons daily. Between 50 and 60 men were employed and considerable cutting had already begun – being equal to around 10,000 tons of dry litter. The company had secured 3,000 acres of moorland, of which 500 were then being worked.

One of the companies established on the moors during the 1890s was the Anglo-Dutch GriendtsVeen Moss Litter Co. The organisation established a series of canals from its workings on the moors to Moorends Mill and these were separate from the moors’ older waterways or drains. Dutch barges were imported for use on peat canals and Dutch methods and tools for winning peat were employed.

Lister 4w open diesel being driven on Hatfield

Lister 4w open diesel being driven on Hatfield

With both Dutch and local workers winning peat in the area there was perhaps predictably a number of violent clashes between the two parties. One was noted by The Yorkshire Post on September 2, 1897. Two Englishmen, George Garfitt and John Clark, were attacked by a couple of Dutchmen named Adam Prins and Vooert Geerts. Garfitt was stabbed in the neck, ear, wrist and arm. The police arrested both Dutchmen. The injured man survived.

The Goole Times of March 3, 1899, noted that 120 Dutchmen were employed on Thorne Moors and a number of cottages for the Dutch families had been built, becoming known as ‘Dutch Row’ or ‘Moss Terrace’, on the edge of Moorends.

By the turn of the 19th century all the various peat companies had been amalgamated into the British Moss Litter Company and a peat mill was established in Lancashire. The output of peat in 1898 was 74,948 tons with a workforce of around 370.

A gradual decline in the industry occurred through the availability of straw as an alternative to peat for animal litter; a relentless decline in horse usage was brought about by motorised transport. But peat dust was used for a number of purposes: packing, poultry farming and as a basis for animal feedstuffs.

Thorne Moors protest involving local people and Leeds Friends of the Earth

Thorne Moors protest involving local people and Leeds Friends of the Earth

Diesel locomotives had replaced horses to move wagons by the 1960s and peat usage took another turn at this period following the takeover of British Moss by Fisons.

The company won peat by a number of mechanical means for use as compost in its rapidly expanding horticultural trade. This proved to be successful but at a cost to the environment. In 1985 surface milling was introduced which stripped the surface of large areas of the moors.

Aside from peat cutting, Thorne and Hatfield Moors have constantly absorbed the interests of naturalists and archaeologists. During April 1993 The Yorkshire Post reported that a Bronze Age forest, described as the most important archaeological find of the decade, was discovered at Thorne Moors. It was uncovered by heavy plant machinery used by Fisons to drain the moors and scrape layers of peat.

Dr Paul Buckland, a lecturer in archaeology and prehistory at Sheffield University, said: “This is a truly remarkable find... it provides the most substantial evidence yet that Neolithic and Bronze age man did not cut down or burn forests at random as had been previously thought but operated an organised system of managed forest and pasture land.”

In the post-war years, tireless campaigning by local man William Bunting, a self proclaimed eco-warrior, culminated in saving the wildlife habitat of Thorne and Hatfield Moors from industrial peat extraction.

In 1994 Fisons gave English Nature 2,340 acres of moorland, though peat cutting continued on a smaller scale. By 2002, cutting had ceased and from that time the moors have been managed as a National Nature Reserve.

The 3ft gauge horse shunting, June 1955, at Thorne Moors Medge Hall peat works sidings.

The 3ft gauge horse shunting, June 1955, at Thorne Moors Medge Hall peat works sidings.

Thanks to Martin Limbert for help with this piece.

Thorne Peat Moss Litter works loco.

Thorne Peat Moss Litter works loco.

The Peat Moss Litter Co advertisement.

The Peat Moss Litter Co advertisement.

William Bunting

William Bunting