Week by week, we will be delving into the back stories of some of the greatest Yorkshire companies – finding out about the people behind them, their humble beginnings, how they became household names, and where they are now. Today we take a look at Wensleydale Creamery, finding out how a group of monks in the Yorkshire Dales gave Wallace and Gromit their favourite cheese.
The story of Wensleydale Cheese goes back to the 12th century, when a group of Cistercian monks, from the Roquefort region of France, settled in the area. They brought with them, the art of cheese-making, originally using sheep’s milk. The local farmers eventually perfected the recipe, and between the 14th and 17th centuries adapted it to use cow’s milk instead, although a little ewe’s milk was still added to help the blue mould to grow.
In 1897, Edward Chapman, a corn merchant from Hawes, became one of the largest buyers in the area of the farmhouse cheeses. Noticing the poor quality of some of their products, he started to buy the milk from these farmers instead, believing he could make a better quality cheese himself. He opened the first dairy factory in Wensleydale, buying around 200 gallons of milk each day during the summer months. In the winter of that year, a woollen mill in Hawes closed down, so Chapman bought it and by spring of the following year was taking in even more milk than before.
Whilst Chapman was establishing his business in Upper Wensleydale, Alfred Rowntree was doing the same in Lower Wensleydale, opening factories in Masham, Coverham and Thoralby. Rowntree continued to produce a mature Wensleydale blue cheese, but its popularity was dwindling, with the non-mature white variety that Chapman produced becoming more favourable.
During the depression in the 1930s, Wensleydale cheese makers began to struggle. Although there was no shortage of milk, there was an over production of cheese, which combined with imported cheeses from the colonies led to a dramatic fall in prices. In 1933 when the Milk Marketing Board was formed it looked like it could be the end of production in Wensleydale, as even though the farmers wanted to keep production local, they were offered contracts to take Dales milk away from the area.
In 1935, Kit Calvert chaired a meeting at Hawes Town Hall to try and rescue the town’s Creamery, the last remaining cheese factory in Wensleydale. Locals managed to raise £1,085, £200 of which Calvert invested himself. This was used in 1936 to form ‘The Wensleydale Cheese Joint Conference’ with Calvert as managing director. Before World War 2, the company would produce thousands of 1lb and 2lb truckles for the Christmas Market, but during the war, restrictions were imposed meaning these specialist cheeses were withdrawn.
In 1953, Calvert built a new creamery in Hawes on the border with neighbouring Gayle, at a cost of £15,000. He reintroduced the 1lb Baby Wensleydale, which proved extremely popular selling 50,000 in the first year. By the 1960s, they were selling over quarter of a million each year. In 1966, the Milk Marketing Board purchased the Wensleydale Creamery for £500,000 and Calvert retired the following year.
In May 1992, Dairy Crest, a subsidiary of the Milk Marketing Board, decided to close the Wensleydale Creamery, the last one in the dale, with the loss of 59 jobs, moving production of Wensleydale Cheese over the border into Lancashire. Outraged, the redundant workers campaigned to keep Wensleydale cheese in the Yorkshire Dales. Fortunately for the sake of cheese-lovers everywhere and the county’s good name, the campaign was successful. This resulted in John Gibson and his team pushing through a management buyout in November of the same year,
In 1993, major refurbishment took place at the factory in an effort to increase production. The cheese was renamed Real Wensleydale, being made in both white and traditional blue varieties, along with flavoured ones, such as ‘Real Wensleydale with Ginger’ and the extremely popular ‘Real Wensleydale with Cranberries’. The creamery also produced mature, extra mature and smoked varieties.
The saving grace for the company came in the form of two animated Plasticine characters – Wallace and Gromit. Nick Park chose Wensleydale to be Wallace’s favourite cheese not because of its northern location, but purely, in his words, the name would be ‘fun to animate’. The Wensleydale Creamery struck a marketing deal with Aardman Animations which proved so popular that when the feature length Curse of the Were-Rabbit was released in 2005, sales of Real Wensleydale increased by 23%.
Today the factory employs 190 workers, buying milk from 36 Wensleydale farms. There is now a viewing gallery for the cheese production rooms, with the creamery giving guided tours. Real Yorkshire Wensleydale now has Protected Geographical Indication from the EU. This means that to be a true Yorkshire Wensleydale, it must be made in this dale and most importantly cannot be moved to Lancashire!
In the next post in this series, we will look at Tetley’s brewery.
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