People of Yorkshire Volume 16 – Hannah Hauxwell

Hannah Hauxwell is a true Yorkshire heroine, whose hard life working at her farm in the harsh climate of the Dales was an inspiration to all who saw her. Hannah’s life was brought to our screens in a series of documentaries, which showed us a side to Yorkshire we do not often see. Despite her open rejection of a modern lifestyle, in some ways Hauxwell was a woman very much ahead of her time. In the early Seventies she became one of television’s first and unlikeliest reality TV stars, long before the word had even been invented.

Hannah Hauxwell's Farm, Picture Credit, David Dunsford, Geograph, Creative Commons
Hannah Hauxwell’s Farm, Picture Credit, David Dunsford, Geograph, Creative Commons

 

Hannah Hauxwell was born on August 1st 1926 and lived at Low Birk Hall Farm with her parents. They owned the farm, which was 1,000 feet above sea level and in the middle of Baldersdale, then part of North Yorkshire, but nowadays, due to boundary changes, just over the border in County Durham.

Hannah’s father died and her uncle took over the running of the farm to try and make it more profitable. Tragedy struck once again as he passed away followed by her mother in 1961, leaving an unmarried Hannah to take on the sole running of the farm aged thirty-five. The isolated house, whose neighbours were several miles down the valley had no electricity, central heating and running water. Moreover the eighty acres of fields and collection of livestock, mainly cattle needed daily attention, whatever the time, whatever the weather. Her life became a constant battle against poverty and the Yorkshire climate, which in winter could be especially cruel. While the rest of the county were dancing to the Beatles and watching man land on the moon, Hannah Hauxwell would be walking through deep snow in order to collect her bread and food supplies for the farm. Asked in an interview with The Daily Mail in 2008 whether she ever felt like selling up and “throwing in the towel,” she replied,

Not really. I had an uncle who wanted better for me and there was a factory in Barnard Castle I could have found work at but farming was the only thing I knew.”

Her stoicism and duty to maintain her family’s farm, led to a life of loneliness, with only her animals for company and the odd passer-by, usually hill walkers. Local attention to Hauxwell’s life first appeared in a Yorkshire Post article published in 1970, titled, “How to be happy on £170 per year,” which profiled her life working the farm making a meagre living.

Her life would change forever two years later, after a chance meeting, with a passing rambler, who knew a researcher at Yorkshire Television. The idea was passed to producer, Barry Cockcroft and the result was a documentary called, “Too Long a Winter,” which featured the lives of several farmers in the remote parts on the Yorkshire Dales, including Hannah Hauxwell in 1973. The documentary shows her struggling up a hill with a resistant bullock in the snow as she takes it to market to be sold. She not only had to struggle against the harsh winter climate, but also against prejudices of the time, which meant that she could not attend the local cattle market because women were not permitted. Instead a local male farmer had to take the bullock the rest of the way in order for it to be sold on her behalf, with the proceeds making up almost one half her yearly income.

Despite her constant loneliness she was a natural in front of the TV cameras and her appearance in this documentary garnered a huge response from right around the world. The Yorkshire Television switchboard was jammed for three days with people wishing to help her. A local company raised money to supply Low Birk Hatt farm with electricity and visitors came from as far away as New Zealand to see her. Hannah’s sudden fame did not seem to faze her and was loved for the welcoming warmth and humanity she gave to all she met.

After the fuss had died down Hannah continued her work on the farm right up until the late 1980s, when another documentary was made. Led by producer, Barry Cockcroft, “A Winter Too Many,” was broadcast in 1989 solely focused on Hannah’s life on the farm. Evident in the programme was the amount of donations and fan mail she had received from across the world. This extra money received during the intervening years had enabled her to invest in more cattle to sell at market and increase her income. However the documentary also showed how the extra investment had made more work for a now ageing Hannah. The time had come for her to make the heart-wrenching decision to leave Low Birk Hatt Farm and buy a new home in the nearby village of Cotherstone.

In 1992 a further documentary, “Hannah Hauxwell, An Innocent Abroad” was made, which showed her touring Europe, visiting countries, such as France, Germany, Italy and Austria, followed by a similar USA version in the following year.

Low Birk Hatt Farm was sold, and its surrounding pastures have been renamed Hannah’s meadows. It was discovered that the Hauxwell family’s traditional management of the land and rejection of modern pesticides had enabled it to harbour rare wild flowers thus making it become a place of special scientific interest. Hannah Hauxwell is currently living at her cottage in Cotherstone, less than five miles from Birk Hatt Farm and the surrounding Baldersdale. Now free from her labours and aged 88 she leads a comfortable life, reading, listening to the radio and playing her beloved organ. Hauxwell has vowed never to return to Low Birk Hatt farm saying that the memories and ties are still too strong.