Obituary : Hannah Hauxwell

The Times

Hannah Hauxwell on her farmland in Baldersdale with her cattle after heavy snowfalls in February 1979
Hannah Hauxwell on her farmland in Baldersdale with her cattle after heavy snowfalls in February 1979

For many years after her mother’s death in the late 1950s, Hannah Hauxwell scratched a solitary and subsistence living from the rugged 78 acres of her farm, Low Birk Hatt, a thousand feet up in the remote upland fastnesses of the North Yorkshire Pennines.

She was the fourth generation of her family to live in Baldersdale, which had once been a thriving community. As its farmers died, however, or gave up the unequal struggle against a hard -favoured soil and a harsh climate, Baldersdale died, too.

After her mother’s death Hauxwell, its sole inhabitant, carried on the dour struggle to sustain life on an agricultural property whose technology owed as much to the Middle Ages as to the 20th century. A handful of milk and beef cattle, and the income from “eatage”, fees paid by local farmers for the right to graze on her land, were bringing in, by the early 1970s, an annual income of somewhere in the region of £200 (about £3,000 today). Her daily life was one of unrelieved, grinding labour. At that stage Low Birk Hatt had neither electricity nor running water. Hauxwell — who was a highly literate individual — read by gaslight, and in the winter months frequently had to break the ice over the neighbouring beck to obtain drinking water. It was not uncommon for her to go a fortnight without seeing another living soul.

This solitude and way of life ended abruptly in 1973 when a Yorkshire Television film-maker, Barry Cockcroft, was on the lookout for subjects for a new series about people working in the Dales, called The Hard Life. A researcher had come across an interview that Hauxwell had given to the Yorkshire Post three years earlier. The cutting had the headline: “How to be happy on £170.” “Her life has been hard,” it noted, “yet she has a smooth pink and white face and a curious out of this century grace and courtesy in speech and manner.”

Cockcroft set off from Leeds to seek her out. Leaving his car at the bottom of Baldersdale, he scrambled over a series of drystone walls until he came across what he at first took to be an abandoned farmhouse and, as he later recalled, “a woman with hair as white as a pensioner’s wearing what appeared to be several layers of carefully laundered rags”. It turned out this “old lady” was only 46.

It was the beginning of a professional relationship that was to transform Hauxwell’s life, making her the heroine of a succession of television documentaries and transforming her economic situation out of all recognition. Books of the series, celebrity status and tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace followed, as did a televised Grand Tour of European capitals and even a Hannah in America documentary for the woman who had previously never been as far as Leeds.

The last two programmes might look suspiciously like the exploitation of an innocent, but Hauxwell enjoyed her new-found fame and never felt herself merely used. When she felt that The Commonsense Book of a Countrywoman (1999) was taking things a bit too far, and ascribing to her a rural wisdom to which she had no pretensions, she did not hesitate to say so. As she admitted, she was not a particularly good farmer.

Hannah Hauxwell at her home in the village of Cotherstone in 1989
Hannah Hauxwell at her home in the village of Cotherstone in 1989TIMES NEWSPAPERS LTD

Hannah Bayles Tallentire Hauxwell was born in 1926 at Sleetburn and her father moved into Low Birk Hatt Farm when she was three. He died in 1933 when she was seven, but Low Birk Hatt was in the early days always alive with the presence of relations: her grandparents, great uncles, mother and her father’s brother who came to live with them after her father’s death. When she was still a young child Baldersdale boasted more than 20 farms, a school and a pub, as well as a Methodist chapel. Over the next few decades she was to witness the slow death of the community and see its farms fall into disrepair and be pulled down as men died or lost heart. The young married and moved away.

When her uncle and then her mother died she soldiered on single-handed, never marrying, hermetically sealed from the 20th century by the absence of its most basic amenities. Only her wireless and the rare visits to market to sell livestock kept her in touch with the outside world, and in fact she struck all who met her as a well-informed woman with articulately argued opinions.

Her daily life was one of unrelieved, grinding labour

The year 1973 changed her life beyond recognition. Cockroft’s documentary, Too Long a Winter, projected her image into millions of sitting rooms. She was shown walking with a bale on her back, washing in a bucket, and repairing drystone walls. A natural in front of the cameras, she explained that her bread deliveries were left three fields away, that she liked to drink warm milk in the byre and that she sometimes snuggled up to a cow during freezing blizzards. She said she wasn’t much good at cooking because “so much of my life has been spent outdoors”.

Although she protested that she was “just a plain Daleswoman”, viewers were charmed by her accent and strangely eloquent, almost Victorian, way with words. “I keep expenditure down to the bare essentials,” she said. “I put a brake on and keep it on.” Of her status as a spinster she mused that a good marriage was a privilege and that she couldn’t imagine anything worse than a bad marriage that involved “living under the same roof as someone you are utterly at variance with”.

Hannah Hauxwell at Pisa during her Grand Tour of Europe
Hannah Hauxwell at Pisa during her Grand Tour of EuropeREX FEATURES

After it was screened, Yorkshire TV’s phones were jammed for three days with viewers wanting to find out more about her and to offer financial help. Her name become synonymous with a kind of dignified, Yorkshire stoicism and she made her first visit to Leeds, where she was taken by helicopter. Coach trips began to descend and the local branch of Woolworths started selling postcards featuring her picture. She found herself opening fêtes and appearing at steam rallies.

The immediate effect of her exposure to publicity was the electrification of Low Birk Hatt. Workmen at Eccles, Lancashire, who were moved by her plight, raised £600 towards the £800 cost of carrying electricity 600 yards to her farmhouse; YTV paying the rest. Hauxwell, who had endured her primitive arrangements from necessity not choice, was delighted with the improvement. A television eventually made its appearance, but she had no difficulty in rationing its use.

In 1976 she made her first visit to London to attend the Woman of the Year lunch and stay at the Savoy, an experience she did not particularly enjoy, although in general she was far from overawed by her contact with the second half of the 20th century. She took tea with the Queen in 1980 at a Palace garden party. “It was all very dainty,” she said. “There were little pancakes and tiny cakes; which, for the occasion, I suppose was quite nice, but if you’d been doing half a hard-day’s work, it would have left quite a gap.”

Hannah Hauxwell in a helicopter
Hannah Hauxwell in a helicopterREX FEATURES

All this time she had continued to farm at Baldersdale, but in 1988 she finally gave up the struggle against the elements. Her hard life had prematurely aged her and she sold Low Birk Hatt and moved to a cottage in the village of Cotherstone (by this time through boundary changes in Co Durham) six miles down the Dale. There, she was able to lead a more comfortable life, although visitors noted that it always looked as if she were merely camping there, littered as the place always was with the heterogeneous possessions she had brought from Low Birk Hatt.

Her working relationship with Cockcroft continued to flourish. In 1992 they made a series in which Hauxwell travelled abroad for the first time and recorded her impressions. Although she was the subject of This is Your Life with Michael Aspel that year, she remained unspoilt. Those who met her found her level-headed and forthright, modest about the immense interest her life had created and retaining a sense of true proportion about her worth.

Hannah Hauxwell, farmer, was born on August 1, 1926. She died on January 31, 2018, aged 91