Ask the fellows who cut the peats


Peat-cutter’s barrow, tools & foot-boards. Scale model made by Mr Malcolm Wilson (see below)


“I just went and asked for a job – I fancied gaan cuttin’ peat. The foreman said, ‘I’ll take you up on the moss’ – and what a walk it was! A big wide open space, peat stacks everywhere. And I thought, I’ll have a bit go at it.” And so Thomas Holden and his cousin went to work on Kirkbride Moss.

The Solway Mosses – Wedholme Flow (which includes Kirkbride Moss), Glasson Moss, Drumburgh and Bowness Common – are unusual in that they are raised mires, not blanket bogs, and as such are very special. They are now of course protected by several important conservation designations but previously they were used as turbary – where individuals and families had their own ‘stints’ to cut peat for fuel – and then commercially for compost and other products.

The Cumberland Moss Litter Company at Kirkbride was started by a Dutchman, Henry Engelen. This might seem surprising, but peat-cutting and drying on a commercial scale requires well-founded knowledge of cutting and draining the landscape, and the Dutch had been designing and overseeing peat-works in England and Scotland since the late 19th century. Indeed, a Lodewyck Engelen (Henry’s father?)  is recorded as among ‘the Dutch’ who came across to work with the Midland Moss Litter company on Whixhall Moss in Shropshire in 1926.

“My mother’s side of the family were Dutch, too,” Engelen’s son (also Henry) told me. “Her father came to Airth in Scotland in about 1920, and they had Blackburn Moss at Fauldhouse near Bathgate.”

It was there, as a young woman, that she met and married Henry Engelen; they moved to Horwich, near Bolton in Lancashire, where Engelen set up the  Lancashire Moss Litter Company in 1931; next in his sights were the deep peat Mosses to the South of the Solway and so, Henry Jr told me, “He bought up some of Wedholme Flow, and they had two mills near the hangars on Kirkbride airfield. He used to travel there on a motorcycle, and lodged at Whitrigg.” Once the Cumberland Moss Litter Company was established at Kirkbride Moss, the whole Engelen family moved up to Cumberland.

Patrick McGoldrick, now in his seventies and living in Carlisle, was born in Ireland; his father came over to Scotland in 1927, where the family later joined him. I first met Patrick and his twin sister Bridget at Port Carlisle, where they were taking part in the oral history project, ‘Remembering the Solway’ [1], and later I visited them at their home to hear more of his stories about working on the Moss. Patrick, with a shock of white hair and a soft Scottish accent, told me about his father: “Dad worked on at least four mosses in Scotland, the last moss was Blackburn [2], in Fauldhouse about three miles from Bathgate. It was owned by the Dutch, they were all owned by the Dutch. Some got worked out, they were not as deep as Kirkbride [Moss]. At Kirkbride you could dip your big ash pole in as far as you could and still couldn’t feel the bottom.” (Frank Mawby, former Reserves Manager for Natural England in the North-West, told me that coring had shown about 10 metres of peat in some places on Wedholme Flow – and that it must have been even deeper before the mire was damaged by cutting.)


Bridget and Patrick McGoldrick (peat-cutter), and Tommy Atkinson (peat-mill worker), at Port Carlisle 2016

“The boss said to my Dad, ‘My son-in-law, he’s a big man down in England, at a place called Kirkbride in Cumberland – and he’s desperate for skilled men to work.’ I was fourteen-and-a-half at the time – it was just at the start of the school holidays – and me and my Dad landed down in Kirkbride. There were four ex-RAF sheds, me and my Dad got one [to live in].” Patrick’s mother stayed in Blackburn with his seven sisters, and moved down later.

“We got there and Henders [the foreman?] said, ‘There’s a lot of stacking to do, some of it’s just stooled, some just walled’– so we went stacking.  I helped Dad. As life went on, after eight weeks, the school-board man came looking for us. ‘Why’s that laddie not at school?’ But by then it was tattie-picking time – we had a week off school for that – so I was able to stay on. Dad went on cutting and I got a job at a farm at Kirkbride. Every time I could I went to the moss with my Dad.”

Stooking and sticking and batting

Stooling/stooking, walling, stacking; stickers, bats and spades: the language for cutting and drying the peats varies from country to country and region to region. The shapes of the tools vary, too, as do the patterns of piling peats to dry.

Tools were personal and precious. “My Dad used to look after his tools, he had a big stone and a file to keep them really sharp. We always carried our tools over our shoulders. Then we went back to Ireland for a week’s holiday and he put them in a ditch that had running water in it, to keep the handles tight. When we came back the tools were missing. He said, ‘Patrick, where did I put my tools? I was sure it was in that ditch but they’re no’ there. Somebody’s pinched them.’ There was this big guy, broad, Big Stan the Pole, and he wasn’t a grafter, his tools weren’t good. Big Stan would have fought anybody. And Dad said, ‘Aye, he’s cutting peat, I’m going to see his tools.’ And there was the stripping spade, the tools, all with my Dad’s initials on them – he’d carved them on the handles. Stan was in the ditch working and my Dad says, ‘That’s a good set of tools you’ve got here. They’re mine.’ ‘No. No, Frank, you bugger off.’ And Dad picked up the spade and put it to Stan’s throat – he got his tools back! Anyway, Stan got some more tools. And then I saw them, sitting on the bank, and my Dad was sharpening his tools for him!”

“Your tools – the blades were never rusty,” Thomas Holden told me. “You stuck them in the peat at the end of the day, and they came out really clean and shiny, it must have been the acid in the peat.” Thomas had got in touch with me when he heard that I was interested in talking to Kirkbride peat-cutters, and had invited me to his home in Aspatria; he had started cutting peat when he was in his thirties, and later had driven the workers’ bus. Even though he is now in his seventies, he still had happy memories of that time, although “it was hard work, but I was younger then. You got worked-in!”

Patrick had explained how to use the various tools. “You put down a line then cut a mark along the line with the sticker [Dutch stikker], it’s flat with a handle, and very very sharp, about 15 inches long.Then you stripped off the heather, with like a turfing


Swan-necked spade: scale drawing (2″=1ft) by Malcolm Wilson

spade.”  He still has his father’s spade and went to fetch it from the shed. The shaft is curved (‘swan-necked’), the blade pointed; he showed me how he’d cleaned it and repainted the metal part green, then demonstrated in the sitting room how to push it in at an angle and lift the turf.

The layer of heather and grass stripped off the top was thrown down into the ditch “with the heather up so it widnae die back”, to keep the bottom of the cut drier and to protect the underlying peat.

“The bat was used for cutting the peats, its blade was only 4-5 inches wide—” (he drew a little diagram on my note-pad – it looks a bit like a cricket bat, with its long, narrow blade). Standing in the cut, “You cut in at an angle, then lifted out the peat and heaved it up onto the bank.”

In July 2017, at the ‘launch’ of the oral history project Remembering the Solway, some of the peat-cutting tools were on display:


Mr Wilson’s models

Another person who contacted me about the Kirkbride peat-cutting was Malcolm Wilson; he told me he was 88 years old, and his family had lived in North-West Cumbria – Calvo, Holme Cultram and now Silloth – since the late 1700s. He used to go out on the Moss where the lines of peat-stacks “were like a village, nearly”. Malcolm has been a model-builder for most of his life, building yachts, barques and ships like the Bounty from scratch, making and assembling all the parts himself. Some of his exquisitely detailed models have even been sold at Christies. But in the 1980s, the manager at Fisons – the company were still cutting peat commercially at Kirkbride – asked him to make models of the tools and barrows as gifts for members of staff who were retiring.

Malcolm had visited the Kirkbride workings to measure the tools, and in the course of a few years, he had made six or seven scale models. Now, as the warm Spring sunshine flooded into his front porch, he unrolled the scale drawings that he had made in 1989 and showed me photos of the beautifully detailed finished pieces. Suddenly, movingly, the reality of what Patrick and Thomas had been describing became very clear. And before I left, Mr Wilson gave me his precious drawings and photos, insisting that he was glad that they were going to someone who would appreciate them. I shall treasure them.


Scale model of barrow, tools and foot-boards, by Malcolm Wilson


The area for commercial cutting at Kirkbride was mostly brown peat, and not used for fuel, but individual and families had stints around the edge of the Moss. According to Thomas, “Some of the peat was like butter, but it was more fibrous where we were cutting ‘cos it was used for gardens.There was peat being cut for fires too – that was black peat. It was dark and thick, and it curled up like a banana when it was dry. They used a different tool, like a bat but with a blade on the side so it was L-shaped, it could cut the bottom and the side at once.”

This blade with a flange  would have been like the Fenland ‘beckett’, Irish ‘slane’ or Scottish ‘flauchter’ [3], or the tairsgeir of the Outer Hebrides. Artist Anne Campbell, with the help of Finlay Macleod and others living on the Isle of Lewis, has produced a glossary of Gaelic words relating to the moorlands, and especially to the cutting and stacking of peat. The words are collected together in a delightful pamphlet Rathad an Isein [4]: all parts of the tairsgeir have their own name, so important is the cutting of the peats on the island. The book’s title means The Bird’s Road – the narrow gap left on top of the bank between the cut edge and the gàrradh, the stook or stool.

The cuts and drains

The peats, then, were dug out along a line or cut. “The cut was 22 metres long – it was all in metres because of the Dutch,” Patrick said. “The stacking area between the cuts was 10 metres wide – that was the bank, there was room for the stacks and walls and the rails.” These lengths, equivalent to 1 chain and a half-chain, were standard distances for constructing ditches to drain the peat on, for example, Thorne Moor [5]  in Yorkshire, and Bowness Common for the Solway Junction Railway.

Patrick’s father “was a grafter. He could cut one-and-a-half lengths in a day.” And Thomas was full of praise for the Irish workers: “Those Irish fellas, they could cut a straight line, it was spot-on … The Irish, they were dab-handed, they used to cut the peats a lot bigger than we could. You couldn’t fault their peats. The tidier they were, the easier they were to stack. They had their own patch of the moss, and they looked after that lump of moss…”

“You got [paid] the most for cutting,” Patrick told me, “’Cos that was the hardest work. First you cut one peat length, then two down, then the two bottom ones. And you’d throw them up onto the bank.” Usually, one man would cut, another would do the stooking, but Thomas and his cousin seem to have worked in tandem.

Peat is wet, about 95% water, 5% solid material; if its integrity is damaged, all that water will escape. Peat-cuttings, then, were wet and slippery places, and ditches had to be dug at the ends of the banks to allow the water to flow away.


Scale drawing of a footboard, by Malcolm Wilson

Thomas Holden told me, “Every so often the ditch would lift ‘cos the peat rises, so you had to cut another depth off the ditch. … It was surprisingly how wet it was. You’ve got boards on your feet, you walk like a duck!” He laughed and stood up to show me, walking bent-kneed, bow-legged, across his sitting-room.

“The deeper you cut the wetter it got. We wore footplanks to stop you sinking. You had a piece of wood with the corners cut off. Then the bottom of a boot nailed on, and you put your wellies in and laced it up – we’d get bits of leather to strap the boot in, see?” Patrick explained.

 Piling the peats to dry

All peat is wet, and the best peat, low down, was the wettest. Drying the peats seems to have been a complicated process on Kirkbride Moss, perhaps influenced by the Dutch way of doing things (‘stooling’ is a Dutch word for the first set of peat-piles).

Patrick tried to explain the three stages to me, lifting and stacking imaginary peats in his sitting-room.

First, there was stooling or stooking: heavy work, piling the new-cut peats 4-5 high, with one bridging across the top of each stook, in a way that would allow air to circulate. There would be about 5-8 stooks along the side of the cut. Stooking started sometime after Easter, and the amount they could do would vary. “My Dad could do about five a day. He’d tell me, ‘stand in the ditch, Patrick, it’ll save your back,’  because you’d be having to lift the peats and it was easiest with the first rows.”

Thomas called this stage ‘walling’ rather than stooking. “You’d put two down then another two on top crossways so the air blows through the gaps – up to about five peats high.” I had taken along some wooden blocks and he showed me what he meant.

The stooks were left for one or two months to dry, depending on the weather. Then, according to Patrick, the peats were taken from the stooks and built up into small towers eight peats high, with a hole in the middle; more peats were stacked, slanting, against the towers. “You might have 6-8 towers along the bank. The air could get through everything and that’s how they dried.” This was walling. “Walling would be finished the middle of July, it would all be dry by then.”

Finally there was the stacking. “When it all got dry, it was time to stack. We had two barrers, they were long with wooden wheels, the legs were short, mebbe six inches high.”

Thomas explained further, “There were planks, we’d lay them each side of the walls and across the ditch at the end. We’d pile the peats on the barrer – they were quite light by then so you’d get on as many as you can – and wheel the peats along the planks and over the ditch. There’d be a space six or seven metres wide up the middle, you’d throw the peats roughly in the middle, then start to put them on the ground … building them up. The air gets reet through the stack. On the top you lay two peats so the water drains off. You get knackered throwing them up.” “The stacks would be all in a row right across the moss.”


Walls and stacks on Solway Moss. Courtesy of Cumbria Image Bank

“In the middle of your workings you might have 60 rows of walling,” Patrick said. “Dad would go way up the bunker [bank]– he’d run his barrer up and he’d build a tower to start about 12 peats high. Then you’d build the stack up against it, you’d empty your barrer and fling it all into the middle. The peats were then put in singly, up to 10 feet high. You put standards, peat standing up on end, then a whole row right the way round again. The stack would be like that—“ Patrick holds his hands up at an angle—“ to let the rain run off.”

It was all piece-work, Thomas said. “The foreman would come along and he’d make a note of how many peats you’d cut, how much you’d stacked.”

“You can imagine if it was bad weather you wouldn’t be earning much. But [Patrick’s Dad would] work to build up the peats so there was always walling and stacking to do. He’d put his wages on the mantelpiece every Friday night, he never opened his wage-packet. And Henders would come along and say ‘You two men have done as much work as these three other jokers’.”

Rails and locomotives


Narrow-gauge rails, Wedholme Flow, 2016: thanks to Mark Graham of Grampus Heritage

The dry peats then had to be taken to the mill – in waggons or bogies, drawn by a small, narrow-gauge locomotive. This meant that temporary rails had to be laid along the banks beside the stacks.

Patrick had started on the Moss when he should have been at school, but “at 15, they could legally employ me – and at that time you went to work filling the bogies. We could put the rails down even when we were young, we were strong. The only time we’d get to drive the locomotives was when we were putting the rails down!”

“The rails were tied to the sleepers by fish-plates and transported on a flat bogie, in pieces 4-5 yards long, piled 5-8 high on the bogies. Two men could lift them and put them in place. They were laid down all this way and that, it was hard to move the cart. I lost a few bogies in my time! There were sets of points too, to send the bogies to the different stack areas.”

Frank Mawby told me, “It was by all accounts an incredibly wet mire and I recall Pete Wanning [a later foreman] telling me that when they began the drainage of the main dome the bog sunk so rapidly that almost every morning they had to re-do the railway line because it buckled and distorted the tracks.”

Thomas, too, remembered the uneven-ness of the tracks. “The lads’d put their laal railways down, narrow gauge it was. It was all up and down, they’d need to chock up this bit, and let down that bit – there were some queer angles, like. The lines would be across the gutters and along beside the stacks – the lads’d stand on the stacks and throw the peats in the bogies. There’d be some fun with them, like, the bogies coming off the tracks …”

He talked about the locomotives being electric “with loads of batteries stacked on them, just sort of humming along. We used to ride on them sometimes ‘cos it was a long way to walk.”

Patrick’s memories were of diesel locos: “They were big diesel engines – originally from the First World War, 22-inch narrow-gauge. And they got a lot of the locomotives from the mines, the pits.” There was a driver – but Patrick had been able to drive too. “They could be hard to start. They had big crank handles, we used to tie a rope onto the handle and shout ‘pull!’ When it was cold, you got a peat and soaked it in the diesel, then you’d light the peat and put it over the air filter.”

According to a letter shown me by Henry Engelen Jr, Fisons (who took over the Cumberland Moss Litter Company) “arranged for a locomotive which [they had] donated to the Lakeland Mining Museum to be rebuilt for display and named Henry Engelen”. I went to look for it, so I could send him a photo, but although several men, young and old, who lovingly repaired and reconstructed old locos, were there, sadly none had any knowledge of that particular engine. I was, however, shown other engines from the Mosses – but none were intact, all were in various stages of decay, patiently awaiting repair.

The mill

At the mill, “The first grind, that was granular, very fine, and it was all baled between four pieces of wood and wire, and then compressed. Then there was the tailings, that was rough stuff used for horticulture. Even during the war, the army came and used it for packing bombs – you know, they had nothing else for packing, eh?”

Henry Engelen told me, “The peat was milled for horticultural use, and also used to make firelighters. They sliced the peat, and then the pieces, like fingers, were treated with paraffin and then wrapped in cellophane – that came from the factory at Wigton [where the plastic film for banknotes is now made].”

Cutting peat was hard manual labour, but Thomas thought it would be better than working in the mill: “When the mill-workers come out of the mill they were absolutely brown with all the dust. And it was noisy in there, really humming, you knew when they were milling.’

Out on the Moss

It was unremitting hard work, but what comes over strongly is how much Thomas, and Patrick and his father seem to have enjoyed being out on the moss.

“And see, you’d see all the wildlife. Cuckoos – my Dad would never disturb cuckoos. There were dragonflies, and adders there too … The only thing my Dad would grumble about would be the midges – but he’d have his pipe and he’d puff the smoke. Even in the rain it was good.”

(My thanks to Judith Rogers for these photos from her blog about Campfield Reserve)

For Thomas, “Mind you, I enjoyed it, there was a lot of freedom, there was nobody chasing you, like. What I liked about it as well, there was always a lot of birds there [he’s been a keen bird-watcher since about 12 years old]. There were cuckoos in summer, nesting in the meadow pipits’ nests – they nested in the stacks, and there were wagtails nesting there too. And I remember another thing, all the snakes – adders. One fella said he’d chopped more snakes in two than he’d hardly cut peat. The adders’d be curled up on the path, and they slithered away when you came.”

“On the moss, we’d get really dry, we used to run out of drink in the hot weather. We’d gaa across the fields and gaa to the farm and get bottles of lemonade – they made it there. We was absolutely gasping. … You could start at any time of day, some of them took their wives – it doesn’t mattter, as long as you get the peats.”

In contrast, “if it was really cold you could make a fire. If it was gey windy, where you’d stacked the peats you could take peats out and make an alcove, like. The peats would burn away faster than … they were that dry and light.”

Or, if you were near the mill, there were old railway carriages and, as Patrick recalled, “an old bus which was a bothy for the workers. We’d eat our pieces in there – we called it our ‘piece’ [that’s the Glaswegian term] and the men from Aspatria and Wigton, they called it their ‘bait-tin’.”

He remembers his father as a hard-working, kind and honest man: the photo in the sitting-room shows a man with a broad, kindly face. “He was only a small wee man – he had hands like leather. He was a grafter. As soon as he finished with his piece he started again. I always remember him, working away with his pipe in his mouth. He’d put it on top of a peat and forget where it was. Then later he’d be saying ‘You know, Pat, I’ve covered that pipe of mine again.’ In stacking the peats in the Springtime he’d find his pipe again and he’d always say ‘that’s the best smoke I’ve had for a month!’.”

But the men and the methods moved on.

In 1958, when he was nineteen, Patrick left the moss to work as a shunter on the railway.

Thomas left in 1963, having shifted from cutting peat to driving the bus for the peat-workers from Wigton. “It was the winter of ‘62/’63 – it was that hard winter, there was snow on the ground for months, everything was frozen. The covering of short moss, all over, it was solid. We went on the dole, and then I went to work on the chicken farm at Heathfield. I didn’t go back to the Moss after that.”

Henry Engelen Sr, meanwhile, went to Germany “to look at the automated cutting there, and he imported German cutting machines – which could cut, chop, lift and lay, so that the hard labour was done away with.” Engelen eventually sold the Cumberland Moss Litter Company to Fisons. After a management buy-out in 1994 Fisons became Levingtons; then Scotts took over the peat-cutting and milling in 1997, until peat-harvesting ended in about 2000.

The Moss was skimmed and ‘harrowed’, the heather all gone, the peat exposed and drying out. Patrick took his father back a couple of times, but they were upset at the changes, the lack of heather and vegetation, the lack of birds.

(My thanks to James Smith for these aerial photos)

Since 2003, Kirkbride Moss and Wedholme Flow have been in the care of Natural England, and work is ongoing to repair and re-wet the damaged peatlands. If the many wetland species of Sphagnum moss can re-colonise, they will capture and store rain-water, the virtuous cycle of wetland restoration can re-start, and the mire will gradually rise up again. This could take several decades, but the first steps have been made.

We appreciate, now, (even though this often means re-learning, and reminding others) how unique and important the Mosses are in terms of their vegetation, their animals – birds, vertebrates ranging from lizards to roe deer, and invertebrates such beetles and dragonflies –  and their importance as a carbon-store and record of the past.

The peat-workers, too, appreciated the wildlife and special-ness of the place, but in those days climate change and carbon stores were not part of the vocabulary. ‘Natural capital’ means different things at different times: then, peat was there to be harvested and sold, and peat-bogs provided work.

As for Henry Engelen Sr, after he retired “he liked his music, and his ballroom dancing – he’d often go dancing five times a week!” his son told me.“He bought the old British Legion hall at Silloth because it had a good wooden floor, perfect for dancing, and he took the floor away and used it in St Cuthbert’s Hall at Wigton.”


I am grateful to Patrick McGoldrick and his sister Bridget, and to Thomas Holden, for their warm hospitality and willingness to tell me about their experiences; to Susan Childs of the Remembering the Solway project for introducing me to Patrick; to Frank Mawby for helpful discussions about awards, stints and the history of Wedholme Flow; to Mark Graham of Grampus Heritage for the photo of the remnants of the narrow-gauge track at Wedholme; to Henry Engelen for a long phone conversation; and to Malcolm Wilson for his great generosity.

[1] Remembering the Solway, a video based on the Oral History Project with Solway Wetlands Landscape Partnership and the NE Civic Trust; see especially the first two interviews (David Hume, Margaret Sharples) about working and playing ‘on the Moss’.

[2] Blackburn Moss ( probably Easter Inch)

[3] Ian D Rotheram (2009) Peat and Peat Cutting. Shire Publications, Oxford

[4] Anne Campbell (2013) Rathad an Isein, The Bird’s Road: a Lewis moorland glossary. Faram, Glasgow

[5] Martin Limbert (2012) Peat exploitation on Thorne Moors see especially the chapter on The Dutch (sadly the images are missing)

Cumbria BogLIFE Project

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