RESEARCH: Catherine Ryan with some of the research material she has collated on the cheesemongers of Teesdale
RESEARCH: Catherine Ryan with some of the research material she has collated on the cheesemongers of Teesdale

THE tale of how three Teesdale families became kingpins of the cheese trade in London in the 18th and 19th century will be the topic of a history talk to be held at Barningham this autumn.

Dale historian Catherine Ryan spent ten years piecing together information after becoming intrigued by the number of residents of Boldron who headed down to the capital to make their fortune.

She said: “I found that a lot of people from Boldron, which is a not large place then or now, were going back and forth to London on the census.

“I also noticed a lot of them were listed as cheesemongers. At first I thought it was strange, but it turns out not to be that strange.”

Mrs Ryan, who is treasurer of BoldronHistory Group, began tracking names through the years.

She visited records offices in both County Durham and North Yorkshire, tracked down copies of old directories and even transcribed a huge amount of 18th and 19th century wills.

She was spurred on to find out more about the cheese-monger connections after discovering her grandmother’s meticulously kept records from when she sold her own dairy produce at Barnard Castle’s butter market.

What Mrs Ryan discovered is that members of certain families from Teesdale, mainly from south of the River Tees, created a “cartel”, buying up cheese from around the country and selling it from shops they owned in London.

She added: “There are many reasons they went to London.

“There are 31 families that are involved in this but in the talk I am concentrating on three main ones, the Todds of Barningham, the Bensons of Boldron and Rokeby and the Whitfields of Startforth.”

Between them, these three families owned no fewer than 28 cheese shops in some of the most salubrious streets of London – and also in some not so desirable ones as well.

Although cheese was considered a cheap source of protein at the time the families managed to amass large fortunes.

John Todd, who was baptised at Brignall, worked as a cheesemonger at the Angel Islington before moving back to Barningham. When he died he left annuities and legacies that would be worth £6.1million today.

However, that is nothing compared to the wealth amassed by William Whitfield, baptised at Startforth.

Mr Whitfield first ran a shop with his half brother John at Lamb’s Conduit Street before moving his operation to Bond Street. On his death, his estate ran into the equivalent of tens of millions of pounds in today’s terms.

The sheer amount of money these families accrued is perhaps one of the reasons they intermarried on a regular basis, something Mrs Ryan admits became a “little confusing as they habitually named children after parents and uncles and aunts, so all the names in one generation are the same”. For example, there were 18 William Todds, 11 Joseph Todds and four James Bensons.

She adds: “The talk concentrates on the latter half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century and I did concentrate on the times before the census came in, which is harder to find information. I used newspapers, directories and slowly put the picture together.”

A date has yet to be finalised for the The Cheesemongers of Teesdale talk by Barningham History Group but it is expected to be sometime in October or November.