How Lancashire's love affair with the humble pig helped feed the nation at war
John Grimbaldeston looks back through the generations to see how the pig became a favourite with Lancashire's farmers and hungry families alike.
In the animal spectrum of agricultural respect, pigs are towards the bottom, horses and cattle to the top. Agricultural Show catalogues carry pictures of splendid shires and prize bulls, but the poor old pig is rarely awarded a photograph. Yet they have been a staple of the working class diet for years.
The ancestors of the domestic pig were the wild boar which were hunted for food and sport. The Anglo-Saxons hunted wild boar so much they suffered a serious decline in numbers, and William I decreed anyone found illegally hunting a wild boar would have his eyes put out.
Early farmers saw opportunities if these boar could be domesticated. Pigs were scavengers and therefore cheap to keep and they would fatten on foods that other animals refused.
They loved woodlands and in autumn would be released to scavenge grubs, acorns and ‘mast,’ the nuts from beech trees. The right of domestic pigs to be released into the woods was known as ‘pannage’.
With forests being cut down to extend farmland, and the restricted access to the forests that remained, the perception and management of pigs changed as they could no longer be easily turned out into their natural habitat. Pigs had to be more confined, feeding had to be managed and there was a chance to experiment with breeding and foodstuffs.
Experiments included the integration of foreign breeds, most importantly from China; hardy, quiet pigs which fattened quickly.
Other imports were the Neapolitan breeds, which were excellent mothers and had tasty flesh. Characteristics of the pig could change very quickly as sows had two litters a year and generations passed quickly and thus the notion of traditional breeds became meaningless.
Descendants of a pig identified as a Berkshire at one point might look entirely different a few years later. By late Victorian times, the pig had few similarities with its 17th century equivalents.
In the countryside the pig’s ability to live off very little meant that even the poorer cottagers owned one, fed on household scraps such as potato peelings or food gathered from hedgerows.
Those in the village without a pig could still contribute to the feeding of a neighbour’s and be rewarded with a piece of meat at killing time, but being without a pig was often an indication of
real poverty. On the other hand a second pig could be kept for profit or paying bills and was often seen as a means of controlling, rather than being controlled by, one’s economic circumstances.
Pig killing for the cottager was quite a ceremonial event. The pig would be about 300 pounds in weight; dead weight was generally reckoned as 72 per cent of that. If the owner wasn’t slaughtering himself he would be present, and it would be done on or near his premises. Slaughter was usually done in the cooler months, between November and Easter. Often the owner tried to time the event to coincide with the first cold snap to help with chilling, and hopefully the carcass would supply the family’s needs until spring.
The pig was often seen as part of the intimate family circle; they had fed it, tickled it, played with it, and so its ultimate demise could be quite upsetting and be seen as something of a betrayal, even by practical farmers.
The affection in which the animals were held can also be seen by the frequency with which they were photographed.
An owner’s feeling of guilt might be compounded by the intelligence pigs evidenced. Pig keepers were witnesses to many examples of pigs’ cleverness: opening gates, shaking apples out of trees, and so on.
One in the New Forest in the early 19th century had been trained by a gamekeeper to point at raised game – though how that worked with the pig’s curly tail isn’t recorded.
After the killing the bristles were removed, either by scalding the body with hot water and then scraping it, or by singeing with burning straw. There were special scraping implements, but sometimes the bottoms of brass or pewter candlesticks were used.
Famously, every part of the pig was used, “except the squeal”. The blood was used for black puddings, trotters for brawn, even the larger bristles could be used for stitching shoes, and of course the bladder was a short-lived football.
Specialised pig production for sale and profit was rare before 1900. The Agricultural College at Hutton began pig keeping classes around the turn of the 19th century, though an article in the Royal Lancashire Show catalogue of 1905 explaining some of the courses and facilities of the college showed the piggeries, but didn’t advertise those courses in the same way as it did for dairy cattle and cheese.
During the First and Second World Wars the population was encouraged to keep pigs as a quick way of building up available protein.
Numbers of pig farmers increased after the end of the Great War from about 2m in 1918 to more than 3m in 1934, but even so the country was still importing two-thirds of its pig meat, half of that from Denmark. The pigs went on wartime rations, too.
Wheat went for human food, so the pigs were basically fed on scraps – potato peelings, and sometimes the lees from beer barrels which got them drunk and provided local boys with some amusement.
In the Second World War anyone was allowed to keep a pig, and another one for the Ministry of Food, and often a secret third for the informal black market which operated as owners secreted joints around the house for trading later.
Pigs also helped to cut down waste: swill from the military camps and air bases sprouting up around Britain went to pigs, and also food otherwise unfit for human consumption through companies newly authorised to process it.
In the country, old traditions were resurrected: people went out to the woods in autumn to forage for acorns and beech mast which in the days of pannage the pigs would have found for themselves. The Ministry of Agriculture advised farmers to ask local schools to collect acorns.
A survey of 1934 showed Lancashire to be the seventh largest county for pigs, the number of 115,000 representing an increase of almost 40% since 1930.
Another survey in 1936 showed there were five times as many pigs as in 1870, with the increase particularly great close to urban areas where there was food refuse available.
Commercial fattening of pigs also tended to happen in places where there were suitable foods, and Lancashire was at an advantage with its milk and whey. Large Whites were the most popular breed.
By 2013, Lancashire had 53,594 pigs confirming the animal as firmly established as a major contributor to the county’s agricultural economy.
• With thanks to Jack Sherdley (Pilling), Andy Jenkinson (Scronkey) and Sarah Jenkinson Skelton (Eagland Hill) for the pictures.