Gaskell House Blogs

Mrs Gaskell and Miss Betty Barker’s Alderney Cow

30th May 2019
in blog, Literature

This must be one of the best known and best loved stories from Cranford:

An old lady had an Alderney cow, which she looked on as a daughter. You could not pay the short quarter-of-an-hour call, without being told of the wonderful milk or wonderful intelligence of the animal. The whole town knew and kindly regarded Miss Betty Barker’s Alderney; therefore great was the sympathy and regret when, in an unguarded moment, the poor cow tumbled into a lime pit. She moaned so loudly that she was soon heard, and rescued, but meanwhile the poor beast had lost most of her hair, and came out looking naked, cold, and miserable, in a bare skin. Everybody pitied the animal, though a few could not restrain their smiles at her droll appearance. Miss Betty Barker absolutely cried with sorrow and dismay; and it was said she thought of trying a bath of oil. The remedy, perhaps, was recommended by someone of the number whose advice she asked; but the proposal, if ever it was made, was knocked on the head by Captain Brown’s decided ‘Get her a flannel waistcoat and flannel drawers , Ma’am, if you wish to keep her alive. But my advice is, kill the poor creature at once.’
Miss Betty Barker dried her eyes, and thanked the Captain heartily; she set to work, and by-and-by all the town turned out to see the Alderney meekly going to her pasture, clad in dark grey flannel. I have watched her myself many a time. Do you ever see cows dressed in grey flannel in London?

This anecdote is taken from the first Cranford story ever published –  Our Society in Cranford – which appeared in  Household Words  on December 12 1851 ( vol IV, no 90) and Elizabeth Gaskell was paid £10 for it. Go to the wonderful website, Dickens Journals Online, for more information about her publications in the magazine. And next time you visit the House, search our copies of Household Words in William Gaskell’s study and find the story!

Alderney cows, and there are plenty in the photograph above which I found in the Alderney Museum, were smaller and more finely boned than cows from Jersey and Guernsey, and they had a reputation for producing more milk and even richer butter than their Channel Island neighbours – a prize indeed for Miss Betty Barker. They were also described as very good natured. We can’t be sure though that Miss Betty Barker’s cow was a pure bred Aldernery! In the nineteenth century, all cattle imported from the Channel Islands – whether they were from Jersey, Guernsey or Alderney – arrived in England off the Alderney boat, so called because Alderney had been its last port of call. While all the cows coming off the boat were known as Alderneys, only about 4% of them had actually come from the island. And as all Channel Island cows looked very similar, most English buyers just couldn’t distinguish between them.

For me, Alderney today is a wonderful island which celebrates its cows! There are a number of historic drinking  troughs on the island – abreuvoirs publique – which used to provide easily accessible water for large numbers of cows on an island with few surface streams. And the large standing stone – known locally as the Madonna Stone – was originally a cattle scratching post in a nearby field on land which has been farmed since 800 CE.

Sadly, there are now no pure bred Alderney cows in existence. Most were transferred to Guernsey just before the German Occupation of Alderney during the Second World War and interbred with local Guernsey breeds. The last Alderney cow was eaten by the Germans in 1944 – and we can be sure never wore flannel drawers or a flannel waistcoat!

Lesley – House Volunteer


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