Cheese-maker par excellence

Sidney White was 97 when Ann Heeley interviewed him on four separate occasions in 1987. He was then living in a retirement home in Somerton and, at the time, was her oldest interviewee. Despite his age, his memory, even for detail, was remarkable.

Born in Kingsbury Episcopi into a farming family, he was one of ten children. Before leaving school he and his younger brother had to milk six or seven cows and this meant getting up soon after five o’clock. Because of this he didn’t enjoy school life much; he was nearly always tired and sometimes fell asleep at his desk and was reprimanded. But one particular school day remained firmly in his mind. The schoolmaster announced he was going outside for a few minutes, and when he returned, to find the class in some disarray, he told the children that he had just seen a motor car with a man walking in front carrying a red flag. It was almost certainly the first car to be seen in the village, possibly even in Somerset, and the excitement it caused can be imagined.

Sidney left school when his father discovered that the headmaster had been making the boy do odd jobs for him, such as unloading a cart laden with turf (peat) for the school’s winter supply. He told Sidney, ‘If you can work for the headmaster, then you can work for me,’ and he did so until his marriage. It was about this time that the young lad was sent for a time to live with a friend of his father’s, George Lester, on his farm at Ash, near Martock, to learn how to make cheese. Mr Lester was well-known for the excellence of his product, and Sidney found the experience invaluable.

When Sidney was fourteen the family moved to Tintinhull where his father rented a dairy. This was a system common in Victorian times and on into the early twentieth century, where a farmer would rent out cows at so much per head. The farmer would retain ownership, claim some of the heifer calves, provide a bull, and buy the food for the animals. The sale of the milk or the milk products provided the renter with his livelihood. Later, when Sidney stopped working for his father, he also rented dairies.

His first experience of farming on his own was at Sock Dennis near Yeovil, which had no water supply when he arrived. Eventually, after attempting without success to put down a borehole in the garden, and asking the Council and Water Board on many occasions to be connected, he was finally able to arrange for a supply to come across the fields from Somerton. Here he rented cows at £11 each, and plenty of clean water was an urgent requirement as by then Sidney was married, and he and his wife were making cheese. They made Dorset Blue Vinney and Cheddar and he described to Ann their methods in detail; he said he felt that his wife was the better cheese-maker. They regularly had a pupil (always a young woman) working with them to learn the craft. Sidney was also able to remember from where he had bought his cheese-making requirements and how he had marketed the cheese. He always kept Shorthorn cattle, never switching to Friesians as so many farmers did.

The couple moved to various farms in Somerset. Sidney went on to win numerous prizes for his cheese at various agricultural shows and became a highly respected judge of cheese at the National Dairy Show. He finally retired when he was eighty. In 1935 he started the Young Farmers Club in Yeovil and in 1985, when he was 95, he was invited to cut the cake at their fiftieth anniversary celebrations, a fitting end to a lifetime’s achievements.

Mary Vidal

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