The Upper Wharfedale Museum Society began in 1975 when a group of local people occupied their winter evenings making a large-scale relief map of Grassington Parish taken from a 19th century tithe map. They needed somewhere to show it to the villagers and soon had enough offers of old items of local interest to establish a small museum.
Premises adjacent to the Black Horse Hotel were rented. Very quickly these were overflowing and the numbers of visitors increased. After much searching, a cottage in the Square was purchased and its restoration began. This former dwelling, now the museum, dates from around 1728. Originally two cottages, probably miners’ cottages, the building has been altered several times in its long life. The room behind the right hand cottage was originally a single-roomed cottage dating from the mid seventeenth century.
The cottage, itself a part of Old Grassington, could not be a better place to illustrate the village’s long history. Old pictures of the cottage show three chimneys, but apart from the blocking up of one door and some new windows, the building has changed very little over the centuries, although the beck which flowed through the Square immediately in front of the building is now underground.
How many thousands of visitors to Grassington from all over Britain and from overseas, see the old village as a charming tourist centre in the Yorkshire Dales National Park and look upon its cobbled Square and its narrow courts or “folds” as a picturesque memory of a bygone rural England?
The truth is not quite so simple. Though medieval Grassington, with its weekly market in the Square, was the most important village in Upper Wharfedale, it was industry as much as farming which created the Grassington we see today. Grassington was as much a part of the Industrial Revolution as Manchester or Bradford. Local mills, originally water-powered corn mills at Linton Falls (the site now being occupied by a small housing estate completed in 1988), grew into textile mills which flourished until the huge steam-powered mills in Lancashire and Yorkshire cities, close to major lines of communication, made the isolated Dales mills uneconomic.
The rich deposits of lead ore on Grassington Moor were worked from the time of James I by mining families who came into the area from Swaledale and Derbyshire. At its peak, the highly complex system of mines employed some hundreds of men and boys and made annual profits of up to £20,000 per annum, until cheap imports and dwindling ores forced their closure in 1882. The end of lead mining brought a period of depression and decline to Grassington. Its population fell by two-thirds with many families forced to leave the area. The village returned to being an agricultural community.
It was the coming of the Yorkshire Dales Railway from Skipton in 1902 that changed Grassington’s fortunes. The railway enabled two seemingly contradictory industries to develop, namely, limestone quarrying which now provides a vital raw material for the steel, chemical and construction industries and tourism which, like quarrying, is an important source of local employment. The Grassington Folk Museum, with its collection of tools, household items and artefacts, may give some insight into the life of those many generations of Dales folk who have helped to create the village and the landscape we see today.