As far as I know, our Smith ancestors were farmers in Cumberland from at least the early 18th century although early parish records in England do not state the occupations of the parishioners. They were yeomen, meaning they owned their own land and worked it themselves. As such they would have been a step above tenant farmers and one below landlords with large estates. The Smiths lived in Melmerby and Gamblesby, two farming communities that are only about one and a quarter miles (2 km) apart. The countryside around there is a rugged open country of hills, which are called ‘fells’ in that part of England. The fells are part of the North Pennines; the Hartside Fell is in Melmerby and Addingham parishes.
Melmerby and Gamblesby are in the upper part of the Eden Valley very close to the fells. The river Eden flows north-west to Carlisle and then to the sea. The countryside is still rural and has a small population; industrialization has largely passed it by (although there was always some industrial activity, including mining, in the area). There are other small communities in the area where Smiths and Smith-related families lived, such as Kirkoswald and Renwick. Some Smiths lived and worked in the market town of Penrith which is about 7 miles (12 km) from Melmerby. Most of them seem to have stayed in the Eden Valley. Unlike Irish families that show significant emigration from each generation, very few of the Smiths moved away – until our ancestors decided to go to Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century.
We don’t know what the lives of fell farmers were like in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries but we do know something of what they were like later on and they probably did not change much from earlier times. According to the narrative written by Agnes Nicholson (nee Agnes Hannah Smith) about the lives of the Smiths in Gamblesby during the early 19th century, the farmers and their families were largely self-sufficient:
People carded and spun their own wool and had it woven into cloth by the village weaver. The daughters of the house spun flax and had their stores of sheets woven from it and laid up against their wedding day… Rag carpets woven by the village weaver from strips of old cloth of many colours sewn together in long lengths and resulting in a sort of Joseph’s coat … were a favourite covering for the floors… It was the custom … to lay in a good stock of meat for the winter. Sheep were killed and salted down and a number of geese were boiled down and kept in large jars covered with cakes of mutton fat.