Who Do You Think You Are?
The demand for dairy
Felix Rowe explains how urban dairies delivered milk to our ancestors in the 19th and early 20th centuries
Picture the scene: a bustling Victorian city ringing to the sound of industry and commerce, the hum and clatter of machinery churning out mass-produced goods interspersed with the distinctive mooing of cows. We’re used to considering 19th-century urban life as characterised by factories, mills and smog, so the presence of large livestock seems decidedly incongruous. Yet strange as it might now seem, city dairies were once a common sight, often situated cheek-by-jowl with residential properties in densely populated areas.
Regency London was home to thousands of cattle, and contrasting estimates place 12,000–40,000 dairy cows in the capital by the mid-19th century. This was echoed in cities across the country, with some small urban dairies still operating as recently as the 1980s.
Among the many factors that saw the rise of the urban dairy, a key ingredient was a growing appetite for fresh milk. The population in Victorian Britain was both rising dramatically and increasingly urbanised. As tea – served with milk – became increasingly fashionable among both rich and poor, so demand for the white stuff soared in the cities. In fact, tea was actively promoted by the authorities as a respectable drink for a productive working class, at a time when cheap gin was condemned for its degenerative effects on society.
Hospitals and convalescence homes were big customers, serving milk to patients and infants to help provide sustenance. Annual provisions for the Royal National Hospital on the Isle of Wight in 1880 (which had 160 beds) included 55,048 pints of milk at £400 and a further 28,394 pints produced by the hospital’s farm. Later, the advent of breakfast cereal, again served with milk, maintained demand into the 20th century.
Of course unlike cheese, which matures with age, milk is highly perishable. Before railways and improved preservation techniques enabled large quantities to be brought in daily from the neighbouring countryside, time was of the essence. Simply put, milk had to be produced close to where it was to be consumed.
Self-sufficiency within towns was vital. Even London, one of the world’s biggest trade capitals, needed this local supply to sustain daily life. The solution was simple: urban dairies to service the local population.
From the off, livestock of all shapes and sizes were a common sight in burgeoning cities, where backyard farming was the norm. As PJ Atkins notes in ‘London’s Intra-Urban Milk Supply, circa 1790–1914’, published in Transactions of the Institute of
British Geographers in 1977, in mid-19th-century London “the idea of a clearcut distinction between urban and rural life had yet to develop”. Dairies were simply an extension of this.
Some existing rural dairies on the city fringe were simply absorbed and assimilated into the encroaching urban sprawl. But purpose-built operations sprang up too. At the lower end, a cottage industry might simply consist of a small end-terrace property with a couple of cows in the yard, or a shop window offering fresh milk direct from the cow round the back. However, economies of scale could be achieved by the enterprising. As Atkins says, producers from traditional farming backgrounds met competition from “the emergence of a class of ‘capitalist’ cowkeepers able to finance milk production on a large scale”.
Throughout the early 19th century, city parks and even football pitches were utilised for grazing. One 1837 account attests that cows at pasture were a regular sight in Central London’s Green Park overlooking Buckingham Palace.
Increasingly, with inner-city space at a premium, farmers had to graze their herds further outside the city or resort to permanent incarceration in stall-fed cowhouses – what has been referred to as ‘rudimentary factory farming’.
To supplement or even replace pasture, many city dairies relied on ‘brewers’ grains’ – a cheap industrial-waste product, apparently more nutritious than might be supposed. The practice was mirrored in the USA, where urban ‘distillery dairies’ kept cows to eat the spent grains, selling the milk to supplement their brewing income. Despite an apparently symbiotic relationship, malpractice led to public-health
scares over so-called ‘swill milk’.
The demand for milk came at a cost, not least for the cows themselves. City dairies, such as Wright’s Dairy in Chelsea (later to become part of food manufacturer Unigate), traded on their high standards of hygiene and the freshness of their milk – even inviting customers to inspect the premises. However, all too many cattle were routinely kept in squalid conditions, with little exercise or daylight. The more unscrupulous dairies might water down the milk – a particular concern when the local water supply itself was often unclean.
Bouts of cattle disease had a notable effect on the industry from the mid-1840s onwards. The 1842 lifting of a ban on European cattle imports was partially responsible for outbreaks of disease in following years. Many animals were slaughtered in an attempt to stop the spread and minimise losses. Disease nullified the economy of scale achieved in larger operations, and the size of dairies slumped as a result.
In 1853, John Simon, the medical officer of health for the city of London, introduced measures regulating the conditions in cowhouses, including drainage, space, ventilation and the supply of water. Other attempts at cleaning up the business followed. How consistently these measures were enforced is debatable, but increased regulation certainly put some dairies out of business.
Train For Success
According to David Taylor’s ‘Growth and Structural Change in the English Dairy Industry, c1860–1930’, published in The Agricultural History Review in 1987: “The advent of the railway was to prove a decisive factor
‘Too many cattle were routinely kept in squalid conditions’
in the demise of urban milk production.” He notes that, from the 1860s, the “network opened up the possibility of new, external sources of supply to the everincreasing number of town and city dwellers”.
Notwithstanding this underlying trend, other sources from living memory paint a different picture, highlighting regional anomalies. A Sense of Place ( asenseofplace.com), a blog sharing memories of Liverpudlian city dairies, suggests – on the contrary – that the railways helped to facilitate, rather than hinder, them. Citing Duncan Scott’s book Urban Cowboys (2010), Ronnie Hughes argues that the increased mobility via rail from the 1860s actually lured farmers from North Yorkshire into the city – a trend that continued up until the disruption of the First World War. The cattle “would live in yards, be fed on fresh grass from local parks and even football grounds and many families would also run delivery rounds”. Supposedly, there were some 4,000 dairy cows in the city at the peak. Some residents still remember cows in their neighbourhoods in the 1980s.
Elsewhere, Welsh drovers migrated to London from Cardiganshire to set up dairies. Historic shopfronts still exist, such as for the Lloyd & Son Welsh dairy on the corner of Amwell Street in Finsbury.
Various other factors played a part in the urban dairy’s demise. Supermarket chains offering low-cost convenience are often cited as killing off local industry. Certainly the big chains may have delivered a decisive blow, but city-produced milk was already in decline countrywide by this point.
Atkins marks 1840–1914 as the period of decline for London’s urban dairies. The combination of increasing regulation and
a growing desire among the rising middle class for better living standards away from the sensory onslaught of livestock put strain on city cowkeepers. With soaring land rents and growing pressure from developers, space for pasture and cowsheds steadily decreased and the dairies were finally squeezed out. Growing rail networks, improved preservation from pasteurisation and, later, refrigeration made the need for speed and a city location less important. Since cheap daily milk was now readily available from the neighbouring countryside, it was simply no longer profitable or even desirable to produce it within the city.
Spotting Urban Dairies
Traces of dairies and cowhouses remain today in many city centres and suburbs. Typical of countless former industrial buildings, those that still stand have likely been converted into homes, retail units or office spaces – even art galleries! A seemingly insignificant gap or yard punctuating a terraced row of Victorian redbrick houses or shops – perhaps book-ended by a lean-to shack – might well signal a former dairy. Often this space between the buildings has been filled by recent development. A more obvious clue on a building’s facade is evidence of a wide, high-arched opening the size of a garage door – perhaps now bricked up – where the cows were brought to and from pasture. In some cases, the historic signage still hangs or remains painted on the
bust” of ‘You might spot the telltale “a cow’s head above the entrance’
brickwork. If you’re lucky, you might spot the telltale ‘bust’ of a cow’s head mounted high above the entrance of the building.
Although the cowhouse is long gone, several alternative city farms have sprung up in their absence in the latter half of the 20th century. Notable examples built on former industrial sites with the aim of promoting green values in urban spaces include Spitalfields City Farm, London, and Windmill Hill City Farm, Bristol.
With growing calls for reduced food miles and sustainable living, it might not quite be the end of the urban farmer.