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Post by Stanley »


In case you hadn’t noticed, Dairy Farmers of Britain, a cooperative of 1800 farmers founded in 2002 to market their milk independently, went into receivership at the beginning of June. They supplied about 10% of the milk we consume. There is little doubt that there had been bad management and DOFB had been in trouble for a while, closing down two large dairies and eventually getting to a position where they couldn’t pay for their milk supplies. The members have lost six week’s milk cheques and have had to try to find an alternative market for their produce. Many of the problems which brought the industry to this point have been laid at the door of the distributors. The farmers were only getting half of the retail price of the milk which seems to be unfair. The major retailers are the supermarkets and it was they and the middle men who were taking the lion’s share of the profit. This got me to thinking about the milk industry and what lessons we can learn from its troubles.

In years gone by, when Barlick was almost entirely a peasant farming community there was no problem about getting milk. We are a grazing area and the chief source of income was raising stock or milking cattle. You either milked your own cow or went to a neighbour who had a cow in milk. As more and more people were divorced from the land and worked at other jobs the practice of farmers taking the milk to the customer in bulk and ladling it out into a container on the doorstep started, probably sometime in the 18th century. They delivered twice a day because the milk was, to our minds, very dirty and wouldn’t keep for more than a few hours at room temperature. Remember, there were no fridges then! This practice continued for about 200 years without change and was a useful source of income to local farmers.

By the end of the 19th century the trade was so well established that you had to have a licence for retailing milk and the local Council administered the trade and inspected the quality of the product. I have records of prosecutions for trading without a licence and selling unfit milk from that time. The fines imposed were quite considerable, it was taken very seriously. As the price of making glass bottles fell because of industrialisation it became the practice to sell milk already bottled and you returned your milk bottle each day by leaving it on the doorstep to be swapped for a full one by the retailer. Once a week, almost always on Friday, the retailer would go on his rounds collecting the money for the milk delivered. Some bulk milk deliveries persisted until the end of WW2, I can remember the local farmer delivering from kits in his horse and trap in Stockport when I was a lad. A favourite accessory used by the housewife was a crocheted cover with beads round the edge to weight it which the retailer placed over the open container to stop the flies getting into it.

In large cities where the countryside was too far away they had a different system. The cows came to town and were kept indoors by cow-keepers who milked the cattle to exhaustion and then either sent them back into the country or slaughtered them for beef. This was a terrible system, bad for the cows and the environment because of all the manure that had to be disposed of. The cattle were very unhealthy and the milk of poor quality. The cow-keepers resorted to some very dubious practices to make their milk more saleable, one favourite was to mix crushed slugs in with the milk so it frothed when poured into the householder’s jug. This frothing was believed to be a sure sign of freshness. There was also the small matter of disease, Tuberculosis was endemic in the cattle and the untreated milk was a major source of infection to the customers who drank it. In April 1862 a French scientist called Louis Pasteur proved that if milk or wine was raised to a certain temperature during manufacture this killed off many of the harmful bacteria and rendered the product much safer. By the early 20th century the process of pasteurisation of milk was growing rapidly but wasn’t compulsory, raw milk could still be sold from farms direct to the consumer. However, milk became much safer.

As the public became aware of the dangers of unfiltered and untreated milk it became profitable to start local dairies which collected the milk from farms, treated and bottled it and sold it either direct to the public by running their own milk rounds or selling the milk wholesale to retailers in the town who delivered to the doorstep. In the 1950s in Barlick you had a choice between buying raw milk bottled and retailed by the farmer or dairy milk from a milk chap. Most milk sales in the town were delivered in this way to the doorstep. The only exception to this was the sale of specialised milk by grocers, tinned evaporated and condensed milk or the dreaded ‘sterilised milk’, in the trade we called it paralysed milk because it had been processed at a much higher temperature and tasted different. It had the supreme quality for a retailer in that unopened, it had a far longer shelf life and there was no waste.

As the population grew, milk processing became an important industry and many small processing dairies sprang up. In 1900, Colonel Roundell, the owner of the Gledstone Estate built a creamery at West Marton to process his tenant’s milk and market it thus giving them a more assured income. At first the dairy concentrated on making cream and cheese and selling bulk milk in kits to larger dairies, this was sent out by rail from Elslack Station. During the hard times of the 1920s the dairy faltered as many farmers sold their milk to dairies further afield using rail transport. In effect they cut out the local dairy who had supplied this market.

In 1912 Amos Nelson, a prominent mill-owner in Nelson bought the Thornton in Craven estate and lived at the Manor House. In 1920 he added the Gledstone Estate, demolished the old hall and built the Gledstone Hall we know today. By 1927 he was installed at the new house and as he settled in he started to take a greater interest in managing the estate. It wasn’t long before he turned his attention to the failing creamery at West Marton.
SCG/14 June 2009


Sir Amos Nelson.
Stanley Challenger Graham
Stanley's View
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