- Before the industrial revolution dairy cows were both town and farm animals.
- But industrialisation, the railways and the contamination of urban milk resulted in supplies being brought in from rural areas.
- Nevertheless, milk remained a major cause of disease until the 1930s.
Before the Revolution (Pre-1760)
The Town Cow
- Milk was produced and supplied locally. Towns had their own cows.
- But they lived in dirty, crowded, unventilated sheds and weren’t fed properly.
- Government neither subsidised nor regulated the industry. Edmund Burke’s 1795 Thoughts and Details on Scarcity criticised French state control of food prices, preferring England’s laissez-faire approach.
Industrialisation (1760 – 1840)
- Cities grew as people moved from rural areas in search of jobs. It got harder to feed them.
- Milk became expensive.
- Crowded cowsheds and mountains of manure resulted in contamination.
- People were getting sick, especially with typhoid and tubercolosis.
Before the War (1840 – 1914)
- In the 1840s, milk started being brought by rail to urban areas from the countryside. This increased dramatically in the 1860s and 1870s.
- In 1865 Aylesbury Dairy Company, seen then as the height of scientific dairy production, was established to supply London with milk from Aylesbury.
- Some of these countryside dairies started mechanising with lifts, hoists and milking machines.
- Mechanisations were designed to generate public faith in milk purity, as urbanites no longer saw how their food was made.
- The increasing distance between people and agriculture made tampering easier.
- Milk was frequently watered down, had the cream removed, or had starch or other thickeners added.
- The Society of Public Analysts was formed in 1874 to deal with adulteration and by 1885 most of their time was devoted to analysing milk.
- They devised milk standards and tampering declined.
- A national standard for milk gradually evolved, which encouraged the creation of larger dairies outside urban areas where milk from different sources was combined and tested.
- This was the beginning of milk being treated as an abstract and statistical commodity.
- Centralisation made pasteurisation easier and cheaper.
- Urban milk production fell. By the 1890s there were few urban dairies or cowsheds.
- By 1900, refrigeration allowed for more milk to be transported and there were established rail networks between large rural dairies and urban areas.
The Wars (1914 – 1945)
- After WWI, even more focus was placed on milk safety, especially ensuring that it was tuberculosis free.
- By the 1930s, milk was being promoted as clean and healthy.
- Production didn’t increase much during this period. But disputes over prices broke out between farmers and milk buyers.
- In response, the government created the Milk Marketing Board (MMB) in 1933.
- The MMB was tasked with buying milk from all farmers and offered a guaranteed price.
- During WWII milk production declined as resources were diverted.
- The MMB came under direct control of the state.
By Elizabeth Schoales
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Atkins, P.J. “White Poison? The Social Consequences of Milk Consumption, 1850-1930.” Social History of Medicine vol. 5 (1992) pp. 207-27
Brassley, Paul. “Output and Technical Change in Twentieth-Century British Agriculture.” The Agricultural History Review vol 48 part I (2000) pp. 60-84
Otter, Chris. “The Vital City: public Analysis, Dairies and Slaughterhouses in Nineteenth-Century Britain.” Cultural Geographies vol. 13 (2006) pp. 517-37