FACT SHEET: History of Dairy Farming (1700s – 1945)

  • 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)

State Intervention

  • 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


You’re free to re-use, edit and even claim this research as your own. Though if you do give us credit, please tell your readers if you’ve made amendments.


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


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