In 1800, the population of London was just approaching a million, but by 1900 there were 6.7 million residents. The rise of the city wasn’t good for everybody: London’s growing pains were the forerunner of those that affect today’s megacities, including poor sanitation, slum accommodation, pollution, lawlessness and so on.
Despite all its problems (for which, see Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist…) London became preeminent among the major cities of the 19th century. Solutions to the problems were found: Robert Peel created the Metropolitan Police in 1829, and the Victorians engineered a magnificent sewer system that survives to this day. It seemed that millions of people could live together in the same small space… but milk became a problem.
Londoners consumed an awful lot of milk. Or rather, they wanted to. London’s appetite for milk was insatiable. As the population of a city grows, as land becomes more expensive and commerce edges out agriculture… how do you feed everybody?
Until the 1870s, most of London’s milk was produced within the city itself, but it wasn’t all good milk. Just as many Chinese cities are plagued by food scandals today, so London had its share of problems a century and a half ago.
In 1850, a medical man by the name of H. Hodson Rugg published a pamphlet on the plight of dairy cows in London, and the poor quality of the milk produced. He described cows that seldom if ever saw pasture, but were kept in sheds and were fed entirely on waste products such as brewers’ grains and distillers’ wash. (The reformer Robert Milham Hartley reported the same thing occurring in New York City.) When we talk about ‘food miles’ nowadays, keep in mind that complying with that particular metric might be completely at odds with the issue of animal welfare: most city-centre animals led a miserable existence.
It seems that being fed the byproducts of the brewing industry actually boosted milk production – at least, if you didn’t mind your cows getting diseased udders, having their teeth drop out, and their joints become so stiff that they couldn’t lie down. The milk produced became thin and bluish, and it was common practice to adulterate it with all sorts of ingredients in an attempt to make it look better. One of the additions that Rugg reported was sheep brains, apparently giving the ‘milk’ a better texture and colour.
It had become very difficult to bring enough produce into the city. The roads weren’t up to job, and with no refrigeration, delays meant spoilage. Meanwhile, unscrupulous sellers did all kinds of things to make a limited supply of milk go a little further. If sheep brains were a step too far, there was always the simple expedient of adding water.
Not all water was fit for drinking, though, so watered-down milk wasn’t just bad value; it might make you ill. Canny Londoners would insist that the milk they bought was nice and warm, since this meant it was unlikely to have been diluted with water. Warmth was also seen as a guarantee of freshness; those buying were in the habit of sticking a finger in the milk to test its temperature, and they would refuse the cold stuff: quite the opposite of our attitude today.
Of course, if you lived at the wrong end of the street and everybody else had already stuck their finger in it, your milk might be none too clean. Some said that by afternoon, London milk “had fish in it”.
In contrast to the ‘concrete jungles’ that serve as capitals elsewhere in the world, London is blessed with a tremendous amount of parkland, and this survived as a consequence of the city’s need for fresh milk, in an age when no adequate means existed for bringing it in from the provinces. The parks that had once been royal hunting preserves became pastureland: Green Park was “nothing but a large field cropped down like velvet”, said James Fenimore Cooper. Many of the other parks were similar, with the presence of cows being seen as something of a bonus: you could buy fresh milk, straight from the cow, while you were out for a constitutional.
As late as 1905 you would have found up to eight cows tethered in St James’s Park, with milk sellers ready to sell you a mug of milk, taken straight from the udder. If you were a member of the gentry, you brought your own mug along, as the milk-sellers weren’t known to wash up the mugs between uses. (Not so very different from the Soviet-era soda vending machine, then…)
The railways first brought milk into London in 1852, and significant quantities were being brought in (mostly from the West Country) by the 1860s. A single milk tank wagon could hold enough milk for some 35,000 people, and this bounty changed everything. The small, family-run businesses were replaced with large-scale dairies, located adjacent to the railways that supplied them. This arrangement lasted about a century, until milk trains themselves became obsolete in the late 1960s when the long-distance transport of raw milk all but ceased.
Everything comes full circle, though, if you wait long enough. On the eastern edge of London, in the Borough of Havering, the council has just announced their intention to reintroduce cattle in order to keep the grass down. The red poll breed are good for public spaces since they are docile and naturally hornless, while their haphazard grazing patterns are said to help biodiversity whereas mechanised mowing tends to destroy native wild flowers. Also, there’s the small matter of saving a few hundred thousand pounds a year, and (because no good deed goes unpunished) their free-range life is expected to produce some particularly high quality beef.
Atkins, P.J. (1977) ‘London’s Intra-Urban Milk Supply, circa 1790-1914’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 383-399
Rugg, H.H. (1850) ‘Observations on London Milk, shewing its unhealthy character – With suggestions for remedying the evil’, Bailey and Moon. (Partially available online: see http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/observations-on-london-milk)
Valenze, D. (2011) ‘Milk: a local and Global History’, Yale University Press
Velten, H. (2013) ‘Beastly London: A History of Animals in the City’, Reaktion Books