‘There’s more milk drank in London in a fortnight than all the cows in England give in a month’, a milkman tells the Thames magistrate.

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London, in fact, knows nothing of real milk, which differs as thoroughly as chalk is unlike cheese, from the spurious stuff we are at present contented with. Commercial milk is a compound which any conscientious cow would indignantly repudiate, 

Punch, 1849

When George Day was charged with stealing milk at Thames Police court it revealed the wholesale adulteration of milk in the capital, something the sitting magistrate was clearly unaware of. The ‘audience’ at Thames however, laughed throughout the hearing, suggesting that they were well aware of the practice and were amused by both the candour of the various witnesses and the ignorance of ‘his Worship’.

The prosecution was brought by Thomas Stevens who ran a dairy and kept cows at Dock Street in Whitechapel. George Day was a regular customer but Stevens had his suspicions about him. The dairyman was pretty certain that the milkman was pinching his milk by the fairy subterfuge of paying for one pail whilst collecting two.

On Thursday morning (18th September 1845) Day appeared as usual (carry two emptily pails) and asked for six quarts of milk. John Knott was milking a cow and when he’d filled one pail (with around 11 quarts) he handed it to Day. Normally those buying milk wholesale like this would have it taken to be strained in the dairy but Day said he was in a hurry so told Knott that he would carry in himself. However, Knott noticed that the milkman had set it down nearby and headed into the dairy without it.

All of this had been seen by Stevens who had hidden himself in a room above one of the cow houses and was spying on him from a window. He saw Day stroll into the dairy carry his empty pail where he was served by another of Steven’s employees, Mrs Gilbert. She gave him six quarts of strained milk, which he paid for.

So the con was pretty obvious: Day presumably appeared each morning with two empty pails which could hold up to about 12 quarts each. He asked and paid for six quarts of fresh milk and ended up with more than twice that amount by the simply tactic of getting his milk directly from the cow and hoping no one noticed. He was caught because the dairy was more alert than he thought it was.

However, the case was made much more interesting because of what George Day did next.

Having received the six quarts for strained milk (i.e. ready to sell to his customers) he carried it over to a pump and topped it up with water. When he admitted this before Mr Broderip at Thames Police Court the place collapsed in laughter (with the exception of the magistrate that is).

‘Is that usual?’ the justice asked him.

‘For him to do so it is sir’, explained the dairy owner.

‘I have regally bobbed it – it’s all right’, confirmed Day, seemingly unembarrassed by his admission that he watered down his milk.

Mr Broderip was confused, what did ‘bobbing’ mean? That was, he was told, the term used to describe adding milk and chalk to strained milk to make it go further. Far from being ashamed to have been caught out George Day was quite happy to tell his worship ‘a few secrets of the milk trade’.

‘We never sell it without water. Of course warm water is the best, ’cause then the people believe it’s just been yielded by the cow. Nothing like it, sir. We adds a little chalk to the score sometimes, and the customers don’t mind it’.

As he had made to leave the dairy, with his two pails balanced carefully over his shoulders with a yoke, Thomas Stevens had run after him and accused him of stealing his milk. Despite Day’s loud denials he was given into the custody of a nearby policeman and so had ended up before the Thames magistrate.

He denied his crime and continued to argue he had done nothing wrong in ‘bobbing’ the milk he sold on the streets.

‘Law bless your worship, its not the first time it’s been done by thousands’ (prompting yet more roars of laughter in court). It was ‘and old saying’ Day told the court, ‘that more milk was drank in London in a fortnight than all the cows in England give in a month’.

The practice of adulteration (or ‘bobbing’) was evidently widespread and well known.

Mr Broderip was satisfied that a felony had been committed but before he could draw up the indictment to send Day for trial he needed formally to hear Mrs Gilbert’s evidence. Therefore he remanded Day overnight for the dairywoman to appear. As for ‘bobbing’ he suggested that the public (via the newspapers) needed to be made aware of this sharp practice, and after this report they certainly were. My suspicions however are that most working class Londoners were already well aware of the reality of what their milk contained, although it may have come as a shock to polite society. Regardless the magistrate declared that it was one of the most ‘impudent’ defences he had heard for a long time.

Day was eventually tried for the theft of 11 quarts of milk but I’m unsure of the outcome. He was listed as being in the Middlesex House of Detention awaiting trial (probably at the Middlesex Sessions). Given the extent of evidence against him I rather suspect he would have been convicted and then imprisoned for a few months.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 19, 1845]

Food adulteration was a massive problem for the Victorians: ‘As late as 1877 the Local Government Board found that approximately a quarter of the milk it examined contained excessive water, or chalk, and ten per cent of all the butter, over eight per cent of the bread, and 50 per cent of the gin had copper in them to heighten the colour’. (1) 

(1) Adulteration and Contamination of Food in Victorian England, Professor Anthony S. Wohl, Professor of History, Vassar College [http://www.victorianweb.org/science/health/health1.html]

4 thoughts on “‘There’s more milk drank in London in a fortnight than all the cows in England give in a month’, a milkman tells the Thames magistrate.

  1. I wrote something a few years back about what went into beer. https://actonbooks.com/2015/06/19/poison-beer-19th-century/
    It shocked me at first but then its consequences kind of made sense. I never could work out why there was so much gratuitous violence and especially self-harm in the 19th century, until I looked at what went into a pint of beer. Made the worst excesses of the sixties and seventies — horse tranquilizers and LSD — pale into insignificance. The difference was that no-one knew the psychotropic effects back then.
    So while chalk and water would not kill you beer almost certainly would send you mad. Boiled sweets on the other hand would definitely kill you.
    https://actonbooks.com/tag/poisons-in-19th-century-sweets/

    Like

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