Milking the profits in 1880s Rotherhithe

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There is still a ‘proper’ milkman who delivers in the early hours of the morning in our street. Milkman used to be ubiquitous though; this was how nearly everyone got their milk until the supermarkets and convenience stores usurped the trade.

In the 1970s and 80s (when I was growing up in north London) milk was delivered in glass bottles which were then left as ‘empties’ to be returned to and refilled by the dairy. In the Victorian period a milkman brought his milk in pails and sold it by the pint, decanting it into whatever container the housewife produced.

Just as we have a foods standards agency to protect consumers Victorian society had sanitary inspectors who checked the quality of meat, dairy, and other consumables, visiting the various shops, markets and street traders to ensure their produce was both safe and unadulterated.  Throughout the 1800s food was adulterated (adding chalk to bread to make it ‘white’ for example) and beer watered down. This was all down to improve margins and increase profits but the last quarter of the century it was illegal and offenders could be prosecuted before a magistrate.

Joseph King fell foul of the law in late July 1881. The Bermondsey milkman was driving his cart in Rotherhithe and crying ‘milk, oh!’ to attract his customers, when Joseph Edwards approached him. Edwards was a sanitary inspector and King clearly recognized him. When Edwards asked him for a pint of milk the milkman refused his request. When he continued to refuse the inspector withdrew and applied for a summons to bring him before a magistrate.

On Friday 29 July King was up before Mr Marsham at Greenwich Police court. Edwards presented the case as he saw it. He’d had his suspicions about King so had approached him as described. When he’d asked for some milk King initially said he didn’t have any, but Edwards ignored him and opened up on of the cans on the cart. There was plenty left inside it.

He then told the milk seller who and what he was (as if King didn’t know) and this prompted King to say that what he had there was milk mixed with water, which he sold for 4a pint. He added that his customers knew what it was and there was no deception on his part. If they wanted pure milk they could have it, at 5a pint.

Edwards then walked across to where he’d seen the milkman last make a sale and asked the woman there what she’d bought. She vehemently denied being told that the milk she’d bought had been mixed with water. He was bang to rights and the inspector told the court that a ‘very fair profit was got out of pure milk sold at 4d’.  Mr Marsham agreed and fined Joe King 20splus 2s costs for trying to deceive his customers and  drive up his margins.

Perhaps he should have suggested that milk with less fat and a higher water content might have been a healthier option for the good folk of Rotherhithe, but I don’t think we had progressed to skimmed or semi-skimmed (let alone almond or oat) milk by then.

[from The Standard, Saturday, July 30, 1881]

One thought on “Milking the profits in 1880s Rotherhithe

  1. Much more ecological than cartons/plastic containers used now. The droppings used to be eagerly scooped up by gardeners & put on their roses. When I was a child, it was a common sight to see horses and carts – one horse died outside our house (the milkman got my mother to sit on the horse’s head, I assume to stop it fitting) – and my great grandfather was a costermonger, so my grandmother (born in 1894) grew up in mews accommodation.

    Liked by 1 person

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