If you visit Hyde Park this weekend you will see many things: couples strolling arm in arm, dog owners walking their pets, cyclists clad in lycra and joggers sipping from water bottles; there will be ducks and geese and squirrels, and plenty of pigeons; and of course at this time of year there will crowds of people attending the Winter Wonderland.
What you are very unlikely to see is cattle. However, in 1829 cows grazed on the parklands, reminding us that early nineteenth-century London was a lot more rural than we might expect.
Cows were pastured on the grass by the ‘cow keepers’ who helped supply milk to the thirsty population of London in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Research has shown that there was a herd of about 30-40 cows in the park and that other herds were grazed across the capital and on its perimeter. Of course as London expanded much of the green space was gradually built upon and by the middle of the 1800s many of these herds were disappearing. The Victorian period also experienced a change in the tolerance of animals on the city streets and increasingly cattle and sheep were directed away from centres such as Smithfield to the outskirts of London. This has been described as ‘improvement’ by historians.
In 1829 one man was clearly enjoying the benefits of having milk cows nearby. Joseph Nicholas had taken to milking the cows himself under cover of night and taking home a couple of bottles for himself and his family.
This did not go unnoticed by the cow keepers who began to suspect that the dwindling yield form some of their animals was not occasioned by a problem with the animals themselves. They contacted the police (quite possibly Peel’s newly created body) and set them to watch the park at night.
Sure enough, in mid November 1829 at 10 at night two officers saw a man waking in the park. It was Nicholas and they stopped and asked him his business.
‘Halloa there’, they enquired, ‘what are you doing?”
‘Nothing particular’ the middle aged man replied, ‘only inhaling a little fresh air, for the benefit of my health’.
The constables thought it an odd time to be taking the air so they searched him. In either of his long coat pockets they found a bottle of warm milk, freshly squeezed from the teats of one the fine beasts in the park. They arrested him and presented the man at Queen’s Square Police court the next day.
Nicholas was very sorry for what he’d done and promised not to reoffend in future. The magistrate, Mr Gregorie, was anxious to hear from the cow keepers to see if they wished to press charges. So poor old Nicholas was remanded in custody for a couple of days.
Nicholas doesn’t feature in the Old Bailey Proceedings or in the records that survive for those transported in the 1800s. So perhaps his apology was enough or maybe when he reappeared Mr Gregories handed down a small fine. His actions were hardly a major crime and were probably replicated up and down rural England in the 1800s. With the police on the case the cow keepers now had some chance to protect their stock, before that it seems the milk could be taken past their eyes without them even noticing…
[from The Morning Post, Monday, November 16, 1829]