As a child I remember people mentioning the ‘milk train’ between London and South Wales, but was never sure if it was first up or last down or both. Before I married, my fiancée and I went to stay in Bermondsey with her aunt who had been in the milk trade in London, but was now running a local shop. Over time I became more aware of the strong Welsh links to London, centering historically on the milk business, developing out of droving activities. The Welsh had dominated the London milk business.
On our recent trip back to west Wales we ended up in a lovely book store in Cardigan (Awen Teifi Bookshop). Whilst my wife decided how many Welsh language books she could actually carry, I browsed and came across a book on the London Welsh milk trade, the families and their shops. Published by Y Lolfa in 2018, it had not come across my radar before.
The book tells the story, in both English and Welsh, of the milk trade between Wales (and especially Cardiganshire/Ceridigion) and London. It begins with the droving history but focuses mainly on the migration from Welsh speaking rural farming west Wales to urban sprawl London and the reasons, economics and cultural shifts within this. It is a tale of product distribution and industrialisation but also so much more.
At one level the book is inherently Welsh; being all about families and relationships and placing people in the patchwork of community of place, both in Wales and then in London. But it also contains a fabulous treasure trove of pictures of the retail stores that these families operated and some insight into the supply of milk to the growing English capital.
These pictures are for me the essence of the book. They are a first class compendium of shopfronts (and very occasionally shop interiors) drawn from their family histories and memorabilia. As we found out with our Sanders saga, store interiors are often lost to history (anyone who wants to share any let me know) but these shop fronts provide a time capsule of retailing and products (not only milk, though getting milk direct from the cow in the back of the shop in the early days is one notable distribution solution). The quality and pride shine through.
Most of these stores are now long gone of course, defeated by retail progress and change (and sometimes by war-time bombing damage). But some still remain – albeit in other uses – and a few photos at the end of the book make this point. One in particular stood out (see below) and I am pleased to note that this is Grade II listed. Next time I am in London I want to seek it out.
The author – Megan Hayes – sums up the history she portrays succinctly in terms of markets and change:
“The drovers provided London with cattle bred on Welsh pastures, while dairy cattle keepers provided milk for the growing population of the city. That trade ultimately adopted and developed, by and large, by a population of dairymen mostly from Cardiganshire. Later, economic pressures led to their demise, yet some dairies survive to this day in the hands of people who are proud of their roots and origins”
It is all too easy to be nostalgic for what was a very hard life – in the book, the families note that the milk business was a tough life, day in and day out – and we should try to avoid this. But we can I think revel in some of the shops and the people who created and ran them. This book allows us to do just that.
Megan Hayes (2018) Y Lon Laeth i’r Ddinas: Hanes Llaethdai Cymry Llundain/ Cows, Cobs and Corner Shops: The Story of London’s Welsh Dairies. Y Lolfa. ISBN 978-1-78461-526-0. £14.99.