London’s Welsh Dairies: The Welsh Milk Trade

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.

Book Cover Dairies

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.

TH Jones Clapham Junction

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.

J Evans cropped Conway Street

J Evans Conway Street interior

Original Photos of 35 Conway Street London by Leighton Morris

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.


About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students.
This entry was posted in Books, Buildings, Consumer Change, Consumers, Customer Service, distribution, Food, Food Retailing, Heritage, High Streets, Historic Shops, History, Independents, London, MIlk, Retail Change, Retail History, Sanders Bros, Shopfronts, Signage, Uncategorized, Urban History, Wales and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to London’s Welsh Dairies: The Welsh Milk Trade

  1. Lynne Thomas says:

    A nice piece Leigh. Some discovery that.

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  3. rogerdboyle says:

    Super. Just ordered the book.
    Have you seen Jeremai Smith’s map of burton buildings?

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  6. David W H Rees says:

    I have read this book and purchased it in Cardigan a few years ago. I have communicated with the author to ask about one of the photos which I thought might have been my mother but sadly it was not. I come from a welsh background and my grandfather and my father had dairies in London from the end of the 1800’s up to the mid 1950’s. The author of the book had advised me that she had put enquiries into Welsh papers asking for people to contact her with their connections with welsh dairies in London. I and my brother were unaware of this so we missed the boat, otherwise my family heritage of dairies might have been included. I am the only surviving member of the family with some limited knowledge of matters. My brother who was born in 1936 was eight years older than me and therefore knew much more than I do, but unfortunately he passed away in 2016.
    D W H Rees

  7. Leigh Sparks says:

    David, thanks for leaving a comment. Really interesting though sad it was not your family. In a different piece of work (Sanders Brothers) we have used the Census to track down material as the managers/owners lived above the shop. Given you possibly have 1891, 1901, 1911 (and 1921 to come soon) to look at, if you have names or/and addresses you might find something and then link to the major London archives. We have also found the British newspaper archive very useful, and in another context again the use of Welsh language newspaper searches. Leigh

  8. Ann Hayes says:

    What a beautiful interior! If I’m ever in London again I’ll have to visit. Came across an image of the shop on Instagram and onward to this. Copy of the book now ordered! (No relation to Megan as far as I’m aware – shame!)

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