Victorian London - Professions and Trades - Food and Drink - Milk-Women

    Tuesday, 11 June. . . in Trafalgar Square, I noticed a young milkwoman who was just commencing her career under the auspices of an old one, probably her mother. The debutante was standing by the railings of the Union Club. She was a ruddy blooming wench of eighteen or so, scarcely formed yet, but clean- limbed and muscular. Her large hands were in colour a glowing red; the skin coarse and rugged without, showing no vein or dimple, and tough & leathery in the palms, hardening into yellow callosities-corns, she would call them-at the roots of the fingers. Can a girl of eighteen possess such hands and have a lover? I should think so! She wore the usual plain straw bonnet, woollen shawl, and clean cotton frock: but her bonnet wanted the thick white cap, her boots were effeminately thin-hardly so strong as a shooting boot-and her frock came down to her ankles! Can it be that fashion is infecting the London milkwomen, noblest of conservative caryatides? So she stood, awkward and happy, a picture of ungainly strength. A lady came mincing past at the moment, with tiny hands cased in lavender kid: the contrast was delicious. Then her mother returned, and the daughter, with her help, adjusted the yoke upon her own square shoulders. It was a brand-new yoke, with her master's name in large letters upon it; whereby as she walks all the world may know that she belongs to 'Sims, 122 Jermyn St.' She walked thus away between her heavy cans, the old mentor keeping at her side and guiding her to the next customer's on the milk walk. Doubtless, she felt happy, when after being hired she was sent to the cooper's to fit herself with a yoke. Doubtless, when she first walked along the streets this afternoon, she felt proud of wearing a new yoke with big letters on it, and clean brown straps and bright hooks and buckles; as proud as a cart horse in his Mayday harness. Long may she feel such pride! She will work in that year out of doors six hours a clay, in all weathers, with never a holiday from year's end to year's end: she will nevertheless be as merry as a lark, yet stronger and healthier every year, and marry and breed us sons strong and fullblooded like herself.

Arthur Munby Diary 11th June 1861

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    'I saw a tall graceful woman cross the road in front of me, walking between two milk cans. .. . It was Kate O'Cagnay, the queen of the London milkwomen. And she is so still; though the soft complexion of her handsome face is changed, as I saw today, into a weatherbeaten brown, & though the full curves of her sumptuous form are sharpening into lines of strength. It would not be so if she had been a lady-a well-preserved beauty of that Mayfair through which she passes daily, a rustic contrast; but we must work, nous autres-and Kitty is seven and twenty now, and for nine long years she has walked her rounds every day, carrying through London streets her yoke and pails, and her 48 quarts of milk, in all weathers, rain or fair. Long before the Crimean war she did so; and she does so still.. . she never had an umbrella or an illness in her life .
    Looking down at her large hands, redder now than ever, I saw with surprise no wedding ring there. 'Well, Kate!' I said in passing; & the stately wench turned half round but did not stop or start. 'Oh, Sir!' she exclaimed, opening wide her mouth and her large grey eyes. 'So you are not married, after all?' 'No Sir' she answered, with a sly shamefaced smile and a downcast look. To stop and talk to a milkwoman in Grosvenor Square, is a test of moral courage which I was prepared to undergo; but it might have compromised poor Kitty's unsullied reputation: so after one and two enquiries about her, made by me without looking at her (vile subterfuge!) and answered by her from behind, 1 walked away, and Kitty descended into the area of Lord Tom Noddy's house'.

Arthur Munby Diary 20th July 1861

Walked in the Green Park and Hyde Park from five to six p.m.; and eastward through May Fair. Near Grosvenor Gate, where carriages full of languid perfumed ladies were as usual flashing by, and other misses, less languid but not less sumptuous, sat or strolled elegantly in the quasi-private garden, I passed a milkwench, going home with her yoke and her emptied pails to the Grosvenor Dairy in Mount Street. A tall clumsy creature, with feet of inexpressible bigness. Looked at from behind as she moved heavily along, she seemed a brawny woman of middle age; so large and burly she seemed, so dull and listless as to all the gay life around her. But I passed, and saw her honest ruddy face; and she was a girl of twenty. The same age as those novel-reading charmers & those reposing beauties in the barouches and on the garden chairs, between whom and herself so great a gulf is fixed. In South Audley Street, another milk woman (there were dozens in sight) was collecting all her small supplementary cans and placing them in and around the empty big ones, before she yoked herself to these for the last journey homewards. The small cans are of all capacities, from quartsize downwards. I counted them as she moved off: they were twenty three in number, besides others in the depths of her pails, which I could not see. And yet she was not proud, either of her power of carrying such a weight of metal, or of the grand inscription which was painted across her shoulders upon the yoke; 'Stevens, By appointment to the Queen'! . .

Arthur Munby, Diary, 1 July 1863

I was awoke before 6a.m., by the clank of heavy pails in the street. The dawn was just breaking.... Down on the flags by the opposite houses, were the heavy pails I had heard, and their bearer was stooping over them-a strong stout milkwench, in warm shawl, and warm kerchief over her bonnet. She was alone in the cold dim street: she left her pails by the lamp post, took with her one of the smaller cans, and with her yoke still on her shoulders and the harness hooked together across her breast, she tramped down the Street, her iron-shod boots ringing loud on the lonely pavement. And then I saw something new to me. This brave lass had been up and out of doors long before daylight, as she always is: but no maidservant was up yet, and the area gates of the master's customers were locked. Therefore she carries with her a coil of stout string, with a hook at the end. Taking this out of her pocket, she hooked it on to one of the little cans, and then rapidly unwound it through the railings, let down the can into the area, jerked the hook off, & drew up the string, leaving the can behind. This she would do at every house; so one may guess what a number of these small cans she must carry, besides her larger ones and her pails....

Arthur Munby, Diary, 7 March 1868

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Thomas Crane & Ellen Houghton, London Town, 1883

Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Life in the London Streets, by Richard Rowe, 1881 - Chapter 5- Milk in the Mall

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LONDON nowadays is being pulled down and built up again on so extensive a scale, and the new buildings are so unlike the old ones they supplant, that many parts of the huge city we see are as identical with those places as we remember them, as the knife that had been rehandled and rebladed, and the gun that had received new lock, stock, and barrel were with the original weapons.
    Both sanitary and architecturally these changes, no doubt, are generally for the better; but still they play sad havoc with associations. The places in which the present has grown out of the past, like fresh spring leaves from an old tree, - not smothered it as tropical climbers choke and bury the stems to which they cling, -are daily becoming more scarce in London. Of those that are left one of the most interesting is St. James's Park. A great deal of history is crowded together there.
    The other day, through lines of sleet-flecked spectators, so closely packed that they protected one another against the cold, the Queen rode along the Mall to open Parliament. On another winter day another monarch, who was very reluctant to open Parliaments, was marched [-107-] along the Mall from what had been his palace of St. James's to suffer death in front of what had been his, other palace of Whitehall. Henry VIII. built St. James's Palace on the site of a leper hospital. The dreary marsh on which the luckless lepers looked out, with heads bowed like its bulrushes, has become St. James's Park, on whose well-worn lawns in fine weather at the present time lounge lazy roughs, almost as physically loathsome as the lepers, and far less cleanly in their speech, and grubby little children from grimy courts hop about and sport and wrangle, as pert and black as London sparrows.
    Cromwell, when he lived at the Cockpit, used to be carried into the park in a sedan-chair, a vehicle which somehow seems too effeminate for him. Charles the Second threw the park ponds into one, fed his ducks in it, and skated on it. In old maps, "S. James' Parke" is a sparsely timbered enclosure, stocked with deer. The merry monarch planted it with Boscobel acorns, and laid out broad walks, in which he played at ball, hung up birdcages, and strode along with a pack of yapping spaniels at his heels. Nell Gwynne lived on one side of the park and Milton on the other. James the Third was born in St. James's Palace. Heavy Anne used to live there, with her heavier husband. Hard by lived the duchess who could tyrannize over her sovereign, and dictate to [-108-] her own almost omnipotent lord. A gentler tenant is now the mistress of Marlborough House. The formality and the free-and-easiness, the dulness and the wit, the selfishness, the prodigality, the shameless vice and the somewhat humdrum virtue of the Georgian times, can all be illustrated by anecdotes that cluster about St. James's Park. On its parade the Foot Guards muster between mementoes- the Turkish gun and the Seville mortar - of our war with the great Napoleon. The Life Guards and the Blues brighten up the pepper-and-salt Horse Guards as they sit motionless as statues on their magnificent chargers, or stalk through the dusky corridors with clank of spur and sabre. Hard by are the Admiralty and the new Government offices, and above the trees can be seen Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. Even the old women who sit beside their cows opposite the spot where Carlton House once stood are in a measure "historical," as being the successors of the syllabub-sellers of Spring Gardens. (There is very little of the vernal or the jovial in the present aspect of that drab, official quarter.) Little, however, did old Patty Morgan, who used to dispense glassfuls of milk in the Mall, a cheery-faced old body, muffled in a faded Welsh plaid shawl, think of the historical associations of her place of trade. This was her history:-
    "Oh, deary no, I've got no cows. It's my [-109-] master's I take to the park, sometimes one and sometimes another, just as may happen. It's a many years I've been in London: yes, indeed, with one master and another. I used to go out with the milk for ever so long, but I'm too old for that now. I've borne the yoke in my youth, and now I get a bit of rest in my old age, not but what it's very cold sometimes sitting in the park; but what's the good of grumbling? I couldn't lug about those heavy pails now. When I was younger the saucy monkeys of boys used to make fun of me and say I waddled like a duck; so I'm thankful I've got something I can do. When I'm not milking I can knit, and it's a comfort to an old woman not to be always on her feet, and to have something to lean the back against.
    "Our business varies very much. Sometimes we'll do next to nothing, and then again we'll sell about as much as the cow can give. It depends so much on the weather, you see. A fine day brings the folks out like butterflies.
    "It's mostly children we sell to. A father will come with his little ones and treat them to a glassful each, and sometimes a nurse will be sent regular with a child that is ailin', so that it may drink new milk and smell the cow's breath. Certainly the milk is better than what's sold at the doors ;* [-* This statement was made before the "Adulteration" Act was passed.-] yes, indeed. [-110-] Oh yes, you can get pure milk from the milkmen if you want it for an invalid; they'll not cheat you, but go out of their way in a case like that, to send you the best they can,-but then, you see, you've to pay more for it. Milk was so plenty where I come from that it puzzled me at first, it did, the price they gave for it in London. Sheep's milk we used most, but we'd cow s milk as well, and as much as ever we wanted. A child wouldn't have thought much of a glass of milk there,-it wasn't any treat: - I'd only to run into the dairy and help myself.
    "I remember one little Miss that used to come to me in the park, - a sweetly pretty little thing; but when I first saw her I didn't think she was long for this world. Just like a fading flower, she was. Her papa and mamma were English, but they'd been living in Scotland, and she'd been born there, at Edinburgh; and then they'd moved to Glasgow, and the bad air, the maid said, had pretty nigh killed the little dear.
    "The maid was Scotch, and it ain't often you'll find any one that is, run down anything belonging to Scotland before them that ain't; but this girl seemed downright to hate Glasgow, because her little pet had been so bad in it. Every morning almost she brought her, for a long while; and a poor little pale, pinched thing she was at first, all skin and bone, with not a bit of colour in her face, except her big [-111-] blue eyes; but before midsummer she'd plumped out wonderful, and was as red as a little rose. My little granddaughter used to say she looked like a fairy out of a pantomime. They dressed her in blue and white, and she'd a hat with a wreath of forget-me-not round it, and she was a sweet pretty child when she'd got her colour back. I used often to wish that my poor little Mary had got such another. She was ailing then, and it wasn't long before she died, like her poor mother. I can thank God now that He has taken them home to himself,- yes, indeed. They're safe housed, nothing can harm them now, with God eternally shut in; and it can't be so very long before I shall see them again, please God, and have no more trouble neither. But I was very lonely at first, when I'd lost them both. I haven't a relation in all England, as far as I know. I suppose there must be some one of some kind left belonging to me in my native place; but it's years and years since I was there, or had any word of it. Yes, sure, I come from Wales. My son-in-law went abroad with his family, half-a-dozen years ago, and I've never heard from or of him since. We'd never took much to one another; specially when he married again so soon after my poor girl died; still she'd been fond of him, and so he seemed a bit of a link with her left. I had her dear little girl a good deal with me here, at home and in the park, when her father had [-112-] married again: and she always went with me to my chapel on a Sunday. It's astonishing how fond she was of everything good for so young a child. She'd sit as still as a little mouse listening to the sermon, and she could tell you what it was about, too; and she never fidgetted at prayers, as most children do; hut it was the hymns she liked best. She could sing like a little angel, and she looked like one too then, with her eyes on the ceiling, as if she could see right through it into heaven.
    "They didn't behave to her bad in her own home. Her father would give her a little treat now and again, take her to the theatre, and such like, though it wasn't much she cared for that kind of thing; but when the other little ones began to come, my little Mary began to think she was one too many. There is no making up for the miss of a mother, however kind you be; and the new wife was a bit snappish, and, natural enough, loved her own children best. So Mary came more and more to me, and I dare say, if she'd lived, she'd have come to me for good, and a comfort it would have been to me: yes, indeed. But it wasn't so to be; and she's better where she is, dear child. 
    "I remember the last time she was out with me. I was lodging in Stangate then, and she was going to sleep with me. She'd been getting weaker and weaker for some time past, and so I stopped on the bridge to let her get her [-113-] breath a bit. It was a beautiful moonlight night,-the river was like silver, and she stood looking clown at it, and up at the sky, as if she couldn't say which was prettiest. But there came a cloud over the moon, and she was very disappointed for a bit. Presently she says, 'Granny,' says she, 'but there won't be any dark when we get up above the clouds, will there, Granny?'
    "Yes, indeed, those were the very words the dear child said, and often I've thought of them since, now she's up there herself. She took to her bed the very next day, and died in my place in about a fortnight afterwards. Of course her father and his wife came to see her, and the neighbours were very kind when I had to be away; but I'm glad I could be with her when she died.
    "She'd been having a hard struggle. It. made my heart bleed to see her fighting so, and loth though I was to lose her, I opened the door that the spirit might escape. I'd scarce done it when she opened her eyes, and gave me a sweet little smile, and then she flung her poor thin little arms round my neck and died kissing me.
    "It was a bitter trial, yes, indeed; harder, I think, even than when her poor dear mother died, though that was hard enough, for she was my youngest daughter,-the only child that had been left to me.
    [-114-] "Yes, it's a bitter thing for a widow to lose her only child. There was a poor dear lady used to come to the park with hers, a year or two back. The poor girl was in a decline, and so she came to me and bought milk. I don't know why they always came to me, except that they happened to come to me first, and we'd a little chat, and somehow it came out that I was a Welsh woman and a chapel-goer, and so were they; and afterwards we often had a talk about Wales and a country that's better than that. They'd just come back from Wales when I first knew them. They kept a little school in Kennington, I found out, and they'd been spending their holidays in lodgings, down in the poor girl's native place,- leastways, her father's. It wasn't so very far from mine, and I knew well enough that they could have found only very rough lodgings there. They were real ladies to talk to, but poor enough, I should say. The old lady never had a hole in her gloves, nor a rent, nor a ravel about her anywhere; but her black was turning rusty. Still she always tried to keep her daughter as nicely dressed as she could; not smart, you know, like the servant girls, but as neat and pretty both as her purse would afford. It didn't much matter to her, poor dear girl, what she was dressed in: death was written in her face. One day I met the old lady by herself; and made bold to ask after [-115-] her daughter. The poor creature could not answer me, though she tried to look kind. She just shook her head, and burst out crying, and walked away without being able to say a word.
    "No: I don't always see gloomy things in the park. And after all, though it's hard to part with those we love, why should we be gloomy about them if we think they're gone to a better place, where they, at any rate, can never be gloomy any more?
    "There's often a good bit of fun and frolic about the cows, and folly too with the soldiers and the young men out with their sweethearts; but if they and the girls never drank anything worse than milk, there wouldn't be so much harm come of their courting.
    "As I've told you I used to go milk-walks before I got hired to milk in the park. It's a tiring work that, carrying round the pails, and you're out in all weathers; still I always kept my health pretty well whilst I was at it. I don't drink gin, as some do, to keep the cold out: coffee in the morning and tea at night, that's what I take.
    "You hear a good deal of news on a milk-walk: well, yes, no doubt a good deal of it is lies. Either the mistresses or the maids are ready enough to gossip with you. Give and take, that's their motto: hear what you've got to say, and tell you what you don't know [-116-] about the neighbourhood. If some of the masters and mistresses that think everybody thinks them the respectablest of the respectable could hear what their own servants say about them, they would be rather astonished; and they wouldn't be best pleased either if they knew how these stories get about from house to house,-about the quarrels, and the lots of spirits that's drunk on the sly, and the gentleman that master doesn't like calling so often, when he's out, on missis, and all that kind of talk. No doubt a good half or more of it is made up. Folks that are so fond of talking, as most servant girls are, must tell lies pretty often, or they couldn't keep their tongues wagging as they do.
    "And then it's queer the different things that are happening at the different houses you call at. At one, mayhap a new baby has just come, and the bailiffs at another; there's a wedding at No. 3, and somebody dying next door, and a hearse and mourning coaches going away from No. 7.
    "Houses, too, that are pretty near as like as peas outside are so different when the door's opened, in masters, and mistresses, and servants, and children, and furniture, and cleanliness, and everything. One may be as neat as a new pin with nobody but nice people in it, and the next all muddle and muck and wrangling.
    [-117-] "It was my father's misfortunes sent me up to London. He had a farm out by Pont-y-pridd, and he was forced to leave it, and it broke his heart, poor old man: he died just in time to save him from the workhouse. I'd been promised to a young man who had a good place at Merthyr,-not one of the common workers, but a kind of over-looker. He wasn't true: he broke with me when our troubles came, arid married my own cousin. I couldn't stand that, - to see them coming backwards and forwards to uncle's, - so I came up to London; and here I've been ever since, this many a year.
    "After a bit I married a man who worked for one of my masters. He made me a fairish husband, poor man, though he never made much pretence of loving of me, and he was rather too fond of liquor. We'd a large family, and I'd to work for them; but, thank God, they were all dear, good children. None of them lived to be married, except. the youngest; and now she's gone, and her little one: so I should be all alone if I couldn't say, praise God, 'Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.'

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