A pizza restaurant is not exactly the place you would imagine as the beginning of your search into the history of London’s milk supply, but that is exactly what this story is about. On the corner of Coptic Street and Little Russell Street, one block away from the British Museum, can be found a Pizza Express in a building that once housed the Dairy Supply Company.
For centuries, cows had been kept in inner London and people bought their milk straight from their local supplier. So-called ‘milk-walks’, the equivalent of the milkman’s round, were bought and sold for the exclusive right to a particular area. But the quality of the milk left much to be desired. Adulterating or topping-up with water was a common practice and people demanded that the cow was brought to their door and milked into their own, clean, container. That no doubt solved the problem of the water, but not that of diseased cows. “The cows are often poor, lean, mangy, and feverish, are kept in dark cellars or filthy yards, and fed upon decaying vegetables, brewers’ and distillers’ grains and distillers’ wash”(1).
Even as late as 1903 did the Local Government Board call for a stricter enforcement of the law, because “the adulteration of milk was simply rampant”. Research found Shoreditch the worse part of London in this respect with 30% of the milk tampered with. Some bright enterprising chaps realised that money could be made from improved husbandry standards and hence an increase in the quality of milk if cows were kept on farms in the countryside and regular supplies of milk were brought into the city. But with the spread of the London suburbs, the milk had to be sourced from further and further away, which, without refrigeration, caused new problems.
In 1858, George Barnham (1836-1913), bought his first dairy at 25 Dean Street. He was one of the first dairyman to use the railways to supplement the milk from his urban cows with that produced in the countryside. In 1864, George opened his business at 28 Museum Street as ‘The Express Country Milk Supply Company’, in 1882 shortened to ‘Express Dairy Company’. One year later, the cattle plague struck in London and George set up a network of farmers in Derbyshire who supplied him with fresh milk via the Great Northern Railway to King’s Cross station. Besides supplying milk, Barnham also developed equipment to produce, store and transport the milk safely and hygienically. He developed the conical (steel) churns, a kind of refrigerator system, based on that used by breweries, and a cream separator. The equipment side of the business was later separated from the dairy side and named the Dairy Supply Company. The Express Dairy Company prided itself on always delivering unadulterated, good quality milk and their name became so well-known for this fact that unscrupulous dealers appropriated the name to disguise their inferior milk. Barnham had to write to the editor of The Standard to strongly deny any involvement in a scam to sell inferior milk under the name of the Dairy Supply Company:
as we supply many of the largest hospitals and institutions filled with sick people, whose managers will be naturally anxious for the welfare of those under their charge, we must ask you to give our unqualified denial to the report, and permit us to say that not only are we not the Company referred to, but that we have never at any time been convicted, or even summoned, for selling adulterated milk.(2)
Barnham eventually acquired almost the whole block of houses in Museum/Little Russell/Coptic Street. See left for the 1888 plaque on the Coptic Street premises which were designed by R.P. Wellcock. Many of the buildings no longer show any sign of having been in the dairy business, but the Cartoon Museum next door to the Pizza Express still shows the name, tiling and hoist. By the mid-1880s, the dairy supplied fifty percent of London’s daily milk consumption, or 15,000 gallons. The 1890s saw the opening of 24 retail dairies combined with teashops. At 31 Heath Street, Hampstead, you can also see a building with the dairy’s name still on it. The 1890s also saw the handing over of the company to Barnham’s sons; Arthur was to run the Dairy Supply Company, while Titus became responsible for the Express Dairy. George was to receive his knighthood in 1804.(3)
The Pizza Express was set up in the Dairy Supply building in 1965 as the second restaurant in the chain and was designed by Enzo Apicella who was sensible enough to leave some of the original features intact and incorporate others around the milk theme, such as the lamps. When I visited the place, the restaurant people were very kind in letting me take photographs of the inside of the building which still shows a remarkable amount of tiling. Also note the milk bottle design of the lamps and the milk churns in the old photograph (sorry about the reflection).
Most of the information in this post has been gleaned from Marianne Colloms & Dick Weindling, “The cow with an iron tail: the Great Westminster Dairy Company and the Express Dairy” in Camden History review, 36 (2012), pp. 2-8. Information about the pizzeria comes from the information sheet they have available in the restaurant.
You might also like to have a look at Ian Visit’s post on the company here.
(1) John Timbs, Curiosities of London: Exhibiting the Most Rare and Remarkable Objects of Interest in the Metropolis (1855), p. 249.
(2) The Standard, 25 October, 1890.
(3) London Gazette, 12 July, 1904.