A brief history of Milkmen

If you’re anything like me then if you cast your mind back to around 7am or so then up until the late 1980’s you’d likely be very familiar with the jingle of milk bottles and the heavy clunk as they were placed on doorsteps.   There’s almost certainly a couple of foil-topped glass milk bottles there. Maybe more. Some of the tops may have been pecked by birds, although if you left a couple of plastic cups out the milkman probably popped those over the top of the bottles to protect them.

Blue Tit drinking milk

A Blue Tit has pecked through the foil lid to get at the cream before the humans have got up in the morning!

Back then in the UK 94% of milk was put into glass bottles, according to Dairy Crest. By 2012, this was just 4%.

You’d also likely reminisce about the morning whirr of electric floats, the different coloured foil tops that denoted which type of milk was inside and most satisfying, of all the weirdly satisfying way of opening them – a push just powerful enough to dent but not break it.Birds were attracted to peck away at the caps to get to the cream line,” says Paul Luke, editor of Milk Bottle News and the owner of some 12,000-13,000 glass milk bottles.

Birds were attracted to peck away at the caps to get to the cream line and because milk wasn’t processed as much as today, even the semi-skimmed milk would have cream at the top and it would all be a little different than the slightly watered down

Leaving out the empties represents many people’s first understanding of the concept of recycling. But there’s been a slow but lengthy decline with the proliferation of fridges in the 1950s, which allowed milk to be kept longer, meaning the three daily deliveries reduced to one.  By the 1990s, the deregulation of the British milk industry and the decision by supermarkets to sell milk – cheaply – in plastic containers changed everything.

I very well remembering protesting to my parents that they were taking part in destroying a tradition and vital community service for the sake of saving some money but I didn’t pay the bills.

I’ve never really liked the plastic containers, I thought milk even tasted better from glass bottles which is kind of fortunate now as I can’t drink so am reduced to drink soya milk from cartons.

These days there are only 5-9,000 milkmen delivering about 5-10% of our daily milk.  Plastic containers are cheaper to make and lighter for transport which goes a long way to offset against the issues of recycling them.

Convenience and cost has triumphed. Smaller dairies may continue to provide milk in glass bottles.

Milk used to be advertised in a way that was way cooler than current unhealthy foods and drinks.  The 1970s saw adverts in which mysterious creatures called Humphreys attempted to steal milk with long straws. “Watch out, watch out, there’s a Humphrey about,” was the slogan. Muhammad Ali got involved.

The catchphrase “Gotta lotta bottle” followed. It’s hard to imagine a series of more 1980s-style videos – whirlwinds of dazzling neon, innuendo, and the chanted tagline “nice cold, ice cold milk”. This was an era when Linford Christie raced a milk float.

Not to mention the all time classic milk advert with two young boys fighting over milk so that they will be good enough to play football for Liverpool rather than Accrington Stanley.



The milkman in the horse and cart days



  • First glass milk bottle patented in 1874 in the US
  • Gradually transferred to UK but until WW1 milk mainly delivered on horse-drawn “milk pram” – ladled into tin cans from a churn
  • At that time, milk was delivered three times a day – “pudding round” later dropped due to WW1 constraints
  • By 1920s and 1930s glass-bottled milk is the norm, but bottles had cardboard slips at the top, which children used to play “pogs”
  • 1935 – slender-neck bottle introduced, giving the illusion of more cream and supposedly favoured by housewives
  • Aluminium foil tops eventually replaces cardboard for hygiene concerns – but WW2 shortages mean experimentation with zinc, tin and lead-based alternatives
  • Estimated 30 million lost glass bottles a year during WW2 – some return to tin can delivery using ladles
  • 1980 – modern version of bottle introduced. Shorter and wider, initially it was nicknamed “dumpy”

Milkmen regularly had a career of 30 to 40 years and often became family friends, says Phelps. The milkman would go around and collect the money and would then be invited in for a cup of tea.  Like postmen, they would often be a vital source of contact for the elderly and infirm as well as helping out in vital unpaid and additional services such as deterring night crime and even looking after pets when people are on holiday.

In the old days, Milkmen would be up at 4 or 5am and be finished soon after breakfast but now milk is cheaper than water and the supermarkets pricing strategy of selling milk at or below cost isn’t just ruining farmers but putting milkmen out of business as their purchase price becomes as high as supermarket prices to the consumer.

Today milkmen areas can have a round that is 100 miles whereas as urban milkmen can start their day around midnight and be finish at midday as they stock up on some of the 500 items that many sell to supplement their milk.

So why am I writing about milk today?  Well yesterday the local milkman knocked on every door in my street and several dozen people have signed up, perhaps all fed up with the over-commercialisation of the supermarkets and their treatment of food producers.  Or perhaps they don’t mind paying a little more to get personal and high-quality service.

Milk & More - my local milk delivery.

Milk & More – my local milk delivery.

I’ve opted for a delivery by a milkman as I like tradition and helping small businesses, I already shun supermarkets so this is just a nice little extra that I am happy to pay a little extra for that.  Also as I can only drink Soya milk, the local shops often run out and only have other non-dairy milk such as rice, coconut and almond which I have tried but actively dislike.   Now I no longer have to always keep an eye on my milk or walk around the streets for an hour just to get some milk.  Nor do I have to carry 5 or 6 litres back, it will all come to my front door by 7.30am.

These days I don’t have to leave a note out if I want to change my order or go away, I get my own login account and can go online and change my usual order until 9pm at night and even pay online too.

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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15 Responses to A brief history of Milkmen

  1. Francis says:

    Well done Stephen. The small businesses are the real heroes of our streets.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes they are. When I get the 6am bus, I look around and see the real people who work hard and keep things going for everyone else. At least half are small business owners and the rest are the hardworking public sector people.


  2. I miss the cream on top of the milk. Loved putting it on my porridge in the morning. Oh those were the days. Nice to know he’s trying to make a come back. A very interesting read.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mel & Suan says:

    We’ve never seen milkmen do their run. Might be interesting to post a video!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. wdfyfe says:

    We no longer have milk delivery here but I’m old enough to remember the last horse drawn milk wagon in my home town. The horse (Bobbie) knew the route so well she chugged along by herself while the milkman (who was called Milkman) went back and forth from the wagon. Glad to see you’re sticking with tradition.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a wonderful memory to have. It is a shame you no longer have a milk delivery. Hopefully by embracing the Internet, the remaining milkrounds will survive. In a way, what could be better than having someone deliver fresh food and drink to your house early every morning. Total convenience!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Curious: what was the name of the National union for milkmen?


  6. taskerdunham says:

    I’ve got a lot of memories of milkmen, and we still have one, but he only comes three times a week, often before midnight, so we had never seen him until we got fed up with him and left a note to cancel completely, which brought him knocking on our door. I’ve blogged the story at: http://www.taskerdunham.com/2017/09/doorstep-deliveries.html


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  9. Thompson Jillian says:

    I remember as a child in the late 1940s or early 1950s being allowed to hold the reins of the horse drawn milk float in West Wickham. Also being sent out with bucket and shovel to claim the manure for our garden!!
    When was the last horse drawn delivery by Unigate in West Wickham, I wonder?


  10. Katie from Sustainable Squad says:

    Great article, really interesting. We’ve just signed up to Milk and More and really happy with their new Oato oat milk in a glass reusable bottle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I used to be with Milk and More until I moved 1 year ago today. They didn’t have that product back then but I will see if I can get on another round again. It’s so much better than the supermarkets. I hope the glass bottles make that satisfying noise when they are rested on the ground 🙂


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