An Ode To The Milk Round

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 19 months ago
An Ode To The Milk Round
Colin Chesnaye's round includes schools, where some kids still receive free milk

"It's like a car. If you want an Audi you pay the price. If you want a Nissan you pay a little bit less. We're the BMWs."

Milkman Colin Chesnaye has been doing the rounds in east London for 39 years, and is adamant that 76p buys you much more than just a pint of red top in a glass bottle. For a few extra quid a week than you'd pay at the supermarket, you're getting a personal delivery service who whistles while he works, trusts you to settle up at the end of the month, and will fight through hell, high water and drizzle to get your milk to you.

"If people want milk earlier I go out of my way, because if they've got to go to work, leaving the milk on the doorstep advertises that they're out. So I try to go round there and put myself out, so the milk's on the doorstep before you go out."

Colin — who's owned his own milk round round since 1996 and now works through Parker Dairies in Wood Street  —- knows his customers so well that although he has a handwritten ledger filled with orders and addresses, he rarely needs to check it.

Starting in Whipps Cross each morning he covers 45-odd streets between here and Walthamstow; the round is far more spread out and patchy than it would have been 30 years ago, but there's still a community feeling to the proceedings.

As we zip around the residential streets of E17 at 7am on a mild spring morning — bottles of red, green, blue and gold top clinking in the back of his float — people call out to Colin in the street. It's not unusual for Parker Dairies milkmen to get invites to family events and weddings. You wonder how many Ocado delivery people can say the same.

In a strange paradox, because so many of Colin's customers are still in bed, there's a clandestine nature to the operation; milk, eggs and bacon are hidden behind flower pots and gnomes; the favour is returned with cash and cheques stashed under mats or behind the dahlias.

Colin's ledger, which he hardly needs to use

Keeping the float afloat

Our mode of transport is hardly the most clandestine of vehicles; the cream and powder blue Smiths Elizabethan Cabac, manufactured in the mid-1980s, runs off a motor powered by 36 batteries, and makes one hell of a racket when you're sat in the cab — not the gentle hum you hear when a milk float glides by.

"It's like a mobile phone," says Colin, "When we finish the round normally we go back to the depot and put it on charge for 10, 12 hours."

That's if you make it back. Plucky though these vehicles are, they're liable to suffer a dead cell, conk out and start smoking. That's when you call for Bernard and Jim — Parker Dairy's semi-resident float fixers. They'll do anything from removing nails from tyres, to sloshing another coat of paint on every five years. Duct tape is invaluable in this business, too.

Bernard and Jim keep the floats going. Duct tape is invaluable

Bernard, who's been fixing floats for 45 years, recalls a time when one skidded on an icy hill, went through a hedge, tipped over, and landed on a customer's doorstep. She opened the door, saw the crashed vehicle and collapsed from shock.

Accidents like that are few and far between but these old floats do inevitably give up the ghost. Colin says: "If they have a float that's no good anymore they won't scrap it, they'll take all the parts off it, put it into a corner, and use it for another float. Nine times out of 10 we get by."

Electric milk floats are still made in places like China, but you'd do well to get five years out of one of those. Best stick with the vintage ones. You could say the same about some of the milkmen, going strong at over 70 years old.

Depot manager Paul Lough has been in the milk industry nearly 30 years

"Hipsters love milk in bottles"

The make-do-and-mend attitude and green credentials (electric vehicles, recycled glass) has always been a part of the industry, but now in 2016 this approach is back in favour with Londoners, who are falling in love with the milk round all over.

Parker Dairies depot manager Paul Lough recalls: "The first day I walked into the yard, the yardman come up and said 'I don't know why you're bothering son, it's got five years in it'. And that was 29 years ago."

"Now in London having your milk delivered has become cool and trendy again. All the hipsters love having their milk delivered in glass bottles.

"We've gone through 20 years of supermarkets and multiples selling milk cheaper — and us losing customers — and now we've just started to turn the corner."

One of the more esoteric notes left by a customer

Parker Dairies — established in 1989 by John Parker, with a single round in Dalston —  now serves 12,000 customers, and 80,000 pints of milk weekly with 28 rounds reaching from Romford to Westminster.

While milk magnates such as Unigate, Co-op, Dairy Crest and Express Dairies have evaporated, due in part to rounds getting bigger and bigger and service suffering as a consequence, independent companies like Parker have played the long game.

"We've said for many years that are only asset is our service, because everyone knows you can buy milk cheaper elsewhere," says Paul. "We realised we can't compete on price. We've lost that battle. But what the supermarkets will never have on us in our service."

That service these days includes reaching out to younger punters; Parker Dairies now has a website where you can order milk and groceries, as well as a Twitter account, where the dairy's customers tweet pictures of their cornflakes and vintage wire baskets they've found for storing their milk. The best tweets are printed out and are stuck in the office corridor.

Kevin delivers 8,000 pints in the City every week. He's posing here with kosher milk, popular during Passover.

Moving to pastures new

There's been some kind of dairy on this patch of Wood Street for 120 years (the milk isn't processed here, it's driven from Southampton daily) and you can sense the history. Though many of the milkmen — and it is all men at Parker — commute from places like Basildon, Southend, Canvey Island and Braintree, there's an air of camaraderie in the yard. As floats pull in at the end of a shift, roundsmen chat with one another, swap stories from the week.

That's about to change. The lease on this site ended in 2012, and now the landlord wants to build flats on it. Parker Dairies must find a new place by September — a big ask.

"We don't make very good neighbours," admits Paul, "We need 10,000 sqft and are geographically tied with three- or four-mile radius, because of the electric vehicles."

Ironically, the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics legacy sucked up a lot of the previously disused land in east London, making it tougher for businesses like Parker Dairies to relocate.

"It's proving hard. The axe is above us," admits Paul, although with his strong customer base, he seems confident they will find somewhere.

Meanwhile, there are other, everyday challenges that the average London milk round has to contend with, not least the traffic warden.

"We're having to start earlier and earlier to just get in front of the traffic and the lovely traffic wardens that give us tickets," says Paul, "there's no room for common sense with the traffic wardens. Obviously you can't just park your car where you want to in London. But we get out, walk 30ft to the doorstep, drop off two pints of milk and walk back.

"Last year we were probably getting £2,000-2,500 worth of tickets."

Parker Dairies have to relocate by September

As for friction within the company; the milkmen here either work on commission, or like Colin, own their own round. They're hardened pros who'll get the job done. As Colin puts it, "rain, shine or snow, the milkman will show". Yet everyone seems to know someone from past jobs, who's proved less than reliable.

Someone in the dairy's office recalls being sent out to look for a new milkman who'd disappeared on his first round. They found his float in the middle of an estate, and soon after discovered their man lying on the roof of a nearby van, sunbathing. When they woke him up he complained "I'm catching some rays, man!"

That was that particular milkman's first and last round.

Paul's got a story of his own: "A relief chap was covering for this guy. He got to the door and there was this note in the bottle: 'To my darling Dave, if you can meet me tonight, leave the empties, if not, can you take them away.'"

So the rumours about milkmen are true then?

Paul chuckles, "Have you not seen how many ugly children there are in Waltham Forest?!"

Last Updated 28 April 2016