Cutting out the middleman in the First World War

Milk supplies in St Albans

Doorstep deliveries of milk may almost be a thing of the past these days but a century ago people relied on daily deliveries, not least because very few homes had any form of refrigeration*.

The shortage of men to deliver the daily pinta during the First World War became so acute that it was humorously suggested that it might be necessary to send the cow door-to-door so that householders could help themselves.

This cartoon is featured in St Albans: Life on the Home Front 1914-1918**. It was sent to Heath Dairies at Bernards Heath the year conscription was introduced. The message reads: ‘From all the ills that man could mention, may all at Heath get “total exemption”. Christmas wishes from F.H.K. Mardell, 1916.’

The significance of the cartoon, and its oblique reference to the shortage of men working in the dairy industry as a whole during the First World War, was selected for special mention by Richard Batten in a review of the St Albans home front book recently published in the International Journal of Regional and Local History:

‘Rather than exclusively consider milk producers or consumers, she [chapter editor Dr Julie Moore] has produced a great overview that accounts for the wartime experiences from all those who were involved in the production, distribution and consumption of milk.

‘Moore’s coverage of dairies is also particularly revealing about the significant challenges that the industry faced in respect to manpower as well as milk supply and demand during the First World War. An illustration reproduced in this book on page 176 reveals the concerns that dairies in the city had with the introduction of conscription in 1916.

‘In a humorous fashion, the sketch from a Christmas card depicts the extreme consequence of conscription on a local dairy in that the business has no alternative but to rely upon a dairy cow saddled with milk jugs and a donation box to deliver the milk from door to door across the city. This illustration is also a great example of British war culture on a local level.’

Heath Farm Dairy was the largest milk delivery company in St Albans in that period. Run by Jacob Reynolds, seven of his men had volunteered for the military prior to the introduction of conscription and his application to the tribunal on behalf of three further men in June 1916 was unsuccessful, causing him real difficulties.

Image of cow on thumbnail copyright of Chris Reynolds, Genealogy in Hertfordshire