Milkmen and Bottles, Rishton

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Street: Unlisted Residents
Town: Rishton
Post Code: BB1 4LB Look and Learn

The announcement in September 2014 that Dairy Crest's last glass milk bottle plant was to close prompted a flood of nostalgia for a former staple of the British street and the front door step.

Travel back in time to a British doorstep at almost any period after the 2nd World War, at say, 7.30am most mornings.

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.

During the 70's, 94% of milk was put into glass bottles, according to Dairy Crest. By 2012, this was just 4%.

Those early mornings were full of that wonderful clinking sound of the milk bottles arriving, and a cheery "morning" off the milkman. Later, there was the ubiquitous morning whirr of electric floats. Others remember the colour coding on the foil tops. And that weirdly satisfying way of opening them - a push just powerful enough to dent but not break it.

The original green top was untreated milk, fresh from the cow, but later the colour coding was to be brought in from the conglomerates. All the local farms took their fresh milk for their own milk rounds, and sold the remaining milk to companies such as Associated Dairies (ASDA) at Accrington, Daisy Dairy at Oswaldtwistle, and Unigate etc. This was then used for creams, sterilised milk, cheeses, and yogurts.

The foil milk bottle tops were manufactured in Rishton during the 1980's, at the former Norden Brick Works. The machines were often run constantly to process orders which were then shipped all around the Country.

Orange juice was later used in the same bottles, the only bottle not to have a foil top was sterilised milk, which had a beer bottle top.

Bird pecking milk bottle top

Birds were a common pest on the door step, pecking away at the caps to get to the cream line.

Cream lines occurred all the time even if it was semi-skimmed, since milk didn't go through the same standardisation process as it does today. When you poured out the milk you'd get a big bulk of cream drop on to your cornflakes, or into your morning tea or coffee, rather than your watered down milk of today. This became worse once the milk had been chilled on the farm or in the fridge.

Leaving out the empties represents many people's first understanding of the concept of recycling. But there's been a slow and sure decline,. Who would have thought that the proliferation of fridges in the 1950s, which allowed milk to be kept longer, would mean fewer daily deliveries?

By the 1990s, the deregulation of the British milk industry and the decision by supermarkets to sell milk, undercutting the price of the farmer, and selling cheaply - in plastic containers changed everything.

Some still mourn, on taste grounds alone, the after taste of plastic and the contamination of plastic in the liquid meant that to most it wasn't right. There was just something innately wrong about pouring milk out of a carton because it didn't have that refreshing coolness of a glass bottle.

But, of course, everybody went ahead and made the switch, there was very little option not to!

Nostalgia has a waft which extends into every sphere you can think of, and sometimes it's only when things disappear that you suddenly stand back and think, 'Oh, what a shame'.

Milk bottles, generic

Convenience and cost has triumphed. Smaller dairies may continue to provide milk in glass bottles. But Dairy Crest switching to plastic is significant.

In 1970, almost 99% of milk would have been door-delivered, says Tom Phelps, the author of The British Milkman. But by 2013 Dairy UK found that doorstep delivery stands at less than 5% of the liquid dairy market. But there was still about 5,000 milkmen left in the UK, it was estimated. About 1,400 of those were employed by Dairy Crest, which stressed that the switch to plastic containers was to "ensure the livelihoods" of its milkmen and women.

Much of this was due to the costs of plastic against glass. Plastic containers were cheaper to make and 15 times lighter than glass ones, said Dairy Crest. That meant they were cheaper to transport and the company claims that they're now as environmentally friendly as glass bottles.

The issue is unclear. The Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) published a 2010 paper suggesting that the carbon footprint of glass bottles over the course of a life-cycle is helped by the fact it is recycled. It came down to one use plastic compared to many times over use of the glass bottle, much like a pint glass compared to a plastic one!

Advertising

The era of the glass milk bottle has left a legacy. Not least memories of the way milk used to be advertised. "The best ever promotion to sell milk was done by Unigate," says Luke. He's referring to the series of 1970s 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. When a new series of gotta lotta bottle ads were produced for 83-84 it was decided to add the prefix 'fresh' to signify that milk from the milkman was fresher than milk bought at the supermarket.

Perhaps the most famously remembered milk advert for Rishton was Ian Rush's contribution (by name only) to the Accrington Stanley milk advert. Remembered by many locally, due to the proximity of Stanley to the town.

Milk Adverts on UTube.

Unigates "Humphreys About" starring Muhammad Ali

1978 Bennie Hill, You've been Humphreyed

Milk's Gotta Lotta Bottle: series of commercials from 1983-4

Accrington Stanley Milk Advert

1990's Dancing milk bottles advert.

Milk adverts are still shown well into 2014, but now by private companies, rather than the milk marketing board, Cravendale being one such company.

But the nostalgia relates as much to the diminished presence of the milkman as the bottles themselves. Their ever-presence in British lives made them ripe for pop culture parody - mainly the faintly ludicrous idea of them having adulterous relationships with lonely women.

Benny Hill's 1970 comedy song Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West) was about the protagonist's love for a lonely widow named Sue. A Monty Python sketch depicted a semi-dressed woman luring Michael Palin's milkman into her house, only for him to be locked away into a room of other long-lost milkmen.

 

A brief bottle history

Milk bottles, generic
  • 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"

Source: Tom Phelps, author of The British Milkman

 

It was probably an unfair reputation for most milkmen, but the jokes rested on the centrality of milkmen in daily life.

Milkmen regularly had a career of 30 to 40 years and often became family friends, The milkman would go around and collect the money and would then be invited in for a cup of tea.

Familiarity meant that customers were happy to leave money in the bottles. Or sometimes just notes like "not this week, thanks". Notes were common place in bottles, one extra please, a carton of cream, and various other messages were usually left in the empty bottle!

Benny Hill as a milkman
Benny Hill dressed as a milkman

Such message-in-a-bottle correspondence seems like a quaint relic today.

And now face-to-face interaction is even sparser. Milkmen sometimes start their shift as early as 11:00 the night before, Fewer customers mean that they have to cover larger areas, and Payments are often by debit card. Certainly now, when you go into a school and ask a child where milk comes from, the response is always Tesco's, or a supermarket. You show them milk bottles and they don't know what they are.

Norman Wisdom in Early Bird 1965
Norman Wisdom in Early Bird 1965

References