New Book - Britain's Wartime Milkmen

  |  Published: Feb 20th 2015
It’s 1943 and the Buckinghamshire firm of Wren Davis take delivery of their first electric milk float. In the picture is Sydney Gough, their longest-serving employee at that time. Wren Davis Dairy still provides a service to the residents of Wendover and the surrounding area today. The photo appears in a new book: Britain's Wartime Milkmen by Tom Phelps.

When the bombs rained down and houses were reduced to piles of rubble, the familiar figure of the milkman picking his way along the street, jaunty cap on his head, was an immensely reassuring sight. Sometimes he would place a pint on the front step of a house where the only part of the building that had survived was the doorstep itself - knowing that neighbours would find where the occupants were sheltering and make sure they got their milk. Often the ‘milkman’ would actually be a woman, or a young boy, or a man too old for active service, because the regular roundsman had been called up. Many of those roundsmen never came home.

Britain’s Wartime Milkmen is a fascinating new book, packed with photographs and anecdotes, charting how our milkmen played a key role in the nation’s morale through the Great War and into the Second World War. One of the photographs shows the Buckinghamshire firm of Wren Davis taking delivery of its first electric milk float in 1943

It also shows how the industry itself went through many changes: from three deliveries a day made by ‘milk pram’, a heavy handcart containing large churns from which the milkman measured out the milk for customers, to the introduction of bottled milk delivered by horse-drawn carts, and finally to the electric milk-float. Some of these changes were the result of advances in technology, but most – including the disappearance of small dairies and the advent of ‘cooperatives’ – were a product of war.

Milkmen became part of popular culture over this period, and a number went on to find fame in other professions, including comedian Benny Hill and actor Sean Connery. In addition to charting the changes that the industry went through, the book includes profiles of six milkmen including Ray Rookes who served in both world wars but still managed to walk 150,000 miles on his rounds during his 50-year career as a milkman; Ernest Briggs, who spent 30 years as a Cooperative Society milkman and whose son, Raymond, was to become a well-known children’s illustrator; and Dolly Williams who took over her husband’s East End round during WWII with her horse, Rita.

The author of Britain’s Wartime Milkmen, Tom Phelps, spent over 30 years in the dairy industry working for Unigate. Many of the photographs in this book have come from his own collection and many are being published for the first time.

Britain’s Wartime Milkman is a large-format paperback (250x170mm), 88 pages, with over 100 colour and black-and-white photographs. It will be published by Chaplin Books on March 5 2015 at £9.99 and will be available from all good bookshops and internet retailers, as well as direct from the publishers (www.chaplinbooks.com).

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