If you like fresh milk how would you like it delivered to your door two to three hours after milking? Would you like to specify the cow from which your milk came? Would you like to try a few cows before you find one you liked more than the others? Did you even know it was possible to detect a difference in milk from different cows? I suppose there  must still be milk conoisseurs out there. Farmers, certain chefs or restauranteurs perhaps but we hardly ever get milk straight from the source these days. The age of refrigeration has brought a standard kind of milk which tastes pretty much the same and is completely safe to drink. And it’s icy cold which is the only way I would want to drink it.

But it wasn’t always like that and there was a time when people who drank just as much milk as we do had different arrangements for getting it fresh. In places like London that meant the urban dairy.

Wright's postcard

This is an artist’s impression of an early dairy when Chelsea was far from urban, although probably not quite as rural as the picture makes out. Wright’s Dairy in Cook’s Ground (later Glebe Place) was one of the first in Chelsea. They were just round the corner from Thomas Carlyle’s house in Cheyne Row. The original  Mr Wright recalled in later years that they kept two goats on the premesis to meet the great man’s dairy product needs.

By the time the image was being used for promotional purposes Wright’s had moved a little west and was located on Old Church Street. Their advertising looked liked this:

Wrights Dairy November 1914 WLP

Milk has always been considered a healthy product. By 1914, the year of this advertisement in the West London Press Wright’s were reminding the discerning consumer that they were the cleanest dairy in Chelsea, inspected by medical, vetinary and sanitary professionals.

Wright's Dairy CS 991b

And “quite apart from any residential accommodation.”

Wright's ad 1908

“Humanised milk.” Don’t worry, not a genetic modification to the cows, just a technique for changing the amount of fat in the milk so as to make it more like human milk, usually for consumption by babies. Urban dairies used to maintain farms near London but also kept cows on the premises for instant production. Wright’s were one of the best known in Chelsea but there were competitors in the neighbourhood.

Cowleys ad 1920 kellys


Green’s, a distinctly upmarket establishment.

Fish and Sons, possibly less so.

Not forgetting of course, a family firm to which I am probably unrelated.

Walker ad 1908

An establishment which was speedy with the milking and able to adapt to the customer’s needs.

Walker ad 1914 Kellys

They didn’t spare the hard sell either, with an endorsement from the BMJ, and a decisive slogan.

Walker's Dairy Hans Crescent 26-27 1902 LTE314

This was their Hans Crescent (New Street) shop, close to the businesses and residences of Knightsbridge.

Every neighbourhood had one or two dairies.

Alderney Dairy 226 Portobello Rd 001

Small, such as the Alderney Dairy in Portobello Road.

Or large.

Welford ad 1905 kellys kensington

Welford and Sons main dairy. Look closely if you can above the entrance and see if you can make out a cow’s head.

Wright's Dairy CS 991a

You can see a large example at Wright’s King’s Road outlet. Being placed at the top of a building these heads have often outlived the dairies themselves, as we shall see in a moment.

But first a bit of history. As transport and refrigeration improved, the cows returned to their farms, but the dairy businesses continued as milk delivery to the consumer’s door became the norm. The smaller firms were subsumed into larger businesses. Wright’s became part of United Dairies which itself merged with Cow & Gate to form Unigate in 1959.

By that time much fewer premises were required. The dairy buildings were demolished or re-purposed. And sometimes the cow’s head survived.

Old Church Street 44-46 east side showing cow's head 1970 KS3282

Part of the Wright’s building in 1971 in Old Church Street.

Another picture of the building from a planning application probably sometime in the 1990s. Note those coloured plaques on the right. (You can just about make out one of them in the 1971 picture.)

One depicts cows in a rural setting, the other a dairy farmer. These are still there, and you can see them on Google Maps.

There are also still two cow’s heads visible in the King’s Road. Here’s one I took on a bright summer’s day for a Welsh correspondent who was writing a book about the Welsh dairy trade. (Many of London’s urban dairies were started by Welsh farmers whose ancestors had driven cattle to London to produce milk for the city dwellers.)

DSC_3458 - Copy

And here’s one from 1969 showing upper facade of the 69 King’s Road branch of Wright’s seen above.

King's Road south side 67 Wright's Dairy sign 1975 KS4252

But next time you’re travelling along the King’s Road on the upper deck of a bus have a look for yourself. And if you spot any of them anywhere else, take a picture and send it to me. One of these days I might do a cavalcade of cows.


11 responses to “Milk

  • chelseaharbouramatueroperaticsociety

    Excellent post David… the cows head in Old Church Street has delighted me for many years… With kindest regards.

  • Robin Greeley

    Oh wonderful! Thank you. I see those cow’s heads on the Wright’s Dairy buildings on a daily basis, and adore them! Good to know more about their history.

  • Gleffelaar

    Thanks David…Brought back memories of the humming of the electric diary carts in the seventies, The aluminum bottletops which would pop up when the milk froze over in the winter.
    Here’s another nostalgic article:

  • peter bishop

    I notice that E J Walker’s timing for milking to customer slipped from two hours to three in the second advert. It is impressive that you could choose your own cow.
    I really enjoy your posts so much it is an area I both lived and worked in and it is a great source of fascinating information. My aunt lived in flats by the fire station for almost all her life and also started a patisserie called “Bonne Bouche” in New Kings road. I believe she opened a second branch somewhere in the area as well.

    • Edwina Ellis

      There was a Bon Bouche in Bute Street, South Kensington for many years: although much changed, it might still be there. It was our favourite patisserie for 20 years 1971-91 and I would love to know more about the owner, as many products were unique.

  • Thomas Tompion

    Best wishes

    Peter Harris thomas.tompion@gmail Bob Jones Galleries 113 Portobello Road Tel: 07930 536 818

  • actonbooks

    Reblogged this on Actonbooks and commented:
    Add these glimpses of forgotten social history to your ‘to do’ list when you’re next in London, courtesy of Dave Walker’s superb Kensington library website. Give him an award someone!

  • Colin Smith

    Hello, I am writing an article about this family for publication on the internet, and would like to use the painting of Wrights Dairy. Would this be OK. Thanks

  • James Buchanan

    Great to see the Danish Patisserie!! Their creamy pastries were delicious, Mr Wright’s Garage was at the back of our house, no. 36 Old Church Street. Before I retired,I drove an electric milk float for DiaryCrest for seven years which was an interesting experience.

  • Sculpture and more - Battersea & Chelsea 1988 | Re-photo

    […] Wrights Diary was first set up in 1796 with around 50 cows and a goat, though it moved slightly west to this site in the 1800s. Cows were kept here into the 20th century but eventually milk production moved completely out of London. The company was eventually bought by United Dairies probably in the 1950s. Their properties on Old Church St became shops but the courtyard building was converted into a recording studio, Sound Techniques which was in business from 1964-74, where, according to Metro Girl, “Among the acts to record at Sound Techniques Ltd included Sir Elton John, The Who, Jethro Tull, Judy Collins, Tyrannosaurus Rex and John Cale.” as well as Pink Floyd and Nick Drake. […]

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