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Friday, 1 September 2017

Doorstep Deliveries

Milk seems such an ordinary product, yet it sparks off so many memories.

milk bottles doorstep delivery

A pickup truck sounds in the night, footsteps trudge to the door, bottles clink, the truck drives off and I drift back to sleep in the silence. It was to be our last delivery. We had left a note to cancel the milk, to join all the other households who over the past forty years have forsaken the milkman for the supermarket.

Until a couple of months earlier our milkman had been Rodney. Like day follows night, he delivered five days a week, extra on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and called to be paid once a month on a Monday. But one month he surprised us by calling on a Friday, “… to make things easier for Monday,” he said. “Good idea to have a bit of a break on a bank holiday,” we replied.

On Monday there was double on the step: eight full bottles (the kids were at home). Where could we keep all that? And there was a note signed by Ben: “I have taken over as your new milkman”. Rodney had not let out even the tiniest hint. “I will be delivering three days a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. I will not be calling for payment but will leave a monthly invoice instead. Please would you leave a cheque by return.”

Three days a week! Monthly invoice! Cheque! What a layabout. We replied on the Wednesday to say just four each time please. There wasn’t enough room in the fridge for more. On other days we began to buy our milk in four-pint plastic bottles from the supermarket. We never saw Ben in person at all.

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How different from how things used to be: milk fresh to the door seven days a week. It had to be before we all had fridges. In summer, we had to keep the bottles in a bowl of cold water in the kitchen sink, covered with a wet tea cloth, to stop it going off.

When I was little, our milkman was Jack Hunter who had a van. Not so long before that he had brought his milk on a horse drawn float. He was already ancient, but we had him all the way through my childhood and beyond. He worked well into his eighties, tall, straight, white hair, khaki dust coat, bottle carriers at his sides. How did he keep going? I would not have got up in the early hours to work a sixty-hour week, snow, ice, wind and rain, even in my twenties. There used to be a joke about the milkman who joined the army and thought it was great because he could stay in bed until six o’clock. Jack usually got to us before breakfast time but one day it was dinner time before he arrived. “You’re late today Jack. You look terrible!” my mum commented. “Sorry,” he said, “Edie died in the night.” His wife had died in bed beside him yet he still came round with the milk.

old shaped milk bottle and doorstep boot scraper

Jack left the bottles in the boot scraper beside the front door. Bottles were taller and thinner then, not the squat dumpy ones we have now. I know because Sooty the cat is sitting next to such a bottle on another doorstep in 1964. Milk was always full-cream (full-fat, perjoratively). No one had semi-skimmed until the nineteen-eighties. Even in 1985, full-cream accounted for over 90% of sales. My dad remained loyal to it until the end. The “cream” floated to the top and he liked it over a bowl of strawberries or raspberries. It was a treat to have it on your cornflakes.

foil top depressor for milk bottles
It was always full-cream at school too. The government would not fund anything less. All school children under eighteen were allowed one-third of a pint free per day to alleviate poor nutrition, a major hindrance to learning. The Wilson government ended it for secondary pupils in 1968, and “Thatcher the milk snatcher” for all children over seven in 1971. Until then it came in little bottles exactly the same shape but one-third the size of those at home, sour in summer, frozen and expanding up from the tops in winter, slithering out at the necks like the heads of snails wearing silver berets. When not frozen we had a round, plastic, dimpled gadget for pressing in the foil tops, to avoid poking your thumbs in, but I didn’t like how it looked and felt, and it smelt as well, so I wouldn’t touch the nasty thing and used my thumbs anyway.

The ending of school milk never bothered me because I had left by then, and in any case, most of us had stopped drinking it by around fourteen. It was there if you wanted it, as much as you could drink, crates of it piled next to the lockers. When in the sixth form we started going to a friend’s house most days after school, and his mother complained about the amount of milk we were getting through, we began helping ourselves to milk from school. By the end of the year he must have had a hundred empty bottles stuffed under his bed. We got rid of them in a street bin around the corner.

So many memories! At one place I lived, the milk came around 6.00 a.m. but it began to disappear from the doorstep, stolen by an early riser or someone going home from the night shift. I entertained the idea of substituting a pint of sour milk until I realised it might get thrown through the window. I listened for the milkman in my sleep, dashed down to bring the milk in, and went back to bed. I suppose that’s why I still hear him in the night.

wooden milk bottle cover

When we moved to where we live now, Sandra, the milk lady, waylaid us as we unloaded the furniture. “Free milk for a month” she said, which was too good to turn down. Her round was later taken over by someone else, and then again, until we got Rodney around ten years ago. The only problem we ever had was that someone pinched our metal milk bottle cover which prevented the birds from pecking at it and giving us psittacosis. I made a wooden one. Rodney was impressed. “I could sell those,” he said. “It even has little feet.”

We imagined Rodney would go on forever until, one day, without warning, there would be no milk and we would curse him thinking he was just late. We never thought he would actually retire.

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The new deliveries just three days a week were confusing and inconvenient. Not only that, it usually came around midnight. What good would that be on warm summer nights, standing out in the early morning sun before we brought it in? And then we got a note to say the milkman was going on holiday and had not been able to find a stand-in, so there would be no milk for a week. Unbelievable – a milkman who goes on holiday! It seemed best to cancel it completely. The irresistible forces of home refrigeration, supermarket price wars and a milkman who wanted some sort of work-life balance had finally won.  

It seemed a pity. Despite paying twice the supermarket price for the privilege, it felt good to be supporting a local service. The milk came from a nearby farm and the reusable glass bottles were environmentally friendly. It seems that in some city areas, doorstep deliveries are making a comeback supported by a growing band of eco-enthusiasts prepared to pay a fair price for their milk. One London firm still uses electric milk floats. “We have started to become hip and trendy again” they said. “Customers are beginning to realise that cheap milk from supermarkets is not sustainable for farmers.”

We put out the note to cancel the milk, rolled up and poked in the top of a bottle. That evening there was a loud knock on the door: a very determined knock. It was Ben, the new milkman: the only time we have ever seen him. “I don’t want to lose volume” he complained. We explained our reasons – the need to store large quantities, the milk on the step in the sun. “Well,” he said, “I can do it in four-pint plastic containers like from the supermarket.” So we’re giving it a go. We get all our milk from him now and haven’t cancelled it at all. Two four-pint containers will fit in the fridge door, whereas eight one-pint bottles will not. It costs less than glass bottles too. I had to make a bigger milk bottle box though. The hinged lid is very satisfying but we’ve no idea what the new milkman makes of it. We’ve still only seen him the once.

wooden milk bottle box with hinged lid

It is not ideal to be using more plastic, but at least plastic bottles appear to be more easily recyclable than the Tetra-Paks they used to have. As for Rodney, it turns out he hasn’t retired. He has just cut down the size of his round. We still see him out and about but he no longer delivers to our street.

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10 comments:

  1. Lovely piece. I remember school milk right at the start of school, I went to school in 1979 and think free school milk was ended for us about a year later. Still remember those little bottles though when I've forgotten so much else.

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    1. Thanks. I'm thinking there must be a lot of other everyday things that have changed so much through the years. Anyone remember the coalman?

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  2. Ah, happy memories. Did you ever pinch the cream off the top of those little bottles at school? Yum! No comment on the obligatory cod liver oil pill but would that have led to excessive digression?

    We too stopped our milk recently for exactly the same reasons. I kept it on for so long as a community service, but when it is delivered at midnight three days a week and you've never met the milkman then I doubt he knows his community anyway. It's time the oldies learnt internet shopping and used long life milk. (Only Poor People in Goole used sterilised milk from the Co-op Dairy on Centenary Road, but now I have quite a taste for it).

    Our milkman then was Frank Stephenson. His brother Roy had a grocery shop on Pasture Road. Roy came every Thursday to take my mum's order, and wrote it for her when it wasn't ready. "A quarter of tea, 2lbs of sugar....". "And what have you got this week Roy?" Jaffa cakes, chocolate digestives, Kunzel cakes, cup cakes in their sharp foil containers in lemon, orange and chocolate flavour... and delivered by Roy the following day, along with a bit of chatter.

    And yes, I remember the coalman too.

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    1. I'd forgotten the cod liver oil capsules, but I'm one of those strange people who actually like it. I used to squash them in my mouth to taste the oil. I now have one each morning to keep the old bones oiled. I did however remember that milkmen used to sell other things - we always had cream at Christmas - but the post was beginning to ramble on a bit so I decided not to include that.

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  3. And the chimney sweep? Running outside to see the brush come out of the top of the chimney?

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    1. ... and despite all the covers they used to put down, there was always loads of soot to hoover up inside the house. Necessary though. If you didn't have them swept, the fire would start to smell smoky, and then after a few more months the chimney would catch fire and the fire brigade have to be called for - exciting when it was someone else's chimney but it did once happen to ours.

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  4. Ahh the memories of milk delivered in glass bottles. I remember being taught how to shake the bottle without shooting the top off and I remember the birds pecking those foil tops. Since we moved house some 15 years ago it has been supermarket milk for me.

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    1. It's sensible to hold the top on anything you shake. But you don't have to shake semi-skimmed - that's another valuable learning experience gone.

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  5. Shake the cream in? No no no! The cream is for cornflakes.

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    1. Yes but you wouldn't want it in your tea.

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