The fastest milkman in the west

So it turns out that my 3 x great grandfather was a milkman!

I have to say that I was quite excited to make this discovery during our visit to Berkshire Record Office, since it seems to me that the overwhelming majority of my ancestors were ‘ag labs’.

The baptism register for New Windsor records the baptisms of four children to William and Mary Hunt between 1808 and 1815.  Two of these were the twins William and Mary, baptized in May 1808.  The church forms for recording baptisms after 1813 helpfully included space for recording the father’s occupation, and so when John Hunt was baptized in 1813 his father was described as a ‘labourer’.  But in 1815, when he took daughter Ann to church, William described himself as a ‘milkman’.

Now I’m afraid that this did initially conjure up in my mind images of Benny Hill’s legendary Ernie, who drove the fastest milkcart in the west (younger readers may need to google this), but it led me to wonder just what the job of a milkman in 1815 would have been like.

For all the lists of historic occupations available online, I could actually find very little information on the milkman.  One of the most helpful sources of information, however, was ‘the Working Man’s Friend and Family Instructor 1852’ available on Google Books. Although this was written almost 40 years after William Hunt was operating in Windsor, it did give me a valuable insight:  “the milkman may be seen trudging along with his can from house to house…with his not unmelodious cry”.  Unlike the modern milkman (and there are still some around), this individual is likely to have produced the milk he sold.  He probably had a small plot on which he kept his cows and then took the milk around door to door using a measuring jug to decant the required amount into the customer’s own container.  With the lack of refrigeration he may even have done this more than once a day.

“Was this more of an urban than rural occupation?” I wondered, as I posted my query about the occupation on a family history society facebook forum.  The family history fraternity is amazingly supportive and helpful and a number of fellow members posted replies, concurring with me that quite possibly at this period those in the countryside had a more ready access to their own milk supply.  One contributor suggested that William was perhaps “an entrepreneur who found a new market in an expanding city”.  I think he is probably right:  the growth of towns in the early nineteenth century must have inevitably led to opportunities in different trades and if William had the means to set up this venture he may have developed quite a reasonable business.

Reasonable enough that his daughter Mary Ann was accepted as a pupil at the Charity School.  The book ‘Windsor and Eton Express 1812 – 1830’ says of the Royal Free School (aka Charity School) “Charity children were carefully chosen by the trustees from respectable working class families” and in 1813 the children had to contribute one penny a week.  A Bible, still held within the family, is inscribed “The gift of the Trustees of the Charity School New Windsor, Berks, to Mary Ann Hunt Aug 13th 1822”.  She would then have been 14, so perhaps that was when she left the school.  She was very fortunate to gain an education at that early stage.

But to return to the milkman occupation, in my hunting for information one other intriguing reference was in the image of JMW Turner’s painting ‘Dartmouth on the River Dart’.  Executed in 1822 (so only 7 years after I know William Hunt was working in Windsor) it shows “the figure of the milkman on his rounds at the right”, according to the Tate Britain information.  If you google the image you can, indeed, make out the figure of the milkman.

No sign of any horse and cart.  I will never know how William conveyed his milk, but without the help of Trigger I guess he was unlikely to have been the fastest milkman in the west – or even in Windsor.

p 24 of the Working Man’s Friend and Family Instructor 1852