We have been reading the ‘Milk traffic’ section of Christine Hallas’ superbly researched book ‘The Wensleydale Railway’ this morning. In it she describes in detail the close link between the railway line and the farmers in upper Wensleydale who relied on it to transport their fresh milk to city customers from the late nineteenth century to the early 1930s.
The arrival of rural railways such as the Wensleydale line towards the end of the nineteenth century was apparently perfectly timed. Continental cheese imports were depressing the prices of locally made cheeses and farmers needed to look elsewhere in order to sell their milk at a decent price. The new railways allowed producers to send fresh milk at speed to distant city populations and thus the ‘Milk Train’ was born.
As Kit Calvert notes in his booklet ‘The Story of Wensleydale Cheese’, farmer’s wives were often more than happy to give up the seven days a week drudgery of farmhouse cheese making and instead see the farm’s milk carted away in churns every morning.
Christine Hallas quotes British agricultural statistician Sir R. Henry Rew writing in 1892:
“Every traveller by rail has noted the outward and visible signs of the expansion of this trade in the battalions of cans … which daily come and go along all the country lines of railway.”
quoted in Christine Hallas (2004) ‘The Wensleydale Railway’ Great Northern Books
Kit Calvert goes on to describe how the First World War caused the traffic to increase even further:
“The first world war with its labour difficulties, aggravated by the high prices offered for liquid milk, lured more and more farmhouse cheesemakers from their time honoured craft into a mad gallop to the morning train with churns of liquid milk.”
T C Calvert (1946) ‘The Story of Wensleydale Cheese’ Dalesman Publishing p9
Christine Hallas describes much the same picture of the early morning rush to the station and the sometimes comical results:
“It was also a social occasion as people requested lifts from friends’ milk carts to travel to different places in the dale. The farmers worked a rota system for loading all the deposited churns on to the waiting train. During harvest time, the farmers’ wives delivered the milk and took great care to ensure that their ponies and carts were smartly “turned out’ to impress the other women. Many minor mishaps occurred in the headlong dash to catch the train – one farmer’s pony was so used to the journey that on one occasion it started off to the station without its master, delivering the milk on time and intact.”
Christine Hallas ibid
The 1920s and early 1930s saw the peak of this traffic on the Wensleydale railway and Christine Hallas quotes astonishing figures for the amounts of milk passing through Askrigg Station, in 1923 for instance 15,600 gallons were sent on to Leeds, 240,038 gallons to Finsbury Park for the London market and over 18,000 gallons to the Express Dairy at Appleby. Milk trains and passenger trains with milk vans attached carried thousands of gallons of milk east to Leyburn for transport onwards to urban consumers.
By 1932 however, the first motor lorries had arrived in the upper dale and the milk train ceased to run on the Wensleydale line. Lorries carried Wensleydale milk to the Express Dairy in Appleby until early 1937 when an Express Dairy opened in Leyburn which then took the bulk of the milk produced in the upper dale.
After 1970 when the Express Dairy closed in Leyburn, liquid milk stopped leaving the upper dale in any great quantity, instead being transported in bulk tankers to the Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes for manufacture into cheese.
As Christine Hallas points out:
“…the dairy industry of the dale had come full circle from the pre-rail days of farm cheese and butter through the hey-day of liquid milk traffic to the factory cheese produced within the dale.”