Milk by Robert Ashton



In the late 1960s I took a Saturday job milking cows at Park Farm Friston, which forms part of the Blackheath Estate[1], a vast tract of land that stretches along the north bank of the River Alde on the Suffolk coast. It reached from Aldeburgh to Snape, and was enlarged in 1885 when the landowner Thomas Vernon-Wentworth bought the adjoining Friston Estate.


While most dairy herds at that time were black and white Friesians, a high yielding breed first imported from Holland in the 1880s, Blackheath estate kept a herd of Jersey cows. Jerseys are best known for producing milk high in butterfat. They are smaller than other breeds, but quite literally punch above their weight, having a reputation among stockmen for being feisty and quick to lash out with a hind leg when annoyed. But my experience was that if treated well, they were docile and capable of affection, although I did get kicked a few times, particularly if I did not let a cow know that I was about to attach the milking machine.


George Ewart Evans also knew about cows. Best remembered as one of the first oral historians of rural life, recording the stories his friends and neighbours told him of how life had been when they were growing up in rural East Suffolk, one of his earliest childhood chores was to milk the family’s cow. His writing and life in rural Suffolk was informed by his own childhood experience of his family keeping a cow, as well as by the interviews he conducted.


Today most cows live on a farm, but a hundred years ago, the Evans family were far from alone in keeping a cow in their backyard. This would probably have been a Welsh Black, a dual purpose breed, good for both milking and beef. In the early years of the last century most cattle kept were of breeds local to the area. In Suffolk the Red Poll was the native breed, which had evolved in the early 19th century as a cross between the earlier Suffolk Dun and its larger neighbour, the Norfolk Red. From the late 19th and early 20th century, as farming became more intensive, higher yielding breeds such as the Friesian became more popular. Today those indigenous breeds are largely only kept by rare breed enthusiasts, with the Jersey and Guernsey perhaps being exceptions.


Most of the milk produced by house cows was consumed by the family, either drunk raw, or used to make butter and cheese. Consuming raw milk, something I did throughout my late teens, is not without its risks. Talking with Blaxhall historian Rodney West, I learned that Evans had contracted tuberculosis in the early 1950s while living in Blaxhall, from the milk delivered each morning to his doorstep by Fred Mayhew, the village milkman. The practice then was to bottle milk from a farm in the village, by-passing the pasteurisation that a commercial dairy would have employed before delivering milk to each customer’s doorstep. Fortunately a course of antibiotics quickly cleared him of the disease, which although now rare in the UK, remains a problem worldwide. According to the World Health Organisation[2], 10 million new cases of tuberculosis are reported each year. Milk however is cited as the cause in only 1% of new cases in the UK[3] as almost all milk consumed is pasteurised and so any harmful bacteria are destroyed. An increasing number of English farmers are now selling raw milk that has not been pasteurised; to do this they must be registered and regularly test their cows, to show that they are brucellosis and TB free. (The sale of raw milk in Scotland is banned).


A hundred years ago, a cow would typically yield around 4,000 litres of milk each year, about half what they do today, but this was still more than enough to supply a large family with all they need. As Charles Hancy, who was born in 1899 told Evans; ‘my mother used to go round with the milk; she’d take two big cans round the town; measure it at your door; pint measure and a half-pint measure. Milk was only a penny a pint; some of them had just a half pint for a ha’penny. ‘[4] Charles and his sisters would milk eight cows before they went to school each morning, fetching them from the common outside Bungay where the family lived, then after milking, taking them back out again to graze.


The Evans family cow was kept in a stable behind the shop his father kept in the Glamorgan mining village of Abercynon. In his autobiography he wrote; ‘My most burdensome job was looking after Daisy the cow. After my eldest brother had been called up, I was effectively tied to Daisy’s tail. I had to take her out most mornings to graze, and then fetch her back. ‘[5] Evans was born in 1909, and so even if his brother was called up in 1918, in the closing months of the First World War, Evans would have been no older than nine when asked to look after the family cow. I was 14 before I first milked a cow; Evans started far younger.


When Evans wrote his autobiography The Strength of the Hills, the stories of his childhood were dominated by memories of the family shop being forced to close in the mid-1920s; a casualty of the recession that saw unemployment soar to nearly 30% in the Welsh mining villages[6].


However he did describe something of the importance of the family cow elsewhere, in his novel Voices of the Children, a story about a Welsh shopkeeper and his family. ‘Outside were the stables, the big warehouse and the cart shed. There were two stalls in the stable: one for the horse and one for the cow. There were three regular customers for milk. We only had one cow, and we used most of the milk ourselves, selling only what was left over.’ [7] The shop were Evans grew up is still trading today, and when I visited it in 2019, you could still see what would have once been the stable and card shed to the rear.


On the same page of his novel, he explained that; ‘The first customer supplied with milk was Mrs Thomas, the teacher’s wife. She was always tidily dressed, even in the morning. Her hair was in a net, and she spoke a little like Cardiff people.’ This illustrated well how as a writer he drew on personal experience, even when writing fiction. He had been married to Florence for more than ten years when he wrote The Voices of the Children, and she, like Mrs Thomas was married to a teacher (and was in fact a teacher herself). When I knew her in the early 1960s, she also wore her hair in a net with a small bun, although as a Londoner, she certainly did not speak with a Cardiff accent, Received Pronunciation being what was then expected of schoolteachers.


As you would expect, when a family kept a cow, it almost inevitably became something of a pet. After all, it probably slept behind the house and kept you supplied with fresh milk for much of the year. The Evans’s cow Daisy was from what he wrote, quite strong willed and had a tendency to escape from where she had been put to graze, to search out better food nearby. Evans described in his autobiography how he would often have to go and fetch Daisy back when she had escaped, sometimes from the allotments behind the village where she had been found eating cabbages. This bovine wanderlust eventually led to her downfall, as Evans wrote; ‘At last Daisy’s wanderings came to a sad end. One day she broke down the fence and grazed for a long time on the lush growth down by the river. She got blown and had to be killed by the local butcher.  I cannot remember my feelings at the time, but mother was very upset.’ [8]


My father-in-law Michael kept a small herd of dairy cows at Church Farm Blythburgh in the 1950s, and not only were they sometimes treated as family pets, but many were also named after family members. This trend was started when a distant relative, Bert Latham offered to buy Michael a cow shortly after he took on the tenancy in 1955. Then just 17 he was grateful for the gift, and happily complied with Bert’s wish that the cow be named after his wife May. After Michael married in 1958 he named one cow Winnie, after his mother-in-law, another after his wife Judy, and finally a new-born calf was named Belinda, after his daughter who is now my wife. The farm had fields on both sides of the main A12 road and even before she started school, Belinda would help her father take the cows across the road. Michael would stop the traffic, and Belinda would open the gate to release the cows. There was much less traffic in the early 1960s than there is today.


These stories only came to light when I found Michael’s Register of Milk Records, an official looking brown folder containing a page for each cow, upon which the milk recorder would carefully write down the milk yield measured on their monthly visit[9] to the farm. Michael told me that at first, his milking parlour did not have electricity, so the vacuum pump for the milking machines was powered by an old Lister petrol engine and oil lamps provided lighting on dark winter mornings. Blackheath Estate had a similar Lister engine in their cowshed as a stand-by, which I can remember being used one day when I had accidentally taken the overhead power line to the cowshed down with the front loader on a Fordson Super Major tractor.


Being a farmer so young meant that Michael was spared from doing National Service as his older brother had done. Heads were scratched when his calling up papers were returned with the explanation that he was a dairy farmer and worked alone, and could not possibly leave his cows. Perhaps people were also puzzled because the previous tenant at Church Farm, Peter Wright, had won the Victoria Cross for bravery, fighting the German army in 1943 at Salerno in Italy; he took the farm tenancy on after being demobbed, before moving to a larger farm at Ashbocking, at the invitation of Lord Tollemache, under whom he had served in the Coldstream Guards.





Milk is an extract from Robert’s new book Where are the Fellows Who Cut the Hay? which is being crowdfunded by Unbound. Read more and support the book here.

Robert Ashton has been fascinated by the writing of George Ewart Evans for more than 50 years. He grew up in rural Suffolk, worked on farms in his teens and married a farmer’s daughter. In December 2020 he graduated from the University of East Anglia’s Creative Writing MA course.

George Ewart Evans’ book The Pattern Under the Plough, detailing East Anglian rural life and culture, is published by Little Toller Books.

Photo by Rebecca Mayhew from Old Hall Farm.






[4] George Ewart Evans, The Days That We Have Seen: London, Faber 1975 p60

[5] George Ewart Evans ,The Strength of the Hills: London, Faber 1983 p15


[7] George Ewart Evans, The Voices of the Children: London, Pathian, 1947  p5

[8] George Ewart Evans, The Strength of the Hills: London, Faber 1983 p15


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