Newsflash: milkmen still exist. Alexi Duggins goes on a round and finds out about saving pensioners’ lives, fighting off gunmen and ordering sourdough on Twitter
‘Warning! Your local milkman does not carry cash. He is protected by a personal alarm!’
It’s 3am in the South Woodford depot of Parker Dairies – one of London’s last independent milk delivery companies – and these words are shouting from the window of a 1970s electric milk float. The warning is emphasised by a drawing of the disembodied head of a 1980s policeman, which, frankly, does nothing to detract from its ludicrousness. Someone mug a milkman? Do they think criminal masterminds are drawing up plans for audacious smash-and-grab heists on their small-change pouch? Don’t think so.
‘Actually, someone tried to mug me at gunpoint once,’ says Steve Hayden – the dairy’s top-selling milkman – as he spots me reading the sign. He notices my look of shock and adds: ‘I know, the last thing you expect when you’re on a milk round is for someone to pull a gun on you. I threw a pint of milk at them and they legged it.’
This is the kind of mindblowing titbit that you get again and again when you spend a few hours in Steve’s company. My plan had been to find out about the state of London’s (presumably dying) milk delivery industry by going on a round. But within minutes of starting to load up one of the electric floats that Parker still uses it becomes clear that today’s going to have a few surprises in store.
‘It’s all about the plant-based milks now – the hipsters love it,’ says Steve, as he hauls over dozens of cartons of almond and soya milk while trying to ignore the fact that a colleague behind him is pulling a face like he’s been kicked in the balls and muttering: ‘It’s horrible that stuff, tastes like water.’ Stacked high around the warehouse is a motley assortment of other goods – bags of cat litter, bird food tubs large enough to cause a blue tit obesity epidemic and sufficient compost to fill a hot tub (‘Compost has kicked off in a big way for us,’ Steve says). Nonetheless, as we hop into the cab, the contents of the float are overwhelmingly milk-based. Five hundred bottles of the stuff, 300 of which are semi-skimmed. ‘I’ve been doing this since before semi-skimmed existed. That’s how old I am,’ laughs Steve, 74 years young, as he roars off into the darkness at 15mph.
Our destination: the affluent east London suburb of Wanstead. For 11 years, its 500 customers have made up Steve’s patch. As we drive down a street that’s so middle-class its litter consists of a sole packet of Cauldron falafel, Steve describes a car chase he witnessed here. It’s a tad more entertaining than the sleepy pootle I’d envisaged. ‘I’ve seen burglaries; I’ve seen cars being stolen; I’ve seen tons of rubble dumped in the middle of the road; I’ve seen it all,’ he says.
For decades, the milk delivery industry has been in decline. According to the dairy industry’s brilliantly named research group the Milk Task Force, 89 percent of milk sales were done via doorstep delivery in the 1980s. By 2014-15 it had dropped to 3 percent, in part because of supermarkets keeping milk prices artificailly low, often selling it at a loss to get customers into their stores. In London the problem is particularly bad as increasing traffic has forced milkmen to start their rounds earlier to ensure milk is on customers’ doorsteps by the time they get up. This means deliveries are done at a time when most of the city’s asleep, which doesn’t do wonders for the profile of their service. Or, as Steve puts it: ‘I don’t think a lot of the public know we still exist.’
This doesn’t seem to be a problem in Wanstead. By 8am, the sun is beaming, magpies are chasing each other around the trees and the streets are full of people waving to Steve. At one point an excited pedestrian stops us and exclaims: ‘This guy’s the local hero! I moved in a year ago and he was the first person to stop and say hello to me.’ It’s lovely, but he isn’t actually a hero, is he? I mean, he hasn’t rescued anyone from certain death, he’s just delivering stuff to put on their cereal. ‘Actually, I did save someone’s life once,’ says Steve. ‘I noticed that one of my pensioner customers hadn’t taken in the milk from her last delivery so I got a spare key and went in. She’d got so weak that she hadn’t been able to move from the sofa for two days. The ambulance men said she’d have died without me.’
Over the next couple of hours we cover an astonishing amount of ground. We walk up eight floors in a block of flats. We carry a crate of semi to the back door of a convent and ferry a dozen tiny plastic bottles to a primary school. Steve pauses to reflect, ‘You see it all in this job, from the poor right up to the rich.’
There’s one particular section of society that the milk industry is excited about at the moment, though: hipsters. In the past couple of years Parker Dairies has halted its decline in sales – a minor miracle in this industry – and management reckons it’s down to Hackney’s population of retro-fetishists. ‘The hipsters love the glass bottles and the electric floats,’ says depot manager Paul Lough of a trend that’s also seen a big spike in their almond milk sales. So determined are they to become London’s trendiest troupe of milkmen that they’ve started selling loaves of artisanal sourdough bread and taking orders on Twitter. While it’s the price of the sourdough that’s really confounded the staff (‘Half of the old boys nearly fell on the floor when I told them we were selling bread that cost £3.70 a kilo!’ chuckles Lough), their use of social media is particularly impressive. It’s hard to see how people can talk about milkmen not having a place in the future when a pre-bedtime tweet will have a pint of milk on your doorstep by the time you wake up next morning – with no delivery charge. ‘Logistically, even Amazon’s grocery service can’t match our prices,’ says Lough. ‘They just can’t.’
Another thing they can’t match is the slightly odd level of personal service that Steve offers. He’s so determined that a milkman be considered ‘part of the community’ that he changes people’s lightbulbs and gives them lifts. I meet people who have invited Steve to Christmas dinner. A restaurant owner takes me aside to explain how much he’s been helped by the business Steve drums up by recommending them to his customers. As his shift draws to a close, I watch him chase a customer’s dog round their living room table like he’s recreating the clip of Benny Hill’s ‘Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)’. The reason? ‘He saved our dog’s life,’ comes the explanation. ‘He’s got a spare key now. He’s a member of the family, really.’
‘You see?’ puffs Steve, as he stops doing laps with the dog. ‘We’re not scared of drone deliveries. We’re not worried about delivery robots. They can’t offer a service like this.’ He pauses for one last thought. ‘Bet you didn’t think you were gonna see me chase a dog around a table today, did you?’ No, Steve. No I didn’t.
Photos: Travis Hodges
In other dairy-related news, the UK’s first ‘milk sommelier’ is coming to Borough Market.