In 1990, for a short time, I worked as a dairy maid on a Victorian museum farm in the Black Country region of the West Midlands. Being in the (then) industrial West Midlands, it was a rare opportunity to be outside a lot, as well as doing something totally different to anything I’d ever considered doing before. Having spent so much time over the years thinking, ‘I wonder how you do xyz’ and ‘I wonder what it was like to…’ it was also a chance to sate my curiosity about at least one thing and find out what sort of things might have happened on a Victorian farm. What did they do?
I was only there for about ten months, before bowing out with dairy maid’s elbow, but it was a fascinating experience and one that I look back on with memories of carefree sunny days, out of another time altogether. It was my first real taste of proper physical work and the first time I realised that the old ‘upstairs-downstairs’ attitudes are still very much alive today, but more of that later.
Briefly, these were my main duties – starting at 8am, I’d help clean out the milking stalls after the morning milking; clean out the pigsties and put down new bedding; feed the animals and hose and sweep the farmyard. These jobs had to be done before the museum opened to the public at 10am. When I was finished in the farmyard, I’d go into the dairy, fill up the big copper with water and set it to heat for washing up. Then I’d go to a broad slab of a brick shelf and look at the big ceramic jars of cream that were waiting for me to turn them into butter, give each a sniff and select the first of the day.
Making butter is pretty straightforward. The cream is poured into a big jar, which has paddles fixed to the lid and a handle on top, and then you turn the handle for 15-20 minutes until the fat and buttermilk separate and the butter has formed into small granules. This is put through a fine sieve and washed gently to remove the last of the buttermilk, then tipped out onto a wooden board and worked with butter pats to remove the water and mix in a bit of salt, if you’re using it. This done, it is portioned out and patted into blocks or rounds.
I got quite good at it and old age pensioners would come to the farm just to buy the butter, with some saying it gave them a long-lost taste of their childhoods before WWII. A good part of the day was spent making butter in front of small groups, generally families and couples, but once for a group of small farmers from Germany. I’d chat with them and tell them what I was doing, and why, and when the butter was done, I’d spread it onto crackers and hand them out for people to try. They always went down well.
Come 4pm, it was time to bring the cows in for milking and, after that, to bring the geese in off the pond. That’s in the next blog.