My life as a Victorian dairy maid – making butter

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?

Threshing machine at Victorian museum farm
Threshing machine in the farm yard at the Victorian museum farm

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.

Working as a dairy maid at a Victorian museum farm in 1990
Working as a dairy maid at a Victorian museum farm in 1990 – churning jar, butter pats, sieve, marble board and a plate of freshly made butter

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.

Fresh butter
Fresh butter

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.

Children watch me making butter at the Victorian museum farm
Children watch me make butter at the Victorian museum farm

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.

8 thoughts on “My life as a Victorian dairy maid – making butter

  1. Ha – I remember that.
    Also in winter when the management had taken the idea of those times a little too seriously and didn’t provide enough clothing and you had to borrow a shawl from one of the dummies in a museum exhibit.

    1. Yes, as I recall, I took a thick woollen shawl. It was rather dusty, but warmer than the clothes I’d been provided with!

  2. For a few years I milked cows (with a machine) and I did have a go at making butter. I also made cheese from goats milk. Both tasted good but didn’t keep very long. I suspect I didn’t properly remove the liquid as it’s quite time consuming to get it all out and I’m not very patient.

    1. Good stuff, Patsy! Interesting to have a go at, isn’t it.

      I was sent on a cheese making course and tried my hand at soft cheeses from cows milk. They weren’t bad, but there wasn’t really the time to really get into doing more.

      With removing the water, I think the butter was supposed to have a maximum of 3% liquid, which isn’t very much. When mine was sent for testing, it came out at about 2.5% liquid. It is a faff to do it though.

  3. I well remember visiting you there, when we were both twenty-eight. The memory of you showing me how to make butter, exactly as described above, is still fresh in my mind. You seemed totally in your element there, as the delightful photos show. x

    1. I remember that, David. I was delighted to make that butter for you right there in your kitchen!

      Yes, I was in my element – working on that farm was a revelation and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to do it. x

      Edit: Hang on, you’re talking about the farm, not the time I made you butter at your place. Got confused for a moment.

  4. I remember when I was a child (milk had more cream in it then and we had no fridge) once the milk started to ‘turn’, mum would take it out of the cold larder and leave it in a warm place. Once it curdled she’d mash it with salt – it made quite a tasty soft cheese. One very hot day on a school trip to Mousehold Heath in Norwich, our crate of milk was stowed underneath the coach. By lunchtime it was butter… Wouldn’t happen today.

    1. Good idea with the turned milk, Yvonne! Eesh, I remember how that school milk went on warm days, it could get quite nasty.

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