Updated: Jul 12
Today, we mostly take dairy foods and their production for granted, with modern technology allowing clean and affordable pasteurised milk to have become commonplace. For centuries, however, our relationship to dairy has been more complex, and its production has formed a meeting point of lords and landowning patrons, workers, and common consumers. These relationships can be read into the historic spaces of dedicated dairy buildings, themselves shaped through the ages by developing technologies and shifting social environments. Where they survive today, historic dairies are valued in modern conservation, reflecting back on the importance of the social stories crucial to the development of these industrial buildings, rather than simply protecting ‘elite’ spaces.
While dairy buildings only survive today from the Tudor period onwards, the Middle Ages give us an important insight into the social background of the industry. The word ‘dairy’ itself emerged in Middle English from the Anglo-Saxon ‘dæge’, meaning a female servant or breadmaker – with connotations that dairy farming and produce were fundamentally low status, typically the work and fare of land workers. Aristocratic diets did not usually contain many dairy products in the Middle Ages, which were generally considered inferior, and the development of cheeses and butter seem to have been as means of preserving short-lasting milk, rather than initially as delicacies. Most dairy originally came from sheep’s milk, tied to the popular English wool industry and ease of keeping sheep in small numbers, although by the later 14th century cattle had become increasingly popular, with the wool trade affected by the Hundred Years War, and new technologies of farming allowing the overwintering of cattle herds in barns. While previously, the feudal system had meant that a medieval peasant would tend their own animals for dairy, which developed as a ‘cottage industry’, the later Middle Ages saw a move towards private land holdings and dairy farms, leading to the emergence of the dedicated dairy building.
The dairy, an outbuilding as part of a farm complex, appeared similar in basic form from the time of its introduction in the 16th century until its replacement by industrial farm buildings in the later 19th century. The building was designed to allow milk to be stored and processed at a cool temperature to prevent spoiling. To create cheese, rennet from the stomach of a calf was added to the fresh milk in order to separate the curds from the whey, which could then be pressed and salted. This process was made easier with temperature regulated architecturally. Dairies were typically found attached to the northern side of the farmhouse, intended to be sheltered from the sun by other farm buildings. The structure would also feature wide doors and windows, allowing a through draught, with stone or porous tiled floors. In the case of the latter, water could be poured onto the tiles and allowed to slowly evaporate, further cooling the dairy as the vapour was drawn out of the windows.
Socially, the role of early dairy buildings remained relatively low status, and examples are typically found near the historic farm’s pigsties, so that pigs could be fed off the whey produced as a by-product of cheesemaking. Dairy farms were often run by a single family, with the men responsible for the upkeep and grazing of cattle, while the dairy building itself was the responsibility of the women, thereby continuing the tradition of female dairy workers which seems to stretch back to the Middle Ages. While previously, dairy production appears to have taken place on a small scale, preserving milk to feed individual families, the emergence of the built dairy meant that production had become increasingly specialised by the 18th century, with farms allowing for a greater volume of product for sale in town markets, while country estates often had their own dairy farm to serve the household.
The vast majority of surviving dairy buildings are specialised examples from the 18th and 19th centuries, by which time the architectural and social traditions of the dairy had been well established. These traditions led to aristocratic stereotypes of the dairy, idealised as a feminine space associated with motherhood, as well as a symbol of simple country living. Taken to the extreme, the ‘hameau de la reine’ at Versailles saw an entire model village built for Marie Antoinette with ‘rural’ cottages and a model dairy framing an artificial lake. The queen would host small parties at her farm, and could visit a working dairy which stood alongside the perfect model.
In England, while entire model farms were not built to this level of extravagance, the same ideals of the quaint country dairy were popular among aristocratic estates, particularly as fashionable landscape design sought to restore the spirit of the open countryside to parkland. Dairies were used in a variety of ways, being not only symbolically, but practically important for the production of fresh milk and cream for the household. Working dairies, which survive as part of ‘Home Farms’ often set very close to the main house, could be designed to appear as ornamental features from the exterior, while model dairies, decorated internally with ornate tiles, could appear almost indistinguishable from their working twins, with marble tables used for tea parties rather than butter-churning. Dairies could be set in landscaped grounds as follies and were particularly significant at suburban estates such as Kenwood House, where the surviving collection of dairy buildings on Hampstead Heath can be seen as a clear attempt to bring a country symbol to the edges of London.
Dairies did not lose their practical purpose, and by the early-19th century the functional role of the dairy building, with accompanying aesthetics, was as fashionable to aristocratic estate owners as the rustic symbolism of their predecessors. While the basic form of the Victorian dairy was similar even to low-status Tudor examples – and was used for near identical purposes of the storage of unpasteurised milk and production of butter, cream and cheese – the detailing was now updated to the latest standards of technology and design. At Windsor Castle, Prince Albert rebuilt King George III’s late-18th century dairy according to the ‘modern standards’ required to serve the palaces. The building was enlarged, and a decorated fountain installed at either end of the main room in order to cool the temperature. The internal walls of the dairy were covered in colourful tiles, although unlike Georgian ‘model dairies’, the elaborate space remained purely functional.
While the royal dairy may have been an extreme example, the 19th century saw a more general social shift towards an increasingly modern world. Even before the invention of pasteurisation in the 1860s, railways had allowed the transport of milk from large dairy farms quickly into cities while it was still fresh. Increased industrialisation meant that by the turn of the century smaller farms had fallen out of favour, and cheese recipes had become standardised, and even the subject of government regulation. From this time until the more widespread popularity of pasteurisation, milk-borne diseases spread easily in the fresh milk imported into cities from large farms, however, and the traditional dairy building still maintained its place on the home farm of aristocratic elites. Eventually, industrial technology and the great social changes of the early 20th century rendered the last working dairies irrelevant, bringing to an end five hundred years of traditional use, the legacy of which is protected today in the variety of historic dairy buildings.
by William Blackburn