Colin Spencer’s history of British food explains how the construction of first canals and then railways prompted England’s rapidly expanding industrial cities to import milk. “By 1825 these growing industrial towns were being supplied by canal, a smoother journey than by road which shook the milk about, and it arrived in the centre of Manchester twice a day. The Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal had a special milk boat and now many dairies outside the towns switched from cheese and butter production to the supply of raw milk. The Bridgewater canal also had a special milk boat, which travelled along the Cheshire branch. Hundreds of milk cans were commonly to be seen stacked on the wharves in Manchester” (250). By the mid-1840s railway trains brought milk to Manchester, and a decade later this new form of transportation brought it to London.

Unfortunately, several factors, including adulteration and lack of sanitary storage and conveyance of milk, both reduced its value as a source of nuitrition, especially for children, and made it a major cause of often fatal diseases. As Spencer explains, “the addition of only ten per cent of water increased profit by forty per cent. It was estimated that seventy-four per cent of milk was adulterated with water, in a ratio of anything from ten to fifty per cent water to milk; an 1863 report claimed milk had been diluted by the addition of water four to six times” (250) making it “nutritionally deficient in both vitamins A and D, so rickets became common among working class children” (251). In addition, flies attracted to the improperly protected milk spread “gastritis and enteritis which killed one-third of infants before 1914” (251). Finally, bovine tubercle bacillus spread tuberculosis.

Links to Related Material


Spencer, Colin. British food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Wohl, Anthony S. Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983.

Last modified 26 June 2022