The white stuff: why the milk float is making a return

A milkman making his deliveries in an Austin milk float, Hull, 13th July 1961. (Photo by Bert Hardy Advertising Archive/Getty Images)
A Hull milkman doing his rounds in 1961 Credit: Bert Hardy Advertising Archive

Remember the whirr of an electric motor, the clink-clink of bottles in a crate? Doorstep pinta deliveries have crashed since the Seventies, but the Government’s war against single-use plastics has indirectly sparked a revival of the humble milk float.

Forty years ago, 94 per cent of milk in the UK was brought to our doorstep by a nationwide army of delivery men. Back then, the now-defunct Milk Marketing Board was in charge of production and distribution across the UK.

Milk was money and the board devised a range of advertising campaigns to keep delivery numbers up. “Drinka pinta milka day” and “Full of natural goodness” were popular slogans, while “Is your man getting enough?” likely caused Mary Whitehouse to choke on her cornflakes.

The Humphreys were a dastardly gang of invisible milk thieves who left a red and white straw in each empty bottle. Spike Milligan, Barbara Windsor and even Muhammad Ali recorded television commercials; the catchphrase was “Watch out, there’s a Humphrey about”.

Football’s Milk Cup and the Milk Race cycling tour of Britain (the sponsorship lasting 35 years from 1958) were major sporting events that helped maintain sales of the white stuff. However, popular culture took a rock cake to the heart when Benny Hill released the Christmas number one single Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West).

Dairy workers load milk bottles on to an electric milk float in Blackpool Credit: Chris Hellier/Corbis Historical

The lyrics were inspired by the comedian’s own exploits as a milkie in Hampshire. They told the story of a feud between a milkman and a bread delivery driver, called Two-Ton Ted from Teddington.

The wheels started to come off the milk delivery business in the Nineties, when supermarkets switched to plastic containers. It meant lower prices for the customer and a shift away from iconic glass bottles and milk floats.

Two years ago, just three per cent of milk was delivered to the doorstep – now even the most street-hardened milkman can see that things are looking up, with about one million glass bottle deliveries a day.

The growing trend is exemplified by Milk & More. It is spending £6.5 million on 200 battery-powered milk floats – adding to an existing fleet of 250. The investment will make the dairy firm one of the largest operators of electric vehicles in the country.

Its StreetScooters (which are built in Germany) are powered by a 40kWh lithium-ion battery, with a conventional, van-like cab. They will ultimately replace all the firms’ out-of-favour diesel vans.  

A left-hand-drive configuration means milkmen can step on to the pavement safely from the StreetScooter driver’s seat, while the electric motor produces zero emissions.

On board, an 86 sq ft refrigerated load area is capable of carrying up to 860 pints at a time, while sleepy households will not be disturbed by sound of a combustion engine in the early hours.

Ian Beardwell delivered his first pinta in 1979. His modern Milk & More float has a refrigerated area capable of holding 860 pints

The move is part of a long-term plan by the company to help secure the future of the British milkman. And the ­strategy is paying off ­already, as Milk & More has gained more than 30,000 customers since the start of the year.

Ninety per cent of the new customers have chosen milk in iconic glass bottles, influenced by government plans to stop all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. The glass bottles are reused an average of 25 times.

A return to glass milk bottle deliveries by the firm has been mirrored by other dairy companies across the country – aided by modern milk floats capable of travelling further on a single charge.

Patrick Müller, the CEO of Milk & More, says initiatives against plastic waste have been backed up by the ­television series Blue Planet II: “We have Sir David Attenborough to thank for that. The programme showed how plastic pollution is killing life in our oceans. It made people see the damage that is being done. They are turning to glass milk bottles instead.”

The traditional glass bottle is making a welcome return. Each is reused an average of 25 times Credit: iStockphoto

The company aims is to replace its entire fleet of 1,040 floats with electric vehicles. In the first month of Street-Scooter operation, it saw a 90 per cent reduction in operational costs compared with the outgoing diesels.

“Some of our oldest electric vehicles are 45 years old and need replacing, too. We have a milk float graveyard in Mansfield, where hundreds of old floats are dismantled for spares.

“They are also becoming popular as alternative food vans, overhauled and rebuilt for selling ice cream, festival food and even fitted with a petrol engine for milk float racing,” said Müller.

Ian Beardwell still remembers delivering his first pint in 1979. A second generation milkman, he was aboard his father’s electric float in Colliers Wood, south-west London on a bitter Christmas Eve morning.

Ian Beardwell doing his rounds in south-west London. His 625 drops in 25 miles takes about six hours

“There was six inches of snow and it was freezing. When Dad started back in the Fifties he had a horse-drawn cart – even my first float in 1991 was a three-wheeler. Since then times have really changed.”

Beardwell has 625 drops on his 25-mile Milk & More round in Southville, south London. He makes his first delivery at 1am and finishes six hours later. Customers can buy more than just gold tops, too, with 200 products to order online.

“It used to just be milk and bread – now they can opt for organic cheeses, artisan bread and freshly squeezed orange juice,” he said.

So what’s the best feature on his new milk float? “It’s great having a demister in the cab for cold mornings, it can be so cold. But what makes us milkman really happy is the heated seat – that really puts a smile on your face in the winter months.”

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