What it’s like to be a milkman in East London

What’s it like to be a milkman, delivering milk through the night while everyone else sleeps? We ask Paul Lough, the manager of Parker Dairies in Walthamstow – who tells us about 2am starts, helping the elderly and the beauty of the milk float…

Paul Lough, 48, has been in the milk industry for 29 years. He spent the first nine doing milk rounds, and has spent the past 13 years as manager of Parker Dairies in Walthamstow. He tells us about the early rising habits of a milkman… 

“Most milkmen start work at about 2 o’clock in the morning. We have to get out earlier and earlier to get in front of traffic and avoid traffic wardens and make sure people still have their milk on the doorstep by six. We’ve got 25 rounds and we deliver to around 11,000 doorsteps here in east London, and in the City and the West End.

We’ve got old boys who are over 70 still out on the streets and guys as young as 27 – and everything in between. They do big rounds, small rounds, there are some who run around and are done by 5.30am and others who plod round and finish around half ten.

We’ve got milk floats that are 40 years old, still delivering milk, nice and quietly. New floats only last six or seven years, but the ones we’ve got are like the Sherman tanks of the milk float world – we put a new set of batteries on it every six years and it’s good to go. We’ve got a fella who’s been repairing floats for 45 years and he comes in a couple of times a week, gaffer tapes them together and on we go. They do a great job. 

Parker Dairies, Walthamstow

John Parker started this milk round up around 1989. We were serving areas in east London, parts of Hackney and Dalston that no one else wanted to go in. Now they’re all up and coming, but 25 years ago no one wanted them.

When I started 29 years ago, the first words I heard as I walked in the gate were, “I don’t know why you’re bothering son. There’s only five years left in this.” I’m still here. We had a bad time when the supermarkets were selling core products cheaply to entice people, but lately we’ve had a resurgence, and it seems trendy to have a milkman again.

People like their milk in glass bottles, delivered on an electric milk float, and to wake up and find it on the doorstep. It’s a bit of clandestine operation. Because we’re out so early in the morning lots of people don’t know we’re still here, and we have to hide milk under bushes to stop it being nicked. But it’s a peculiar sort of treat when you open the front door and them two empty bottles you left out have been replaced with two full ones. It’s like the tooth fairy turning up to your door every morning. 

Keeping up with the times…

We’re embracing Twitter and Facebook, but we’re definitely behind the times. Most of us are still using pencil and paper and apparently that’s part of the charm of it. The guys have anything between 300 and 450 customers on an average round, and they’ve been on there so long most of them, that they know every single customer’s requirements, each day without even using the round books. It’s phenomenal how much memory space they have. It must be all the tea they drink out there.

Milkmen are social workers as well. We serve a lot of elderly people and we’re their only source of contact during the week, so that’s a nice part. If they need a light bulb changing or something we can be quite handy for them, carrying stuff in and popping it in the fridge.

We’ll deliver a month’s worth of milk, eggs, cheese, compost and at the end of the month collect the money for our deliveries. There’s not a lot of companies who’ll let you pay when you get paid without interest. Some of our customers, when money’s tight and we knock at the end of the month, will say we’ve only got ten pounds of the forty, and we’ll say that’s fine, pay us next month. That’s unique. It’s all done on trust.

We take a few hits when people move out and don’t tell us but you’d be surprised – there are more good people in this world than bad. We trust that they’ll pay us and they trust we’ll deliver and keep the accounts correct and that’s one of our assets. You can pay online too now, so we’ve got all modern! We may move slowly but we’re alright.

Choosing a milkman over the supermarket

I’m 100 per cent certain our milk is better quality. It costs more, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a lot. We all know beer is 50p in a supermarket, but we’re all happy to pay £4.50 in town in a pub because you feel you’re getting a bit of service with it. Hopefully we’re the same. We’re not quite £4.50 for a pint but if it’s 50p a pint in the supermarket we’re 80p, but you’re getting four deliveries a week.

We sell compost and other products that are heavy to carry and for that service people are paying about £17 a year, for maybe 170 deliveries. People who want cheap milk will still buy cheap milk, I understand that. People have families and money’s tight, but whenever you pop into a supermarket to buy milk you always come out with loads of other stuff. Luckily we’re keeping our head above water and growing slightly year on year. Long may that continue.”