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On the rounds with the Spitalfields milkman

May 18, 2010
by the gentle author

Dawn has broken over the East End and there goes Kevin, the agile milkman, sprinting down the street with a pint of milk in hand. With enviable stamina, Kevin Read gets up at two thirty each morning, six days a week, and delivers milk in a round that stretches from the Olympic Park in the East to Hoxton Square in the West, doing the whole thing on the run.

The East End is a smaller, more peaceful place in the morning, before all the people get up, and I was inspired to see it through Kevin’s eyes, when I joined him on the round yesterday at four thirty. As we careered around the streets in the early sunshine, travelling effortlessly from one place to another down empty streets that are Kevin’s sole preserve for the first three hours of daylight at this time of year, landmarks appeared closer together and the busy roads that divide the territory were quiet. Kevin’s East End is another land, known only to early birds.

“I never look at it as a job, it’s my life,” admitted Kevin, still enthusiastic after thirty years on the rounds. “Born in Harlow. Educated in Harlow. Top of the class at school. Bunked off at fourteen. Failed all my exams. Moved to London at fifteen. Started as a rounds boy at the Co-op Dairy, just at weekends until I got a proper job. Left school at sixteen. Junior Depot Assistant at Co-op, swept yard, parked milk floats and made coffee for the manager. Don’t know what happened to the proper job!” said Kevin with a shrug. It was the prologue to the story of Kevin’s illustrious career, that began in Arnold Circus, delivering milk to the Boundary Estate in 1982, where he ran up and down every staircase making a long list of calls for each block. Today, Kevin still carries his vocabulary of Bengali words that he picked up then.

In the intervening years, an earthquake happened. The Co-op Dairy was bought by Express Dairies, then Kevin worked for Unigate until that was sold to Dairy Crest, next working for Express Dairies until that was also sold to Dairy Crest, and finally working for Hobbs Cross Farm Dairy until they went out of business. Quite a bumpy ride, yet Kevin persevered through these changes which included a dire spell in the suburbs of Chingford. “They complain if you put the milk on the wrong side of the doorstep there!” he revealed with caustic good humour, outlining a shamelessly biased comparison between the suburb and the inner city streets that were his first love.

While we drove around in the dawn yesterday, Kevin told me his life story  - in between leaping from the cabin and sprinting off, across the road, through security doors, up and down stairs, along balconies, in and out of cafes, schools, offices, universities and churches. No delivery is too small and he will consider any location. Yet it is no small challenge to work out the most efficient route each day, taking into account traffic and orders that vary daily. Kevin has two fat round books that describe all the calls he must do, yet he barely opens them. He has it all in his head, two hundred domestic calls (on a system of alternating days), plus one hundred and thirty offices, shops and cafes. “A good milkman knows how to work his round,” stated Kevin with the quiet authority of a seasoned professional.

Setting a fierce pace, always quick, never hurried, he was always thinking on his feet. With practiced dexterity Kevin can carry six glass bottles effortlessly in his bare hands, with the necks clutched between each of his fingers. He makes it all look easy, because Kevin is an artist. The wide chassis of Kevin’s diesel milk float permits him to cross speed bumps with one wheel on either side – avoiding chinking milk crates – if he lines up the float precisely, and during our seven hours together on the round, he did it right every time.

Yet, before he embraced his occupation, Kevin rejected it. When the industry hit a bump, he tried to find that “proper job” which haunted him, working in a kitchen and then a bakery for three years. But one day he saw a milk float drive by the bakery and he knew his destiny was to be in the cabin. Taking a declining round on the Cattle Road Estate, he built it up to hundred calls, and then another and another, until he had five rounds with four milkmen working alongside him. A failed marriage and an expensive divorce meant he had to sell these rounds, worth £10,000 a piece, to Parker Dairies. But then in 1999, the dairy offered him his old territory back – the East End. “I realised the only time I was happy was when I was working for myself,” confided Kevin with glee, “It was my favourite round, my favourite area, my favourite pay scheme, commission only – next to my first round Arnold Circus!  The best of everything came together for me.”

But, returning to East End, Kevin discovered his customers had become further apart. Where once Kevin went door to door, now he may have only one or two calls in a street, and consequently the round is wider. Between three thirty and eleven thirty each morning, Kevin spirals around the East End, delivering first to houses with gardens and secure locations to leave milk, then returning later to deliver milk to exposed doorsteps, thereby minimising the risk of theft, before finally doing the rounds of offices as they open for business. During the day Kevin turns evangelical, canvassing door to door, searching for new customers, because many people no longer realise there is a milkman who can deliver.

Kevin is a milkman with a mission to rebuild the lost milk rounds of the East End, and he has become a local personality in the process, celebrated for his boundless energy and easy charm. Now happily settled with his new partner, whom he met on the round, he thinks he is delivering milk but I think he is pursuing life.

If you want Kevin to deliver milk or yoghurt or eggs or fresh bread or dogfood, or even compost, to you, contact him directly by phoning 07940095775 or email kevinthemilkman@yahoo.co.uk

4 Responses leave one →
  1. May 18, 2010

    What a marvelous post! I do admire your hero, and wish there was such a service available here in New York.

    Reading about Kevin’s rounds and seeing those glass pint bottles sent me down memory lane, to childhood days in Virginia that featured milkmen and eggmen. I think I remember correctly that the milk still came with the cream on the top back then.

    Best wishes.

  2. kevinthemilkman permalink
    May 18, 2010

    Hi Francis. I am in contact with AB Munroes Dairy in Rhode Island. I have no knowledge of The US but they are close to you I think. Let me know if thats of any use to you.

  3. May 22, 2010

    How lovely to learn milk is still delivered! In the mid-1880s, my English great-grandfather brought his young family from Cumbria to America, settled in Kansas, and started a quite successful dairy. Every morning he set out in a horse-drawn wagon to deliver milk, eggs and butter to homes all over town. As soon as my grandfather was old enough, he joined his father and eventually took over operation of the dairy. Milk wasn’t delivered in individual bottles back then, but dispensed from a large metal can into a customer’s own containers which a family member or kitchen maid would bring out to the wagon. Glass bottles didn’t become the norm until much later, around the time the horse and wagon were put out to pasture in favor of a motorized van.

  4. November 21, 2015

    I wonder if Kevin is still delivering milk in 2015? What a wonderful life and occupation fro him to know so many different people and remember their requests.

    When I was a girl in country Western Australia the milkman used to run on to the front verandah of my auntie’s house and ladle the milk into a milk tin

    My Dad used to have a newspaper round in Perth Western Australia in the 1940′s when I was born.
    He used to get up early in the morning at 4.00am, roll and twist the papers and deliver them by hand from the back of a horse drawn cart. The house/newsagency was still there until last year when it was bulldozed and two houses build on the site.

    London is wonderful. I try to visit at least once year just to soak up the geography of stories
    like that of Kevin.

    Hope I am there again soon to see my wonderful East ender friend who I worked with in lovely London n 1972. She takes me on amazing adventures all over London.

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