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On the rounds with the Spitalfields milkman

September 2, 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, taking his life story at the same breakneck pace as he does his round. But, in fact, this was the mere prologue to Kevin’s current 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


7 Responses leave one →
  1. September 2, 2010

    Am I having a deja vu? As long as it’s about Kevin and his devoted, efficient and clever way of covering the milk route that he has brilliantly expanded, I will happily dwell in the notion that I might have met Kevin before.

    Wishing that I might have a regular delivery of such fresh milk here in New York.

    Cheers!

  2. September 2, 2010

    What an inspiring story I love the fact that milk is still delivered . Few people can say they love what they do.

  3. roytheboy permalink
    December 4, 2010

    i loved reading this article,i first helped the coop milkman in eastlondon aged 3 holding the lift door open. at 15 i got a job with coop in canning town dairy brunel st E.16. because i helped the rota inspector i was given the role as rota man any time somebody went sick or on holiday,and i didnt even have a license. i covered every round in that depot,but i loved doing the isle of dogs E14 and mile end E3 and roman rd E3 and bow e3. i drove a cabac reg number hcn 73g capable off 35mph YESS 35 mph,wow what a float this was,and when i finished my round i would take float home then cruise around overtaking the slow unigate floats……….ehhehehehe

  4. bob, milk canvasser by trade permalink
    February 17, 2011

    hi kevin,you no what mate iv canvassed for all them same places an seen some good men give up and to many bad ones stay,i work for small family dairys up an down the country an trust me they want the work and all calls get started and cared for,ppl out there should support there local milkman,some old folks only av a milkman as there only contact i hear some great storys,good milkman do more for the local areas than any wage could pay or cover there commitment to there paying customers,supermarkets are charging our old people to deliver there shopping with all the profits they make,a milkman makes pennys yet will always have time to chat or help the old folks,kevin your round is so big a area to cover unlike the old days and i hope ppl read this and come out and support you,trust me ppl the big firms like dc? dont treat milkman right and or pay them well,it isnt a dieing trade its just the good milkman have stayed in my eyes and every pint bought from the supermarkets is another nail in the good british coffin,people like parker dairys with staff like kevin will always be around,trust me im not punting for work i just loved kevins story,i will ask you ppl reading kevins story 1 thing,if you was on your backside and skint or layed up? would the supermarkets come out to see if you was ok,or trust you with food and milk till you could pay,please ppl support this man because i can truly see hes a true brit and a honest milkman,tc kev and good luck, bob g

  5. leigh & kallies dairy permalink
    June 1, 2012

    hi there do you no of any canvass teams what does door knocking for new customers rehards leigh

  6. Kim in Australia permalink
    April 1, 2013

    What a truly lovely story. One of my favourite memories of the time we spent in the UK back in 1981 was having the milk delivered each day on a little electric float. The milkman always had time for a chat and could usually be relied upon to come up with some local news. One memorable happening was just prior to Christmas when a neighbour invited him and us in for a wee drop of something warming. We ended up having several of those drops and then came outside to find that the float has meandered off down the road a way – fortunately it was a fairly level culdesac so no harm was done. We also were fortunate enough to have the mail delivered by a gentleman who was,at the time, the oldest Postman in the UK. He rode a very venerable old bicycle; the only time he pushed it was when there was snow and ice on the ground, and he was over 90 years of age at the time bless him. This was in Rayleigh, Essex SS68TQ by the way.
    I really hope that your locals support you in your effort to keep this priceless service going – we need more of this individual and personal style of shopping. All the best to you.

  7. B&h dairy services permalink
    January 29, 2014

    I am the best canvasser in the north coming with 22 years experience getting in excess of 140 calls per week i dont have canvassing teams just myself & another canvasser who is highly trained to my standards eliminating the possibility of lies told at the door i have worked for one of the biggest dairy in the country dairy crest i also do a lot of work all parts of the country for farm dairy processers and bottled milk buyers i believe the best possible result is always achieved as im hands on and not just taking a percentage ring 07709490212 you wont be dissapointed

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