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On The East End Milk Round At Christmas

December 29, 2015
by the gentle author

Monday was the first delivery after Christmas for Kevin Read, the heroic milkman who delivers the milk to Spitalfields and a whole expanse of the East End stretching from the Olympic Park in the East to Hoxton Square in the West. After a heavy downpour, on such a damp occluded morning, while the rest of the world were still dozing in their warm beds, it was my pleasure to join Kevin on his round to offer some companionship in his lonely vigil.

“I worked Christmas Days in this job back in the nineteen eighties,” Kevin recalled without sentiment, cheerful that those times are behind him as we sped along in the heated cabin of his diesel-powered float.“When I had the electric float with the open cabin, I used to be white down one side of my body by the time I arrived at my first call on snowy mornings,” he added with a shudder.

As we drove up through Hackney from Spitalfields in the darkness of the early morning, I spotted a few souls shivering at bus stops, cleaners and service workers reluctantly off to work, and we passed several beaten-up vans of totters cruising the streets to salvage abandoned washing machines and other scrap metal discarded over Christmas. The road sweepers were out too, muffled up in hooded windcheaters like fluorescent Eskimos, dutifully cleaning up the gutters in the night.

“With so many people away, it’s difficult to keep track,” said Kevin, rolling his eyes crazily as he scrabbled through his round book, “I should save time, but I have to keeping checking the books – so I don’t, I just lose money.” With an income consisting entirely of commission on sales, Kevin is used to seeing his earnings plummet at this time of year when offices are shut and customers go away, reducing his weekly delivery from eight thousand to two thousand pints.“After buying diesel for the van, I’ll be lucky if I see twenty pounds for today’s work.” he admitted to me with a shrug, squinting through the windscreen into the murky depths beyond. Yet in recognition of his popularity in the East End, Kevin takes consolation that his Christmas tips were up this year. “People are getting to know me, I’m becoming part of the family!” he reassured me with a cocky smirk, before he ran off into the dark with a wind-up torch and a handful of milk bottles.

“How are you supposed to read a damp note in the dark?” he asked, as he returned from the rain, playfully waving a soggy piece of paper between two fingers, “It’s like being down a coal mine with your eyes shut out there.” The note read “No Milk till Tuesday,” but today was Tuesday. Kevin and I looked at each other. Did the note mean this Tuesday or next Tuesday ? “You need to be mind reader in this job!” observed Kevin, with a wry grimace – though, ever conscientious, he elected to leave milk and make a detour to discover the outcome next day.

For four hours we drove around that cold morning, as the sky lightened and the streetlights flickered out, to deliver two hundred pints of milk, twisting and turning through the streets and housing estates, in what appeared to be an unpopulated city. And Kevin seemed to loosen up, overcoming his stiffness, and constantly checking the pen which was the marker in his round book, dividing the calls done from those still to do, as he made sharp work of his scattered deliveries. In some streets, Kevin makes one call and in others a cluster. It is both inexplicable and a matter of passionate fascination to Kevin – trying to discover the pattern in this chaos. Because if he can unlock the mystery, perhaps he might restore the lost milk rounds of the East End and go from one door to the next delivering milk again, as he did when he began over thirty years ago.

At the end of his short Christmas round, Kevin could go home and have a nap, but he seemed dis-satisfied. “I sometimes think I’d like just this round, without the extra pressure of the office deliveries.” he brooded, envisaging this hypothetical future before dismissing it, smiling in recognition of his own nature, “I’d work three until seven, be done and dusted, and home by eight in the morning – but I’d be so bored.”

The truth is that Kevin provides a public service as much as he is in business, and while it may not make him rich, he shows true nobility of spirit in his endeavour. Renowned for his humour and resilience, it is a matter of honour for Kevin to go out and deliver the milk, working alone unseen in the night for all these years to uphold his promise to his customers, whatever the weather. He takes the rigours of the situation as a test, moulding his character, and this is how he has emerged as an heroic milkman, with stamina and dreams.

There is a myth that it is cheaper to buy milk in a supermarket or shop than have it delivered, but this is false. So why not consider having Kevin deliver to you in the New Year ? – because it is a beautiful thing to discover milk in glass bottles on your doorstep in the morning.

If you want Kevin Read to deliver milk or yoghurt or eggs or fresh bread or even dogfood to you, contact him directly by calling 07940095775 or email kevinthemilkman@yahoo.co.uk. Kevin says, “You don’t have to have a delivery every day,” and “No order is too small.”

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. December 29, 2015

    I grew up in the suburbs of Montreal during the late 60′s – 70′s. Our milkman was Romeo LeBlanc and he worked for Borden. Had 12 kids and every single one of them worked with him for at least one summer. Maybe it was my youth but it seemed to me EVERY winter then was 100% ‘winter’. Meaning lots of snow and always cold. And that hard-working man made his rounds in his truck every weekday whether the roads had been plowed or anyone else could even get their car out of the driveways to start their own work day.

    You’d get paper ticket stubs, each a different colour depending on which milk or cream type you wanted. Stick the selected stubs in one of the empty bottles you’d leave out by the door and, like magic, fresh milk would reappear in the bottles by the time I’d get up for school. For years I thought we only owned one bottle and M. LeBlanc would fill it up again from some kind of tap in his truck.

    He’d sometimes come so early in the morning that, by the time you’d pick the milk bottle up for your cereal or coffee, it had frozen and the bottle would have exploded and the base would stay stuck to the stoop. No milk that day.

    I don’t know what happened to his route. Probably by the mid-70′s so many people were getting their milk in cartons or plastic bags from shopping centres or dépaneurs (corner shops) that he and his truck and the inevitable kid just seemed to disappear from everyday life. I can’t even recall how the enterprise ended.

    It wasn’t until my early ’20s that I realized he was the first person I’d met and seen do a hard and honest job. My father was an aircraft mechanic and he’d just disappear to the airport each shift. I never actually saw him at his workplace.

    But M. LeBlanc worked right in front of my eyes and he was undeniable. The image of the tickets, glass bottles and the sheer perseverance of a milkman has always stuck close to me.

    Even after all these decades, whenever I see in the streets an older Canada Post mail truck or vintage delivery truck with sliding doors, it takes me right back to seeing M. LeBlanc’s truck stopped at the top of the driveway and I always wonder how he is and whatever happened to his kids.

    Thank you for introducing me to Mr. Read and thank you, Mr. Read, for carrying on. May your bottles never crack and the tickets keep you humming along.

  2. Andrina permalink
    December 29, 2015

    I’m not aware that we have any milkman around here anymore and it’s all the fault of customers like me! Once we got a car and could go to a supermarket I’m afraid that’s what we did. Then we and the neighbours found ourselves commenting how sad it was not to hear the milk floats anymore! (2 dairies had customers in our road).

    For many, many years our milkman helped me make ends meet. I was careful and innovative but we had little money and sometimes in midweek I found things hard. Milkman to the rescue – I would buy eggs, bread and potatoes and know that I wouldn’t have to pay until Saturday which would be fine as my husband got paid on Friday night (by cash of course).

    Even my childhood contains memories of milk bottles. No fridges; so a bottle would always be placed in the sink with cold water up to its neck in the summer. Hopes that we could get the bottles in before the blue tits pecked through the foil lid and dreading an oncoming storm which would ‘turn’ the milk without warning.

    In the cold winters the milk would turn to ice and if it was really freezing the milk would force itself up through the lid making an ice chimney pot. Even London in the 59′s and 60′s was subjected to extreme temperatures – and our brave milkman carried on regardless – as people like Kevin still do.

  3. BPL permalink
    December 29, 2015

    I love Parker Dairy! They delivered to my husband when he was a boy, back when they had a depot in Victoria Park. And now they deliver milk to our family. They can deliver juice, sparkling water etc an institution worth supporting!

  4. December 29, 2015

    Good luck to Kevin on his lonely rounds, milk deliveries are one of the things I have sorely missed since I left England. Valerie

  5. Bronchitikat permalink
    December 29, 2015

    We still have milk delivered by our local milkman. After thirty-five years the round has changed hands several times, as has the ‘producing’ dairy.

    Back at the beginning the local dairy (ok, milk distribution depot) was just round the corner but with increasingly large delivery lorries the inner city site became inaccessible and eventually the local dairy was bought out but a larger concern, sited elsewhere.

    I think the current roundsman, who delivers three times per week, works from a depot entirely out of the city (Portsmouth) and for a company which operates nationwide. I don’t know how many deliveries he makes locally (or even if ‘he’ is indeed a he) as deliveries are done well before I get up.

  6. December 29, 2015

    I have delivery from Lee Klimcke (also of Parker Dairy) in south Hackney. He is brilliant: efficient and cheerful (when I am up early enough to catch him!) and uses email and mob for messages -which saves unintelligible messages on soggy paper!

  7. Jan Marsh permalink
    December 29, 2015

    Our Mike the milk delivers 4 times per week and we communicate by text – so he has advance warning and no soggy scribbles

  8. Peter Holford permalink
    December 29, 2015

    Amazing to see that there is still a milk delivery service in such an urban area. After finishing at Uni in 1970 I spent four months delivering milk for the RACS (Royal Arsenal Co-operative Service) around Wimbledon Village. It was a great experience and earned me enough money to go travelling – but I did do seven day weeks for the whole period. The best part was meeting the customers – Wimbledon provided an eclectic mix of the famous, the toffee-nosed, some bored housewives and normal folk like us. It was certainly a job for a fit young man because each delivery entailed a walk up a long drive – I walked miles each day.

    It looks as though the comfort levels have improved. I used to drive an electric milk float that was open to the elements and with huge heavy batteries and no power steering – it needed muscles like Popeye’s to manoeuvre the blasted thing. The only time it went at more than 20 mph was going down Wimbledon Hill!

  9. Barbara Hague permalink
    December 29, 2015

    My father (born 1916) used to be a milkman in the days when you pushed or pulled a sort of barrow.
    My cousin told me that her father used to have to chase a horse called Daisy around the field to set up before he could go delivering milk. Both in the east end – Bow/Poplar/Mile End – and Forest Gate eventually – though that is now called Newham.

  10. Rich Barnett permalink
    December 29, 2015

    Kevin’s an absolute star, especially having to contend with cheap milk from supermarkets. Here in west Wales, despite being surrounded by dairy farms, there is NO mile delivery.

  11. Zulfqar Ali permalink
    December 30, 2015

    Brilliant! I’ve wanted a delivery, but didn’t think they existed anymore…
    Kevin – I will be in touch in the new year my good man!
    Keep up this wonderful work!

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