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William Oglethorpe, Cheese Maker

July 2, 2018
by the gentle author

William Oglethorpe, Cheese Maker of Bermondsey

Everyone knows Cheddar, Stilton, Wensleydale and Caerphilly, but now there is an unexpected new location on the cheese map of Great Britain. It is Bermondsey and the man responsible is William Oglethorpe – seen here bearing his curd cutter as a proud symbol of his domain, like a medieval king wielding a mace of divine authority.

When photographer Tom Bunning & I went along to Kappacasein Dairy under the railway arches beneath the main line out of London Bridge in the early morning to investigate this astonishing phenomenon, we entered the humid warmth of the dairy in eager anticipation and encountered an expectant line of empty milk churns.

Already Bill had been awake since quarter to four. He had woken in Streatham then driven to Chiddingstone in Kent and collected six hundred litres of milk. Beyond us, in a separate room with a red floor and a large glass window sat a hundred-year-old copper vat containing that morning’s delivery of milk, which was still warm. Bill with his fellow cheesemakers Jem and Agustin, dressed all in white, worked purposefully in this chamber, officiating like priests over the holy process of conjuring cheese into existence. I stood mesmerised by the sight of the pale buttery liquid swirling against the gleaming copper as Bill employed his curd cutter, manoeuvring it through the milk as you might turn an oar in a river.

Taking a narrow flexible strip of metal, he wrapped a cloth around it so that the rest extended behind like a flag. Holding each end of the strip and grasping the corners of the cloth, Bill leaned over the vat plunging his arms deep down into the whey. When he lifted the cloth again, Agustin reached over with practised ease to take two corners of the cloth as Bill removed the sliver of metal and – hey presto! – they were holding a bundle of cheese, dredged from the mysterious depth of the vat. It was as spellbinding as any piece of magic I have ever seen.

“Cheesemaking is easy, it’s life that is hard,” Bill admitted to me with a disarming grin, when I joined the cheesemakers for their breakfast at a long table and he revealed the long journey he had travelled to arrive in Bermondsey. “I grew up in Zambia,” he explained, “And one day a Swiss missionary came to see my father and asked if I’d like to go to agricultural school in Switzerland.”

“I earned a certificate of competence,” he added proudly, assuring me with a wink, “I’m a qualified peasant.” Bill learnt to make cheese while working on a farm in Provence with a friend from agricultural college. “It was simply a way to sell all the milk from the goats, we made a cheese the same way the other farmers did,” he informed me, “We didn’t know what we were doing.”

Bill took me through to the next railway arch where his cheeses are stored while they mature for up to a year. He cast his eyes lovingly over the neat flat cylinders each impressed with word ‘Bermondsey’ on the side. Every Wednesday, the cheeses are attended to. According to their type, they are either washed or stroked, to spread the mould evenly, and they are all turned before being left to slumber in the chilly darkness for another week.

It was while working for Neals Yard Dairy that Bill decided to set up on his own as cheese maker. Today, Kappacasein is one of handful of newly-established dairies in London producing distinctive cheeses and bypassing the chain of mass production and supermarkets to distribute on their own terms and sell direct to customers. Yet Bill chooses to be self-deprecating in his explanation of why he is making cheese in London. “It’s just because I can’t buy a farm,” he claims, shrugging in enactment of his role of the peasant in exile, cast out from the rural into the urban environment.

“I’m interested in transformation,” Bill confided to me, turning serious as he reached his hand gently down into the vat and lifted up a handful of curds, squeezing out the whey. These would form the second cheese to come from the vat that morning, a ricotta. All across the surface, nodules of cheese were forming, coming into existence as if from primordial matter. “I don’t want to interfere,” Bill continued, thinking out loud and growing philosophical as he became absorbed in observing the cheese form, “Nature’s that much more complicated – if you let it do its own thing that’s much interesting to me than trying to impose anything. It’s about finding an equilibrium with Nature.”

Let me confess I had an ulterior motive for being there. A few weeks ago, I ate a slice of Bill’s Bermondsey cheese and became hooked. It was a flavour that was tangy and complex. One piece was not enough for me. Two pieces were not enough for me. Eventually, I had to seek the source of this wonder and there it was in front of me at last – the Holy Grail of London cheese in Bermondsey.

Cutting the curd

The curds

Squeezing the curds

Scooping out the cheese

The second batch of cheese from the whey is ricotta

Jem Kast, Cheese Maker

Ana Rojas, Yoghurt Maker

Agustin Cobo, Cheese Maker

The story of cheese

William Oglethorpe, Cheese Maker of Bermondsey

Photographs copyright © Tom Bunning

Visit KAPPACASEIN DAIRY, 1 Voyager Industrial Estate, Bermondsey, SE16 4RP

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Paul Johnson permalink
    July 2, 2018

    I wonder if it’s a hairy cheese?

  2. Mr James Buchanan permalink
    July 2, 2018

    How interesting to see that raw milk is still delivered in churns! I have been enjoying reading your stories at the end of my milk round, when I sit in the float and have a coffee before returning to the depot.

  3. Helen Breen permalink
    July 2, 2018

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, another great slice of London life. Enjoyed the sketched “story of cheese.” Long may William Oglethorpe and his fellow cheesemakers thrive…

  4. pauline taylor permalink
    July 2, 2018

    Fascinating as always GA. Thank you. I enjoy all that you write but as soon as I see Bermondsey mentioned there is heightened interest as my great grandfather was born in Bermondsey High Street, well Spa Road to be exact, and his mother had a greengrocer’s stall in the High Street for a brief time.

  5. Dorothy P permalink
    July 2, 2018

    This is fascinating. Can you tell me, please, whether the process has changed much since the 1850s? My ancestor, Sarah Piper, married William Bullwinkile, Cheesemonger, in 1851. Sarah looked after her nephew, John Bolton, when his parents died, and he became a cheesemonger, too. I believe they lived in Poplar for several years.

  6. July 2, 2018

    Oh yes, Stilton is one of my favorite cheeses! Not so easy to receive it here in Germany … but I have my dealers! (If only I could get one from Mr William Oglethorpe…)

    Love & Peace

  7. Mary permalink
    July 2, 2018

    As always, a wonderful article and beautiful photos. If the first pic had a map on the wall, it would look very Vermeer. Thank you for all the lovely pictures.

  8. Alyson permalink
    July 7, 2018

    Truly stunning photographs. Thank you.

  9. Tom permalink
    October 15, 2020


    We are opening a monthly craft and farmers market in Wimbledon starting at the end of this month. During December running up to Christmas we will have a weekly market.

    We are teaming up with a rugby club that has 300 kids (from 2 – 13 years old) and their families who attend coaching on Sundays and thought your product would be of great interest to them.

    I saw that you are a UK company and wondered if you would be interested in selling your items at our market?
    If you are interested we could discuss options:
    – Some traders will be at the market promoting and selling their products
    – We have converted a shipping container with display shelves, a coffee bar and roof garden seating that some traders will provide products to be sold by us. I have attached pictures to help explain what we have planned.

    Please let me know if this is of interest to you.

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