Buying Bread and Milk in 18th and 19th Century London   By Susanna Ives

Susanna Ives, Regency romance author, shares her research on the acquisition of bread and milk by those who lived in London over the course of what scholars call the "Long Regency." Today, such purchases can be made by a quick trip to the corner market, many open twenty-four hours a day. Those of us living today also benefit by the fact that there are laws in place to ensure both of those staple commodities are safe and healthy. Such was not the case two hundred years ago.

When getting bread and milk was rather a challenge …

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Painting of a Milk-maid with children and a dog
“Milk Below Maid” by Francis Wheatley from 1790s

The cry of ‘Milk’ or the rattle of the milk-pail, will never cease to be heard in our streets. There can be no reservoirs of milk, no pipes through which it flows into the houses. The more extensive the great capital becomes, the more active must be the individual exertion to carry about this article of food. The old cry was ‘Any milk here !’ and it was sometimes mingled with the sound of ‘Fresh cheese and cream;’ and it then passed into ‘Milk, maids below;’ and it was then shortened into ‘Milk below’’ and was finally corrupted into ‘Mio’ which some wag interpreted into mieau—demi-eau—half water. But it must still be cried, whatever be the cry. The supply of milk to the metropolis is perhaps one of the most beautiful combinations of industry we have. The days are long since passed when Finsbury had its pleasant groves, and Clerkenwell was a village, and there were green pastures in Holborn, and St. Pancras boasted only a little church standing in meadows, and St. Martin’s was literally in the fields. Slowly but surely does the baked clay of Mr. Stucco, ‘the speculative builder’ stride over the clover and the buttercup; and yet every family in London may be supplied with milk by eight o’clock every morning at their own doors. Where do the cows abide? They are congregated in wondrous masses in the suburbs; and though in spring-time they go out to pasture in the fields which lie under the Hampstead and Highgate hills, or in the vales of Dulwich and Sydenham, and there crop the tender blade,

‘When proud pied April, dress’d in all his trim,
Has put a spirit of youth in everything.’

yet for the rest of the year the coarse grass is carted to their stalls, or they devour what the breweries and distilleries cannot extract from the grain harvest. Long before ‘the unfolding star wakes up the shepherd’ are the London cows milked; and the great wholesale vendors of the commodity who have it consigned to them daily from more distant parts to the various Metropolitan Railway Stations bear it in carts to every part of the town, and distribute to the hundreds of shopkeepers and itinerants, who are anxiously waiting to receive it for re-distribution amongst their own customers. It is evident that a perishable commodity which every one requires at a given hour must be so distributed. The distribution has lost its romance. Misson, in his ‘Travels’ published at the beginning of the last century, tells of Maygames of ‘the pretty young country girls that serve the town with milk.’ Alas! the May-games and pretty young country girls have both departed, and a milk-woman has become a very unpoetical personage. There are few indeed of milkwomen who remain.

      — from A History of the Cries of London, Ancient and Modern, by Charles Hindley

My blog has been silent for almost a week. I was a single mom while my husband was in Europe for over ten days. He came home last night to find his kids alive and healthy and his wife on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But he brought presents and chocolate, so we are all happy again.

I thought I would make a short excerpt from the sections on bread and milk in John Trusler’s The London Adviser and Guide: Containing every Instruction and Information Useful and Necessary to Persons Living in London and Coming to Reside There. The technicalities of buying bread and milk in London called into my mind The Cries of London, (or London Cries) a book that featured the songs and calls of the urban street vendors. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find an online version of the book, but I found many other resources and got a little carried away, as you can see. So, for this post, I’m excerpting information on bread and milk sellers from sources published in mid 1700s to late 1800s , including many images of milk maids (Surprisingly, there isn’t a great deal of art featuring bakers.)

Let’s dive into The London Adviser and Guide, published in 1786:


1. Every peck loaf shall weigh 17 lb. 6 oz. averdupois weight; every half peck 8 lb. 11 oz. and every quartern loas 4lb. 5 oz. and an half; to be weighed within twenty-four hours after baking or being sold, under the penalty of from 1 s. to 5 s. for every ounce deficient, at the discretion of the magistrate, the bread to be taken and weighed in his presence; for every deficiency of weight under one ounce, the penalty is from 6 d. to 2 s. 6d.

2. Bread made for sale shall be fairly marked; wheaten-bread with a large Roman W, and household bread with an H, to ascertain under what denomination it was made, under a penalty not exceeding 20 s. nor under 5 s.

3. Any baker or other person demanding or taking a higher price for bread, than what the same shall be set at by the assize, or refusing to sell to any person any of the sorts allowed or ordered to be made; when he shall have more than is necessary for the immediate use of his family or customers, forfeits not exceeding 40s. nor less than 10s.

Engraving of a milk-maid carrying a pail of milk

4. If a certain weight of wheaten-bread costs 8 d. the same weight of standard wheaten (to be marked S. W.) shall be sold for 7 d. and the same weight of household-bread shall be sold for 6 d. on penalty of from 10s. to 40s.

Bread inferior to wheaten is not to be sold at a higher price than household-bread is set at, on penalty of 20 s. Applications to a magistrate.

5. There are in many parts of town, bakers who sell the quarter loaves a half-penny or a penny each under the assize-price, and rolls four for three-pence, but they seldom send out their bread.

6. Bakers’ men, who carry the bread round to their customers, will sometimes, if families run up a bill, sell a loaf or two by the way, and put the money into their own pockets, telling their masters, that they left them at such houses. The master, of course, charges the customer for bread he never had; and, when the bill comes to be paid, it perhaps occasions a dispute, and the buyer finds himself obliged to pay for it after all. To avoid this, the best method is, never to run a bill with a baker, but pay for the bread as it is left; or, if this be inconvenient, order the bill in every Monday morning, while the occurrences of the week are in the memory: these bills, examined and filed, will prevent your being cheated. Bakers, like Milk-women, will sometimes leave tallies, on which they daily chalk what is left, but a mark is easily added, while the servant is inattentive, which robs you of the price of a loaf, or a pint of milk. These marks are sometimes made on the door-post, oftener without the door than within; of course an addition can be made unknown to your servant, as the baker or milk-woman passes the door; or they may be wholly rubbed out, by wanton boys or others, as is frequently the case; and when the score is gone, the baker or milk-woman may charge what they please; and as they can sell a loaf or a pint of milk to those who pay ready money, and secrete that money; to conceal this fraud from their masters, they will score it up to their customers on credit.

6. With respect to milk, though sold at two pence half-penny a quart, it is always mixed with water. There are cows that are driven into the streets, about the west end of the town, from which you may have your milk, see it milked, at four- pence a quart, but the milk of these is not very good, as the cows are driven about all the day; yet it is better than what is brought by milk-women; but the measure, if not looked into, will be short.

Poem about a baker

Trusler writes so untrustingly of bakers and milk women that I feel sorry for them. To get a better glimpse into their sad lives, I moved up six decades and excerpted from the famous book London Labour and the London Poor:   a cyclopaedia of the condition and earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work, and those that will not work, Volume 1, by Henry Mayhew, published in 1851.


THE street-trade in bread is not so extensive as might be expected, from the universality of the consumption. It is confined to Petticoat-lane and the poorer districts in that neighbourhood. A person who has known the East-end of town for nearly fifty years, told me that as long as he could recollect, bread was sold in the streets, but not to the present extent. In 1812 and 1813, when bread was the dearest, there was very little sold in the streets. At that time, and until 1815, the Assize Acts, regulating the bread-trade, were in force, and had been in force in London since 1266. Previously to 1815 bakers were restricted, by these Acts, to the baking of three kinds of bread — wheaten, standard wheaten, and household. The wheaten was made of the best flour, the standard wheaten of the different kinds of flour mixed together, and the household of the coarser and commoner flour. In 1823, however, it was enacted that within the City of London and ten miles round, " it shall be lawful for the bakers to make and sell bread made of wheat, barley, rye, oats, buck-wheat, Indian-corn, peas, beans, rice, or potatoes, or any of them, along with common salt, pure-water, eggs, milk, barm-leaven, potato, or other yeast, and mixed in such proportions as they shall think fit." I mention this because my informant, as well as an old master baker with whom I conversed on the subject, remembered that every now and then, after 1823, but only for two or three years, some speculative trader, both in shops and in the streets, would endeavour to introduce an inferior, but still a wholesome, bread, to his customers, such as an admixture of barley with wheat-flour, but no one—as far as I could learn—persevered in the speculation for more than a week or so. Their attempts were not only unsuccessful but they met with abuse, from street buyers especially, for endeavouring to palm off "brown" bread as "good enough for poor people." One of my elder informants remembered his father telling him that in 1800 and 1801, George III. had set the example of eating brown bread at his one o’clock dinner, but he was sometimes assailed as he passed in his carriage, with the reproachful epithet of "Brown George." This feeling continues, for the poor people, and even the more intelligent working-men, if cockneys, have still a notion that only "white" bread is fit for consumption. Into the question of the relative nutrition of breads, I shall enter when I treat of the bakers.

During a period of about four months in the summer, there are from twenty to thirty men daily selling stale bread. Of these only twelve sell it regularly every day of the year, and they trade chiefly on their own account. Of the others, some are sent out by their masters, receiving from 1s. to 2s. for their labour. Those who sell on their own account, go round to the bakers’ shops about Stepney, Mile-end, and Whitechapel, and purchase the stale-bread on hand. It is sold to them at 1/2d., 1 d. and 1 12d. per quartern less than the retail shop price; but when the weather is very hot, and the bakers have a large quantity of stale-bread on hand, the street-sellers sometimes get the bread at 2d. a quartern less than the retail price. All the street-sellers of bread have been brought up as bakers. Some have resorted to the street trade, I am told, when unable to procure work; others because it is a less toilsome, and sometimes a more profitable means of subsistence, than the labour of an operative baker. It is very rarely that any of the street-traders leave their calling to resume working as journeymen. Some of these traders have baskets containing the bread offered for street-sale; others have barrows, and one has a barrow resembling a costermonger’s, with a long basket made to fit upon it. The dress of these vendors is a light coat of cloth or fustian; corduroy, fustian, or cloth trousers, and a cloth cap or a hat, the whole attire being, what is best understood as "dusty," ingrained as it is with flour.

From one bread-seller, a middle-aged man, with the pale look and habitual stoop of a journeyman baker, I had the following account:

I’ve known the street-trade a few years; I can’t say exactly how many. I was a journeyman baker before that, and can’t say but what I had pretty regular employment; but then, sir, what an employment it is! So much nightwork, and the heat of the oven, with the close air, and sleeping on sacks at nights (for you can’t leave the place), so that altogether it’s a slave’s life. A journeyman baker hasn’t what can be called a home, for he’s so much away at the oven; he’d better not be a married man, for if his wife isn’t very careful there’s talk, and there’s unhappiness about nothing perhaps. I can’t be thought to speak feelingly that way though, for I’ve been fortunate in a wife. But a journeyman baker’s life drives him to drink, almost whether he will or not. A street life’s not quite so bad. I was out of work two or three weeks, and I certainly lushed too much, and can’t say as I tried very hard to get work, but I had a pound or two in hand, and then I began to think I’d try and sell stale bread in the streets, for it’s a health fuller trade than the other; so I started, and have been at it ever since, excepting when I work a few days, or weeks, for a master baker; but he’s a relation, and I assist him when he’s ill. My customers are all poor persons,—some in rags, and some as decent as their bad earnings ‘ll let them. No doubt about it, sir, there’s poor women buy of me that’s wives of mechanics working slop, and that’s forced to live on stale bread. Where there’s a family of children, stale bread goes so very much further. I think I sell to few but what has families, for a quartern’s too much at a time for a single woman. I often hear my customers talk about their children, and say they must make haste, as the poor things are hungry, and they couldn’t get them any bread sooner. O, it’s a hard fight to live, all Spitalfields and Bethnalgreen way, for I know it all. There are first the journeyman bakers over-worked and fretted into drinking, a-making the bread, and there are the poor fellows in all sorts of trade overworked to get money to buy it. I’ve had women that looked as if they was ‘reduced,’ come to me of an evening as soon as it was dusk, and buy stale bread, as if they was ashamed to be seen. Yes, I give credit. Some has a week’s credit regular, and pays every Saturday night. I lose very little in trusting. I sometimes have bread over and sell it—rather than hold it over to next day—for half what it cost me. I have given it away to begging people, sooner than keep it to be too stale, and they would get something for it at a lodging-house. The lodging-house keepers never buy of me that I know of. They can buy far cheaper than I can—you understand, sir. Perhaps, altogether, I make about a guinea every week; wet weather and short days are against me. I don’t sell more, I think, on a Saturday than on other nights. The nights are much of a muchness that way.

The average quantity sold by each vendor during the summer months is 150 quarterns daily, usually at 4d., but occasionally at 3d. the quartern. One man informed me that he had sold in one day 350 quarterns, receiving 5l. 16s. 8rf. for them.

Print of a food-seller's shop

The number of men (for if there be women they are the men’s wives) engaged daily throughout the year in the street-sale of bread is 12. These sell upon an average 100 quarterns each per day: taking every day in the year 1l. 12s. each (a few being sold at 3d.)

Calculating then the four months’ trade in summer at 150 quarterns per day per man, and reckoning 15 men so selling, and each receiving 45s. (thus allowing for the threepenny sale); and taking the receipts of the 12 regular traders at 1l. 12s. per day, we find nearly 9,000l. annually expended in the street purchase of 700,000 quartern loaves of bread. The profits of the sellers vary from 1l. to 2l. a week, according to the extent of their business.

To start in this branch of the street-trade a capital is required according to the following rate: — Stock-money for bread, average 1l; (largest amount required, 5l.; smallest, 10s.); a basket, 4s. 6d. Of those who are employed in the summer, one-half have baskets, and the other half bakers’ barrows; while of those who attend the year through, 8 have baskets at 4s. 6rf. each, 3 have barrows at 40s. each, and one a barrow and the long basket, before mentioned. The barrow costs 30s., and the basket 21.

OF MILK SELLING IN ST. JAMES’S PARK. THE principal sale of milk from the cow is in St. James’s Park. The once fashionable drink known as syllabubs—the milk being drawn warm from the cow’s udder, upon a portion of wine, sugar, spice, &c. —is now unknown. As the sellers of milk in the park are merely the servants of cow-keepers, and attend to the sale as a part of their business, no lengthened notice is required.

The milk sellers obtain leave from the Home Secretary, to ply their trade in the park. There are eight stands in the summer, and as many cows, but in the winter there are only four cows. The milk-vendors sell upon an average, in the summer, from eighteen to twenty quarts per day; in the winter, not more than a third of that quantity. The interrupted milking of the cows, as practised in the Park, often causes them to give less milk, than they would in the ordinary way. The chief customers are infants, and adults, and others, of a delicate constitution, who have been recommended to take new milk. On a wet day scarcely any milk can be disposed of. Soldiers are occasional customers.

Print of milk-maid balancing her wares on her head

A somewhat sour-tempered old woman, speaking as if she had been crossed in love, but experienced in this trade, gave me the following account;

It’s not at all a lively sort of life, selling milk from the cows, though some thinks it’s a gay time in the Park! I’ve often been dull enough, and could see nothing to interest one, sitting alongside a cow. People drink new milk for their health, and I’ve served a good many such. They’re mostly young women, I think, that’s delicate, and makes the most of it. There’s twenty women, and more, to one man what drinks new milk. If they was set to some good hard work, it would do them more good than new milk, or ass’s milk either, I think. Let them go on a milkwalk to cure them—that’s what I say. Some children come pretty regularly with their nurses to drink new milk. Some bring their own china mugs to drink it out of; nothing less was good enough for them. I’ve seen the nurse-girls frightened to death about the mugs. I’ve heard one young child say to another: ‘I shall tell mama that Caroline spoke to a mechanic, who came and shook hands with her.’ The girl was as red as fire, and said it was her brother. Oh, yes, there’s a deal of brothers comes to look for their sisters in the Park. The greatest fools I’ve sold milk to is servant-gals out for the day. Some must have a day, or half a day, in the month. Their mistresses ought to keep them at home, I say, and not let them out to spend their money, and get into nobody knows what company for a holiday; mistresses is too easy that way. It’s such gals as makes fools of themselves in liking a soldier to run after them. I’ve seen one of them—yes, some would call her pretty, and the prettiest is the silliest and easiest tricked out of money, that’s my opinion, anyhow — I’ve seen one of them, and more than one, walk with a soldier, and they’ve stopped a minute, and she’s taken something out of her glove and given it to him. Then they’ve come up to me, and he’s said to her, ‘Mayn’t I treat you with a little new milk, my dear?’ and he’s changed a shilling. Why, of course, the silly fool of a gal had given him that there shilling. I thought, when Annette Myers shot the soldier, it would be a warning, but nothing’s a warning to some gals. She was one of those fools. It was a good deal talked about at the stand, but I think none of us know’d her. Indeed, we don’t know our customers but by sight. Yes, there’s now and then some oldish gentlemen — I suppose they’re gentlemen, anyhow, they’re idle men — lounging about the stand: hut there’s no nonsense there. They tell me, too, that there’s not so much lounging about as there was; those that’s known the trade longer than me thinks so. Them children’s a great check on the nusses, and they can’t be such fools as the servant-maids. I don’t know how many of them I’ve served with milk along with soldiers; I never counted them. They’re nothing to me. Very few elderly people drink new milk. It’s mostly the young. I’ve been asked by strangers when the Duke of Wellington would pass to the Horse-Guards or to the House of Lords. He’s pretty regular. I’ve had 6rf. given me—but not above once or twice a year—to tell strangers where was the best place to see him from as he passed. I don’t understand about this Great Exhibition, but, no doubt, more new milk will be sold when it’s opened, and that’s nil I cares about.

Milk-maid with a yoke on her shoulders by which she carries two pails of milk


DURING the summer months milk is sold in Smithfield, Billingsgate, and the other markets, and on Sundays in Battersea-fields, Claphamcommon, Camberwell – green, Hampsteadheath, and similar places. About twenty men are engaged in this sale. They usually wear a smock frock, and have the cans and yoke used by the regular milk-sellers; they are not itinerant . The skim milk—for they sell none else—is purchased at the dairies at 1 1/2d. a quart, and even the skim milk is also further watered by the street-sellers. Their cry is "Half-penny half-pint! Milk!" The tin measure however in which the milk-and-water is served is generally a "slang," and contains but half of the quantity proclaimed. The purchasers are chiefly boys and children; rarely men, and never costermongers, I was told, "for they reckon milk sickly." These street-sellers — who have most of them been employed in the more regular milk-trade—clear about 1s. 6rf. a day each, for three months; and as the profit is rather more than cent, per cent, it appears that about 4,000 gallons of milk are thus sold, and upwards of 2601. laid out upon these persons, yearly in its purchase.

A pair of cans with the yoke cost 15c, and 1/. is amply sufficient as capital to start in this trade, as the two measures used may be bought for 2s.; and 3S. can be devoted to the purchase of the liquid.

Some basic information on baking bread from The Food of London, by George Dodd, published in 1856. (This book also included very boring information on milk production that I chose to spare you.)

The bakers of London, like others engaged in the preparation of articles of food, have gradually introduced improvements in their art. Among these is the use of an oven heated by a furnace exterior to it, instead of by fuel introduced into the oven itself. The following description represents pretty nearly the general course of proceeding in the making and baking of 4 lb. and 2 lb. loaves, forming the majority of the bread consumed in London: — Boiled potatoes are mashed with a little water, flour, and yeast; and the mass is left covered up for several hours, to ferment. When in the proper state, this mixture is brought to a liquid condition with water, and is strained through a sieve. The mixture is poured upon or into a mass of flour, with which it is well mixed by the hands; and the ‘sponge’ thus produced is allowed to remain several hours to rise, or ferment. At a particular stage in this process the ‘sponge’ is softened by water, in which a little salt and alum have been dissolved, and is mixed up therewith until it forms a kind of paste. Another portion of flour is then added, and well mixed up with the paste into dough. After a due amount of kneading, performed in a most primitive and uncouth way, the dough is separated into portions large enough for loaves; and in due time these portions are placed in the oven, where, adhering slightly together, they form one continuous mass or batch. The ‘under crust’ is formed by contact with the heated floor of the oven; the ‘upper crust’ by the action of the hot air of the oven; while the ‘crumb’ of the sides is a consequence of the contact of the several loaves, each one sheltering its neighbour from the browning effect of the heat. Much of the difference between common bread and fancy bread is due to an alteration in the mode of placing the loaves in the oven.

Numberless variations occur in the details of the baking-trade. Take the use of yeast as an example. Ale-yeast is good, but too small in quantity for London requirements; distillers’ yeast is also good, and also too small in quantity; beer-yeast is too bitter; and there is thus a necessity for employing artificial or ‘patent’ yeasts. One kind of patent yeast imported from Rotterdam is made from malt and rye, treated chemically, and converted into a dry mass, having a pleasant fruity smell. Then, again, there are differences in the quality of the flour used; for although the distinctions between ‘best,’ ‘household,’ and ‘brown’ bread are convenient, they are not so precise as to indicate exactly the quality of the flour. Different wheats may have been mixed before grinding; different qualities of flour may be mixed by the miller; different sacks of flour may be appealed to by the baker himself; and differences may be made in the small amount or in the kind of the other substances added — even without suspicion of anything which can justly be deemed adulteration. Indeed, as was before remarked, ‘best wheaten bread’ is by no means a uniform commodity in London. If there were nothing else to show this, it would suffice to remember that a difference of twopence per 4 lb. loaf is observable at different shops, albeit for ‘best wheaten.’

Wasn’t this post thrilling? And we still have poultry, meat, fish and vegetables to go! That, as a college math professor of mine would say, is "future excitement."

Painting of man pushing a wheelbarrow surrounded by a woman and several children
“Hot Spice Gingerbread Smoaking Hot” by Francis Wheatley from 1790s

© 2012 – 2013 Susanna Ives
Originally posted at Susanna Ives — Writer of Reckless Abandon
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.

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One Comment

  1. Quite interesting. keeping the milk free of contamination was probably a losing proposition.
    We used to have milk and bread delivered to the door– much fresher than that found in the grocery store. At least it was in a bottle with a cap and had been Pasteurized.

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