The Life of a Dairymaid

This history of cheesemaking in North Wiltshire is as old as history itself and in the 19th century the dairy farms in Lydiard Tregoze owned by Lord Bolingbroke were still busy producing the local cheeses. At Wick Farm it is recorded in a small notebook that on Feb. 11th 1869 there were 126 Thick Cheese,11 from Salthrope weighing in excess of one ton, stored in the cheese room.

Windmill Leaze Farm was the Lydiard estate home farm.  The present farmhouse is about 200 years old but the farm itself dates back much further than this. A ‘Rent Rooll’ dated 1672 records Anthony Street paying an annual rent of £116 for lands at Winmill Leeze.

A local history project written by a member of the Friends for four West Swindon primary schools explored the history of the local farms and the farming families.

In 1891 Elizabeth A. Johnson worked at Windmill Leaze Farm. Here is a fictional account of her life as a dairymaid.

‘My name is Elizabeth Johnson. I am eighteen years old and I was born in Bishopstone in Wiltshire. Mr. William Kinchin employs me at Windmill Leaze Farm as a dairymaid. Mr Kinchin is an elderly gentleman, a widower, his wife dying many years ago. His son, Mr William Plummer Kinchin, does most of the work on the farm. I have my own room in the attic. It is comfortable enough, although it can be very cold in the winter and the bed linen is a bit thin and worn.

Mr Kinchin has a herd of 50 short horn cows; an excellent dairy animal and much favoured in Wiltshire. Some of the local farmers have started sending their milk up to London on the train but Mr Kinchin sells his locally. He also provides Lord Bolingbroke at Lydiard House with milk and dairy produce, although Mr Kinchin says not so much entertaining takes place there as in the old days.

I am in the dairy early in the morning, before the first milking of the day takes place. I do not milk the cows myself. The milk pails are brought to the dairy and left in the prentice, a lean-to area outside, for me to collect. This way the milk is protected from the weather and the dirt of the farmyard stays outside. The dairy has to be kept spotlessly clean and a large part of my day is spent cleaning; scaling the utensils I use and scrubbing the work surfaces and the floor.

Being a dairy maid is very hard work. Some say the dairymaid is the hardest worker on the farm. There are times, especially in the busy summer months, when it seems I am on my feet all day long. I wear good strong shoes because the dairy floor is always wet. I wear my skirts well of the ground otherwise they would drag on the damp floor. I wear a heavy linen apron to catch the spills and splashes from the milk and whey.

The cheese making season begins in April and ends in September. I make a few cheeses during the winter but not many farms make cheese all the year round these days.

To be a good cheese maker you have to have a feel for the work and you have to be well organised. I work to a strict timetable, always thinking of the next job ahead. My mornings are spent making cheese, my afternoons cleaning the dairy, salting, cleaning and turning the cheeses. Making a cheese with a well-rounded taste and a pleasing texture is all about skill, knowing when milk is tainted and should not be used. Making sure you heat the milk and junket to the correct temperature and for just long enough. All these things, plus a certain flair, are the qualifications of a good cheese maker.

Even though every dairymaid works in much the same way, the cheese she produces is unique to her dairy and the farm on which she works. All sorts of things affect the flavour of a cheese. Things you probably wouldn’t even credit. Different breeds of cows produce different types of milk but that is not the only factor. The soils and the type of grass an animal grazes on affects the milk she produces. The pasture varies at different times of the year according to the season and the weather. Wiltshire dairymaids prefer a poor pasture for cheese making. A rich milk does not make a good cheese.

My last job each day is to place the evening milk in the cheese vat. This is covered and left overnight to ripen. The next day I add the morning milk and then test it for acidity. Sometimes the milk lacks acidity, especially incold weather, and then I have to add a starter.

I then begin heating the milk as I stir it and slowly bring it up to a temperature of 80 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit. When it reaches this temperature, I add the rennet which curdles the milk and makes it solidify.

I continue to stir the milk using a curd agitator, shaped like a shovel with a meshwork of slats. The milk, now called junket, is left for 20-25 minutes. It should be thick enough to cut with a curd knife.

Now it is time to heat the junket. This is called scalding and the temperature is raised to 102–104 degrees. More stirring and gradually the curd separates from the whey. The whey is drained off and used for pig feed.

The curd is left for awhile to ripen. I then put it through a curd mill where it is ground into tiny pieces. Salt is added and now the cheese is made.

Next comes the pressing. The chopped curd is placed in a muslin-lined mould shaped like a beer barrel. A wooden block called a follower is placed on the top and the mould is placed in the cheese press where it is left overnight to squeeze out the last drops of whey.

The following day I turn the cheese in the mould and place the mould in a bath of warm water. This encourages the curds to stick together. Then the mould goes back in the press overnight.

The next morning I take off the muslin wrap and smear the cheese with melted lard. I then put the muslin cloth back and wrap the whole thing in a thick linen bandage, which I sew on. This is so that the cheese doesn’t lose its shape. I then date stamp the cheese and take it to the cheese room.

For the first two weeks, I turn the cheese every day, twice a day in the summer, just once a day in winter. After that that I turn the cheese every other day. It is very heavy work.

In April, I make the tradition ‘thins’. This cheese requires only a short time to ripen, just six weeks, then it can be sold at market and provides Mr Kinchin with much needed cash after the winter months. For the rest of the season I make truckle cheeses. At any one time we have cheeses weighing several tons in the cheese room, all of which have to be turned at regular intervals.

As well as providing cheese for Lord Bolingbroke, Mr Kinchin sells his produce at local markets in Swindon, Wootton Bassett and Chippenham. The peak month for the sale of cheese is September.

I enjoy my work and Mr Kinchin is a good master to work for but I do not want to be a dairymaid when I am older. The work is heavy and the hours long. The damp of the dairy gets to your bones and most dairymaids suffer from rheumatism in old age. I’d like to go into service, go up to London and work in one of those big houses with many servants, perhaps become a lady’s maid – that would be a nice job. But for now I’ll stay where I am.’

Elizabeth Ann Johnson married Tom Cook on Boxing Day 1896 at the parish church in Bishopstone. At the time of the 1901 census they were living at No. 6 Lilian Cottages, Hyde Road, Kingsdown. Tom was a sawyer working in the GWR Works. They have a 2 year old son Frederick.

The photograph of Windmill Leaze Farm (featured image) is published with thanks to the Rumming family. It is believed the men pictured are members of the Kinchin family.






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