Today (February 7) in London History – London rusticity

As usual, off the beaten track we go. This Today (February 7th) in London History Podcast touches down on February 7th, 1905 – the last day of the 300-year-old Milk Fair in St James’s Park.


Bongs first.

It’s February 7th. Charles Dickens was born on February 7th, 1812.

On February 7th, 1991 the IRA came within yards of wiping out Prime Minister John Major and his government. They launched a mortar bomb attack on No. 10 Downing Street. They’d parked a van on the other side of Whitehall, 200 yards away. Fired the thing up through the open roof of the vehicle. Close call. The mortar exploded in the back garden of 10 Downing Street. Fortunately, no one was hurt but the cabinet meeting the prime minister was presiding over had to be abandoned.

A year later – February 7, 1992 – the Maastrict treaty was signed, creating the European Union. 

On February 7, 1964 Beatlemania hit New York. A bemused George Harrison said, “they’ve got everything over there, why do they need us?”

So much for the bongs. We’re not going to do any of them. They’re too obvious, too easily accessible. Instead we’re going to “London Walks” February 7th. Drill down where nobody thought to look, find something you didn’t know about.

It’s anything but earth-shaking – rather I’d describe it as whimsical. But it’s very London. Daft, eccentric, time-honoured, charming, delightful, not to say packing a good whiff of London sentiment.

I’m talking about the Board of Works official-dom calling time on the 300-year-old Milk Fair in St. James’ Park. It happened on February 7, 1905. 

The Milk Fair stood at the northeast corner of St. James’, right by the Mall. It was some tin sheds, a couple of cows and two elderly London ladies, Mrs Emma Kitchen and Mrs Caroline Barry. Their families had conducted the stalls – milked the cows – sold the warm milk to Londoners and their kids – for centuries. It was a piece of old London, bygone London that the authorities wanted cleared away. Cows and shabby tin cowsheds in St James’ Park, just a stone’s throw away from Buckingham Palace in the 20th century. Can’t have that. The immediate impetus was the major facelift the approach to Buckingham Palace was getting by way of honouring recently departed Queen Victoria. Mrs Kitchen and Mrs Barry received their eviction notice earlier in the week. They tried to hold out. They argued old usage had given them the right to remain. Taking the view that possession is nine-tenths of the law they stayed there all night on February 6th, determined to defend their patch. All to no avail. Officialdom and work crews descended on them on the morning of the 7th and demolished the five remaining sheds. And that was that. The end of an era.

In its heyday there had been a little row of shops, sheds and shanties, all very neat and tidy. A charming speck of rusticity right in the heart of the smart West End of London. Octogenarian Londoners could remember walking to the Milk Fair as little children, by their nurse’s side, and halting there to drink new milk, or spend their pennies on buns and tarts and apples and cakes and curds-and-whey.

Indeed, not so much more than a century earlier the cows had disputed the open grazing ground of St James Park with deer. In 1771 a French chronicler of London manners and customs recorded that the milk was “served with all the cleanliness peculiar to the English, in little mugs at the rate of a penny a mug.”

And it wasn’t just that that corner of St. James’ Park was picturesque and oh so, different. There was history there as well. Nearby stood the elm to which Charles I pointed on that January day when he was on his way to the scaffold, saying, “that tree was planted by my brother Harry.” Taking note, saying that, on his way to his appointment with the executioner’s axe. Almost certainly reflecting, “happier times, that distant time, happier days. Who would have thought it would come to this?”

And more of the carousel comes by. Wisps of London memory reminding us it was a fashion, at that day, for ladies of rank to masquerade in the park as country-girls, shepherdesses and maids of the milking pails.  Masks were commonly worn, whether the costume was of the fancy kind or not. And many a scene in many a brilliant and licentious comedy of the Restoration is indebted for its piquancy of intrigue to St. James’ Park, its Mall and its Milk Fair.

More memories of its heyday: the Milk Fair stood just outside Spring Gardens. The name has come down to the present day. It was so-called because there was a spring or fountain there in the midst of pleasure-grounds. There were archery butts, a bathing pool and a bowling green. Milk Maid Fair was party time – was a resort – in bygone London. 

Curtain down now. End of podcast. Farewell Milk Fair. We’ll keep your memory green. 

thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,

   So long as ears can hear, or eyes can see,

   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

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