Most of the milk sold by Sainsbury's came from farms in Devon, Dorset and Somerset. It was transported by rail on special early morning milk trains. 'Railway milk' was popular because it was fresher and purer than the milk produced by cows kept by city cowkeepers like those in Drury Lane. By the 1890s so much milk was carried to London from the west country that the Great Western Railway was known as 'The Milky Way.'
Selling pure milk in the dirty conditions of Victorian London was hard work. There was no refrigeration, and so milk could not be stored for more than a few hours. Even keeping churns and measures clean was difficult when the water supply was polluted. Sarah Pullen, who worked for John James and Mary Ann Sainsbury in their first shop, recalled that Mary Ann 'was always up very early in the morning and took great pride in the cleanliness of the shop'.
Other, unscrupulous, shopkeepers diluted milk with dirty water, sometimes also adding yellow colouring to make it look creamy. As late as 1900 10% of all the milk sold in Britain was adulterated with added water. It was a well-known practice as Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management commented;
Milk, when of good quality, is of an opaque white colour: the cream always comes to the top; the well-known milky odour is strong; it will boil without altering its appearance in these respects; the little bladders which arise on the surface will renew themselves if broken by the spoon. To boil milk, is in fact, the simplest way of testing its quality. The commonest adulterations of milk are not of a hurtful character. It is a good deal thinned with water, and sometimes thickened with a little starch, or coloured with yolk of egg, or even saffron; but these processes have nothing murderous in them.
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Copyright J Sainsbury plc, 2000.