The Old Vet’nary – Hand Milking on the Farm

The Old Vet’nary – Hand Milking on the Farm

Two things I greatly miss from my halcyon days as a young vet back in the 1950s.  First, is hand milking,.  As a Londoner, I only learnt to milk when on work experience on a farm in Cumbria when I was 20, and I loved it.  I  found it most relaxing, bar the odd clip round the ear from a dung-encrusted tail.  A most painful experience.  Despite the spread of machine milking, many farms still milked by hand and it was not just the small herds.  It was much more labour intensive and of course, there was the camaraderie, and much banter between milkers.   The farm worker of those days was much more independent and not above telling his employer where he was making a mistake.

I well remember during milking time at Willie Harding’s farm at East Budleigh;  I was quietly doing some pregnancy diagnoses when Willie called out to a farm hand who was milking just two cows away from me.   “Can I use your bucket?”  “What ?” replied the hand without pausing in his work.  This exchange was repeated three times until Willie, with much cursing about mankind and this hand in particular picked up the bucket and stomped off.  The grumpy old man looked up at me, winked, and said “ I don’t give a toss what he does with the bucket”.  Only he didn’t say toss.

But the main joy of hand milking was the sound.  When you started with an empty bucket it produced a high pitched singing sound on the side of the bucket which gradually deepened as the bucket filled and ended with a delightful frothy quality.  Bucket full ! Empty it into one of those delightful old fashioned coolers which looked like mothers scrubbing board in stainless steel and start again.  Of course, folk who had to do it day in and day out, come cow kick or arthritic joints, might not agree, but I always found milking time to be a happy time.  I remember one farm on the Topsham Rd just down from Sandygate, run by three brothers who milked over 100 cows.  Milking was a joy to them, as it was in an enormous thatched shippon at Venn Ottery where the cows were all North Devons.

What I miss most of all is the lovely lilting Devon accent. Where has it gone ? Down the television tube? Although I will say this;  some years ago,  I was visiting some friends in Connecticut USA, and we were chatting and I suddenly said “You’re speaking pure Devonshire”.  All those long “a” and “o”s.  It is too big a subject to cover here, but there is one aspect about the Devonshire accent that I can cover.  In the matter of gender, everything in the dialect is her.  He don’t get a look in.  For example,  a farmer will look over the gate and gaze admiringly at his bull and say,  “’Er be a good un ‘er be”.  It is probably summed up best by the following, probably apocryphal anecdote.  The recently widowed wife in the village is visited by the vicar.  “Well, my dear,” he says, “your man is up there now playing his harp with the angels”.  The widow turns away from the sink where she is doing the washing, wipes her hands and says, “’er larned to play the harp mainish quick then.   ‘Er couldn’t play the ruddy tin whistle when ‘er was down ‘yer”

Ken Watson

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