Wandering through Maida Vale, the keen-eyed amongst you may have spotted an unlikely character gazing down on you from above.
A cow’s head.
She has been largely forgotten and neglected, but she was once the proud figurehead of a dairy called J. Welford and Sons. Sometimes referred to as Warwick Farm Dairies. Not just any dairy either, but, at one point, the largest dairy in London! You can still find the building on the corner of Shirland Road and Elgin Avenue with the many, many references to the dairy all over the facade.
It all started in 1845, when Richard Welford took over management of Warwick Farm near Paddington. Apparently it was pretty much where Little Venice is now, where you’ll find lots of streets like Warwick Avenue, Warwick Place, and Warwick Crescent. He certainly wasn’t the first to have cows in Maida Vale – already 50 years earlier, in 1798, cow keepers were said to dominate every inch of the land around Paddington, but he definitely became the most famous. Three years later, in 1848, he opened his first dairy shop at 4 Warwick Place.
When Richard died a decade later, his widow Jane and three sons took over. It’s in this period that the dairy exploded from a relatively small operation to a two acre development, processing milk from several different farms. Their own cows had been moved in the mid-1850s to Oakington Manor Farm in Wembley.
In 1876, they even started supplying dairy products to the Prince of Wales and Queen Victoria and earned a royal seal for that privilege. Basically the celebrity / influencer endorsement deal of the day.
The complex we see today was built in the 1880s and it was designed to be new model dairy, which valued staff welfare and included flats for their workforce. More recently, a 3-bed flat in the building was on sale for £1.1m. How times change! Sports clubs were also provided for employees, such as a bowls club at Paddington Recreation Ground.
Welford’s also prided themselves on the high quality and cleanliness of their milk, an important boast in nineteenth-century London, where inner city milk was often not the best… In architectural plans for their building in 1881, the entire basement is devoted to the cleaning and storage of the milk cans and churns. Apparently Mr. Welford’s office opened out directly onto the yard so clearly he liked to keep a close eye on what was going on. There was also a large shop, so presumably customers were able to buy Welford’s products directly from the site rather than just having it delivered, in addition to their numerous other shops across London. You can find so many more photos of Welford shops and related ephemera on Facebook.
Welford’s Dairy reached such heights that in 1884 they, and several other dairies, were featured at the International Health Exhibition in South Kensington (roughly where Imperial College is today), an exhibition which welcomed four million visitors within six months.
Welford & Son’s recreated an entire working dairy within the exhibition site, complete with actual cows, goats, and sheep.
The Cowhouse boasted “ventilation by moveable open shutters and pipes beneath the floor, thereby ensuring a continual current of air in circulation all over the shed, as approved by our veterinary staff”. Refrigerating, churning “without being touched by hand”, a laboratory “showing the microscopical constituents of milk”, appliances for “testing and examining milk”, and an entire team of medical officers, analysts, sanitary engineers, and vets either in attendance or described as part of the process. It sounds more like NASA than a dairy.
It was a top-quality reputation which persisted for many decades. In 1898, The Nursing Record & Hospital World (later the British Journal of Nursing) praises Welford & Sons, “now widely recognised to be exceptionally excellent in quality. Messrs. Welford have adopted a useful plan of supplying nursery milk in sealed bottles, so that it is quite impossible that the milk should be tampered with in any way, after it leaves the Dairy”. Still in 1914, the same journal was promoting Welford’s “milk of the highest quality”!
And, I mean, this advert from 1889 is absolutely perfect. I genuinely have no idea anymore where I found it so if I’m infringing on anyone’s copyright, please let me know and I will take it down straight away, but just look at that marketing!
The little angels and healthy, fresh-faced children, brandishing “Pure Milk!” flags and churns of “Pure Butter”, chasing away the Grim Reaper and all his associated lackeys: typhoid, scarlet fever, and pyaemia (a type of sepsis). I can’t quite make out what that angry barrel with the webbed feet is meant to be in the bottom left, but possibly something about the Thames. Whatever he is, he’s not your problem if you’re drinking Welford’s milk! There’s even a little diagram of the Maida Vale dairy in the top right corner.
By 1891 Welford’s were processing the produce from more than 100 farms and employed over 400 people. For any football fans, Welford’s Fields, owned by Welford’s Dairy, in Kensal Rise was the first recorded home venue for the Queen’s Park Rangers football club in the late 1880s. Despite such considerable expansion, it seems like Welford’s continued to look after their customers; in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, Maida Vale had quite a large Jewish population and in a brochure from the dairy around the 1880s, they boast that “during the Passover, cows will be brought to those who wish it and milked direct into their own cans”. So no one can deny that they championed that personal service! Forget Deliveroo – Delivermoo, am I right??
It seems like the dairy was here in Maida Vale right up until 1983. You can also find a plaque on the outside, installed in 1982 to mark the centenary of the Dairy opening on this site. It was unveiled by Pamela Bishop, the granddaughter of Annie Welford, who’d laid the original foundation stone back in 1881. Annie was, in turn, the granddaughter of Richard Welford, taking the family history right back to the purchase of Warwick Farm in 1845.
Right into living memory, people remember the dairy fondly. One local remembers the fleet of horse-drawn milk carts in the 1950s and ’60s and how they would collect the horse manure for their roses!
My Mum, as well, grew up in the area and remembers the building while it still functioned as a dairy and enjoyed spotting the cows head above when she went past, although they weren’t Welford’s anymore. In 1915, they had merged with United Dairies and then combined again with Cow & Gate in 1959 to become Unigate. Unigate still exists, so while the company is pretty much unrecognisable to Warwick Farm in 1845, I like to image that Welford & Sons lives on in some shape or form.
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