Wednesday, 1 August 2012

United Dairies, South Norwood

Nowadays we are more likely to see the name United Dairies painted on milk wagons at heritage railways around Britain than on ghost signs but a few of the latter still survive on the walls of its former depots and retail outlets.

In 1915, as the war was driving costs up and farmers and dairy companies faced shortages of men and foodstuff for cows and horses, three of the main dairy wholesalers in the London region, Wiltshire United Dairies, Metropolitan and Great Western Dairies, and the Dairy Supply Company, merged to rationalise their distribution networks and benefit from economies of scale. From the outset United Dairies, as the new company was called, controlled most of the London market. Over the following months it acquired numerous smaller wholesalers and retailers (almost 100 by 1918) and by the end of the war, its share of the wholesale trade had increased to 80%. Additionally, through its outlets and roundsmen, it controlled one-third of retail in the capital. Soon, the 'London milk combine' as United Dairies became known, was accused of keeping prices artificially high thanks to its virtual monopoly and Parliament launched an inquiry. The 1917 Astor Report recommended that the government should take control of the milk supply, before nationalising the dairy industry once the war was over. In the end none of this happened and United Dairies continued to expand during the 1920s, taking over dairy companies in the Midlands, Cheshire, Merseyside, and Wales. In the 1920s it was even found that by not lowering their margins and reducing prices, United Dairies and its main competitor Express Dairies, were allowing smaller firms with higher production and distribution costs to remain in business.
In the 1920s and 1930s United Dairies faced growing competition from consumer co-operatives but managed to retain its leading position. By the 1950s it owned 600 shops in greater London as well as 40 creameries but most sales were realised by roundsmen, who supplied large numbers of households across the capital and its suburbs. If most milk still came from the West Country, some came from as far as North Wales and even Scotland, carried not only by train but increasingly by trucks. However after the Second World War United Dairies's profitability began to decline. The company had become too large and was not as well managed as during the inter-war years. By the end of the 1950s talks began with Cow & Gate, one of its main competitors, with a view to a merger. As a result Unigate was formed in 1959, with United Dairies representing two-thirds of the new company's assets.

For more about the milk trade, you can refer to this earlier post about a Shepherd's Bush dairy


Location: Portland Road / Picture taken in June 2008

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