Milk Traffic

ChurnRestored1New Arrival – GWR 17 Gallon Galvanised Iron Milk Churn

The recently acquired GWR 17 gallon churn was bought at auction in need of attention. We have had it refurbished to enable it to go on display at the Centre.


Milk traffic was an important part of any station. Old photographs will often show these distinctive conical milk churns standing on platforms or trolleys awaiting collection. A 17 gallon churn weighed 2.5 cwt. when full! It is not surprising to find that platforms often had a raised ramp for ease of loading full churns into ‘Siphons’ – special goods vans for the purpose with concrete floors to take the weight. Milk contracts would often include a clause that required the farmer or his employees to assist the station staff load full churns and unload the empties.


Local Winscombe farmer, Archie Forbes, informs:-

“The wide based shape of these conical churns made them more stable to carry on a horse & cart. The later aluminium straight sided design was less stable and also harder to ‘roll’ but much lighter by comparison and a joy to handle. I remember meeting a man who could pick up a churn in each hand and carry them from his cart to the Dairy some 50 yards away – quite a feat of strength! As for ‘trundling’, this is a skill you never forget and there was much competition between farmers to see who was quickest! (‘Trundling’ or ‘spinning’ also happened at stations between staff). There was a big milk processing plant on the main line at St George’s where milk was collected for transporting in bulk containers and which also made a tanker load of cream daily. These went to the major Co-op depot in London. The Milk Marketing Board came into being in 1933 to stabilise supply of milk to cities. It was a great shame that this was ever scrapped!”


A visitor, who called in at SSRHC and wrote in our book, worked at this London Co-op depot at one time and confirmed registering milk received from the Cheddar Valley Line.


Margaret Ballard, whose family have farmed at Station Road Farm, opposite Sandford station, for over a century, tells that:-

“Ours was one of a dozen dairy farms in Sandford. The others were – John Garrett, who had a Somerset County Council Farm at Towerhead; Percy Cox, also at Towerhead; Thatchers and Champneys both on Station Road; Victor Watts at Droveway Farm, Nye Road (now Keedwell’s); Hockey’s and another farmer also down Nye Road; Edward Avery at Pool Farm, the thatched building on Greenhill Road, who had a dairy round for local supply. Apart from Edward Avery, all were paid by the Milk Marketing Board and had their churns picked up from stands by the roadside for despatch to London via the Co-op depot at Hewish.”


The following is an extract from ‘A Parish and the Railway’ by Peter Knight:


‘A section of platform was laid with wooden blocks ‘for milk traffic’. This would have been to receive churns trolleyed onto the platform ready for despatch to the distant milk depot. The churns at that time would have been the conical, man sized seventeen gallon containers which can still sometimes be seen rustilly forcing rhubarb in country gardens. Filled with milk they were heavy. Dropping them onto wooden blocks would have damaged them less than onto stone or concrete. Old-hand porters would demonstrate their skills by trundling them along platforms, leaning them over to one side and spinning them along one-handed on the base rim. Farm boys also liked to demonstrate their strength by lifting a full one single-handed.

One of the major items of traffic from any dairy region was milk and the Cheddar valley line certainly served a dairy farming area. It was customary for farmers to arrange to send their milk to major depots by rail. One of the most important maintained by the Great Western was at Paddington. Several local farmers, including farmer Gadd of Sandford and Frost of Winscombe, despatched their milk thus. Their churns were equipped with brass labels depicting the depot identity (in the local case, Paddington) and other labels showing the farmer’s name and station of origin. The goods staff at the despatching station recorded the amounts that were sent by individual farmers and in due course the railway forwarded the cash that was due to each farmer. The empty churns were returned ready for use the following evening – as long as the location was not too far away.


The churns were sent in vehicles of various sizes, depending on the potential load, which were built with semi-open slatted sides. These had telegraph names (something peculiar to railways) of ‘Siphon’. These ranged from Siphon C to Siphon H. All vehicle types had telegraph names. This was to simplify communication by Morse code. The idea of the slatted sides was to allow a stream of air to constantly blow through the vehicle when moving in an attempt to keep the milk cool. These Siphons were designated as ‘brown’ vehicles. This meant that they were fitted with continuous vacuum brakes and could be attached either to passenger trains or milk trains, they were also continuously banked and travelled at speeds similar to passenger express trains. Milk traffic on the line reached its peak just before WW2 and it is recorded that the single Sunday train on the Valley line (up from Wells) would have up to eight large vans attached, all loaded with churns.’


The late Pete Knight would have loved our Sandford Station project. He was advisor to both the Cheddar Valley Railway Walk Society and The Winscombe & Sandford Millennium Green where he was a trustee and authority on all things railway and a friend into the bargain. He knew everything about the Cheddar Valley Line and the parish of Winscombe & Sandford and the story of the two from 1869 to 2000 is interwoven in his book ‘A Parish and the Railway’. I can thoroughly recommend reading this informative and thoroughly researched work which you will find in our book list.

Article by SSRHC committee member Lois Brenchley March 2013