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Friern Manor Dairy Farm

There is little to remind us of Friern Manor and Friern Manor Dairy Farm today in East Dulwich, only the name of a road that runs from Peckham Rye to Lordship Lane cutting through the heart of the former farmland and meadows of the manor. There is however a reminder of Friern Manor Dairy Farm on the other side of London in the form of a set of illustrated panels and the words ‘FRIERN MANOR DAIRY FARM’ etched into the brickwork over the entrance to a pub called The Old Dairy.  Is there a connection between the farm that was next door to Peckham Rye and a pub in Crouch Hill?


Friern Manor was purchased by Henry Bolingbroke, Viscount St John, in 1725.  He built a new manor house that year on the site of the previous one, the new one described in 1841 as having  “white walls and over-hanging foliage, a conspicuous and picturesque object.”  The manor was roughly bordered by streets known today as Wood Vale, Peckham Rye and Lordship Lane and mostly used for farming which had been carried out there since at least the middle ages.   Four miles from the centre of London, the farm was well situated before the building of the railway for transporting its  produce while still fresh to nourish the ever expanding population of the metropolis. At the middle of the 19th century, it was estimated that 30% of the farm was given over to arable farming and the balance to dairy farming.


In 1841 retired naval captain William Noble was the occupant.  The farm covered more than 200 acres and was one of the largest farms in the environs of London. There was an office in Holborn which was later moved to 20 Farringdon Street and in charge of that office was William Noble’s nephew, George Taylor. Some time in the 1840s, George Wright became the proprietor of Friern Manor Dairy Farm.


There are two descriptions of the farm from the middle of the 19th century. Charles Dickens had visited the farm and surrounding area in 1850 as part of his investigation into the provision and safety of milk sold within the capital.  He found the farm's standards high and the account of his visit is delightful, describing the surrounding countryside and the panorama of London seen from “Friern Hill” (probably Dawson’s Hill).  Drawn in part from Dickens’ article, the Illustrated London News published an article three years  later in June 1853 which also praised the farm highly.  

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Two illustrations from the Illustrated London News article from the British Newspaper Archive.   Click for a better view - the Illustrated London News admit to poetic license in the illustrations for they depict milk-maids when in fact all the milking was carried out by men.

When the reporter from the Illustrated London News visited there were a total of 186 cows.  The average daily amount of milk given over the year by each cow was 10 quarts though some of the herd gave much more, one superabundant cow gave 28 quarts a day for five months.  Milking took place twice a day and commenced in the middle of the night to reach London by early morning. It was carried out in sheds holding 50 cows each and each cow knew both her shed and stall and, called by the cow-herd, would go there of her own accord “with as much precision and regularity as a company of soldiers.”  Each cow too was particular to be milked in their own pail, indeed if a cow was milked into the wrong pail they would often kick it over. Milking was performed by a team of 14 men who lived in a cottage by the side of one of the sheds with the foreman’s wife acting as house keeper.


In summer the cows roamed the meadows, the Great Meadow was located between what is now Overhill Road and Friern Road.  During cold weather they were not turned out into the meadows, instead let out into the yard in small numbers for about half an hour for exercise and water.  At the height of summer, they were turned out all night when the boards and walls of the sheds were scrubbed with soft soap and water and the building washed with limewater. Hygiene was taken very seriously and both the tin pails into which the milk was drawn and the tin churns in which it was sent to London were scoured out twice a day.  “Every precaution was taken to prevent the carriers from adulterating the milk for their own dishonest profit, and with so much success that the milk enjoys he highest character for purity.”  The great tin cans were deposited in a van which arrived at the Dairy Office in Farringdon Street between 3 am and 4 am.  The seals were carefully examined and taken off by a clerk.  “In come the carriers, commonly called ‘milkmen’, all wearing the badge of ‘Friern Manor Dairy Farm’ their tin pails are filled, fastened at top, and sealed as before, and away they go on their early rounds to be in time for the early breakfast people.”  


No less an authority than Florence Nightingale endorsed the quality of Friern Manor milk, or rather her cat did.  In a letter to her mother, written some time in 1864, she wrote “The Friern Manor milk, thanks to Mrs Webb’s promptitude, answers admirably.  I took the opinion of Topsy the cat upon it, who is an excellent judge. And she considers it good milk and cream, though not equal to Hampstead.  She is a good judge, because she is dainty and not greedy.”


But with the coming of the railway it meant that farms from further afield were now also able to supply fresh milk quickly to the capital.  The railway had arrived at Champion Hill (now East Dulwich) station in 1868 and enabled those who worked in central London to travel from what was now on the cusp of becoming East Dulwich to their jobs.  Until about 1860, the area consisted mainly of market gardens and open fields with only a few scattered houses, cottages and other buildings. Developers and house builders began to acquire the open land to build homes for the new commuters and within the next 40 years East Dulwich, largely as we know it today, had been created.


Friern Manor was put up for auction in the mid 1860s and purchased by the British Land Company.   Already new roads had been laid out by 1867.   Friern Manor Farm house, its sheds, out-buildings and equipment were sold in 200 lots in December 1873, some of the livestock having been auctioned off a few years earlier. St Clement’s Church was built on the site of the manor house by 1885. (This church was destroyed in World War II and rebuilt in 1957.)


Now he no longer owned the farm in East Dulwich, George Wright acquired a business in North London in Hanley Road.  The premises were built some time in the 1870s on fields on the north side of the road and used as a dairy shop for Stapleton Hall Dairy Farm, a short distance away. The new shop traded under the name of Friern Manor and Stapleton Hall Dairy Farm, as Friern Manor had such a good reputation for their produce, it’s likely George Wright wanted to maintain the connection.  This added to the shops he already owned in Farringdon Road and Peckham. George Taylor remained as the manager at the Farringdon Street shop and office.  


George Wright died in 1880 and left his estate to his wife Ann.  George Taylor acquired half the business from her and was later bequeathed the remaining half when Ann died in 1882.  Friern Manor Dairy Farm Limited was incorporated in 1887 by George Taylor, his son Charles and Frederick Hornby.  In 1890, their premises in Hanley Road were extended with the new premises fronting onto Crouch Hill. Part of the new building works included the illustrated (sgraffito) panels depicting traditional dairy farming methods and distribution. Now a pub/restaurant, the buildingand sgraffito panels in Crouch Hill are Grade II listed.


Additional source:  John Henshelwood (1999) The Old Dairy at Crouch Hill