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19th century: The life of a dairy maid

In this article by Margaret Holt, she looks at the life of a dairy maid two centuries ago.

After a year or two in service the girl might get the opportunity to work in the Dairy, and if she was quick and willing to learn could advance to the well paid position of dairymaid. Calves were always born in the spring, unlike calving today, so that the summer months were the busy ones and there was no milking in the winter when the cows were 'dry'.

In the last quarter of the 19th. century dairy herds with improved breeding methods, became larger and produced more milk which could now be conveyed by rail to the towns.

The hours for the dairy maid were very long, sometimes from 4am to 10pm, and she was expected to milk eight or 10 cows morning and afternoon, and in addition to be proficient in skimming milk and making butter and cheese. Churning was heavy work and to determine the moment when the butter was ready was crucial.

No wonder that fairies and witches had been associated with the dairy from ancient times, Should the butter not 'come' quickly enough a crooked silver sixpence should be put on the house witch-post, and the old rhyme, dating at least from the 16th century ran:

Come butter come

Peter stands at the gate

Waiting for a buttered cake

Come butter come

… this should be said three times and is explained by an old lady as follows; ‘for it was taught my mother by a learned churchman in Queen Mary's days, when a churchman had more cunning and could teach the people many a trick that our ministers nowadays know not’.

There were flower shows and cricket matches. Traditionally it was the milkmaids who had originated the game of stool-ball, using their milking stool as a bat, and although Joe, the little carter’s boy aged twelve, described by Mary Russell Mitford in her classic book ’Our Village’, worked from five till seven ‘he then comes here to work still harder, under the name of play, batting, bowling and fielding as if for life, filling the place of four boys’. Christmas also brought its happiness, and a little fun, with holly brought in from the woods and a big log for the fire.


Malcolm and Margaret Holt owned the property at Cuckfield Park in the 1970s. Margaret was a keen historian and actively researched the Cuckfield area and was very active in expanding the activities of the Cuckfield Museum.

Contributed by Malcolm Davison. From the Cuckfield Museum archives


'Butterworker' from The Book of the Farm, by Henry Stephens, James Macdonald · 1889



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