College Farm, Finchley - north London model home of the first bottled milk

College Farm, Finchley - north London model home of the first bottled milk

The first ever bottled milk in the UK was produced in 1884, at College Farm in Finchley, North London, run by Express Dairies and regarded as one of the 'model farms' of the time and thereafter. The site and the listed buildings still survive, but preservation campaigners have had to fight off several threats to its future.

In 1868, George Barham, a businessman who owned Express Dairies, bought the farm that had existed since the 14th century. He was concerned to address the common practices of watering down milk with river water, and making cream out of snail slime. It was a time when farming was being urged to be modernised along scientific/industrial lines, and with higher standards of hygiene and working practices - indeed, the Great Exhibition of 1851 had a whole hall devoted to the latest farm machinery

The name College Farm was chosen because the copper top of Christ’s College, Finchley, could be seen from the site. By 1882, Barham ordered the demolition of the original farm buildings and commissioned architect Frederick Chancellor to design a new, model dairy farm. The buildings, which are now Grade II-listed, included spacious clean stalls for the cows' milking. Each cow had its name on the wall behind it, and a luxury diet of oatmeal, bran and biscuit, as well as root vegetables, hay and cabbages. The milk that was collected was distributed in the newly created glass bottles.

The most important function of College farm was as a public relations exercise and shop window for the dairy industry. Its contribution to London’s milk supply was always quite small in quantity, but its importance was great, as a showplace of all that was newest and best in dairy livestock and equipment. The progressive farm became the first to test dairy for diseases in the 1920s, and to pioneer the distribution of milk in cartons in the 1930's, 30 years before they reached the supermarket shelves.

In 1973 College Farm's future was threatened when it was bought by the Department for Transport under plans to widen the North Circular Road, and by the end of 1974, the last Express cows were taken away. The buildings were shut and the farm laid desolate and was frequently vandalised.

In 2004, local activists led by Chris and Jane Ower set up the College Farm Trust, with the intention of re-establishing the farm as a visitor centre. Tearooms were opened in the old dairy itself. The Trust now owns the whole 10-acre site, but there have been disputes amongst the Trustees about its future. Threatened with redevelopment plans, the Owers obtained a court ruling recently to confirm their agricultural tenancy, and they are now working to raise funds to repair the deteriorating buildings and reopen to the public.

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