MILK: The Milk Marketing Board and the 'milk crisis'

In the 1920s, dairy farmers were facing troubled times: throughout the decade, milk production exceeded demand; prices continually fell and many farms were forced to close.

The Milk Marketing Board (MMB) was established in 1933, at a time when thousands of dairy farmers were struggling financially. The purpose of the MMB was to buy, advertise and sell milk: guaranteeing a reasonable price for farmers and finding buyers for every drop of milk produced in the UK.

From it's headquarters at Gigg's Hill in Thames Ditton and supported by a workforce of 7,000 employees spread further around the country, the MMB maintained stable economic conditions for up to 70,000 independent farms. The history of the Milk Marketing Board (MMB) started in the 1930s and ended with its closure in 1994, but its legacy continues into contemporary debates around farming, food production and national commerce.

Here you can see the first board meeting held at Thames House, London, on 6 October 1933. At the outbreak of war, staff were moved to the unfinished Thames Ditton Headquarters.
Here you can see the first board meeting held at Thames House, London, on 6 October 1933. At the outbreak of war, staff were moved to the unfinished Thames Ditton Headquarters.

In October of 2014, twenty years after the closure of the MMB, UK dairy farmers and their supporters took to the streets to protest at the low price of milk to the consumer, compared to high production costs. Not only did these actions have an impact on supermarket executives, but they raised awareness for dairy production among the public, rehashing a debate that had brought about the formation of the MMB in the first instance over 80 years before.

Many local residents remember working at the MMB building; it was one of the largest local employers. This online exhibition explores the MMB's long local story.

Formation

In 1932, a Government commission was set up investigate the dairy industry, and It decided that there was an urgent need for an organisation to stabilise the market. That organisation was the Milk Marketing Board. Set up in October 1933, the Board originally worked out of Millbank, London. 

The initial task of the MMB, when it was set up in the 1930s, was to stabilise the milk market, thereby giving more bargaining power to the small farmer. As a co-operative, it was the largest agricultural model of its kind in British history.

Funded and run by farmers, the MMB encompassed every dairy farm and milk producer in the country, as well as acting as a contact between the producers and every buyer. The MMB had a two-tier pricing system: farmers were paid more for milk that was going to be sold as liquid, and less for milk that was going into cheese production. Month by month an average price was struck and every farmer was sent a cheque. 

In the late 1930s, as the MMB's role was solidified, work began on a new building, large and open plan that could double up as a hospital during national emergencies. Located in Thames Ditton, this new headquarters would come to be the home of the MMB for over 50 years.

Image of the interior staircase at the MMB.
Image of the interior staircase at the MMB.

A MOVE TO THAMES DITTON

Speaking in 1986, the MMB's Public Relations Officer - Mr. Chapman - described the company's move from central London to Gigg's Hill, in |Thames Ditton, in 1939:

'With the declaration of war, the new building was occupied in a hurry; filing cabinets that had once filled the Board's Millbank premises were piled into milk lorries and carted south to Thames Ditton. Anyone due to work in the new building was required to wear a hard hat when entering: construction work was still taking place, the steps leading into the entrances were not completed and a plank was the only way in.'

Elmbridge Museum's collection includes a number of photographs from these early years. Below you can see images taken between 1938 and 1940. |Visi Visit our Collections page to explore more milk related objects from our archive.

 

The social life of the MMB employees was very important. This photo was taken at the 1950 staff gala.
The social life of the MMB employees was very important. This photo was taken at the 1950 staff gala.

Later developments

Increasingly throughout the post-war years, consumer trends have changed the way milk is perceived and consumed. Supermarkets now sell more 'pintas' than the doorstep milky.

The MMB had a responsibility to advertise producers' products to the public. Iconic advertising campaigns such as 'is your man getting enough?' and 'Accrington Stanley, Who Are They?' were commissioned by the Board to boost milk sales, and were very well received.

Photograph of Unigate Milk cart presented to the Whiteley Village Homes Trust, 16th February 1978.
Photograph of Unigate Milk cart presented to the Whiteley Village Homes Trust, 16th February 1978.


Crisis

The Milk Marketing Board effectively ceased operation in 1994. A voluntary scheme, Milk Marque, was established in its absence and controlled 65% of the UK’s milk marketing. The number of dairy producers in the mid-1990s was still strong with over 35,000 farms. In 1996 Dairy Crest was detached from the MMB and floated on the stock market as an independent company. 

Since its dissolution in 1994, milk farmers in the UK have suffered unprecedented losses on their product. In 2014, twenty years after the MMB shut its doors, the media brought to public attention what they called a 'milk crisis'.

Like the situation that spurred on the formation of the MMB back in the 1930s, the production of milk now - in the early twenty first century - greatly exceeds the demand for the product. The consumption of milk throughout Britain has decreased as the population has grown, and therefore many dairy farms continue to close. In 1995 there were 35,741 registered dairy farms in the UK. By the end of 2015 this number had dropped to 9,914, meaning that for the first time in living memory there was under 10,000 operational dairy farms in the UK. 

Many dairy farmers have stopped producing milk or have moved into other fields of agriculture. This is due to the low prices they are being paid for their product; price wars in supermarkets are often blamed.

Closure of J. Trigg and Son shop
The fate of J.Trigg & Son, a local dairy shop. It used to be more common than it is now for independent dairy shops to buy milk directly from dairies and sell it door to door. This photo was taken in 1987 after the closure of their Molesey Road shop

Timeline: The life of the Milk Marketing Board

1882 – First dairy cooperative started in Denmark

6th October 1933 – First Milk Marketing Board meeting held.

1940 – Ministry of Food takes control of milk production and marketing due to WWII.

1942 – MMB becomes a direct purchaser of milk from farmers.

1944 – Becomes responsible for the development of artificial insemination.

1945 – Oversaw 3.75m school children and 4m under fives and expectant mothers’ daily milk allowance.

1953 – Complete control handed back to MMB.

1958 – First year of ‘The Milk Race’ – the MMB sponsorship of the Tour of Britain.

1962 – MMB used as a model for international cooperatives. Advisory boards made available to other countries and agricultural officials from India invited to London by the MMB.

1973 – UK joins EU.

Late 1970s – sales indicate that supermarkets are taking over from home delivery systems.

1987 – Dairy Crest made a separate company, detached from MMB.

1991 – John Gummer, Minister of Agriculture declares: “I remain committed to encouraging the industry to make progress for ending the MMB’s statutory monopoly”.

1993 – MMB’s sponsorship of the Tour of Britain ends. At 35 years, ‘The Milk Race’, as it became known, was the longest cycle sponsorship in the UK ever.

1st November 1994 – The MMB dissolves.

Summer 1996 – Dairy Crest floated on the UK stock market.

2000 – Milk Marque, the voluntary cooperative set up to replace the MMB disbands.

2012 – Thousands of farmers violently protest outside the EU headquarters in Brussels against low milk prices.

October 2012 – UK dairy farms march in protest against milk prices. Per litre, farmers lose on average 7p on every litre of milk produced.

August 2015 – Milk prices continue to fall. The ‘Milk Trolley Challenge’ and the ‘Milk Bucket Challenge’ – protests against milk prices – both make nation news.

September 2015 – Again, protests erupt in Brussels outside EU HQ.

February 2016 – ‘Milk’, the first exhibition exploring the MMB, opens at Dittons Library.