PC 203 A Milk Bottle

When I was eighteen I applied to join the British Army and the selection process was a three night/four day assessment at The Regular Commissions Board (RCB) situated at Westbury in Wiltshire; I went in May that year. You can probably guess some of the items on the agenda: taking a team of four across a raging river, simulated by white tape, with only two barrels, a broken branch, a bucket of luck and some rope; an obstacle course to test fitness and agility; listening to lectures on why the Army might/might not be for you, being interviewed by a psychologist and by the selection board, and being observed 24/7 to see how you behaved. Being able to think on your feet was tested by the ‘Five Minutes’ talk.

I stood in front of my fellow applicants and was given my task: “Speak for five minutes about a milk bottle.” ‘Gulp’ I thought, looking across the room of expectant faces, not to mention the officer who was going to mark my efforts.

So I started, (Ed: without slides of course but I have added photos to assist you!) my brain struggling to get some salient points in order before I ran out of either time or things to say:

Three words; ignore the indefinite article so only two: ‘Milk’ and ‘Bottle’.

Milk is, er, the white stuff that comes from animals and humans. It’s a nutrient-rich liquid food produced by their mammary glands for their offspring. Dairy milk is extracted from cows (Note 1): one will produce about 2 gallons each day.

The Holstein-Friesian cow makes up 90% of the UK dairy herds

Glass I think comes from melting sand, soda ash and limestone in some ratios. (Note 2). Seem to remember it was the Egyptians who made the first glass containers around 1500BC.

Humans have being drinking milk for millennia but it wasn’t until 1880 it was first sold in a glass bottle. If you raid the fridge and drink milk straight from the bottle, inevitably it dribbles down your chin and leaves a tell-tale white rim around your mouth.

Combining the two words, my first real memory of a milk bottle was that one-third pint bottle that was dished out daily at morning break at school. This amount of milk, roughly 200ml, was deemed essential for our physical development, particularly its calcium component which helps bone structure. At Dauntsey’s School, just up the road from here in West Lavington, the bottles, some 5 inches tall and 2⅓inches in diameter (13cms and 5.5cms), were available from a crate in the Tuck Shop, run by a Mr Pickford; one for each boy.

Mr Pickford was a slight short man with a white moustache; for some reason he always wore a white laboratory coat. (Note 3) He liked Wagner and would often play the wonderful overture to Tannhäuser. At break-time we sat at Formica tables, drinking our milk and playing Cribbage.

The ⅓ pint bottle was unique to the educational establishments. It came into being with the School Milk Act of 1946, not only providing children with something good but also as a bolster to the Dairy industry in a time of a depressed economy.

In residential street milk in bottles was delivered by electric milk floats – the origins of why ‘float’ are lost but it’s a romantic image, the electric delivery vehicle floating down the streets of our cities. Light sleepers will know just how early the milk is delivered, as the noise of rattling bottles was as familiar as that of fighting foxes!

Somehow birds learned that the gold-foil topped bottles contained milk with the most cream and many a morning it was apparent that the birds had drunk from your milk bottles, but only from the gold-capped ones!! Needless to say you could buy a cover for the four-bottle container to stop them; a simple counter could also be set to indicate how many bottles you needed.

Er! Er! ………

……. and I know this talk is on Milk Bottles but it would be remiss of me not to mention Mrs Adams, the wife of the Headmaster of a preparatory school at Wookey Hole near Wells. The school milk was not delivered in bottles but in churns, some 2ft 4ins tall and over a foot in diameter, which contained 10 gallons. A gallon of milk weighs just over 8.5lbs (almost 4kgs). I remember watching her lift a couple of churns in from the road where they had been left by the farmer; she had very big arms! ……….”   (Note 4)

I am sure somewhere in my unrehearsed 5 minutes on ‘A Milk Bottle’ I launched into the ‘what it wasn’t’, when you start running out of ideas. It shouldn’t have been an empty container for artist’s brushes, for water to wash out water-based paint. And I don’t think it was a big enough bottle for those who were dextrous enough to create little models of sailing ships and slide them in, pulling the rigging upright and plugging it with a piece of cork. Whilst I have always admired the craftsmanship of those who did, collecting them didn’t appeal and I guess these days a cruise liner inside a bottle doesn’t cut the mustard!

Today in the UK a company called Milk & More are building a very good business with home deliveries of milk and milk products. They sell whole, semi-skimmed and organic milk in 1 pint (568ml) glass bottles. A group called ‘Friends of Glass’ say that “milk in glass bottles is left closer to its original state than milk in other packaging; more enzymes remain. It is therefore easier to digest and those who have intolerance to milk can drink it.” There is always a counter-view; …. the nutritional content is negatively affected by glass. Apparently essential amino acids in milk such as tryptophan and tyrosine break down due to light; vitamin A and riboflavin are also degraded. Remember when butter was good for you, then bad for you, then good for you??

When I first started Hot Yoga back in 2009, I would be gagging for some energy infusion after a 90 minute class. There was nothing like a bowl of fresh Kellogg’s Cornflakes with Granulated (not Caster) sugar and cold, full-fat milk; so bad for you ……. yet so good!!  

There is something romantic about the old-fashioned shape of the milk bottle, something that modern cartons don’t convey. Today you can once again buy the glass bottles – not with milk in but for flowers, pencils, etc. What goes around comes around!

Richard 6th November 2020

Note 1. I gather some children don’t make the connection between a dairy cow and milk bought in a supermarket.

Note 2. Factually, in case you didn’t know, glass uses generic silicate known as silicon dioxide. Soda-lime glass with some 70% silica accounts for almost 90% of manufactured glass. 

Note 3. It could be he associated a brown coat with ‘trade’ and wanted to inhabit the next level up, that of the technician or assistant?

Note 4. I must have done OK, as I passed and entered the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in September 1965.

Major-General Sir James d’Avigdor-Goldsmid, whose signature appends this note, was President of the RCB.

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