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Bric-a-Brac: F is for...

Free milk

Besuited men behind desks considered it a nationwide dose of protein, but out in the field it was always a cheap and hasty alternative to breakfast or forking out for crisps at break-time. Free school milk had been on tap for all British state schools since the late 1930s, introduced to combat spiralling levels of childhood malnutrition and later becoming an enduring post-war tonic to supposedly ensure the next generation had ‘good bones’. Notoriously prolific – crates of untouched curdling bottles were always hanging around the most over-heated corridor in the building – the hearty swig on a weedy straw through the blue or red topped pints was, for ages, as much a part of the morning routine as running about whooping at a dog loose in the playground. Then Margaret Thatcher famously curtailed universal guzzling of the white stuff when the country sank into yet another 1970s economic slump, though nursery and primary schools were allowed to continue siphoning it out for another decade. The final deliveries were made in 1986 – until, that is, local authorities in Scotland recently decided to re-introduce it, thereby rather charitably allowing kids to partake in the right kind of nostalgia even before they could read or write.



  1. Derek

    October 2, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    Your articles are all spot on and very funny. Free milk used to come in stubby one-third pint bottles, smelt of cheese and was always warmer than the ambient air would suggest. There was also a rare and highly sought after orange juice alternative. Whether it was orange juice as we would recognise it today I can’t recall but I doubt it somehow. Milk was really popular back then: every cafe had a blue and white striped chilled milk dispenser next to the machine with two oranges spinning inside it and there were even public milk vending machines.

  2. David Smith

    October 2, 2009 at 6:52 pm

    And the straws were invariably paper…

  3. bisted

    October 3, 2009 at 4:42 am

    Always warm and undrinkable.
    I tried to force myself to drink them a few times, Unfortunatley, my nose would near the bottle and I would end up feeling sick and not drinking any. In the end, I convinced the teachers not to give me milk.
    Look… I know it was the 1970s, but surely there were fridges around then!? Why was the milk always so warm?

    P.S. Paper straws…. Why?…. Stingy b******s!!!!!!!!

    • Joanne Gray

      May 7, 2017 at 6:29 pm

      I always remember painfully thin blue plastic straws to accompany our radiator warmed morning milk in the 70s and 80s that ended up as a choking hazard after sucking too hard to get anything to flow up them and ending up inhaling the straw as it stuck in your gullet. However at home we had those weird waxed paper straws that went soggy and pulpy after your first gulp of milk (or a weak solution of Robinson’s and too much water, to make it go further). They made the drink taste funny too.

  4. techno12

    November 18, 2009 at 1:31 am

    Hideous. Sour and I can still remember the smell/taste of them now. Paper straws that stuk together at the top and fell apart too…

    There was an incredible rush each day to get those bottles that had the familiar 4 circles CO-OP logo on them – if you were a loser you got a bottle with “CWS” instead. Of course, one and the same organisation, but we were 5 at the time and didn’t know!

  5. Adrian

    November 18, 2009 at 9:53 am

    It was horrible – always warm and curdled in summer, and often frozen solid in winter. Also birds used to sometimes peck through the top to get at the milk inside, which resulted in their beaks infecting the milk with germs..

  6. Wil

    November 18, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    Ahhh, the fabled orange juice alternative. You had to be quick to bag that beauty!

  7. Angryhead

    November 18, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    The smell of warm milk was like sniffing gone-off cheese. It was very retch-worthy indeed.
    Re; Adrian, I too now remember the bird-pecked bottle tops!
    Maybe Maggie Thatcher shouldn’t have got such a hard time for ditching the whole thing! In my opinion, it was the best policy she ever spearheaded.

  8. Enoch S

    February 10, 2010 at 1:53 pm

    And while they were boosting our health with calcium and other minerals they were clogging our arteries with cholesterol. Sometimes you just can’t win, can you?

  9. Richard Davies

    August 9, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    I was too young for free school milk but every 2-3 weeks my school would serve some at lunchtimes.

    Blowing a bid mound of bubbles that would froth out the top was a popular trick.

  10. Zastrozzi

    November 3, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    At my primary school there was always a race to see who could consume the milk the fastest through the straw. This meant that you rarely actually tasted the stuff, and on the basis of the comments here, I’m quite glad in retrospect.

  11. Will M

    September 20, 2018 at 10:12 am

    The 1980s. Primary school. Crates of the stuff sitting in the glass-and-corrigated-steel corridor. All small bottles – 1/4 or 1/3 of a pint. By the time morning break came round at 10.30 it had started to curdle. The smell of going-off milk. We had narrow plastic straws. Back then you were allowed to bring a chocolate biscuit in to have with it, not like now where it has to be fruit or a rice cake or something. A chocolate kit kat and using the paper wrapper as a wristwatch, going up to a classmate and asking “What time is it? Kit kat time!”.

  12. Glenn Aylett

    July 8, 2020 at 6:13 pm

    We had it at junior school in the late seventies. Always remember the milk being handed out in 1/3 pint bottles and tasting either non descript or sour. Most of the milk went down the drain as kids either never bothered with it or drank half and gave up. Far better to spend money on school dinners in my opinion, which could be of variable quality.

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