The Todmorden U3A column with Anthony Peter: The Last Cowkeeper in Garston

Cows Talk: Gill Radford, chair of U3A Todmorden, with speaker Dave Joy. Photo by Gail Allaby
Cows Talk: Gill Radford, chair of U3A Todmorden, with speaker Dave Joy. Photo by Gail Allaby

U3A Todmorden’s October meeting enjoyed a superlative afternoon of quiet rapture in Dave Joy’s energised, energising and fluent talk about his cowkeeping family from Garston.

And what, we wondered, was a cowkeeper?

A cowkeeper was a Yorkshire or Lancashire farmer of the early 19th century who spotted that milk transported in churns by the railway to growing cities was often sour by the time it got there. Wouldn’t it be better for city-dwellers to have access to milk straight from the cow?

So these enterprising, hard-working dairy families moved with a few cows to Liverpool (in the case of the Joys, to Wavertree and then Garston), where they took, ideally, an end-of-terrace house with a yard, and set up business.

They milked at 5am and the milk round started by horse and cart at 7.30am. They milked again at 2pm with a 4.30pm round. They delivered straight to the customer’s jug.

So a ‘cowkeeper’ was specifically a keeper of cows who provided superfresh milk rather than corporate railway milk. And it was a profitable business (Dave’s grandfather, Percy, owned a Bullnose Morris Cowley and three properties). As well as milk, a cowkeeper would have good quality manure to sell – four cows equalled 1 ton of manure a week equalled 5/- a week profit – and milk cart horses produced saleable dung too.

Cows had a remarkably varied diet. They were grazed where possible, and always had access to municipal grass-cuttings, bran from millers, spent grain from brewers, molasses from sugar refiners, linseed cake from oil merchants, and a variety of seasonal root crops as well as imported maize and peas.

Although businesses were successful and were passed on from father to son, after World War II things changed. Many cowkeepers were bombed out of Liverpool and by 1951 no more than 6% of the city’s milk came from city shippons. Eventually, the Joys had to give up all their cows and become ordinary milkmen selling corporate milk until they called it a day in the late 1960s.

This account covers a fraction of what Dave spoke about and omits most of his family history, an interlinking second strand to his talk.

For those keen to know more, please consider buying his books – ‘Liverpool Cowkeepers’ and ‘My Family and Other Scousers’ – real gems of social history.

We were really lucky to enjoy an afternoon with Dave and other Joys.

○ U3A Todmorden’s next members’ meeting is held today (Thursday, November 21) in the Central Methodist Church Hall in Todmorden at 1.45.

Our guest speaker, Heather Davis, will be delivering her interestingly-titled talk ‘Frogs, Firearms and Flames’ – Tales of a Museum Curator.

Our contact details are, (email), or 01422 886021.