A Victorian Dairy

In the mid-nineteenth century, the 5th Duke of Portland embarked on an ambitious programme of estate building, combining his interests in architecture, engineering and agriculture. Among the grand new buildings were a range of cowhouses and an opulent dairy, complete with ornamental fishpond and chandelier, where the milk was processed.


This description of a journalist’s visit to Welbeck from the Sheffield Telegraph (1881) paints a detailed picture of the cowhouses and the dairy as they were just after the 6th Duke of Portland inherited the estate:

The cowhouses, dairy, and poultry-houses form imposing blocks of buildings. The cowhouse has stalls of galvanised zinc and slate – there being separate troughs for the hay and the turnips or other food. It is very lofty, with a roof of pitch pine, and the cattle have as much room as the horses in the hunting stables. While we are there an attendant is carefully washing down the tails and legs of the Alderney cows. This process, which is not frequently seen in a cowhouse, is done daily at stated times at Welbeck – the Alderneys, indeed, being as carefully “groomed” as the horses. A second cow-house, of similar proportions, is used for “housing” the animals while the other is being cleansed. Here, too, deserves to be noticed a cow-shed, with a roof of pitch pine, and fitted with revolving iron shutters, enabling the place to be closed or opened according to the weather – a most admirable arrangement.

Happy are the Alderneys who are “housed” at Welbeck. Though the most aristocratic of milch kine, they have a home worthy of their rank; and they look, in their placid faces and silken coats, as if they were quite conscious of being the objects of special care in the most comfortable of quarters. A handsome Essex bull, ranging at will in a long and lofty stall, is shown to us as the colour to which the present Duke is anxious to bring his herd of cattle. The Essex bull is a perfect beauty – with a sweet head gracefully poised, a bright eye, grandly sprung in the rib, finely haired, and carrying a dark, iron-grey coat, deepening in shade towards the flanks, which would show splendidly against the green turf and foliage so abundant in the grounds and woodlands of Welbeck. It is impossible to leave all these stables, and cow-sheds, and out-houses without observing how careful their owner must have been to have everything as good and perfect as it could be. Welbeck is a place where even Ruskin would find it hard to lay his finger on unworthy work. The very doors by which all these outhouses are entered are massive and beautifully grained, and all are fitted with brass handles kept in a perfect state of polish.

The dairy is the very model of a place of the kind. It is a near building of stone. The floor is laid with encaustic tiles, which are also used in lining the walls. From the centre of the tiled floor springs a crystal fountain, set in a marble basin. Around the base gold and other fish are disporting themselves at pleasure. The milk dishes, which are of china, and cost some two guineas each, are placed on benches of marble; and jars for the cream, which are also of china, are placed higher up in the niches let into the walls. All the dishes are full to the lip with milk which looks like cream, and there is not a speck to be seen anywhere about the place. In the corner opposite the door rolls of rich butter recline on marble slabs, and near to them is another vessel in which pats of butter are floating about, having just left the hands of the dairy-maid who has been putting upon them the ivy leaf design, in which the Portlands have always delighted. Here we can see it not only on the pats of butter, but in the border which edges the encaustic tiles. The very sight of the dairy is grateful to the eye – everything is so bright and cool, and clean, from the Minton tiles beneath our feet to the massive chandelier over our head.


The dairy maid in 1881, at the time of the article, was Elizabeth Lindley. She lived above the dairy with her husband William, who worked in the nearby Dairyfield Stables as a stud groom, their six children, including Helena, who worked as her mother’s assistant, and the family’s two servants.

Milk and butter from the dairy were made available to people who lived and worked on the estate for a discounted price below the market rate. Domestic cheese-making was encouraged at the annual Welbeck Tenants’ Agricultural Show, where there were demonstrations of milking, milk separating and ‘fancy cheese making’. There was also a competition with a grand prize of 17 shillings and sixpence for whoever’s cheese most impressed the judges, one of whom was usually the Welbeck dairymaid.


The dairy was demolished in the 1950s. This photograph of the exterior survives in the collection. 


Interested to learn more about the infamous 5th Duke of Portland and his building endeavours at Welbeck? Visit the exhibition 'Tunnel Vision' at the Harley Gallery and discover a selection of architectural models for some of the Duke’s building projects, portraits of his lost love – the opera singer Adelaide Kemble, the Duke’s death mask, and his iconic double-letterbox bedroom door.