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The Milky Way UK

Title The Milky Way UK
Year of production 1948
Country of production Royaume-Uni
Director(s) Donald Rawlings
Duration 35 minutes
Format Parlant - Noir et blanc - 16 mm
Original language(s) English
Production companies Wallace Productions Limited
Commissioning body United Dairies Limited
Archive holder(s) Wellcome Collection
Warning: this record has not been reviewed yet and may be incomplete or inaccurate.

Main credits

THE MILKY WAY. Direction Donald Rawlings. Camera J. E. Ewins. Supervision A. V. Curtice. Sound Peter Birch, R. A. Smith. Produced for United Dairies Limited by Wallace Productions Limited.



THE MILKY WAY. Direction Donald Rawlings. Camera J. E. Ewins. Supervision A. V. Curtice. Sound Peter Birch, R. A. Smith. Produced for United Dairies Limited by Wallace Productions Limited.

Main genre



FROM THE WELLCOME COLLECTION CATALOGUE "A comprehensive look at 'the milky way' - the process of milk delivery from cattle breeding to milk delivery on the doorstep. Having explained the need for pasteurisation, the film thoroughly illustrates the entire process: milking under hygienic conditions; delivery to country depots for testing; to processing depots for pasteurising; to central laboratory for final examination and bottling; to distribution depots; and, finally, delivery. The narration reminds viewers to rinse and return empty bottles (the film is sponsored by United Dairies) and then offers a glimpse of the washing process. Similarly viewers are reminded that, during World War II, pasteurised milk was vital to children's health. Stereotypes of British housewives in the 1940s appear throughout. This is offset with some good laboratory shots of female technicians testing milk quality."


This film on milk does not treat the question of nutrition. Like many sponsored industrial films, this film takes us to rural landscapes and inside factories that we would might not otherwise have a chance to visit. The topics of the film reflect the concerns of those working in dairy research and dairy production: agriculture, animal husbandry, animal health, increased production, and making milk safe by preventing spoilage and transmission of bovine tuberculosis. As a film produced by the dairy industry, it educated consumers where milk came from and on the lengths taken by the dairy industry to ensure that milk was safe for consumption. Here the dairy industry does not attempt to sell milk for its nutritive value.

The Milky Way was produced in 1948. It was estimated that 31 gallons of liquid milk per head were consumed on average by every individual in Great Britian in 1949 and that approximately 5 % of the total population of the country was supported by the dairy industry. At this time, notable discourse came on one hand from many acting against processing of milk, such as Lady Eve Balfour, author of the seminal volume on organic farming and the organic movement, The Living Soil (Faber & Faber, 1943 - its eighth edition published in 1948) who was particularly critical of pasteurisation. On the other, the medical bodies that pasteurisation increased in the 1940s, such as the Medical Research Council and Sir Graham Selby Wilson, bacteriologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, author of the landmark volume The Pasteurisation of Milk (Arnold, 1942) who developed the phosphatase test and promoted the merits of pasteurisation. The film notably features an animation to explain the HTST (High temperature short time) pasteurisation method introduced to Britain in the 1940s, a more efficient method than those used in the 1920s and 1930s. Pasteurization was debated in Britain from 1900 to 1945. Anti-pasteurisation activists were notably sceptical of modern technology adamantly opposed pasteurisation, as well as the use of fertilisers, chemicals and mechanised cultivation which would degrade soil fertility, while the medical sphere supported pasteurisation as a means to fight non-pulmonary tuberculosis (by ending the transmission of bovine tuberculosis) and the dairy industry saw pasteurisation as a means to extend the shelf-life of milk. In 1942, the Ministry of Agriculture implemented the National Milk Testing and Advisory Scheme. And after 1945, pasteurisation became increasingly common. (It became compulsory in Scotland in 1983, but never in England or Wales.) The film comes as a clear argument for pasteurisation with Mrs Harris representing the British population that was sceptical of modern technology and perceived a threat in unnatural or processed foods. The film demonstrates that this view to be rife with erroneous beliefs, and Mrs Harris is, like the spectator, enlightened by the film. The film argues modern (good) versus traditional (poor) practices. This however, does not directly address the ongoing argument for organic and natural food, which remained a strong movement in Britain.

United Dairies, formed upon the merging of a few smaller dairies in 1915, and based out of Wiltshire was one of the largest dairies in the United Kingdom by the 1950s; They acted for the sale of pasteurised milk from the 1920s. The company was also a large user of milk trains (like its competitor Express Milk) to transport milk to London.

Structuring elements of the film

  • Reporting footage  : No.
  • Set footage  : No.
  • Archival footage  : No.
  • Animated sequences  : No.
  • Intertitles  : No.
  • Host  : No.
  • Voice-over  : Yes.
  • Interview  : No.
  • Music and sound effects : Yes.
  • Images featured in other films : No.

How does the film direct the viewer’s attention?

The film takes the spectator to the pastures and dairy farms, to the milking rooms, along the roads and rails to the depots and bottling plants. By following the “way” of the milk from the cow to the doorstep, each step of milk processing is explained, with particular emphasis on testing schemes and pasteurisation. Not only does the film “convert” the doubtful spectator, but also illustrates what large dairies, like United Dairies, do.

The film is framed by the milk delivery service. The film opens with the milkman arriving at Mrs Harris doorstep, her scepticism of scientific and hygienic processing of milk opens the theme of the film. And between each informational scene or clip, the camera returns to Mrs Harris and her scepticism.

There are three voices that narrate the film. One takes the spectator through the production of milk and the other details more scientific processes, and the third is that of the milk man who opens the film and near the end of the film explains the consumer’s role.

How are health and medicine portrayed?

Health and medicine are present in the film as the motivation or argument for the processing of milk. That is, through processing, milk is pasteurised and repeatedly tested to make it safe for consumers and herein reduce infant mortality. The film does not discuss nutrition. There are multiple scenes of bacteriology laboratories, which figure as pivotal places in the milk production.

Broadcasting and reception

Where is the film screened?

No information. However, in the film, the milkman gives a brochure advertising the free screening of a film to Mrs Harris. It can herein be deduced that this film was likely made available for free screenings, perhaps by women’s groups or community centres or schools, as were many sponsored films.

Presentations and events associated with the film



Local, national, or international audience



The milkman and the battleaxe (00:00-01:30 )

The scene opens with the milkman delivering glass bottles of milk with a three-wheel Brush Pony electric milk float (1947 three-wheel vehicle) to the doorsteps of terraced houses on a residential street in urban Britain. The voiceover promptly begins speaking of hygiene, “The milky way flows from the breeding of fine cattle through the hygienic and scientific treatment of the milk to the daily delivery by the milk roundsman.” The camera zooms in on the milkman as he notes on the delivery he has just made, but he is interrupted by Mrs Harris, the next customer, impatient for her delivery. He proudly presents her with “One pint of full cream milk fully tested for butterfat and adulteration, pasteurised to kill all dangerous bacteria and delivered to your doorstep in an airtight sterilised bottle.” (This sentence captures what the United Dairies is selling, although the name of the dairy is not overtly visible in the film yet.) She expresses disdain at machines and recalls when she was young they just had “honest to goodness milk.”

“To ensure that healthy state of affairs” (01:30-03:50) As the milkman returns to his vehicle and drives off, the narrator proposes to show just how much is done to ensure that milk is “a clean wholesome product.” The scene shifts away from the residential street, to milk itself. It is poured from the milk churn into a tank and then from a bottle into a glass, the black and white film focuses on the clean white image of milk (as a side note, many films have revelled in this, perhaps most famously the creamer scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s The General Line, 1929, Russia) as the narrator gives statistics on milk consumption in Britain (3 to 4 million gallons per day). As we see children sipping milk from small bottles in front of a brick building, presumably a school, in a scene common to films on milk but also on social welfare (i.e., Enough to Eat, 1936), the voiceover declares (or reminds) that it is “one of the richest and most nourishing of all our daily foods.” In contrast to the smiling children, the narrator underlines the danger that milk can present. The scene shifts to a laboratory, where two lab workers – a man and a woman – manipulate test tubes and pipettes. We hear how pasteurisation solves the dilemma of destroying harmful bacteria without destroying food value. The effect of this is then demonstrated in an animated graph representation of infant mortality rates between 1911 and 1941, with the decrease attributed to improved housing, sanitation, post-natal care and food hygiene. Here, the benefits of drinking milk and of pasteurizing it are argued. It is underlined that the 1911 infantile diarrhoea outbreak causing 203/1000 deaths can be blamed on raw cow’s milk and that with the school milk programmes during the war children gained half an inch (1.27cm) in height and 2 pounds (1kg) in weight.

The farmer and the veterinarian (03:50-06:40) A line of glistening milk bottles glides across the screen, presumably in a bottling plant. The provision of safe pure milk requires “intricate and highly skilled organisation,” states the voiceover. This marks the next part of film, which will detail the involvement of farmers, scientists and dairymen. (That United Dairies is able to orchestrate such organisation is herein implied, as well as the idea that the farmers, scientists and dairymen are only as efficient as the body that coordinates them.) A close-up of a man gazing into the distance, a farmer, then huddled over a milk can. A zoom in on the label on the can allows us to read “Accredited Milk”. In the background, we see farm workers and tractors in the farmyard and cows in the pasture beyond the gate. The narrator emphasises the necessity of healthy cows and hygienic milking conditions, without which pasteurisation “would be useless”. This statement speaks directly to the argument against pasteurisation, of that time, that by pasteurising milk poor or dirty milk could be made fit for sale. The scene shifts between cows in a rather muddy plot to others in a grassy field, just as he states the words “hygienic conditions.” To detail the farmer’s job, there is a change in narrator. The farmer, standing at the gate speaking to another man, we are told can get expert advice from the Ministry of Agriculture and the County Committee, as well as advisors appointed to the dairies that he delivers his milk to. The scene shifts to another farmer standing next to a couple of bulls, also talking with someone. The narrator goes on to the important tasks of raising a good herd, the camera pans pastoral scenes of British farmland and cow herds. Then the cows are shown inside a low-ceilinged barn and in a cement-floored courtyard. The veterinarian also plays an important role, we are told, notably with regard to tuberculosis, contagious abortion and mastitis.

The cows: the breed and the feed (06:40-08:22) The film then goes on to cow breeds and food. The narrator underlines that the food cows are given is particularly important in producing milk. We are struck by the deadpan narration, as a joke is attempted, “The cow has always said: Go west, young woman, go west” as a map of Britain is used to illustrate the Western counties where pastures are richer and milk yields are higher. The different breeds, including Guernsey, Jersey, Shorthorns, Friesians and Ayrshire, are all shown, although without close-up shots or colour, they are not clearly distinguishable from one another. The cow’s diet is largely grass. A farmer fills a bucket and pours feed into the trough in the barn, with what the narrator explains might be hay, turnip, mangles, kale, oats and other foods, in proportion to how much milk they are producing.

“Good honest dirt” (08:23-09:15) Like an ironic interlude from the dry, yet informative, narration, Mrs Harris narrates the view of an unkempt, hay-strewn barn where a farmer in a particularly dirty apron milks some manure-caked cows. She expresses her scepticism to her neighbour over the hedge separating their gardens, re-telling her conversation with the milkman and asking, “what’s wrong with good honest dirt, I want to know.”

The milk (09:15-14:00) This interlude sets the scene for the main narrator to emphasize the four rules of modern safe milking “clean cows, sterile utensils, clean hands, and immediate cooling.” As it is shown how these can be obtained in the barn set-up and the methods to clean the cow and the herdsmen, the camera frames the task being performed. The milking process is similarly explained, with the clean overall of the herdsman glowing white against the darker tones of the hay and the cows. The camera zooms in on the strip cup as the foremilk is examined for signs of mastitis. And zooms in on a paper hanging on the wall as the herdsman fills in a chart, Minnie produced 27 ½ lbs of milk on May 9, 1948. The screen focuses on the details that the viewer is meant to retain. The scene shifts to outside the farm gates. Milk churns are aligned on a raised wood platform. The platform, we see, is the exact height of the lorry bed and this facilitates the loading of the full churns and the unloading of the clean empty churns. Once again, the camera zooms in on the Accredited Milk label – the label that attests the milk was obtained from “healthy cows under the best hygienic conditions.” The farmer has done his job; he has produced the milk in the proper sanitary conditions. Now it is up to the dairymen to do his job, “safely and quickly.” Short scenes of lorries with flat beds aligned with milk churns driving through rural landscapes takes the milk, and the viewer, to the county dairy depot.

The county depot (14:15-20:05) The county dairy is described as, primordially, the point where the first round of testing of the milk takes place. The milk churns are unloaded and smelled by experienced workers, the first test. These workers, like the modern herdsman in the milking parlour and laboratory workers, wear white uniforms. Three paths through the depot are then traced. That of the milk that is considered good, that which is doubtful and that of the emptied churns. The milk that passes this test is poured into a tank and makes a quick journey through the depot – the rapidity of the process is stressed as time and temperature are of the essence. Milk is pumped through a cooler to near freezing and then to glass-lined (the glass acting as an insulator) or stainless steel 3000 gallon railroad tanks, which will transport the milk to the urban processing depots. United Dairies notably used the railroad to transport milk. The milk that does not pass the test is sent to the county depot laboratory where further tests are performed: Resazurin test to see if it will keep, Phenolphthalein to measure the acidity to determine if it is beginning to sour, and the routine Gerber test to measure butterfat content. The narrator changes and we now follow the empty churns. They are washed and sterilized. The laboratory workers – the same women that we saw in the laboratory – periodically leave the laboratory bench to test and monitor the inside of random churns to verify sterilisation. The tubing throughout the depot is also fully sterilised regularly.

"Pasteurisation" (20:05-21:00) Another interlude featuring Mrs Harris introduces the next segment. Standing outside with a milk bottle in her hand, she expresses her doubts of the need for pasteurisation, speaking to someone sitting behind a newspaper, assumingly her husband. This is followed by an explanation of pasteurisation and of Louis Pasteur’s “discovery” and work in the 1870s on microorganisms, yeasts and bacteria that cause milk to sour. A bearded man in a white lab coat works in a laboratory; this may have been intended as an allusion to Pasteur.

The town processing depot (21:00-27:43) In a wide shot, we see the milk tanker as it arrives at the loading docks of the processing depot. This is where pasteurisation will take place. The milk is handled with “industrial organisation”. The term “industrial” here might be intended to draw a line between the agrarian pastoral origin of the milk and the modern industrial processing of the milk, and although they are contrasted, they are complementary. The milk is tested and pumped into 3000 gallon storage tanks; any milk that fails the laboratory tests is returned to the county depot. As the narrator describes the methods of pasteurisation commonly used, the camera tracks the tanks and multiple pipes and tubing in the processing plant. The first method, High Temperature Short Time (HTST) involves milk being heated to a high temperature (162° Fahrenheit) for a short time (15 seconds) and is explained with an animated diagram of the heater, holder and cooler. The image shifts between the animated diagram and footage of the real set up. The milk is then pumped directly into the bottling plant. The second method, the Holder system, is described more succinctly as the milk being heated (to 145° Fahrenheit) and held at that temperature for 30 minutes. In both cases, milk is tested to monitor that pasteurisation has been efficiently carried out. The narrator changes. A close-up shot of a few milk bottles, with black rubber stoppers and labelled “Sample” with a reference number, takes us into the laboratory. The camera zooms out and a woman in a white lab coat reaches for one of the bottles, shakes it and takes a sample with a pipette. As we watch her work, the narrator explains that phosphatase is destroyed by the pasteurisation process, after being treated with chemicals, the milk turns blue and the shade is matched to coloured disks that correspond to how much phosphatase remains. The lab worker finishes the test and writes something in a lab book. The black and white image cannot illustrate the blue hues, and it is a profile view of the lab worker as she looks through the comparator that demonstrates the comparison. This test - devised in 1934 in Great Britain and adopted officially in 1946 - is the only test that is fully explained in the film. The voiceover shifts back to the earlier narrator as the scene leaves the laboratory and returns to the processing plant where a man in a white lab coat is hand-scrubbing the pasteurisation equipment (the plates of the regenerator). We are told how pasteurisation is the “only means of killing all pathogenic organisms and making milk safe.” The sterilisation of the equipment is shown and explained. That is, it isn’t sufficient to sterilise the milk, but every surface that the milk comes in contact with.

The central laboratory (27:43-28:32) A shot of the exterior of a building shows we’ve left the processing depot and will now visit the United Dairies Central Laboratory. This laboratory oversees the laboratory work at each of the depots. We see lab workers, all female and dressed in white, working with test tubes and Bunsen burners with petri dishes spread out before them. The laboratory also houses a centre for research and a (lovely wood panelled) library to advise scientists, dairy men and farmers. Milk is also tested here for adulteration by measuring the freezing point.

St Mary’s Hospital (28:32-29:04) The front steps and door of St Mary’s Hospital is framed on the screen as a man enters carrying a crate of milk bottles. Again, we see a woman working in a laboratory, here, where milk is further tested regularly for a tubercle test. The narrator explains, somewhat proudly, that in 12 years not a single sample has tested positive – a tribute to pasteurisation. Local authorities also take samples for testing. Here a man fills out paperwork, which the camera zooms in on to reveal is a certificate for phosphatase tests in the Metropolitan Borough of Hammersmith. These tests, we are told, are independent checks on the working of the dairy.

The bottling plant (29:05-30:56) A view from above the automated bottling machinery, like small carousels of milk bottles going around and around as they are filled. Here there is music in the background, gradually increasing in volume. They, we are told and shown, handle all bottle sizes, from 1/3 pint for schools to 1 quart. Like a parade, the bottles sealed with an aluminium cover march by and we clearly here the symphony that accompanies them, the hands of the workers only used to take them from the line to the crate. Conveyer belts take them to the loading dock, where they are loaded into insulated lorries to be delivered to distribution depots. Again, as we followed the milk tankers to the depot, we see the trucks driving down the motorway in the dark, to arrive just before the roundsmen set out on their house deliveries. The delivery vans vary from horse drawn to electric trucks. Notably, we see the roundsman that will deliver to Mrs Harris ready to go. The milk is delivered, but the empty bottles are also collected. The symphonic music begins in the bottling plant and ends as the milk man

The bottles (30:56-34:32) Once we see this milk man sitting in his electric delivery van, his voice takes over the narration. “Bottles” he states pointedly, as we see a hand set two clean empty bottles on a doorstep. This is the role of the consumer in delivering safe milk. (We are shown a sign over the door, but it is illegible, perhaps reading “The Gables”.) From the doorstep, we enter the kitchen as the scene shifts to the opening of the refrigerator door. A hand places a bottle of milk in the refrigerator. The milk man indicates that this housewife is “sensible” keeping milk in the refrigerator or a “homemade refrigerator” by keeping the milk bottle wrapped in a wet flannel in a large bowl of cold water, herein demonstrating the technique for those who might not have a refrigerator. Another doorstep appears on the screen, with two empty dirty bottles. Again, we are shown a sign, this one reads “Mon Repos”. These bottles “tell” the story of an “aimless” housewife, who means well, but doesn’t use her “common sense” and we watch her bewilderedly put the milk bottle haphazardly on the top of the kitchen stove. Unrinsed bottles are stained and dirty, a breeding ground for dangerous germs, he stresses as again we see a hand placing dirty bottles on the doorstep. Rhetorically, yet deliberately, the narrator asks “Who would return bottles in this state?” The camera turns upwards and we see, not the “aimless” housewife of the previous scene, but Mrs Harris, gleaming down at the camera, and the milk man, who picks up the bottles. We watch his cheerful face, in a close-up shot, as he explains that back at the depot they’ll be put aside to be specially washed and sterilized and tested for bacteria. He gives her a flyer from between the pages of his delivery book, for a film show called “The Milky Way” to tell her all about his job, the farmers and the chemists. Her irascibility continues as she replies “Who’d ‘ave though I’d have to go to the pictures to see what cows on the farm look like. Still it is something for nothing.” The milk man, emphatically, explains that unfortunately Mrs Harris is not the only one. We then see a number of with filthy, dirty, opaque bottles, and bottles containing straws on doorsteps; against a black backdrop a hand shows a bottle with a chestnut in it; a tool shed with a milk bottle filled with paint; a dainty table with a milk bottle vase. These bottles are out of the circuit. The milk man is back at the depot and puts Mrs Harris’ two dirty bottles in a wire crate off to one side of the loading dock. The earlier narrator then takes us through the depot again, this time following the path of the clean empties as they are loaded by hand onto an automated machine. The emerge clean and sparkling and go into the filling room. The image of the parade of sparkling bottles moving away from the camera fades into an image of a parade of white milk bottles moving toward the camera.

“The milky way flows on.” (34:33-35:28)

The film comes to a close as the narrator takes us through short scenes to revisit the “milky way” – from the healthy herd, to the milk churns to the lorry to the county depot and to town, through the tubes of the pasteurising machine, the laboratory tests, the bottling rooms to the distributing depots and the delivery round into the awaiting hands of a smiling Mrs Harris who has proudly set out two clean bottles on her doorstep. Effectively, it is as if the camera fast-forwarded through to the next day, and we meet a new, informed Mrs Harris. That is, the film worked, Mrs Harris went to the film show, was enlightened and changes her ways.

Supplementary notes


References and external documents

Peter J. Atkins, 2000, “The pasteurization of England: The science, culture and health implications of milk processing, 1900-1950” in David F. Smith and Jim Philips, eds., Food, Science, Policy and Regulation in the Twentieth Century: International and Comparative Perspectives (Routledge: London and New York), 37-51.

H. D. Kay, 1950, “The National Institute for Research in Dairying, Shinfield, Reading.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, 205(1083), 453-467. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/98697

“United Dairies” Wikipedia.org URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Dairies (consulted 25 January 2021)