|Colston Bassett Diary
A SHORT HISTORY OF COLSTON BASSETT & DISTRICT DAIRY|
For centuries Stilton Cheese had been made in the farmhouses of the Vale of Belvoir. Both my grandmothers were making Stiltons during the summer, prior to the building of the Dairy. It was a seasonal occupation. When milk was surplus to the requirements of the liquid market, Stiltons were made from April to September. For the remainder of the year, the milk from local farms was contracted to dairies in the cities, either being taken to Barnstone or Stathern stations or later collected by lorry. The size of the farm cheeses varied but were usually at around 10lbs in weight, only two-thirds the size of the modern factory Stilton.
In the early years of the 20th Century ( before the formation of the Milk Marking Board for England & Wales in 1932) farmers were being squeezed on contract price by the city dairies and it was becoming obvious that more uniform and better quality Stiltons could be made by a professional cheese-maker, working in a purpose-built dairy, rather than relying on the efforts of individual farmers’ wives in their farmhouse cheese room.
Farmer co-operative dairies sprang up all over the Vale and in 1912, inspired by the village doctor (Dr William Windley) the local farmers began to raise capital with which to build a dairy. On his rounds the Doctor persuaded patients, with no farming connections, to subscribe for shares and with the farmers’ own contributions, £1000-00 was raised from some forty people A half-acre of land on Harby Lane was purchased from the Squire, Mr. Knowles, and The Colston Bassett & District Dairy was built by Messrs. Burnetts of Hickling.
The Dairy opened in 1915 with about sixteen milk producing members, which included both my grandfathers, Charles Wagstaff & William Marston. Because of war-time restrictions on Stilton making, cheddar type pressed cheese was produced. The first manager’s name was Lalliman and the cheese was made by Eliza Simpson, who later became Mrs. George Wagstaff.
For the 1920 cheese making season, the Dairy Management Committee engaged Tom Coy as manager-cheese maker. Tom had been taught Stilton making at Harby Dairy before serving in the army during the first war. At this time the maximum capacity of the Dairy for Stilton, using the pan and strainer method was 650 gallons per day, which would make approximately forty standard 15-16 lb cheeses. Of course milk intake varied, being higher in spring than late summer.
During the Thirties and Forties, the Dairy gained a reputation for the high quality of its cheeses and many first prizes, cups and medals, were won at local shows and London exhibitions. Manufacture was still seasonal and the majority of production was sold on the Christmas market.
Stilton production ceased again at the outbreak of the Second World War and once more Cheddar cheese was made when milk was surplus to the liquid market. Some Stilton making, mainly for export, resumed in 1947 and gradually in the Fifties, as milk became more plentiful, due to the better feeding and breeding of cows, the making of Stiltons became an ‘all year’ process. At the same time the number of producer members began to decline as the smaller farm-holdings disappeared.
Tom Coy retired at the end of May 1960 in his 40th year as manager. Having worked with Tom since January 1950, including helping during university vacations, I took over as manager with Bruce Marston as my assistant. Evelyn and I, with our daughters, Jennifer and Angela, lived in the house on the dairy plot. The Dairy continued to win prizes at shows. In 1961 we won every cup available in competition during the year.
Left: Tom Coy and Albert Marston, Chairman of the Farmers' Committee, checking cheeses.
Up until this time, the labour force used in Stilton making had been almost entirely female, with men working only in management and transport. In the late Fifties and Sixties more male employees were taken on because of the way cheeses were made and moved within the dairy.
In the Sixties, we gradually changed from the old making method, to the vat setting of the curds. With 3 / 400 gallon vats, this increased the capacity, first to 1200 gallons per day and eventually in the Seventies, as larger vats were installed, to 2200 gallons. To compensate for the increased throughput, the old hastener system in the drainage room, was replaced by a pallet system and in each of the three maturing rooms, capacity was increased by replacing the wooden stands with galvanized uprights to higher levels. Despite this, storage room was inadequate and in 1982, in the first major alteration since the Dairy's inception, a new storage room to hold 2000 cheeses was built. This room adopted the ‘fifty cheeses trolley method’ of storage and is used as the initial drying store for the new cheeses as they leave the moulds.
Also during the Eighties the farmers’ method of delivering milk to the Dairy changed. Originally, churns had been of the large conical 17 gallons variety, made of tinned steel but these had been replaced by 12 gallon ones of the same material and eventually by lighter 10 gallon ones made of aluminium. Now with the installation of bulk tanks on the farms, delivery was by individual plastic milk porters and after 1990 by bulk tanker collections.
Until now the Dairy's Stiltons had been made from unpasteurised milk. To comply with new hygiene regulations and the terms of the P.D.O. registration for Stilton, a pasteuriser and bulk tank were installed, and the old reception and dispatch area was enlarged, to include packing, with dispatch. A chilled store, with staff facilities above it, and an office / shop block, was also built.
I retired on 30th September 1996 and Richard Rowlett succeeded me as manager. Richard had joined the management team in 1989. Bruce retired in 2000.
Although the number of farms supplying milk to the Dairy had been down to five for a number of years, demand for the Dairy's Stiltons still grew. Recently, the capacity has again been increased by converting the dispatch area, to accommodate an extra vat, and the building of a much larger packing and chilled storage facility (on additionally purchased land) and also the addition of a second storey to the store which was built in 1982.