Monday, February 15, 2016

milk float

This is just a funny little one that I had never heard or at least never noticed before, and now it's come up in two out of the last three books I've read. Once was in an older mystery novel called A Perfect Match by Jill McGown, and just now in Mick Herron's more recent spy novel, Slow Horses.

McGown, page 164: "He heard the milk-float clanking its ghostly way up to the pumps, and it seemed very important that he put out the empty bottle."

Herron, page 17: "On the street below, a milk float rattled past."

It seems fairly obvious that a milk float is some sort of conveyance for milk, but as with many things that a writer thinks everyday enough to need no further explanation, we don't really get a clear picture of it if we've never seen one. We don't have milk floats in the U.S., or I should say in my part of the U.S. We do have floats, but they usually associated with parades, like homecoming parades, the Rose Bowl parade or the Macy's Thanksgiving parade. Milk when it used to be delivered, was delivered in trucks, or before that in wagons. So I'm not sure what a milk float is closest to, but the phrase conveys odd images to my mind.

horse-drawn milk float in Montreal, 1942, Conrad Poirier

So what is a milk float? Wikipedia tells us that in Great Britain (and some other European countries), milk floats are vehicles run on electric batteries, though formerly they were horse-drawn wagons. Being electric, they are pretty quiet, despite the two descriptions above, which I think must refer to the milk bottles clanking around and not the sound of the milk float itself.

a milk float in Liverpool, 2005 Tagishsimon

Sometimes, they have an enclosed area in the back which keeps the milk colder, like this one:

Dairy Crest Ford Transit,Oxyman

Although I believe this last is actually a diesel operated truck, not an electric vehicle. As in the U.S., door to door delivery from local dairies has declined thanks to more places people can just go buy milk nearby, but home delivery does still exist. The routes are just longer, requiring higher powered vehicles.

I think the idea of slow moving milk floats progressing (mostly) silently through the neighborhood in the early hours of the morning is pretty cool. If you do too, you can check out a website called Milk Float Corner, where you can find out more about milk floats, watch videos and read the FAQs.


  1. I think there's a milk float in The Clock, a movie with Judy Garland!

  2. I know someone who was chased down the streets of Hartlepool by a milk=float after they'd stolen the milkman's takings. But that, as they say, is another story...

  3. That would be a pretty funny race to watch, Paul. Maybe you can incorporate that into one of your stories...

  4. I had never heard the expression until now, though I did start reading another one of Mick Herron's books earlier this week.

  5. "Silent Milk." There's the title. Now go write the book.

  6. I think you might have to be British to do it justice.

    I'm liking the premise of Slow Horses a lot. First learned of it over at Rob Kitchin's blog.

  7. Oh, you mean. Paul. Yeah, he should take it if he thinks he can do something with it.

    And then you can do the cover art.

  8. No, anybody is allowed to write Silent Milk or its sequel, Sour Milk.

  9. Interesting. I feel a century away from the doorstep milk deliveries when I was a kid.

    1. Well, I hope it wasn't a century, because I can remember them too.

      No pressure, but I miss seeing your blog pop up the blog roll, Nancy.

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