The Rollercoaster Ride of British Cheesemaking over the Reign of Queen Elizabeth II

May 27, 2022 8 min read

The Rollercoaster Ride of British Cheesemaking over the Reign of Queen Elizabeth II
When Elizabeth II descended from a treehouse in Kenya in 1952 to discover she had become Queen, the country was a different place to the UK of today.  Along with all things, the fate of dairy farming in the UK looked very different as well.
In fact, at the start of the new Elizabethan era, when rationing was still in place, cheesemaking in Britain was not in a good way. With roots reaching back to the Industrial Revolution and the move away from rural economy to towns and cities, the effect on cheesemaking had been a steady decline in cheeses made on the farm and increased demand in cities for drinking milk.  Improved railways had meant farms could supply this demand.  Add into the equation the disasters of the early 1900s: 2 World Wars and the 1930s depression and the threat to cheesemaking intensified. 

In addition to this, we had begun, even before the 1900s to import large amounts of food from the countries in the British Empire and beyond.  For the dairy world, this meant cheese was imported from the USA, Canada and later New Zealand, where factories had started making cheese on a bigger scale and at a lower price than the home-made farmhouse cheeses.  During the depression, the idea of cheap food became increasingly important and the price difference didn’t work to support the British cheeses still made on the farm. Imports weren’t just cheap and cheerful however, European cheese was highly prized with imports from Italy, France and the Netherlands commanding prestige.  One brighter moment was that there was an increase in students turning to agriculture following the first world war.  Men who were traumatised by war sought to find solace in a life in tune with the land.  Women who had been in the Land Army during the war and finally liberated by the right to vote looked to farming for a livelihood.  The agricultural colleges however taught a more factory style of cheesemaking compared to the intuitive methods passed on from generation to generation on the farm. 

With farmhouse cheesemaking already threatened at the start of the second world war, the effect of rationing and the war effort only made things worse.  It’s a widely held but inaccurate belief that during rationing there was only one type of cheese made.  In fact although cheesemaking was centralised into factories to meet supply demands, regional cheeses were still made in name.  Cheshire, Dunlop, Lancashire, Leicester, Derby and Wensleydale as well as Caerphilly survived.  However it was necessary for the cheeses to be durable so the recipes were adapted to regulate their moisture content.  This is probably the reason why today a supermarket (factory made) Cheshire, Lancashire or Caerphilly taste pretty much the same and also taste wildly different from their farmhouse counterparts.

The Kirkham
Ruth & John Kirkham - makers of the last remaining raw milk Lancashire

By the time the 1950s began and by 1952 when the Queen took the throne, things didn’t look very good for farmhouse British Cheese.  In the 1960s and late 50s the spirit was to modernise. Great advances were made in technology and mechanisation: washing machines, fridge freezers, travel into space. Set against this zeitgeist, preservation of traditional cheese was just not part of the general consciousness.  New foods were more exciting; instant foods that came from a can with minimum preparation, or could be rehydrated with hot water, liberated women from endless hours in the kitchen.  The effect of centralising cheese production for rationing meant that when the war ended, many farmers were happy to give up the extra effort of making cheese.  The factories were established, and the farmer had a customer to buy his milk.  Why bother with cheesemaking? 

The factory cheeses also suited the new way of retailing as supermarkets gained prominence.  There was no need for a skilled cheesemonger to advise customers and cut a piece of cheese to order for them when a consistent product that was pre-cut and vacuum packed could be picked up easily from a self-serve counter. In addition, during this period, a new breed of cow started to become common: the Holstein Friesian. This breed, which originated in Holland, started to replace the British Dairy Shorthorn. The Holstein Friesian produced more milk although with less fats and proteins per litre. This meant it was well suited to supplying drinking milk but less so for making cheese.

In 1974 when Major Patrick Rance set out on the tour of British farmhouse cheesemakers that formed his book ‘The Great British Cheese Book’, there were only 62 left in the whole of the British Isles.However just when you think the death knell has been sounded, little shoots of recovery begin. After the modernisation of the late 1950s & the 1960s, during the 1970s a spirit of self-sufficiency emerged as epitomised in the sit com ‘The Good Life’ and more of a nostiagia for the old ways returned.  As industries suffered and redundancies became more commonplace, people started to use their redundancy packages to buy a smallholding and establish a life outside the rat race.  One key figure in this resurgence of British Farmhouse Cheese was the late Dougal Campbell who was a civil engineer by trade and who discovered cheesemaking by accident, having been in the Valais in Switzerland on a climbing holiday and taking a job making cheese to allow him to prolong his stay.  On his return to the UK he bought a farm in West Wales and began to make a cheese called Tyn Grug which amalgamated aspects of both Swiss cheese and Cheddar making.  Another key figure was Mary Holbrook, who trained in archaeology & curated museums in Bath before acquiring goats & starting to make cheeses such as Tymsboro, Sleightlett & Cardo on the farm she shared with her husband.  Other people followed, not choosing the traditional recipes, but shaped by cheeses they had tried on holiday.

The 1980s saw both challenges and success.  It was an era characterised by an increased awareness of food scares.  It was also an era in which retailers like Major Patrick Rance at the Wells Store, Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard Dairy and Anne Marie Dyas of the Fine Cheese Company, Bath, began to come to the fore.  Neal’s Yard Dairy in particular, championed the traditional farmhouse cheeses.  Having begun in the late 70s as a manufacturer of fresh cheeses and Greek style yoghurts, when they expanded the range of cheeses sold, initially buying from a standard wholesaler, they found a huge difference between their knowledge of the products they made and the products they had bought.  When a farmhouse cheesemaker posted them a sample of her cheese, the connection with an actual person making cheese so excited Randolph Hodgson that he drove down to visit her and, on her recommendations, arranged to visit various farms around the southwest.  He ended up driving back to London with his Citroen 2CV crammed with cheese. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Jamie Montgomery in the Montgomery's Cheddar maturing rooms

Neal’s Yard Dairy proved themselves as a force during the 1980s when disaster hit in 1989.  Increased reports of illness due to Listeria monocytogenes, wrongly attributed to unpasteurised cheese, lead to a government announcement that they intended to ban it.  Randolph Hodgson, aware that his shop sold almost exclusively unpasteurised cheese and passionate that traditional cheeses should not disappear, heard the news one weekend and immediately got on the phone to Radio 4 as chairman of the Specialist Cheesemakers Association to make a statement about how damaging the ban would be.  After hanging up the phone, he rang around the key cheesemakers he worked with and other notables, not least Patrick Rance, to tell them he’d created a Specialist Cheesemakers Association and ask them to join him in fighting the ban. Due to extensive research that Patrick Rance had carried out into the individual cases of listeria outbreaks, they were able to prove the link to unpasteurised cheese was in fact false and the ban was overturned. 

During the publicity over the ban, another figure had spoken out in favour of unpasteurised cheese, Charles, Prince of Wales. He leant his support to the fledgling Specialist Cheesemakers Association and indeed is still their patron.  He used his influence to help corral a group of leading scientists and government officials to help the SCA develop its Code of Best Practice which is a hugely valuable resource to cheesemakers in the UK and recognised by environmental health officials.  Its existence means that not only was unpasteurised cheese not illegal, but it is also accepted and rightly considered a safe food. The 1990s saw increased prominence of British Cheese.  The SCA established its British Cheese Awards which grew in popularity under the stewardship of Juliette Harbutt and other notable cheese retailers such as Iain Mellis in Scotland and Sheridans in Ireland became established.  An increased interest in farmers markets and the establishment of Borough Market in 1998 also lead to a growing awareness of quality food.  All of this meant cheesemaking on the farm had become a more attractive proposition again. 

During the 80s, one of the acts that the Thatcher government did was to dissolve the Milk Marketing Board. The Milk Marketing Board had acted to promote British Dairy Farming and although, not without flaws, it had kept the milk price stable.  Without it, the price for milk fluctuates and combining that fact with the increased influence supermarkets have on driving prices down, it has meant that at some point farmers were having to sell their liquid milk for less than it cost to produce it.  On one hand, smaller farms have gone out of business and sold on their herds leading to an increase in more industrial dairy farming: bigger herds, larger areas of land and a contentious topic when it comes to environmental impact and animal welfare standards.  On the other hand, some of the smaller farms decided to stop selling milk and to use the milk to make a more valuable product: cheese.  From this wave of cheesemakers, people like Simon & Tim Jones began making Lincolnshire Poacher in Lincolnshire & Maggie Maxwell began to make Doddington in Northumberland.

The Clarke family on Sparkenhoe Farm
The Clarkes - makers of Sparkenhoe Red Leicester - with their herd of Holstein Friesian cows

The rise of cheesemaking on the farm continued into the 2000s as well with Martin Gott starting to make St James, Julie Cheyney using her lifetime in farming to inspire St Jude & St Cera. David Holton even travelled from the Yarra Valley for a Christmas job at Neal’s Yard Dairy and has never gone back, settling instead in Kent where he makes Graceburn & Edmund Tew (named after a convict sent to Australia for stealing cheese).  This time however it wasn’t just cheeses inspired by European recipes.  Joe Schneider, supported by Neal’s Yard Dairy, set up to recreate an unpasteurised Stilton: Stichelton.  David and Jo Clarke decided to use the milk from their herd to make Red Leicester again on Sparkenhoe Farm.  Patrick Holden, long committed to organic dairy farming and for a time heading the Soil Association, used his milk to create one of the most traditional cheddars, Hafod, which follows a recipe noted down by a dairy student in the 1920s. Although concerns remain about the viability of dairy farming and the cost of feed and fuel in the current climate is a genuine worry for farmers, it is fair to say that since 1952 and the coronation of Elizabeth II , the future for the fate of British Farmhouse cheese and those made using traditional techniques in artisan small dairies looks considerably healthier.

Becky Holden sampling Hafod Cheddar
Becky Holden sampling a batch of Hafod Cheddar

A number of these cheese are included in our British Cheese Selection, follow the link if you want to taste through some of the recent highlights of British cheesemaking's storied history.