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What is that Derelict Factory down in the river valley below Torrington?

The dilapidated industrial building standing forlornly by the River Torridge is the remains of a milk factory that had been there since 1874.  It closed in 1993, mainly as a result of milk quotas which had been introduced a decade earlier, and 134 people lost their jobs.  For many years it was one of the town’s main employers.

The pioneering Torridge Vale dairy was founded by Robert Sandford, a local greengrocer and entrepreneur, on the site of the old Rolle Canal stores near Taddiport Bridge.  The coming of the railway to Torrington in 1872 had seen the end of the canal as a means of transporting goods.

The steam-driven cream separator, invented in around 1880, was replacing the work of individual dairy maids and men in the production of butter, extracting cream from considerable quantities of milk daily (200 gallons of milk were being dealt with in an hour).  The separated cream was either potted into little Barum Ware jars and sold as rich Devonshire cream or converted into butter.  Milk from Torrington could reach London by train on the same day.

Over the years the business prospered, buildings and machinery were enlarged and by 1931 milk was being collected from about 50 farms, peaking at 1,850 gallons per day.

In 1932 the dairy became associated with Cow & Gate Ltd and the trading name changed to Torridge Vale Dairies (Devon) Ltd.  Stimulated by conditions during the Second World War and encouraged by government policy to enlarge the output of home-grown food, and also to build up an export trade, the factory developed far beyond what its founder could have expected.

The main products processed at Torridge Vale Dairies were butter, cream, spray and roller dried milk, and the cooling and dispatch of milk for the liquid market, as and when required.  Milk production, with a ready and guaranteed market, was increasing and the dairy was growing at considerable speed; by 1939 the peak intake had increased to 10,500 gallons per day.  However, workers’ wages hadn’t increased accordingly and they went on strike carrying placards declaring, ‘Support the men who MAKE cream but can never afford to BUY it’.  By 1952 intake had risen to 60,000 gallons per day.

By the late 1940s a new larger factory building was completed, equipped with modern dairy machinery with far more powerful engines and five new large boilers to produce the steam required.  It had one of the largest milk drying process machines in the world, new methods of purification of river water, and the first reinforced concrete chimney in the country which rose to a height of 175 feet (nearly 54 metres).

In 1959 the United Dairies merged with Cow & Gate to form Unigate Ltd and, by 1969, the trading name was Unigate Foods Ltd.

In August 1979 the  Milk Marketing Board purchased a large share of Unigate’s interests, including the Torrington factory, and the dairy became Dairy Crest Foods, Torrington.  The last milk churns were used at this time and all deliveries in future were to be by bulk-tanker.  A major rebuilding programme was undertaken, which included a new separating and butter-making area and cold storage, and £5.3 million was invested to enable the whole process to be achieved on a continuous enclosed production line, all controlled by computer.  It was one of the most modern milk processing plants in the country producing butter, milk-based desserts and skimmed milk powder.  In the 1980s the factory employed 230 production staff and 100 drivers.

The demise of the Torrington milk factory started in April 1984 when the Common Market decided to bring in milk quotas.  From then on, unlimited milk production could not continue and a brake was going to be put on to reduce the butter and powder mountains.  Quotas meant that milk production was going to be capped to a lower level than 1984 production and farmers were not going to be able to expand their businesses.  Milk prices are never very good for farmers and many of them gave up milk production so the amount of milk produced in the British Isles started to reduce.  Consequently, in the next ten years there was a situation where too many milk factories were chasing a reducing supply of raw material.  Milk factories were becoming less efficient and so several rounds of closures occurred within all dairy companies.  Torrington hung on longer than most because of its size and the large milk field around it.

The management at Torrington, seeing the future of the industry under quotas, tried desperately to bring new ‘added value’ products to the site.  A UHT cream dessert was tried first and then Clover.  The latter was very successful but, eventually, because the site was so far away from the main markets and because Dairy Crest needed to make savings to protect its future, with the demise of the Milk Marketing Board, Clover production was transferred to a site in the Midlands.  The production of clotted cream had, unfortunately, been disallowed for a period as part of the sale agreement between Unigate and Dairy Crest.

The factory closed for production on 30th March 1993.  ‘The milk will be transported to creameries outside the area, but it doesn’t seem quite natural to have no dairy in the middle of all those dairy farms,’ said an article in The Guardian.  Unemployment in the town rose sharply and families who had several members working at the dairy faced hard times.

In 1998 a co-operative of 50 local farmers, under the name of Torridge Vale Ltd, took over part of the building.  They wanted to set up a small operation to manufacture all their own milk to retain more profit for themselves.  A very good brand was created called ‘Definitely Devon’.  They wanted to produce more added value products, like clotted cream and soft cheese, but it proved much more difficult than anticipated.   

What had once been a thriving hub of activity and a major employer in the town has been for many years now a blot on the beautiful North Devon landscape.  The building has been vandalised, is riddled with asbestos and rats and, tragically, has been the site of two suicides.  Over the years various plans have been drawn up for the dairy site (some at great expense) but, as yet, none of these plans has come to fruition.