The traditional Guernsey copper milk can is an island icon that was in daily use for almost a thousand years. Arriving with the cattle that were the forebears of the Golden Guernsey breed in 980 AD when the Duke of Normandy sent monks from Mont-Saint-Michel to Guernsey, the original cans were made from tin and then tinned-steel until the 1800s when copper became the material of choice. Produced in various sizes, from large 10-pot cans (there are 4 pints to a “pot”) that were milked into, through cans for storage or delivery down to half-pint cans for domestic use, copper milk cans were a part of daily life on Guernsey until 1952 when regulations decreed that all milk had to be pasteurised and therefore all milk had to be processed by the dairy. The domed copper bottom allowed the can to be tapped and shaped so that an exact measure of volume could be achieved when farmers were selling their milk direct to consumers, and the unique shape was designed to reduce the risk of milk slopping out of the top of the can and being wasted.
Trevor Rogers-Davis is the last remaining coppersmith in the Channel Islands producing traditional Guernsey milk cans, working out of his atmospheric workshop in the “Tudor Barn” behind Sausmarez Manor just around the corner from the Bella Luce. He’s the craftsman who we visit when the copper pot-stills that we use to produce Wheadon’s Gin need servicing, and we are very fortunate to have such a specialist metal-worker a five minute walk away. We paid Trevor a visit to find out more about Guensey’s iconic copper milk cans, and how he came to be a coppersmith.
I’ll have been making Guernsey Cans for forty years next June.
I was good at metalwork at school, and when I left I was taken on as an apprentice under Arthur Russell. I spent five years learning my trade and stayed with the firm for ten years before setting up on my own. When I first started there were ten of us; four at Russells and six at his brother’s, but I was the last apprentice and am now the last remaining classically trained coppersmith making Guernsey cans. I’m teaching my step-son, but there’s obviously less demand now that they’re not a common household item. As the last remaining coppersmith on the Channel Islands, some of my tools are 200 years old.
In the beginning, I used to get the occasional old lady bringing her milk can in for repair.
I started making Guernsey cans after the advent of pasteurisation and the days when farmers would sell their milk from the farm gate. I used to repair family milk cans but these days the Guernsey can is an ornamental item given as a wedding gift or used as a trophy. In the 1920s people started adding coins to the front of milk cans and selling them as souvenirs.
Hours of work goes into each can, and the entire thing is made by hand.
It takes me between 3 and 6 hours to make a half-pint can, the smallest size. The bodies of the half-pint, one, two, three and four pint cans are each made of six panels and I produce three at a time. Each four pint can takes 12 hours to cut, form, solder and polish. The larger cans; six pints, a gallon or larger, are made in sections and I can only produce two at a time. The smaller cans are made from ten pieces in total, but the larger cans have more component parts such as a cleat on the base, a stay on the handles and a thumb piece. Large milking cans would also have three studs on the base to stand the can clear of the ground and stop it from being worn out.
Guernsey and Jersey each have their own unique designs.
Jersey cans have a strainer top, and the top is flared out more into a funnel to make it easier to aim the milk into. Historically, a piece of muslin would be held over the top to strain the milk.
The inside of each can is coated with tin so that it doesn’t taint the milk.
The copper is tinned right at the start, by heating the copper panels over a broiling ring and applying zinc-chloride before pouring molten tin on. I use a traditional horsehair brush to brush the tin around and coat the copper, then wipe off the excess with a cotton cloth to leave a thin coating.
Ironically, I’m not a big fan of drinking milk!
But I love working with copper and making these traditional milk cans that are such an important part of our island’s heritage.
You can visit Trevor’s workshop at Sausmarez Manor where you can watch him at work, and perhaps purchase some of his handiwork as a souvenir of your visit to Guernsey.