The rise and fall of Honiton's Express Dairies factory

Staff at Express Dairies on Ottery Moor Lane, Honiton

Staff at Express Dairies on Ottery Moor Lane, Honiton - Credit: Honiton Museum

Express Dairies was the first company to move into the Ottery Moor Lane industrial estate on April 1st, 1969, occupying a nine-acre site. The factory processed millions of litres of milk each year to produce butter, skim concentrates for makers of ice cream and yoghurts, and the surplus was turned into powder form. Around 20 tonnes of skim powder left the factory daily. There was also an egg packing station (closed in 1973) that graded and distributed around 18million eggs a week.

Butter was the major product. Every day around 120,000 gallons of milk was used on the production line which operated 24 hours a day. Eden Vale ‘butterettes’ were made for fast food outlets and the catering trade in seven-gram portions which were packed at 1,500 a minute, 32 to a tray.

1978 saw the end of the use of milk churns on farms and Honiton changed to bulk collection of milk. Express had its own fleet of bulk farm tankers. Each day a tanker driver made two trips to several farms. It was the driver’s decision to accept or reject the milk and a wrong call could ruin an entire 2,000-gallon load. At one time a third of the factory’s employees were engaged in transport and haulage.

The factory was often criticised for the smells emitted and discharges of soot and milk powder, but over the years both the company and its workers supported the town. Honiton won many prizes at shows for salted and unsalted butter and the money they were awarded was given to the town pensioners as a gesture of goodwill. Mill Water School benefitted, and they helped a convoy with taking goods to Romania. They bought new blue and white uniforms for all 50 of the girls in the Honiton Majorettes and agreed to pay the travel costs when the group performed at events all over the South West.

In 1990 the factory’s coming of age was celebrated. 17 of the original staff were presented with cut-glass butter dishes. A marquee was erected, and champagne flowed freely. A buffet lunch was provided, and VIP guests enjoyed a conducted tour. In the evening 200 members of the Social Club celebrated at the Honiton Motel.

Honiton was reeling in October 1991 after the management announced that a decision had been made to close the factory in January 1992 and that 123 staff were to be made redundant. Night shift workers had the news delivered to them by courier. The reasons given were a declining milk supply because of European Community quota cuts, overcapacity in other factories and that it made more sense for them to absorb the Honiton products and avoid spending millions on investments in new machinery.