Dairy Farming at Cowdray: The Model Dairy

The sight of cows grazing in the Town Meadow in front of the Cowdray Ruins and the scent of freshly cut hay have been a familiar part of the agricultural scene at Cowdray for many hundreds of years. In this Cowdray Heritage Journal we remember the once famous Ruins Model Dairy, and talk about both present-day farming and the future of cattle farming at Cowdray.

The History of Cowdray Ruins

P5XJXW English: Cowdray f. 9 (no. 15) . View of the west front of Cowdray in West Sussex . 1782. Samuel Hieronymus Grimm  (1733?1794)   Description Swiss painter and poet Date of birth/death 18 January 1733 14 April 1794 Location of birth/death Burgdorf London Work location Bern; France;  United Kingdom Authority control : Q2218363 VIAF:15042022 ISNI:0000 0000 6660 5644 ULAN:500022698 LCCN:nr2002011693 Oxford Dict.:11635 WorldCat 387 Cowdray by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm 1782

Beginnings of the Dairy

In 1922, the Chichester Observer was one of several newspapers to correct the locally held assumption, then doing the rounds, that the name ‘Cowdray’ took its origins from the words, ‘Cow Dairy’. It is easy to understand how that misunderstanding might have gained traction: at that time, and for many years before, visitors to the Ruins could not have failed to notice the dairy next-door, its milking parlour occupying the 18th Century farm buildings immediately west of The Walled Garden. Observing a beautiful herd of golden Jersey cows lining up in front of the Ruins to be milked twice a day would have only served to reinforce the notion.

In 1847 the 6th Earl of Egmont, the then owner of the Cowdray Estate, imported five heifers and a bull from Jersey, founding the first Channel Island herd to be based at the Cowdray Ruins.

When Sir Weetman Dickinson Pearson Bt, later 1st Viscount Cowdray, purchased the Cowdray Estate from the Egmonts in 1909, his wife Annie, passionately interested in dairying, continued the farming tradition. She introduced a programme of improvements, insisting that the Cowdray Ruins Dairy should be run along model lines. She converted the most westerly cottage bordering The Walled Garden into a beautiful tiled dairy, with a fountain to keep the room cool, and commissioned Lambeth-based pottery Royal Doulton to produce a frieze of blue and white tiles to grace its walls, depicting bucolic scenes around Cowdray House before the great fire of 1793.

Pedigree Jerseys grazed the fields around the Ruins, providing the Pearson family with milk, and any surplus was collected by train daily from Midhurst Railway Station and sold by a London dairy. The winsome cows and impeccably run milking operation became visitor attractions in themselves, a mention of the ‘wonderful dairy’ even appearing in Tatler magazine!

Shortly after the 1st Viscount’s death in 1927, the 2nd Viscount Cowdray auctioned off the entire herd. Crowds came from near and far to purchase one of the famous ‘Cowdray Jersey cows’, with a former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, among the successful bidders. A Guernsey herd was founded the following year, supplying the house with their characteristically bright yellow butter, rich in beta-carotene, a near colour match for ‘Cowdray Yellow Paint’. It was also around this time that Friesians were first introduced to the Estate, at Moor Farm.

Cowdray Aconite 3rd, bought at auction by David Lloyd George for 42 guineas, WSRO ref: SP 340


During WWII, members of the Women’s Land Army were taken on in large numbers by the Estate, and assisted with the milking at the Ruins Dairy, which was still done by hand in those days. However, after the war, machine milking eventually replaced hand milking on all the Estate farms. It is thought the Ruins Dairy was wound up in the early 1970s.

Present Day 

As a large Estate, holistic management and regenerative agriculture is key to the Estate’s ethos and at the heart of this is an environmentally focussed approach to looking after the land. At present, Home Farm comprises over 1,100 hectares which includes arable and foraged crops, as well as 315 dairy autumn calving Holstein cows and Aberdeen Angus beef cattle.

Dairy farming and conventional farming work together at Cowdray, with the aim to be as efficient and environmentally friendly as possible. Foraged food such as peas and beans, grass, maize, lucerne and wheat are all grown on the farm, and used to feed the animals. The livestock also graze on the arable fields. Having livestock involved in the fields promotes healthy soils, and their manure also helps to fertilise the cover crops. Full utilisation is also made of the organic manures that are produced in the dairy. Manure is spread on the fields, which in turn helps to improve soil health. The dairy is being integrated into the wider business plan and organic manures from the dairy are seen as a resource as opposed to a by-product.

Looking to the future

Cows have also historically grazed on the Town Meadow, a site of historical significance. It’s an area of land which sits in front of the Cowdray Ruins, linking the Ruins to the town. The site has historical significance with old tithe maps showing the meadow was once cut for hay by the local community. Over the last 200 years the River Rother has been disconnected from the flood plain through artificially raised banks. However, there is now a Town Meadow Project in place which aims to restore the site back to its natural environmental state. As well as providing vital river and habitat restoration which can be enjoyed by both the local community and visitors to the area through improved access, there is also a plan to reinstate dairy cows onto the site. The plan is to graze the area with cattle to help maintain the land in as environmentally friendly way as possible.

This year the Estate Works Department has rewired the old light fittings in the tiled Dairy. Lit up at dusk, passers-by can now take a peek at the Royal Doulton tiles and sparkling Holophane lamps, installed by Annie Pearson in 1912.

Please note that the Dairy is not open to visitors at this time, but you can find out more about events taking place with the Cowdray Heritage Trust here.

Written by Tania Pons and Matilda Reid

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