Nan, a volunteer with The Royal Parks in the First World War project, weighs up the two sides in a battle over park use:
Caroline Orford’s cows perfectly embodied the conflict between tradition and modern life that developed during World War I. Mrs Orford claimed that her traditional right to sell milk in St. James’s Park dated back to King James I, who laid out the park in the seventeenth century. There was no proof of this story but Mrs Orford’s family had kept cows in the park from at least the 1880s until 1905, milking them on demand for thirsty children, and carrying in milk after cows were banned from the park.
Facing off against Mrs Orford and her cows were the First World War and modern bureaucracy. Dismissing family tradition, the Office of Works hoped to clear away what they saw as outdated. In 1915, the death of Mrs Orford’s mother triggered an attempt to remove her, but the Office of Works reconsidered: “I feel there would be an outcry and some hardship inflicted, particularly on the children, if it were to be demolished altogether.” Just as important, perhaps: “in view of the fact that the war was on and there was very little possibility of building a new Cake House ... it was decided to allow Mrs Orford [to continue temporarily].”
Public outcry and concern about cake provision were just two of the ways Mrs Orford fought the pressure on her business, even once the Office of Works proposed the site of her milk stall for the new Guard’s Memorial. With partial women's suffrage recently achieved, the Women’s Freedom League took up Mrs Orford's cause. Other influential supporters included King George V, Members of Parliament, the Mayor of Westminster, the Bishop of London and a Brigadier-General. A local vicar wrote:
“She is the friend of all the children in this part of London and it does seem like tearing up a bit of romance that she should be dismissed. … a grave injustice will be done if no sentiment is allowed to enter into the case of this lady whose family connections with the kiosk extend back three hundred years.”
A petition to the King to let her stay attracted more than 3,000 signatures from all parts of London, and stretched to almost 100 feet long.
The Office of Works finally did evict Mrs Orford from St James’s Park in December 1922. A modern refreshment building managed by a catering firm opened elsewhere in the park, while the new Guard’s Memorial dominated the location where Caroline Orford and her cows once held sway. Down but not out, Mrs. Orford boldly tried (though unsuccessfully) to claim compensation and even a civil pension, before finally dropping out of the historical record and dying in 1935.
Stroll down from the Guard's Memorial where Mrs Orford's stall stood to Duck Island Cottage and find out more about St James's Park during the First World War at our small, free exhibition, until 2 August.