Memories of Miss Sylvia Swain of Platt & Swain

Percival Swain, one of the founders of Platt and Swain, died in 1977, aged 94. “ As being a very shrewd business man, He was very hard working, honest and well respected by all who knew him.” said Sylvia. Platt & Swains Creamery and pig farm, based at Bellvue on the Ellesmere Road, was among one of the big firms of Wem, along with the Brewery, Isherwoods The Maltings and Wem Mill. The specialty of Platt & Swain was their Cheshire Cheese. At its height the creamery turned out between two and three thousand cheeses a week.

Swains used to take milk from smallholders in Whixall. Chris Allman who lived there remembered them well. His first memories are of helping to milk and taking the milk with his father in churns on the horse and cart to Platt and Swains in Wem, where it was turned into cheese.
I remember Mr Swain used to hold a dinner in Wem Town Hall every year for his workers and local milk suppliers. My dad would entertain after dinner with a song. Dad told us that Mr Swain was a very shrewd man and knew which farmers might add water to their milk, it was only 4d. a gallon some farmers tried to thin it down. Nearly every one we knew kept a few cows and produced their own cheeses

These were sold locally and also to outlets as far as Manchester. I was recently told that Mr. Swains’ Cheshire Cheese was one of the best to be had locally, that was at a time when nearly every other farm produced its’ own cheeses. Cheese was the main staple diet of every family, a piece of cheese with bread was most men’s working lunch. In 1902 Mr. Platt the founder of Platt & Dobell, Cheshire Cheese makers in 1832, was on the look out for an assistant to run the firm. Percival Swain was about to become a letter clerk to a tea firm in London when he was introduced to Mr. Platt by an uncle. They obviously got on famously because after eight years of learning the business Percival Swain had bought into the firm. Mr. Platt who by then was quite elderly retired and Mr. Swain moved into Bellvue in 1910.

Percival Swain married Beatrice Townsend, Beatrice came from a farming family in Welsh Frankton. Her family then lived at the Shrubbery Gardens House. Sylvia remembers visiting her grandparents at Shrubbery Gardens and remembers the large gardens which are now the housing estate and the primary school.

The Swains had five children, Robert, Cyril, Geoffrey, Betty and Sylvia. As a child Sylvia had the run of the dairy, “ I grew up with the cheese business, I knew every one working there and they were always happy to give me little jobs to do” says Sylvia. Her earliest memories are of collecting milk from local farms, sitting on the flat cart amongst the milk churns.

Because Sylvia was quite a lot younger than her brothers and sister she did have a little more freedom, she remembers her mother was very house proud and didn’t want Sylvia inside upsetting things, so the creamery was her playground until she was sent away to school at the age of nine. Then she helped out in her holidays.

The firm had a resident carpenter, Mr. Stokes, Sylvia remembers him making the vats and cheese boxes. Sylvia said she still remembers Mr. Stokes when she uses a hammer. He told her never to drive a nail straight into the wood.

Jack Ralphs is another name Sylvia recalled. “Jack had lost a leg in the First War, he bound the cheeses in calico with a flour water paste and I loved to help him slap on the paste.” Sylvia remembers that her father worked from very early to late each day. “ Work began early, cheeses were prepared and sent off for delivery in the morning then the arrival of the days fresh milk and churns emptied into vats to start the next batch. The churns contained 10 gallons and the vats 2,000 gallons, there were 13 vats filled every day. Every thing was kept so clean, the biggest nightmare was soft cheese, if there was any bacteria present the starter, might not set the cheese. We made a true Cheshire cheese with a fairly big curd, at its’ best it would last about ten days. We made a whey butter that was sold to bakers but the left over whey went to fatten up the pigs.”

Sylvia showed me some wonderful photographs of the creamery and the early motorised vehicles that they kept. Mr. Maund was their mechanic, the large lorries were kept in immaculate condition. Mr. Maund was in high demand as more firms were beginning to use motorised wagons and the horse and cart was starting to be a thing of the past. Maunds’ is still a family garage business in Wem.

The Swain family went every August to Borth. “ That is except for father,” said Sylvia “ he would drive across to see us on the Sunday, I don’t ever remember spending any more time with him, he lived for his work.” “ There were big changes just before the second world war, milk was pasturised and all farm milk went through the milk marketing board. Milk for the cheese then came from United Dairies at Ellesmere. During the war my father was on the Rationing Board. All though it was a difficult time with workers and family away at war the business of producing food went on. We had prisoners of war working for us and most of them were very decent. When we received news that my brother Cyril had died while he was being held a prisoner himself, the prisoners working with us felt very uncomfortable and sorry too, it was a very difficult time.”

I visited Sylvia a little while later, she showed me some beautiful photographs of her family and the business. She had a friend there, Vera Boden who is a mere 93 years of age had known Sylvia all her life. Vera was brought up on a farm at Rue Wood, her father supplied milk to Platt & Swain. Veras’ parents were John and Ada Annie Bennin. Vera remembers well making her own cheeses and the milking by hand. Vera married a dairy farmer and lived until quite recently at Broughton Farm Harmer Hill where her sons still farm today. Both Vera and Sylvia have seen huge changes to a very traditional manufacturing of cheeses, they both agree that the consistency of today’s cheese is quite different and they lament some of the European legislation’s that have meant the closures of small farm dairies.

Listening to Sylvia's memories of Platt & Swain were fascinating. When I asked her where she had fitted into the business I was very surprised to hear how her own career had taken quite a different turn. Indeed Sylvia Swain is quite a remarkable person in her own right. From an early age Sylvia had always been involved with Wem Dramatics, her photos of past production are simply amazing. Then she went to Reading University and gained a Degree in Agricultural Science. At this stage Sylvia might have joined the firm but she changed track and did a teaching diploma in English Speech and Drama and went on to become a peripatetic drama teacher. With a partner Joyce Whitcher the productions they produced eventually led them into their own costume hire business The Costume Studio at Swan Hill In Shrewsbury.

Reproduced from 'The Wemian' magazine, with thanks

Note: Cyril Swain is commemorated on the Wem War Memorial. He was a member of The Great Escape group at Stalag Luft III. He was captured and shot in contravention of the Geneva convention.
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