Historian looks back on the day one of our concrete cows was famously stolen in Milton Keynes

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The culprits were Rag Week students, who posed as council workers to dig up the concrete base

MK’s most famous historian has taken a look back at the history of the city’s famous concrete cows – including the day one of them was stolen by Rag Week students.

John Taylor, who wrote the much-loved The Way We Were column for the MK Citizen for many years, is currently working on his third book about the history of Milton Keynes.

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Extracts from his column in 1978 called ‘Concrete Cow Capers’ describe the impact the bovine beasts had upon the new city – and how some people abused them.

The concrete cows helped put Milton Keynes of the map in the late 1970sThe concrete cows helped put Milton Keynes of the map in the late 1970s
The concrete cows helped put Milton Keynes of the map in the late 1970s

John writes: “As a leaving present before returning to America, in 1978 Milton Keynes Development Corporation’s ‘Artist in Residence,’ Liz Leyh, fashioned a set of ‘concrete cows’, which, in the last week of August, were placed in a field at Old Bradwell.

Then in the third week of September vandals systematically smashed the heads of six of the seven of them. Saying they were “appalled by this senseless act of deliberate vandalism”, MKDC immediately began looking for another artist to repair them.

"Liz was now in America and about a month before had married at Bletchley register office Alex Levac, a freelance photographer, whom she had known for several years. He was set to rejoin her in about four weeks but said: ‘I’m not going to tell her anything about this. She would be too upset about it. She had been working on the cows for about a year. When Liz went to the airport she insisted on driving past the cows for a last time because she said she thought of them almost as her children.’

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In response to the wanton destruction an outraged Fred Lloyd Roche, general manager of MKDC, wrote to the local press saying in his letter: “’As always, the Development Corporation is fair game for criticism, but when someone like Liz Leyh is personally criticised because there are a few people who do not like her Concrete Cows, I must respond. Liz Leyh has a tremendous commitment to Milton Keynes and many people in the community have told me of their admiration for what she has done for all age groups. As a personal opinion, I found the cows a very pleasant feature in the landscape, and have been to the site on several occasions and seen the number of people viewing them and children playing on them. I suspect a lot of other people share that view.

‘They were provided by Liz Leyh free of cost as a parting present on her returning to America. The sort of reaction they have created is a very ungracious response to a very generous contribution to the city.’

John continues: “Thankfully the cows were repaired... Now anatomically complete, their fame continued to spread, and dressed as workmen on Wednesday, May 23 four students from Cranfield College drove to the site off Monks Way and started digging out a concrete calf.

In speaking of the stunt, 23-year-old John Hammar said: ‘After we had been there 15 minutes a police car came rushing up. The policemen got out and said they had received complaints from the public that someone was tampering with the cows. We told them not to worry, because we were from the council and were taking the calf back to our depot for repairs. They seemed to think this was fair enough, and went away again.’

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Then during the 2½ hours it took to free the calf’s massive concrete base three council men also stopped them. However with one of the students posing as a council official, they also fell for the story, with one even telling them off for working overtime!

With their mission complete the students took their prised prize to Cranfield, to triumphantly stand in the car park of Mitchell Hall. As a gesture of goodwill it was given a facelift by the students, who during their Rag Week on Saturday, May 26th paraded their trophy through the streets of Bedford.

The rag time committee had planned to write a £50 ransom note to MKDC but dropped their demand on accepting an offer from the corporation to bring the concrete calf back. It was consequently returned on Tuesday, June 19th with student John Hammar saying: ‘The main advantage was the great publicity we received for our rag week. Now we are deep in our exams.’”

Today the concrete cows stand proudly in a field at Bancroft. But they are not the original ones created by Liz Leyh. But the Bancroft herd is not the original one created by Liz Leyh. Those cows were made with base armatures of metal chicken wire, which was stuffed with newspaper used to create the general shape.

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But after a while they were deemed too fragile to be on display and they are now housed safely at MK Museum

You can read more of John’s historic musings in his books called The Birth of Milton Keynes, which are available on Amazon or at Blackwells and Waterstones.

The first volume describes the political wrangling up to the announcement that the new city was going to be built. The second tells us about the creation of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation and the development of the master plan, which is essentially the basis for Milton Keynes as we know it today.

The third volume is still in preparation and will describe the implementation of this plan up to the handover by MKDC to local authorities.