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Historical introduction to mills and milling

Power sources and their development

Milling is the art of grinding cereal grain to produce flour for use in baking. The importance of “our daily bread” meant it was essential to have a tool which could be used every day to convert hard grains into a fine meal or flour. Mills have been in use for over 10,000 years. The deliberate cultivation of wheat and barley for human consumption caused primitive milling tools to be developed.


The most primitive type of mill, the saddle quern, involves rubbing a small stone backwards and forwards across a larger one with the cereal grain in between. Archaeological finds and ancient historical references from the Near East provide our earliest positive evidence for the existence of this sort of mill. In Britain, the use of a saddle quern for milling spanned Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures. Rotary querns originated during the Iron Age and continued in use until the post-medieval period.

Postcard image from the Mildred Cookson collection


Animal-powered “hourglass mills”, as seen in Pompeii pre-AD79, appear to have been in use by the fourth century BC in the Western Mediterranean area. Unsurprisingly, such a simple idea has survived until the present day in a variety of forms that are in essence the same. The Mills Archive uses “animal power” as a keyword, so a number of examples may be found by entering the term into the search bar at the top of the page.

Photograph and drawing of hourglass animal-powered mill © J. Kenneth Major.


The Romans introduced waterpower to Britain, although there are no extant Roman mills. However, there are several archaeological sites of these early mills. Vitruvius used a wheel turned by the force of a stream instead of an animal to drive an “hourglass mill”. From such inefficient beginnings, the watermill increased in size, form and complexity over 2000 years. Its design was significantly advanced during the Roman occupation of Britain. Elements of the watermill’s design originated in early medieval Ireland. Archaeological sites from the Anglo-Saxon period have aided our understanding of the processes by which the watermill developed. Domesday records 6000 watermills.

The surviving watermill at Crabble in Kent (search for the mill in our Mills Database), with its iron machinery, multiple floors and five pairs of millstones, represents the peak of the watermill’s development in the UK. The large number of watermills that have been recorded, reflected in the material held by the Mills Archive, underlines the versatility of the waterwheel as a source of power.

Drawing of vertical watermill and photograph of cast iron gears © Mills Archive Trust.


It has been suggested that the Crusaders introduced windmills to Britain in the 12th century. Three positive historical references from the 1180s mark the beginning of the windmill’s popularity in England. It was quickly adopted; an estimated total of 4000 windmills existed in England by the turn of the fifteenth century. The early mills would have been post windmills that were built directly on to man-made mounds. None of the very early structures exist, although there are many mounds throughout the country, some which have had later mills built on them.

The post mill and the tower mill found favour in different areas of England. Suffolk and Sussex were known for their distinctive post mills. In Lincolnshire and Norfolk, as well as in parts of the south-west and north, tower mills were the preferred type. The smock mill, a timber-built variation of the tower mill, became particularly common in Cambridgeshire and Kent.

Drawing of post windmill © Mills Archive Trust.