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Historical introduction to mills and milling

The heyday of the mill

Mills powered by traditional sources (such as wind and water) were in their prime during the post-medieval period until the middle of the 19th century. For example, as many as 10,000 windmills may have existed in England during their heyday, although only fifty or so are capable of operating today.

The nineteenth century saw a coming-together of ideas and was an exciting period of innovation and design. During the early years of the century, several improvements to mills were made which made the miller’s life much easier. An example is the application of self-adjusting sails to windmills. The job of the millwright was also made easier. Cast iron machinery, which could be mass-produced, replaced timber cogs and shafts, which had to be individually crafted using hand tools.

The number of mills in existence peaked during the mid-nineteenth century in several regions of Britain. In Essex, 275 windmills existed during the 1840s. Cereal milling was not the only task that required power during this period. Windmill sails and waterwheels were put to more than twenty different industrial uses including timber sawing, land drainage, gunpowder manufacture, metalworking, stone crushing and snuff grinding.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, wind and water power were used in combination with fossil-fuelled engines, enlarging small rural mills and maximising their milling capacity. Small mills gave way to large factories, which could handle bulk loads of grain and produce many tonnes of flour per week.

From an exciting heyday, windmills and watermills suffered a rapid decline during the early 20th century. Cheap imported grain and new government food regulations were significant causes of this decline. The Mills Archive’s source material is an important record of our mills during the transition from their heyday to their decline and disappearance from many parts of the country.

Photograph of the miller’s cart at Great Chishill mill © Donald Muggeridge & the Templeman Library of the University of Kent.