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Women in milling

The 20th century and today

The greater industrialisation of the milling industry led, in many cases, to smaller millers being forced out of the milling industry.  However, the greater mechanisation and incorporation of new technologies into the milling industry also impacted upon opportunities for women in the milling industry.  These changes facilitated the work of a miller becoming in some ways less physically strenuous, therefore enabling women to take on more active and independent roles. 

Below are just a few examples of how women have contributed to the milling industry, profession and community in the twentieth century. 

Mildred Cookson

Mildred Cookson at IJP Millwrights, 2003. Mildred is monitoring work on Cranbrook Windmill, she is an expert on the traditional maintenance of mill stones.
Mildred Cookson at IJP Millwrights, 2003. Mildred is monitoring work on Cranbrook Windmill; she is an expert on the traditional maintenance of millstones.

Today, the milling industry is kept alive by a small but dedicated group of millers and millwrights. Milling commercially in the UK today are a group of twenty eight millers who are members of a traditional milling guild. There are currently around two hundred and fifty mills that are working and could be used for milling across the country, with around one hundred millers in total milling in some capacity.

Of the twenty eight guild members, there is only one female member, Mildred Cookson. Mildred mills at Mapledurham Water Mill, Reading. After being passionate about mills for all of her life, Mildred was given the opportunity to take on Mapledurham Mill to run it commercially in 1982. At Mapledurham, Mildred regularly mills to supply local bakers and shops, maintains and preserves the mill, and often gives tours of the mill to local school groups and adults. Mildred is very active in the milling community, and channels her enthusiasm for milling, beyond her own mill, into activities including being a trustee of SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings), editor of Mill news and a trustee of The Mills Archive Trust, Reading.

Desna Greenhow

The Floss on the mill: the re-awakening of a watermill by Desna Greenhow (The Hobnob Press, 2004)
The Floss on the Mill: The re-awakening of a watermill by Desna Greenhow (The Hobnob Press, 2004)

Devon Mill: the restoration of a corn mill (Skilton, 1981) and The Floss on the mill: the re-awakening of a watermill (The Hobnob Press, 2004) are accounts by Desna Greenhow of the restoration she undertook of the water-powered corn mill at Otterton, Devon [1].

The earliest written record to be found of a mill at Otterton is in the 1086 Domesday Book, which listed Otterton mill as one of the largest and most productive mills in Devon. After centuries of successful milling having taken place at Otterton, in 1959 milling there came to an end. In 1977, Desna and George Poulson (a judge at Exeter Crown Court) began the restoration of Otterton Mill. The mill had fallen into disrepair, with much of it having become structurally unsafe. With the assistance of local millwrights from Tiverton and advice from Rex Wailes, a leading authority on mills, the mill was soon successfully re-opened. Desna milled at Otterton herself for twenty five years. She also diversified the activities that the public could become involved in at Otterton Mill, which are still thriving today, such as several arts and crafts, an art gallery and the sale of bread and flour products produced at the mill.

Ivy Hawkins

Redbournbury Watermill, where Ivy Hawkins was the miller. From a glass plate negative contained within the David H Jones Collection, catalogue reference: Item DHJC-P-025
Redbournbury Watermill, where Ivy Hawkins milled. From a glass plate negative in the David H Jones collection, catalogue reference: Item DHJC-P-025

Miss Ivy Henrietta Hawkins (born circa 1897) milled at Redbournbury watermill, Hertfordshire, in the mid-twentieth century. The picture above shows Ivy at work on the mill stone. Ivy is an example of a daughter of a miller who took on the running of a mill once her father, then her mother, had died. Members of the Hawkins family had milled intermittently at Redbournbury Mill since 1841. Henry Hawkins (Ivy’s father) became the master corn miller at Redbournbury in 1881. From the 1880s to the 1930s, Henry is listed in census returns and directories as the miller at Redbournbury. Upon his death in 1932, aged 79, Henry’s widow, Julia, and his daughter Ivy jointly took on the responsibility of the mill. When Julia died in 1944, Ivy became the main miller and lease holder. In The Mills of Redbourn by Alan Feathestone there are several interesting pictures of Ivy and her parents at Redbournbury Mill [2].

Although Henry and Julia had one son, Rex, who was interested in milling, his death during the First World War left Henry with no available male heirs to take on the mill at Redbournbury. As Alan Featherstone discusses, Ivy thankfully had displayed a great interest and ability in milling from a young age. Ivy had been helping her father at the mill since she was twenty years old. Consequently, on the death of her parents, Ivy was both ready and willing to continue milling alone at Redbournbury. Ivy obtained national recognition when she was featured in a 1959 edition of The Times, which described how Ivy was the only known woman in Britain at the time to be running a mill such as the one at Redbournbury [3].

Illustrating the dangers of life as a miller, in 1956 Ivy was involved in a near fatal accident at the mill. In order to undertake some repairs to the waterwheel, Ivy had climbed inside it. This action, however, inadvertently set the waterwheel in motion. Ivy was trapped. The wheel was now stationary, with Ivy’s body having to take the weight of the water as she was trapped between a spoke of the wheel and its outer axle. Eventually, after nearly an hour of being trapped in this position, nearby farm workers were alerted to Ivy’s lethal predicament. After some time of several workers employing crowbars on the wheel, it was eventually turned backwards and Ivy was freed. The mill was briefly closed whilst Ivy received hospital treatment [4]. This terrible experience demonstrates the dangers of work in a mill, even in the mid-twentieth century.

In the 1950s the mill at Redbournbury ceased to grind corn. Ivy stayed on at the mill until she was in her eighties, for example using the waterwheel to drive a circular saw to cut up firewood until 1973. In the 1980s, Ivy had to leave the mill for health reasons. She died in 1987, aged almost 90, and is buried at Redbourn [5].

Monica Dance

Monica and Harry Dance, 1959, from the Hallam Ashley collection. Item ASHL-GPN-CM-023
Monica and Harry Dance, 1959, from the Hallam Ashley collection. Item ASHL-GPN-CM-023

Monica Dance (born 1913, died 1998) acted as Secretary for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings from 1939 to 1978. In the post-war period, SPAB was central in the protection, reporting on and restoration of historic buildings, including mills. At a time when local authorities were given new and wider planning powers to rapidly rebuild war-torn Britain, the actions of SPAB were vital in the preservation and survival of many historic buildings.

E.M. Gardner

Portrait of E M Gardner. Found within SPAB Mills Section Correspondence. Item SPAB-08794.
Portrait of E M Gardner found in SPAB Mills Section Correspondence. Item SPAB-08794

Miss E.M. Gardner was responsible for adding watermills to the remit of the then Windmill Section of the SPAB, which at that time did not have an independent section for watermills. She served on the Committee of the Section from 1951 until 1959. Gardner also chaired the Watermills Publication Committee for the first six issues of the Watermill Booklets and then wrote the fourth of these: The Three Mills, Bromley by Bow. Miss Gardner wrote for Country life on Dutch watermills around Eindhoven, and also Milling in the Shetlands, which was a precursor of the Horizontal watermills booklet. As a senior civil servant she received an OBE. In 1959, Gardner died suddenly after a minor operation.

These examples highlight how individuals can be instrumental in the successful preservation and restoration of mills, particularly in how the mill can continue to operate for its original purpose whilst adapting and diversifying in order to be profitable and popular today.