Posted on

Women in milling

Milling: background social history

Upthorpe Road Mill, Stanton, Suffolk, circa 1908.
Upthorpe Road Mill, Stanton, Suffolk, circa 1908. Peter Dolman collection. The picture shows John, Dora and Hilda Bryant, with the post mill and house visible in the background. John Bryant is known to have become a miller as an adult; it is likely his sisters had some experience of the industry too.

In the Middle Ages, most mills were constructed using timber.  This was in keeping with the use of wood to build most other domestic buildings, whilst churches were often constructed using stone.  The role of the carpenter at this time was therefore crucial, with carpentry an essential skill of the millwright.  At the turn of the fourteenth century, John Langdon has estimated there were approximately ten to fifteen thousand mills in England alone, with there being around two watermills for every windmill [1].  Mills were essential to the survival of a community, with the flour ground at mills being used to bake bread; a key staple of the British diet.

Due to the importance of mills during the Middle Ages, work as a skilled miller or a millwright was likely to involve long hours and gruelling physical labour.  From around the eighteenth century, it had become more efficient for the miller to live on his premises, the mill, rather than walk in from the nearby village as in times past.  This led to the building of mill houses attached to the mills, where the miller and his family could live. 

John Bryant in 1924.
John Bryant (1899-1974) in 1924: the owner of Upthorpe Road Post Mill, Stanton at one time. Peter Dolman collection.

Millers had to be physically capable of working and maintaining the mill, having the expertise and experience to be able to repair the mill whilst having the business acumen to produce at least a living wage for themselves and their families.  Accordingly, a miller could undergo a training process lasting up to seven years.  The process of progressing from an apprentice, to a journeyman miller, to a master of the milling craft, was designed to instil in the trainee the skills that would be vital to a successful professional miller.  These skills were namely wisdom, resourcefulness, organisation and shrewdness. 

Being instilled with good business sense and financial proficiency was essential as milling was a dangerous and unpredictable trade.  Volatile weather conditions and price fluctuations (of corn and bread) ran alongside the risks of storm and fire damage, to make the physical and financial risks to the mill and the miller substantial [2].  Brakes were not introduced to mills in England until the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries [3].  Competition between individual millers could also be fierce and brutal. 

An unnamed tower mill in Bilsby, Lincolnshire, circa 1900.
Boar Mill (Arfleet Mill) Corfe Castle, Dorset, 1964. Rex Wailes collection.
Bob Barber, a millwright at work at Black Mill, Barham, Kent, early twentieth century.

Milling was certainly a dynamic profession; millers often had to respond and adapt to changes in the market, or else face ruin.  The Corn Laws (a series of Laws first enacted in 1815, being repealed in 1846, which fixed the price of British corn in order to benefit British corn producers, to the detriment of foreign imports) and the Industrial Revolution (a process of dramatic industrialisation of agriculture, manufacturing and technology that took place in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) were the most significant challenges faced by the milling industry from the eighteenth century until the world wars of the twentieth century. 

The Industrial Revolution ushered in the age of steam, which resulted in powerful steam mills and more efficient transportation made possible by rail.  These changes, however, also led to the demise of many lesser, local mills, which could not compete with the potency of massive steam powered industrial mills; whilst the improved transportation offered by steam railways also increased competition, especially from competitively priced foreign imports.

Alongside these far-reaching and fundamental changes to the process of milling, millers also had to modify their practices in order to satisfy the changing demands and tastes of their customers.  John Harrison has discussed, for example, how in the early eighteenth century the demand for white bread grew dramatically, as it became fashionable in elite and wealthy culture.  This forced mill owners and millwrights to either make significant adaptations to the gearing of their mills or to adopt foreign millstones [4]

Toppesfield Mill, Hadleigh, Suffolk, destroyed by a fire in 1954. Peter Dolman collection.
North Common Mill (Beard’s Mill) , in Chailey, East Sussex.
Mapledurham Water Mill, Oxfordshire, 2007.
A windshaft amidst wreckage, 1933.

Although usually associated with grinding meal to make flour, mills have been used for many tasks besides corn milling.  These other uses include crushing oil seed for oil extraction, crushing materials for pottery and paint manufacture, processing organic materials, paper making and supplying water.