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Women in milling

How do women fit in?

The Mill staff of Hancock & Son at Hanover Mill , Kent.
The Mill staff of Hancock & Son at Hanover Mill, Mersham, Ashford, Kent. Reprinted in the Tuesday Express of 23 January 1973, the original print is from 1942. Although two women are pictured, the staff are predominantly men, most of whom appear dressed for hard manual work.

The life of the pre-twentieth century miller consequently appears dangerous, tough and arduous.  Furthermore, it was overwhelmingly male dominated.  Undoubtedly, the physical demands and long hours of work in the milling industry lent milling towards the work of a man, rather than that of a woman. If the traditional role of women was to become successful wives, mothers and homemakers, it would have been near impossible for them to have dropped everything to attend to the mill whenever, and for however long, was necessary. 

Mill staff of Hancock & Son at Hanover, Mill, Kent.
Again the Mill staff of Hancock & Son at Hanover Mill, Kent. This time from the Tuesday Express of 30 January 1973. In 1973, according to this photo, there appear to be proportionally fewer female staff at the Mill than in 1942.

There are several potential reasons for this.  Women, as the traditional mothers and home-makers, would not have been physically suited to the life of a miller.  Neither is it likely they would have been able to commit the time necessary to the trade, as stated above.  The work of a miller was very much dependent upon factors beyond their control.  In a windmill, for example, a miller would be expected to work around the clock if a sufficient wind was blowing.  It would also be essential for them to be present at the mill if there was bad weather, or a storm, in order to maintain the structure of the mill and protect it from damage.  Also, it is generally befitting of the attitudes and values of past societies that the actions of women were not recorded in the same way. This is further enforced by the lack of historical records concerning women in the milling industry.

Male Mill staff at Hanover Mill, Kent
Male Mill staff at Hanover Mill, Kent, from the Tuesday Express of 30 January 1973. This is a typical picture of mill workers, showing strong, robust and hardy men, dressed for physical work. Women are typically absent from these kinds of photos.

It is, however, of vital importance not to surrender to the all-too-easy desire to impose stereotypes or assumptions upon the past.  In reality, women in the past would have sometimes worked alongside their husbands, fathers and brothers, as children would have.  This is especially true of poorer families, where basic survival was more uncertain and a greater struggle than in our society today, particularly in times of dearth or other acute economic hardship.  At times when the family economy hung in the balance, the contributions of every man, woman and child were essential.

It is therefore valid and important to scour historical sources for references to the contributions of women, and to try to read between the lines in order to attempt to determine the undocumented extent of women’s contributions to the milling industry. 

Due to the environment in which a milling family lived, it is likely that female members of the family would have had at least a basic understanding and level of experience of working in the mill.  In the eighteenth century, necessity dictated that it would be far more efficient for the miller to live on site, at their mill, rather than walk in from their home in a nearby village.  This resulted in mill houses being built on to mills.  These houses would have also have been likely to become home to the miller’s family.  Therefore women, namely miller’s wives and daughters, were living in close proximity to the mill.  It is consequently difficult to imagine that female members of the miller’s family would not have assisted male members of the family alongside the miller, during busy periods or times of hardship.  Evidence of this can be seen in the 1881 census returns, where the female members of a millers household are often listed as a “Miller’s wife”, a “Miller’s daughter”, or an “Assistant corn miller”, alongside sons in the same household who had followed into the family profession.