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The Decline of Wind and Water Mills

New technology

Gradually traditional wind and water powered mills were driven out of business by new power sources – steam, oil, diesel, electricity – which were much more efficient and not dependent on the whims of nature – will it be windy today? Will there be a flood or a dry spell that might affect the flow of water?

In the case of corn milling, there was also a challenge from newer, more sophisticated roller milling machinery, which used steel or porcelain rollers to crush the grain instead of large millstones.

This old document from the archive is an account from the 1920s of the career of a miller, William Cornwell, and the Sun Flour Mills company for which he worked for 39 years. He notes that it became “difficult to market Stone Milled flour against flour milled under the new Roller Process”. As a result Sun Flour Mills moved to rollers in 1888.

A new kind of mill had emerged. This old postcard illustrates the contrast – in place of the old windmill a vast complex, like a factory – probably built by the port (can you spot the sailing ship in the background?) – so it could benefit from corn arriving from overseas by ship, capable of producing flour in quantities never before dreamt of. This was, of course, necessary to feed the rapidly growing and increasingly urban population.

Traditional mills could try and keep up with new developments. Manufacturers of roller mill machinery targeted traditional mills, offering to fit them out with new machinery. This image from a roller mill catalogue shows “The old mill on the new system” – a watermill in which roller mill machinery has been installed.

It is not clear from this image whether the waterwheel which is visible is still in use. Roller mills could be water powered. This 1894 letter is from W M Gardner, a manufacturer of roller mill machinery, to Arthur Pratt French who ran Hildersham watermill. It gives Gardner’s proposal for the conversion of the mill to roller machinery.

Of interest is Gardner’s explanation of how this could be powered – they will attach the machinery to the waterwheel to “drive as much as possible with the water when you have it, as you have a splendid waterwheel”, but the mill also already has an “engine” of some kind, presumably to enable them to grind when the flow of water is not sufficient, and this engine can also be coupled up to the new machinery. This then provides an interesting snapshot of the sort of compromise between the old and the new which was possible – although in this case the Frenches decided not to go with this or a similar proposal from engineers Whitmore and Binyon, and the mill was sold by auction in 1904.

Windmills could be converted to roller mills as well, as the following image of “Bratley’s Roller Flour Mill”, also from a catalogue, shows:

Here we can see that the sails have been removed – a steam beam engine has been installed instead and only the distinctive shape of the building remains to remind that it was once a windmill.

It would take an enterprising miller, capable of adapting to new technology, to get used to this kind of arrangement. The technology was very different – instead of wooden gears and shafts, each uniquely made to fit that particular mill, and operated with skills passed down from generations, millers now faced complex modern machinery. It’s easy to imagine that diagrams like this, from the Cornwell collection, would have scared them out of their wits!

Many traditional millers therefore must have continued milling in the old way, until they were driven out of business and the mill was left derelict, crumbled into ruin or was converted to some other use.