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From Quern to Computer: The history of flour milling

Into the Industrial Age: Developments in wind and water power, 1750-1850

The century between 1750 and 1850 was one of great social change as Britain moved inexorably towards industrialisation through times of war and peace.  The period was also marked by a huge increase in agricultural production and a massive rise in population.  Yet at the same time the number of farm workers was decreasing and poor working class, urban populations were beginning to develop as people moved to work in the new coal, iron, textile and engineering industries. 

The growth both in population and crop yields led to a corresponding need for increased grain processing and yet at the same time there was increasing competition for water-powered sites from other industries, particularly the textile industry.  Consequently the later 18th and earlier 19th centuries saw a notable rise in the number of windmills, particularly tower and smock mills, as the use of wind power for corn milling became more important.  The agriculturalist William Cobbett (1763-1835) commented that around Ipswich, ‘the windmills on the hills in the vicinage are so numerous that I counted, whilst standing in one place, no less than seventeen’.  In Kent the number windmills increased from about 100 in the mid 18th century to nearly 250 by the mid 19th century.

Heage Windmill, Derbyshire (Painting by T. Shore, Mills Archive Collection, GIFF-HWS-01-03)
Heage Windmill, Derbyshire (Painting by T. Shore, Mills Archive Collection, GIFF-HWS-01-03)

Amongst the many windmills built or rebuilt during this period were tower mills at Heage, Derbyshire (c.1791), Marsh Mill, Lancashire (1794), Brixton Windmill, Surrey (1816), Maud Foster (1819) and Heckington windmills (1830) in Lincolnshire and Stevens’ Mill, Burwell, Cambridgeshire (c.1820) and smock mills, such as White Mill at Sandwich, Kent (1760), Upminster, Essex (1803) and Wicken, Cambridgeshire (1813).  Post mills also continued to be built, such as High Salvington (c.1750) and Windmill Hill Mill at Herstmonceux, East Sussex (1814).

A feature of most windmills is that they need to be turned to face the sails into the wind which, given the vagaries of the British weather, can blow from any direction.  Originally this was done manually, either by means of a tailpole or, in tower and smock mills, by some form of winch. 

Edmund Lee’s 1745 patent drawing for a self-regulating windmill shows a fantail, a small wind-wheel set at right angles to the sails.  If the wind direction changed from blowing squarely at the sails, it turned the fantail which, through a train of gears, automatically brought the sails into the wind again.  The practicalities of Lee’s design are dubious, but his idea was taken forward and in 1782 John Smeaton included a fantail in his design for Chimney Mill, Newcastle-on-Tyne, which was set on a small stage attached to the back of the cap.  Fantails were also used on post mills, sometimes mounted on a carriage at the rear of the mill, similar to Lee’s original design.

Fantail and patent sails on Wicken Windmill, Cambridgshire (MWAT-021)
Fantail and patent sails on Wicken Windmill, Cambridgeshire (MWAT-021)
Governor at Stevington Windmill, Bedfordshire (MWAT-020)
Governor at Stevington Windmill, Bedfordshire (MWAT-020)

Other improvements to windmills were made, to counter the effects of changes in wind force as well as direction.  The introduction of the governor, probably in the 1760s, allowed the miller to regulate the gap between the stones, enabling the consistency of the ground product to be maintained automatically regardless of wind speed.  

Advances were also made in the design of windmill sails. With cloth sails, the miller had to stop the mill in order to set or reef them.  Lee’s patent design proposed sails made of wooden boards which were attached by chains to a series of weights, his idea being that the sails would pivot and spill the wind, should its strength overcome that of the weights.  In the 1770s Andrew Meikle, a Scottish millwright, proposed using adjustable wooden shutters, this time controlled by iron springs, although it was not until later in the 19th century that the spring sail became more widely adopted.  

Initially more successful was the design of Captain Stephen Hooper from Margate, Kent, who in 1789 patented the roller reefing sail.  This comprised canvas-covered rollers rather than wooden shutters; the rollers were linked together and could be opened and closed remotely, without stopping the mill.  Several other forms of self-regulating sail were also experimented with in the last decades of the 18th century, with only local or limited success.

Then in 1807, the Norfolk engineer William Cubitt took out a patent for what became the most prevalent of all the self-regulating sails, now known as the patent sail.  Cubitt combined features from several earlier designs, connecting all the shutters on each sail with a rod which in turn is linked by a crank to another iron rod – the striking rod – which passes through the centre of the windshaft.  By moving this rod backwards or forwards, using a chain connected to it, all the shutters could be opened or closed remotely, without stopping the mill.

Union Mill, a subscription mill built at Cranbrook, Kent in 1814 (Postcard from the SPAB Collection, Mills Archive Collection, SPAB-23398)
Union Mill, a subscription mill built at Cranbrook, Kent in 1814 (Postcard from the SPAB Collection, Mills Archive Collection, SPAB-23398)

A series of bad harvests in the 1790s, coupled with the wars with France between 1793 and 1815, led to a fluctuating but overall rise in the prices of grain and bread.  As part of the government’s response to this an Act for the Better Regulation of Mills was passed in 1796 which decreed that millers had to display a list of charges, such as that on a bolter at Arrow Mill, Kingsland, Herefordshire.  The Act also advocated a monetary payment for grinding grain and dressing flour instead of the toll-in-kind system that had been in place since the Middle Ages. 

Not surprisingly, it was the poor who suffered most from the price increases.  As a result a number of union or subscription mills, co-operative ventures which were built with money raised by voluntary subscriptions to produce flour for a set price, such as at Snettisham Mill, Norfolk (1800), Whitby, North Yorkshire (1801), North Leverton windmill, Nottinghamshire (1813) and Union Mill at Cranbrook, Kent (1814). As a plaque on the watermill at Snettisham states it was ‘erected in a time of scarcity…for the common benefit of the neighbourhood’.  Similarly, the windmill on Wimbledon Common was built in 1816 as a public corn mill ‘for the advantage and convenience of the neighbourhood’.

Pitchback waterwheels at Waltham Chase Mill, Bishops Waltham, Hampshire (Photo F. Gregory, Mills Archive Collection, FWGC-1100486)
Pitchback waterwheels at Waltham Chase Mill, Bishops Waltham, Hampshire (Photo F. Gregory, Mills Archive Collection, FWGC-1100486)

The pressure on millers and mill owners from the increasing use of water power by other industries meant they needed to make the best possible use of the available resources.  Attention was turned to improving the construction of waterwheels to make them more powerful and efficient.  High-breast and pitchback waterwheels set in close-fitting curving masonry breastwork became more common, both types having the advantage in that they turn in the direction of water flow and so their rotation is unimpeded by tailwater.  Enhancements were also made to undershot and low-breast wheels, such as curved iron floats and a cill below the wheel which allowed the water to flow away more efficiently. 

The supreme example was the waterwheel designed in 1825 by French engineer, General J.V. Poncelet.  This was an all iron wheel with close fitting breastwork and an angled penstock or sluice that allowed water to enter the closely-spaced curving buckets so that there was no loss of impulse. Few true Poncelet wheels were built in Britain, an exception being that installed in Exwick Mill, Exeter, Devon in 1886.  At the same time that Poncelet was designing his water wheel, the water turbine, which runs at a faster speed and produces more power than a conventional waterwheel, was also being developed in France by Benoît Fourneyron.  The first turbines were installed in British mills in the 1830s.

In addition to improved waterwheels, larger mill buildings were also being built. Eling Tide Mill and Chesapeake Mill in Hampshire, Gleaston Mill, Cumbria, Carew, Pembrokeshire and Redbournbury, Hertfordshire, for example, were all rebuilt in the late 18th or early 19th century.  Other mills such as Cotehele Mill, Cornwall, Bromham Mill, Bedfordshire, Felin Geri, Dyfed, Tockett’s Mill, Cleveland and New Abbey Corn Mill, Dumfries were extended, sometimes by the addition of an upper storey. These mills typically now had three or four floors providing room for grain storage, cleaning, grinding and dressing.

Cotehele Mill, Cornwall, an 18th century building remodelled and extended in the 19th century (MWAT-019)
Cotehele Mill, Cornwall, an 18th-century building remodelled and extended in the 19th century (MWAT-019)

Improvements were also made to both the grinding performance and the output of millstones, to ancillary machinery for cleaning the grain prior to milling and for dressing the ground meal to produce white flour, the demand for which was steadily rising.  The balance rynd was introduced, which enabled the upper millstone to be hung on the spindle more easily than with a fixed rynd.  A millstone ventilation system, similar to that based on a French design which was installed by Potto Brown at Houghton Mill, Cambridgeshire, was  patented by George Hinton Bovill in 1846, for it was found that millstones worked better when they ran cool. 

There was also a notable increase in the use of French millstones, which became widespread for milling wheat.  When well dressed these stones remove the bran from the endosperm in large flakes which are easier to sieve out, enabling a whiter flour to be extracted from the resulting meal.  Most British mills had at least one pair of French stones, sometimes in combination with a mixed pair, such as a French runner working on a Welsh (conglomerate) bedstone, and a pair of Millstone Grit Peaks or greys for general milling.  Millstone dressing machines were also introduced in the 19th century.

Winnowing and threshing machines were introduced in the late 18th century and it appears that the first grain cleaning machines in mills date from about the same time.  The simplest were flat or slightly inclined sieves that were shaken as the grain was passed over them, with a fan to blow dust and dirt away.  Rotary cleaners were developed in the 19th century, comprising a horizontal wire mesh cylinder into which grain was fed and forced against the mesh by rotating brushes or beaters. Cockle cylinders were used to remove unwanted weed seeds by size difference and in the later 19th century vertical smutters, which scoured the grain to remove a type of fungus known as smut, were introduced. 

Similarly, flour bolters which separated fine white flour from the bran did not become common in mills until the 18th century.  Prior to this meal was generally sifted using hand-powered machines.  At Colchester, Essex a windmill was advertised to let in 1754 with ‘three bolting mills, one by hand, one by wind, and one by horse’. 

In 1765 John Milne, a wire worker from Manchester, took out a patent for a flour dressing machine which comprised an inclined cylindrical drum covered with different sizes of wire mesh, which enabled several grades of flour to be extracted.  By the mid 19th century reels, long, hexagonal frames covered with fine silk cloth for sifting fine flour and wire mesh for separating the coarser products, were coming into use in British mills.  In Scotland, Wales and parts of upland England specialised machinery for preparing pearl or pot barley and for shelling and grinding oats was also developed.  Kilns were built alongside oatmeal mills for drying the grain prior to milling.

The success of these technological developments depended much on the use of cast iron.  John Smeaton pioneered its use for wind- and waterwheel shafts and by the end of the 18th century it was also used for gearing, initially for smaller gears but, as founding techniques improved, so larger gears were also cast.  Smeaton also designed a cast-iron cross attached to the end of the windshaft to which five or more sails could be fitted rather than the more usual four.  Many five- and six-sailed windmills were subsequently built in northern and eastern England.  Heckington windmill in Lincolnshire was originally built as a five-sailed mill in 1830 but was repaired after storm damage in 1892 with eight sails. 

In the 1830s the Scottish engineer William Fairbairn introduced cast-iron standards for supporting millstones and their driving gears, such as were installed in Park Mill, Brereton in Cheshire in 1835.  Many country mills replaced their older wooden machinery completely or in part with iron components in the course of the 19th century including Stainsby Mill, Derbyshire, Felin Geri, Dyfed and Heron Corn Mill, Cumbria.

Albion Mill, Blackfriars, London, the world’s first steam-powered flour factory (MWAT-018)
Albion Mill, Blackfriars, London, the world’s first steam-powered flour factory (MWAT-018)

In tandem with improvements in waterwheel and windmill sail technology came the development of steam power.  The first steam-powered corn mill was that built by Young and Company near the centre of Bristol in about 1779. 

Probably the world’s first flour factory, however, was Albion Mill built by the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge in London in 1780.  The machinery, designed by John Rennie, comprised two steam engines driving 20 pairs of millstones through cast-iron gearing.  Although a comparatively short-lived venture ‒ it was burnt to the ground in 1791 ‒ Albion Mill marked the start of the shift in the structure and location of the milling industry towards large mills at ports and urban centres on navigable waterways, and in doing so signalled the beginning of the demise of the small country corn mill.  In 1861 William Fairbairn referred to the ‘all-pervading power of steam’ and that mills were ‘no longer dependent upon the state of the wind or the supply of water’.

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