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WWI’s personal effects on 2 roller mill dynasties

103 years ago today, Britain declared war on Germany after the ultimatum to withdraw from Belgium expired. The lives of those in Britain would alter over the course of the next four years and those involved in the roller milling world were no exception. Imagine what that day would have been like to a widow, of German descent, of one of the greatest engineers of rolling milling machinery. Or imagine what it would have been like for a well-respected owner of a successful and growing flour milling company. Well you don’t have to imagine too hard as these are exactly the positions that Emily Simon and Joseph Rank were in.

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Joseph Rank, devout Methodist, cricket enthusiast, rheumatism sufferer, and founder of the successful company Joseph Rank Limited. The course of the war would see him sit on the Wheat Control Board, become a widower and remarry three years later. Yet none of these events would come close to the drama of 4th August 1914. In July 1914, Joseph and Emily Rank, along with many other British holidaymakers, had travelled to the spa town of Marienbad, today in the Czech Republic, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for the sake of Joseph’s rheumatism. The events of 4th August meant that they were now stranded in an enemy country as enemy ‘aliens’. The prospects were not good. In all likelihood they would be interned and have to remain in Austria, worrying about the state of the Rank company, till the end of the war. In fact Joseph and Emily were retained in a hotel, with no access to money to pay for the hospitality, for only six weeks. After this time an agreement was made between Britain and Austria to allow non-military personnel to return to their respective native lands. However, if the Austrians had known the influential role Joseph Rank would play in advising the government and ensuring Britain had enough food supplies to get her through the poor harvests and U-boat campaigns to come, they may not have allowed him home!  

Emily Simon, meanwhile, had no such dramatic event concerned with the 4th August, although her sister and her eldest son did have separate but somewhat similar occurrences. Instead August 1914 found the widow of Henry Simon, the pioneer manufacturer and installer of roller mill machinery, satisfied with life as a doting grandmother and figure in community life, including being the vice-president of the Didsbury and Withington Red Cross Society. The outbreak of war would see her  heavily involved with the Society in taking classes, practices and gaining qualifications in case a hospital was needed. She also opened her home to Belgian refugees and prepared to house convalescents too. As the war progressed her home of Lawnhurst would be turned into a hospital for 44 officers whilst a temporary building would hold 20 men. She busied herself on the wards and would find this work a welcome distraction from the events of the war and the grief she would endure.

Out of her four sons, three of them served during the First World War. One son, Victor, was already a soldier so his inclusion was no surprise. Ernest and Harry had been running Henry Simon Ltd. together but Ernest continued on his own as three weeks after the outbreak of war, Harry signed up. Most surprising was the other son, Eric. He was a farmer and as such was in a protected profession. Furthermore, the family all described him as a peace loving man who would not be able to kill anyone ‘unless forced’, yet he too joined up. As it was, he was the first of the brothers to die in 1915 at Arras. Victor and Harry both outlived their brother but would be killed within months of each other in 1917. Emily buried her grief in her work at the Lawnhurst hospital by quietly continuing with some useful employment. However, the strain of losing three sons and having many other family members fighting on either side must have taken its toll. She died in 1920 leaving behind her three daughters and eldest son to carry on her and her husband’s legacies.

Joseph Rank also suffered grief during the course of the First World War but it was not connected to the war itself. Emily Rank, Joseph’s wife of 34 years, died at home in 1915 after returning from a day spent with her grandchildren. Her death was a shock and cause of grief to the whole family. Joseph Rank clung to his faith to endure and would himself remarry a few years later in 1918. Like Emily Simon, he also sent sons off to war but unlike Eric, Victor and Harry Simon, both Rowland and Arthur Rank returned. Nevertheless they both bore scars from their time at war with Rowland’s early death in part attributed to the gassing he received whilst in France. Joseph Rank himself would survive to see his business flourish and grow and see the country go to war again in 1939. He would not see the end of that Second World War as he died in 1943 leaving his legacy and company to his children and grandchildren.

These are just two examples of how the First World War affected those with a connection to the roller milling world. As the roller milling revolution only took place at the end of the 19th century, the life of many roller mills and millers were disrupted by the events of the First World War. In fact, I have come across many other anecdotes and stories relating to this period so the topic of war and how it impacted the roller milling world will be one of the themes I pursue whilst compiling the web pages. So after starting this week remembering the events of Passchendaele, I hope you have enjoyed learning about the impact that this war had on some individuals related to the roller milling world.

More Information:

  • Burnett, R. G., Through the Mill: The Life of Joseph Rank (Oxford, 2004).
  • Simon, Brian, Henry Simon’s Children (Leicester, 1999).