Last week our Archivist Nathanael, our Chairman Ron and I were given the rare opportunity to explore the Heygates flour mill in Hertfordshire. While we knew the experience would be very different from a traditional windmill or watermill, nothing could have prepared us for what we found there!
Heygates is a company with a long family history rooted in agriculture and milling. The group spans farming, flour and feed milling and baking. Heygates is a family business which started farming in Northamptonshire in 1562 and moved into milling in the 19th Century. It now has 7 flour mills on 3 sites, a feed mill, two modern bakeries and 7500 acres of mainly arable land in England. We went to one of their sites in Tring, which has seen the extension of the original steam mill. There was once a windmill sat right next to the steam mill, but that was removed many years ago.
The below image is a postcard in the Frank Gregory Collection, showing both the steam mill and windmill ca. 1911. The steam mill building on the left is still there but has been extended upwards and outwards:
We started our visit by hearing more about the history of the company. The Mill Manager was our guide for the day, and he showed us some of the old ledgers and photographs that the company still has. What was very clear was the close connection between the mill and the local community, perhaps unsurprisingly, but the story still continues and different generations continue to work there. The history of some of the local families themselves tell their own stories about how Heygates has grown and developed over the years.
We then prepared ourselves to enter the mill: this involved the ceremony of donning white overalls, high-vis vests, hair nets and ear plugs. As a producer of foodstuffs, hygiene is a top priority. Our tour started in the mill’s “control room”, a room full of computers, each of which showed different information such as the type of grain being milled at that time and the speed of the different machines. This room overlooks the ground floor, with a large window facing the whirring roller mills. The miller can control the whole building with its many floors full of machinery here, all at the push of a few buttons. However, the miller still patrols the mill to keep an eye on things.
The mill itself was a sensory overload. The smell of warm flour, large machines lining the floors, some shaking violently and towering over us! Everywhere there was noise. We were shown the different machines and their process was explained to us, revealing the many stages a grain of wheat goes through before it gets anywhere near the supermarket shelf.
Below: this image was taken in Cranfield’s Mill, Ipswich in the 1960s. Some of the machinery we saw was similar in appearance, although much more modern and without wooden floors:
The wheat goes through a number of machines, each designed to play its part in extracting the bran, which is also kept and turned into animal feed at the end. Nothing is wasted. At each stage the flour was becoming finer, whiter and silkier. We even saw the bags of flour being loaded onto pallets and wrapped in cling film by machines before beginning its journey from the mill to the supermarket.
Although advanced mechanisation and automation means that fewer millers are needed than you might expect for a large and developed complex, the mill still employs many people from the local community in the form of electricians, cleaners, and even lab technicians for testing the grain quality on site. The mill operates 24/7 and only closes for 3 days a year.
We then completed our visit by popping to Ford End Watermill, a more familiar territory for us! The volunteers at Ford End have done a fantastic job in restoring the mill, situated picturesquely in the Chilterns countryside. It turns out that the watermill has a good relationship with Heygates, and the miller at Ford End joined us for our tour of the roller mill complex.
All in all it was an exciting visit, which we feel privileged to have experienced. I know it has helped me to better understand and appreciate the roller mill records we have and how modern milling is an important part of the milling story, a story which is still unfolding.