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Volunteer Spotlight: Milling and Social Change from a Volunteer’s Perspective

Author: Nigel Birch

I have been volunteering at The Mills Archive for 18 months or so, having previously known little about the milling industry, its historical and social influences, and variety of methods employed. I now know a little more than I did – but am far from being an expert!

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Volunteering at the Archive has been a fascinating experience of further education. Following a career in Agricultural Pesticide Research and Development I was keen to pursue my interest in Agriculture from another direction, and so I duly arrived at one of the oldest houses in Reading, Watlington House, where The Mills Archive resides. I volunteer one day a week, cataloguing items from collections and recording information on the Mills Database. I am currently working on old press cuttings, which has been a very revealing look at historical news stories about mills and their owners in the 1930s, with a continual theme of conservation and preservation of both mills and the landscape.

It was working on Brian Eighteen’s collection of notes, articles and photographs of the River Lodden (such as the main picture and the one on the right) and its tributaries that I was truly immersed into the world of mills. I have come to realise how important mills have been in the lives of people in their local communities, of which many were farming and rural environments. Their reliance on the local mill was determined by the occupations and industry prevalent at the time. They had to use natural resources such as wind to power the windmills, water (rivers / streams) to power the waterwheels, tides to power the tide mills in estuaries, and steam to power rolling mills. This was an Industrial Evolution of its own, which began in communities many generations ago to provide flour, cotton, paper etc. As society changed, local communities had to adapt or embrace new improvements in mill machinery and methods of surviving in rural areas. Britain was predominately an agricultural country, often reliant on individual innovation to capitalise on resources available to villages and towns. The history of individual mills has given many reasons for their development or demise over the centuries. Rebuilding due to fire was common; many fires occurred in times when there wasn’t a fire brigade to help. Extreme weather caused damage to mills and their sails, causing the structures to be unsafe. Redesigning for alternative uses was often carried out, but these adaptions were short-lived in a changing world.

My research has often led to metaphorical brick walls, wherein mill names have changed over the centuries and our database has no matching record. Looking at other resources (mainly internet searches) has provided positive results and also revealed absorbing historical facts which does help to put things into perspective. This can be a frustrating process but finding a relevant answer is an often-rewarding challenge. I keep at it!

A recent press cutting I was reading is an example of industrial change which led to the discovery of a windmill on the site of a time gone by. In a Liverpool street when workmen were excavating a coal yard, the foundations of an old mill were discovered. Trying to find out the name of the windmill and its history remains a mystery to me after numerous searches but I am determined to find an answer!

Since being involved in this “new” world, my response to milling has been a more positive outlook than the blasé visit to a Norfolk windmill on holiday. Last weekend, purely by chance, I came across a framed photograph of Chewton Mill on the wall of a pub which I photographed surreptitiously. Later, I found the picture (left) included in the Mills Database; the two pictures were almost identical but for the title. Not the result I expected!

Finally, as well as being useful to the Mills Archive, I feel that my role as a volunteer provides me with something to keep the grey cells working!