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Volunteer Spotlight: The Millers of the Past

Author: Pru Barrett

In November 2017, Ron Cookson asked me if I would like to compile a database of millers, made up from the masses of emails and documents that the Archive had gathered in from numerous sources. As the daughter of a historian, and then a graduate historian, I’d been busy bringing up children and working in various administrative roles, and had never had the chance of developing my interests – until now.

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I’m still deep in this project and will be for some time, but now and then little nuggets of information bring these people to life – I’d never realized just how many mills and millers there were! As a student I’d learned more about political than social history, but these real life characters keep popping up to fascinate me!

One fairly grey day last August I was entering one man’s details – a millwright named John Smith – “Son of William and Susannah. Married Ann Wilson 1824. By June 1834 working as corn miller at Cullingworth, Bradford. Was baptised at the local baptist church in a stream at Cowhouse Bridge in 1836. By 1841 he was living in Skipton with family of 6 children working at High Mill. Killed in accident 1843 when lost arm. Wife died of TB 1844” and realized – this man was working in an area of Yorkshire near where the Brontës lived, within only a few years of Wuthering Heights (my favourite novel) and Jane Eyre being written! I stopped – looked round – everyone was working away as usual – I had gone back into the past all by myself. On several similar occasions I’ve come across people active in dates that shout out to me, like 1805 – the Battle of Trafalgar, or 1815 –Waterloo. They themselves would have probably heard of these events as they carried on with their daily chores.

Some millers of course flourished at this time; on the other end of the social scale one Daniel May, described as “Gentleman Miller of Sonning Eye in Oxfordshire” in David Nash Ford’s May Family History is recorded as being groomed by his father to be a miller, apparently buying him the mill at Sonning. In 1805, it is recorded he travelled down to Southampton to see Nelson’s ship, the Victory, towed into harbour after the Battle of Trafalgar – the decks still awash with blood. That was not the sort of detail you learn of in O-level history!

It was sad to come across so many bankruptcies and business failures in the milling world during the nineteenth century. I spent some time going through a document from a newspaper listing the main bankruptcy sales of equipment and also reports of deaths caused by accidents at work in far more dangerous conditions than permitted today. As well as poor John Smith above being killed, I read of George Clark – Born c 1830. By 1861 he was working with his father William Frederick Clark and brother Charles at Darwell Mill. He died after an accident at the water mill at Darwell Pond, where his clothes became entangled in machinery. His legs were badly injured: one was amputated, which caused his death in a couple of days. In the report of the inquest, the jury appended to their verdict their consideration of the frequent practice of millers wearing loose frocks which caused this tragedy. Cases like this will have lead to the Health and Safety at Work regulations.

Meanwhile, every week I look forward to finding out more about the lives of this most special group of workers from our past; every day is different!