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The life-giving camel

Mills come in all shapes and sizes: sometimes they even come with a camel.

This postcard shows a camel-driven Saqiya or Sakia. They were once a common sight across the Middle East and Asia, and in some areas are still in use today. They were animal-driven machines, with which water could be raised from one level to another for the purpose of irrigation. The name ‘Saqiya’ comes from the Arabic as-saqiya ( سَاقِيَة ), meaning ‘that gives water’.

The way a Saqiya worked was that an animal would be harnessed to a shaft attached to a large horizontal wheel. By walking around in a circle the animal then turned the wheel. This horizontal wheel would be connected to a vertical wheel by a series of interlocking gears. This vertical wheel, in turn, would drive a second vertical wheel. This second wheel would either have earthenware pots directly attached to it, or they would be tied to a large looped rope which would be placed over the wheel. These earthenware jars were called Zears or Qadus. When the wheel turned, the jars scooped up water, which were drawn up and would tip the water out into a trough. This would then transport the water to the fields for irrigation. British Pathe have an excellent clip of a Saqiya in action from the 1930s.

There is some debate about the origins of these wheels: in some places they are alternatively known as Persian wheels, and then others suggest they actually originated in India. However we do know that they developed during the Hellenistic Era (333-30BC) and were particularly common in Egypt. Egypt also used another system called a Noria, which was similar to a Sakiya but rather than being powered by animals they used the current of water down a river to turn the large wheels.

This Saqyia is a perfect example of how milling technology has developed in hugely different ways, with as many differences as there are mills. 

Gem from the Mildred Cookson Foundation Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: Before steam-driven mills, wind-powered tower mills or horizontal waterwheels the strength of people and animals were used to produce our daily bread. Learn more about the earliest form of milling here.
  • Stereograph: The stereograph of a Saqiya Wheel was used to promote Excelsior Tours. You can learn more about how these special photographs brought exotic locations into the Victorian Parlour Room here.
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Breathing fire

Transport links are the lifeline of milling.

This photograph shows a steam wagon outside Sonning watermill. The wagon is called Catherine Cooper; it was produced by Foden Trucks, a British truck and bus manufacturing company, and is an overtype steam wagon. The man on the right is the mill owner Mr Witherington with his son, whilst the man in the cab is Jim Girdler.

One of Sonning Mill’s largest flour customers was Huntley and Palmers biscuits in Reading. As this was relatively close but too far to carry the flour by hand, they needed a suitable way to transport it to the factory: the steam wagon was perfect for this role.

Traditional mills had always been local to the community they served, however, as milling became more industrialised and the number of mills became fewer, developing transport links became crucial to their operation. Mills began to be built on canals so that flour and grain could be transported on barges, then with the development of steam railways, many mills built their own auxiliary lines to connect their mills to the main network. For shorter journeys most would still rely on the horse and cart, until the development of steam wagons.

Steam wagons developed in the early 20th Century and were very popular until fading out of production in the 1930s. There were two types: ‘undertype’ which had the engine below the cab, and ‘overtype’ which looked more like a cross between a lorry and a steam traction engine. Foden’s produced their first steam lorry in 1900 and built their last in 1935, by which time they had made a total of 6,500 wagons.

Gem from the Brian Eighteen Mill Collection

Related links

  • Transport: Without transport links, it would have been impossible to get grain into mills and flour out. Find out more about the crucial yet often overlooked lifeline transport provided to milling.
  • Sonning Mills: Our Mills Index contains information on thousands of mills. You can learn more about Sonning Mill here.

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By trawler from Aberdeen

This photo is an important reminder that without a range of extraordinary enthusiasts these collections would not exist.

This Gem is a black and white glass plate negative, from a series taken by David H Jones, a specialist in watermills.

During his research, David came across an account written by a soldier stationed on the Faroe Islands during the Second World War, who wrote about Norse mills on the island which were still in working order. Norse mills are a very basic form of mill, which use a small horizontal waterwheel and rely on controlling the flow of the water stream for precise grinding rather than using gears. They are the earliest surviving type of watermill in Britain, found only on the Northern Scottish Isles and in the Western Highlands. The chance of seeing this watermill for himself sparked David’s enthusiasm, and he decided to set off his own on a trip to the Faroe Islands.

This inspired David to set off on his own trip to the Faroe Islands to discover these mills for himself. However, this turned out not to be an easy task! He writes in his book: “I began planning the journey to visit them, but found it was not easy. The local travel agent had never even heard of the Faeroe Islands”. It transpired that there was no direct service taking visitors across the Norwegian Sea; the only port where he could find a ship was Copenhagen, and the only transport he could find were trawler vessels, the captains of which could occasionally be persuaded to take a passenger along, if they had the room. This was looking like it would be David’s best bet – until thankfully, his travel agent found a Faroese service that had added a few stops at the Shetland Islands. This meant that all he needed to do was get to Lerwick, the main port of the Shetlands. Sounds easy enough? Not so much in the 1950s…

“That was before the days of mass air travel and the BEA aircraft used in northern Scotland had two radial piston engines and seated 36. It was not pressurised, so as it took off the steward came round with a tray of barley sugar.”

And thus the expedition began! David describes leaving work in west London on the Friday evening, taking a steam train to Paddington, the underground to King cross and then finally catching an overnight train to Edinburgh. Here he caught a train to Glasgow, then a bus, a tram and finally walked to Renfrew airport. He hadn’t even left the British mainland and already he faced a trek worthy on an intrepid explorer! This much effort to travel is in stark contrast to today, where you can catch a flight from London straight to the Shetlands or even the Faroe Islands themselves. David described Inverness airport, today a modern, sprawling airport, as a “pair of Nissen huts”, Kirkwall airport as a “collection of improvised wooden huts” and Sumburgh as “a tiny kiosk with a signpost beside a bus shelter”. It is hard to envisage this, being used to the highly secure and modern airports of today!

Upon arrival at the Faroes, visitors were immediately faced with a major culture shock. David recalls that he was the only English traveller who knew what language was spoken there! Faroese is a North Germanic language descended from the language of the Middle Ages, Old West Norse. Danish is spoken as a second language and fortunately, David could speak a little Danish and was not completely stuck. However, due to issues in differing accents, David would have to communicate with the Grandfather of the family he was lodging with entirely through written Danish.

This barrier overcome, the journey was still not over quite yet: David still faced the task of actually getting to the mill.

“The nearest workable watermill was in the village of Kvìvìk, on the same island we were on. There was no road to that part, so I would have to take a boat. Next morning I went down to the quay and found a fishing boat. There was no special provision for passengers, not even seats; we just stood on the deck”

As the boat began pitching and rolling with the waves, Jones and his fellow local passenger found it harder and harder to remain on their feet – crashing into a metal frame that was the beginnings of a roof to shelter the passengers. David writes that the captain began to put the frame back into position, comparing it to “resetting a mousetrap ready for the next victim”. The boat arrived in Vestmanhavn, where he was to be picked up and driven by car on to Kvívík.

Upon arrival, he met the Bærentsen family, who he would be lodging with. Throughout the house David was staying there was evidence of Faroese traditions and a simple lifestyle; for example they had a bowl of family photos in the kitchen, which David explained was a Faroe custom available for any visitors to look through. The grandfather of the family even wore Faroese national dress!

The next day, after all this adventure and hard work, David finally set out to reach his final goal, and was rewarded by the discovery of a fully functioning Norse Mill.

He describes it as only being “slightly bigger than a large dog kennel”, anyone working it would have to “hunker down in front of the hurst”, while the millstones he claimed were about the size of a hand quern. Upon closer inspection he discovered that its tentering system was rare or unique, where a pair of wedges adjusted the bedstone by lifting front edge of the hurst.  He questioned why it had not been used elsewhere being so “simple and obvious”, perhaps this is due to the isolation of the islands, so ideas did not travel outside to the wider world? The mill was not used by the family but it was still functional, so David brought some barley to grind at the local shop. After a bit of trial and error, David managed to grind meal of the coarsest and finest variety, with the fine meal taking seven times longer. After presenting his work to the grandfather, he was told the coarsest could be good food for the chickens while the finest was of high enough quality to be used for cooking. Not bad for a tiny watermill!

After his successful visit to the mill, David took the opportunity to learn about the culture of the Faroe Islands and swap stories of everyday life with his host family before beginning the long journey back home – but not before dropping by Copenhagen to visit some Danish mills on the way!

It’s truly remarkable to read about the lengths that the intrepid David Jones went to to find these elusive Norse Mills, and it’s fascinating to read about what the Faroe Islands was like in the 1950s – a land lost in time.

Gem from the David H. Jones Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: Glass Plate Negatives have captured thousands of moments. However these photographs are very fragile. You can learn more about them here.
  • Losing your Marbles: Horizontal Waterwheels aren’t just used for grinding corn, but also for making marbles. Learn more about the industry behind many a childhood memory here.
  • Faroe Islands: Follow this link to the full set of catalogued pictures from Jones’ trip to the Faroes. They show off the beauty of the Islands and the uniqueness of the horizontal mills there.
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Seeing double

Stereographic images allowed the Victorians to explore the world from the comfort of their own home.

This amusing Gem, a stereoscope, was a popular Victorian device used to view optical illusions. The stereoscope was a pair of lenses through which picture cards, or stereographs, would be viewed. The cards had two almost identical images next to each other, which when observed through the lenses would appear to fuse together right before the user’s eyes. The device uses trickery of the brain to create an optical illusion: the viewer would see the image come to life in 3D, almost jumping out at them! This had a great appeal, captivating the minds of thousands throughout the Victorian era – it was said that every Victorian home of all classes owned one. They must have seen almost like magic to Victorians who were unused to moving pictures.

The images that one viewed through sterescopes were called stereographs. During their vogue thousands of different images were produced, which depicted anything from landscapes, to people, to buildings, to engineering masterpieces like skyscrapers – plus comical sketches, educational information, or even news of great disasters – for example, the 1871 Great Fire of Chicago was recorded on a stereograph. Remarkably, stereography was even used in the First World War to map trenches!

By far the most popular stereograph collections, however, were those of exotic locations. Companies commisioned photographers to travel the world taking pictures of wonders from around the globe, including the pyramids of Egypt, the temples of Japan, the Pantheon in Rome, and the Niagra Falls. These stereographs even succeeded in creating a new wave of tourism to these far and distant lands, with the rich wanting to see their Stereoscope views in real life! 

Apt to the title, this is really a double Gem as you can’t have the stereoscope without a stereograph, and vice-versa. We also have a small collection of stereographs at the Mills Archive (obviously mostly on a milling theme!). The one you see in the photo combines both a milling and a foreign theme, depicting a family of Chinese peasants using a treadwheel to irrigate a rice paddy. It has been hand-coloured using a technique called hand-tinting to increase the novelty of the image. Other stereographs produced bearing a milling theme include Cuban sugar mills and Egyptian saqiyas – all of which satiated the Victorian and American thirst for novelty.

The popularity of these images took off after Queen Victoria gave them her approval at the Great Exhibition, and they enjoyed their heyday until the 1920s when they faded with the development of film and were disregarded as children’s toys. Despite this, stereographs had a brief renaissance as a children’s toy in the late 20th century.

The Mills Archive has a few different stereographs as well as a working stereoscope, which are available for viewing by visitors.

Gem from the Mildred Cookson Foundation Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: Interested in learning more about the history of Early Photography. Click here to find out all about Tintypes, Stereographs and Glass Plate.
  • Saqiya Wheel: Stereographs brought exotic locations into the Victorian Parlour Room. Learn more about the Egyptian Saqiya wheel depicting in the stereograph here.
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This minute tintype photograph of the Holman family firm 150 years ago combines a farewell to a vanishing historical trade with a rare fashion in photography that disappeared within 20 years. 150 years later, modern technology has helped researchers reveal its secrets.

This photograph, one of the oldest in our archive, is part of the Geoff Holman Collection which contains records and memories of one of the most influential firms of millwrights and engineers dating back to Napoleonic times. What makes the picture unique is that it is a tintype: an old style of producing photogfraphs using a sheet of iron to develop the image rather than paper or card. Tintypes were only in use for a brief period in the Victorian era, peaking around 1860-1870, after which more efficient methods were introduced.

This gem is, fittingly, a type of tintype called a Gem as it measures less than 20mm across. Only one square inch in area, we have created a digital image of it in our catalogue over 100 times larger, enabling us to identify many of the people shown.

Thomas Richard Holman

Visiting the Mills Archive and seeing the tintype in person helps to understand the process behind this photo; you can see how the image has been placed on top of iron and how its edges are beginning to wear away to the rusted iron beneath, highlighting its age. It is a remarkably sharp image considering the outdated methods used in its production, and stands as a reminder of the progress made from Niépce’s grainy but monumental first picture taken in 1826.

The weight of the tintype is also a striking feature, and harks back to a time when photos were made with professionalism and care, rather than the modern immediacy. However, the image is tiny and it is difficult for the naked eye to pick up on the details, so studying the copy scanned by the archive is vital to fully appreciate the image.

The tintype shows Geoff Holman’s great-grandfather, Thomas Richard Holman (right), surrounded by employees of Holman Brothers Ltd. Because of its efficiency in comparison to other techniques, it could be that a tintype was used as the image was portable and the process rapid and low cost. Perhaps Holman wanted a quick and cheap photograph of his workers, without them taking too much time off work!

Gem from the Geoff Holman Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: Interested in learning more about the history of Early Photography. Click here to find out all about Tintypes, Stereographs and Glass Plate here.
  • Geoff Holman Collection: Read the story of the Holman Collection, a family firm from Canterbury with a surprising connection with Jerusalem.
  • Holman Ledgers: Explore the Holman Ledgers and how we rescued them with the aid of experienced conservators.