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A handy mill

Feeding an army in the depths of a Russian winter requires some handy ideas.

Handmills like this one were carried by thousands of Swedish soldiers during the Great Northern Wars of the 18th Century. They were used by the Caroleans, the highly professional soldiers of the Swedish Empire.

Grain both lasts longer than flour, and is far easier to store and transport. As a result, many armies throughout history have granted its soldiers rations in grain rather than finished food, a practice that dates back to the armies of Imperial Rome. Napoleon’s Grande Armée brought hand-cranked mills with them on the Russian Campaign, but these were heavy and cumbersome. In comparison, this simple Swedish mill could be carried by each individual soldier. Made out of wood, it was light and could be easily dismantled into three parts, and was easy to repair. As the mill was made out of wood, the grains would have to be very soft: when we tried to grind modern grains in it, they were too hard.

It is a very simple mill to work: the grain would go into the trough, then the soldier, using his own strength, ran the large wheel over the grains. From here the flour could be turned into bread, biscuits and flat cakes depending on the needs and desires of the soldier as well as marching conditions and the other ingredients available. Indeed this was another advantage with soldiers grinding their own flour as it is more adaptable to the variable conditions of warfare.

 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. 
  • Curious Quern: Muscle-powered mills have been used for thousands of years. However, some, such as this rotary quern, would have been far more difficult to carry. Click here to find out more.

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Nice rice

Mill don’t just grind flour.

This is a donkey-powered rice mill in China. It makes use of an Edge Runner Stone rather than using a pair of flat millstones. To work it, the rice would be placed on the stationary lower stone. The donkey then drags the top vertical stone around the edge of this lower stone, thus grinding the rice. The produced flour would then be brushed into a bowl. You can see in this photograph the lady on the right holding a brush for this purpose.

Rice is the staple food for a substantial portion of the world’s population. Rice flour can be produced by grinding rice, which is used to thicken stews and soups, as well as making pancakes such as South Indian appams. Its popularity has also increased in recent years as rice flour doesn’t contain gluten.

The ladies in this image are working at a Franciscan Monastery in Chan-Tong, China. The Franciscans arrived as Missionaries to China in the 13th Century, with the first being Father John of Montecorvino. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries there were waves of persecutions as Christianity was seen as a tool of foreign influence. However, relative peace was established in 1800 by the Treaty of Tianjin, and the religious orders returned en mass to China until they were once again expelled following the Communist Revolution.

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.
  • History of Rice Milling: Learn all about the milling of rice in this series of articles written by Mildred for Milling and Grain. 

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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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She’s a jolly miller

“With flour-dust sprinkled in her greying hair and a beaming smile [she] runs, all alone, the centuries-old watermill of Thunder Bridge.”

This jolly Gem is a newspaper cutting from the Daily Mail, from the 21st October 1938. It reports on the life and work of a certain Mrs H. Dickinson, who, having taken over the running of her mill after the death of her husband in 1936, was one of the only female millers in the country at that time.

The article, quite unlike the scathing paparazzi headlines that one often sees today, is written in beautiful, poetic language: “with flour-dust sprinkled in her greying hair and a beaming smile [she] runs, all alone, the centuries-old watermill of Thunderbridge.”

An evocative name in itself, Thunderbridge is situated in the town of Kirkburton in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. The name ‘Thunderbridge’ is probably a contraction of ‘the underbridge’. The mill had been in Mrs Dickinson’s husband’s family for generations, and Mrs Dickinson explains that whilst he was alive, she took an increasingly important role due to her fascination with the mill.

‘I used to help my husband because the mill had a kind of fascination for me. Gradually, I learned all the processes – how to set the stone, how to control the flow of corn to the sacks underneath. Then when he died, I took over the mill. He wished it so’

It is clear from the article that Mrs Dickinson was hugely passionate about the mill and loved her work there. She would regularly produce one ton of ground flour a day, whilst all the time displaying her signature beaming smile. Indeed, she felt that millers were inherently jolly due to the work they did.

‘That is why I think millers are jolly. They have found happiness in their work.’

The only thing that puzzled Mrs Dickinson was why millers were always depicted as rotund men! Her reasoning:

‘if they had to run up and down steps as she does they would never have any time to grow fat.’

As well as this newspaper article, Mrs Dickinson was featured in a British Pathé clip which can be viewed here. The short film shows her bustling about her work around the mill, completing hard physical tasks such as grinding corn and moving sacks of flour. It is a testament to her strength of character as well as her muscle strength that Mrs Dickinson took on a job that women would not have usually been expected to do in the 1930s. Alongside her collie dog, Don, Mrs Dickinson the jolly miller gained significant recognition for her work as one of the only female millers in the country.

Gem from Daily Mail 21st October 1938
You can read more about Women in Milling here.

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Curious quern

This Quern is thousands of years old and is one of the earliest ancestors of modern milling.

This ancient Gem is what is known as a beehive quern. It is probably the oldest item in the Archive’s collections, dating back to the Iron Age (around the second century BC). It gained its name, the beehive quern, as its shape was similar to that of an early straw beehive. Beehive querns had a number of variations – ours is an East Anglian type. However, the regional classification can be misleading as they are also found elsewhere. You can tell the difference by looking at the female section (top section) as it is these that differ the most. An East Anglian type is signified by its highly conical female section.

The material the stone is made of is rather intriguing. It’s made out of a fairly rare type of rock called Hertfordshire puddingstone, which is perfect for milling as it is very hard and slow wearing. It is classed as a conglomerate sedimentary rock: formed millions of years ago as small flint pebbles were deposited in a clay rivers, it then hardened into a very strong mass during the Ice Age. 

Use of puddingstone began around the Iron Age (which began 6th-8th century B.C. and finished around the first century A.D.) when the tools required to work the material became available. The base of the top section would be worked to produce a concave shape; the grains were then crushed in the centre and would move to the grinding edge. The use of Beehive Querns began to tail off around 150 AD as they were replaced by the importing of cheap lava querns from North Western Germany.

Hand-powered Querns would continue to be used for many centuries, and in parts of the world are still used today. Throughout antiquity, hand-powered milling was seen as a job fit only for either slaves or women. As part of the feudal responsibilities of the Medieval period, tenants were to use their Lord’s designated mill for grinding their grain, for which they would pay a percentage in kind. However as records of feudal fines demonstrate, some people tried to get around this by using rotary querns. 

This curious quern is one of the oldest gems within our collection and represents a significant development within milling technology, paving the way for modern milling. 

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. 
  • A Handy Mill: Muscle-powered mills have been used for thousands of years. Click here to find out more about such a hand mill that fed the Swedish Empire in the depths of a Russian winter.   
  • From Quern to Computer: From Quern to Computer explores milling from prehistory through to the present day.
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Flour power

“Some of the work in a flour mill requires a good deal of muscular strength, and in peace days such work was considered unsuitable for women.”

“Some of the work in a flour mill requires a good deal of muscular strength, and in peace days such work was considered unsuitable for women. However, when the need came the women proved themselves quite equal to the strenuous tasks required of them.”

So declares the 1916 cigarette card issued by Carreras Limited, producer of “Black Cat Cigarettes”, along with an illustration showing two women working in a flour mill. The women are depicted moving heavy flour sacks – heavy manual work that was typically reserved for men. These cards were used to promote a particular brand, while also keeping to the shape of the cigarette box.

During both First and Second World Wars, the majority of men of working age were away fighting, and it was left to women to keep the country running. This meant that they had to take on what had been traditionally seen as male roles, such as heavy manual labour. Despite initial doubt as to whether women would be capable of such tasks, they excelled: proving themselves fully competent and efficient, and helping to break down the perception of what was women’s work, along with preconceptions of their capabilities.

The work of women in the First World War proved to be instrumental in the case for women’s rights. Their patriotic contribution to the war prompted the inclusion of women’s enfranchisement in the 1918 amendment of the Representation of the People Act, finally allowing women over the age of 30 who met certain qualifications the right to vote. While this move did not give women immediate equality, it was an important step on the path towards full political rights.

Gem from the Mildred Cookson Foundation Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: Discover more about the crucial role women have played in milling.
  • Further Reading: Without a reliable supply of food Britain would have lost the Second World War, however getting your daily bread was far more difficult during wartime. Learn all about the demands of war on the milling industry here.