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Rags to riches

Turning your shirts into books.

This Gem is a picture that tells a story of its own origin: a sketch of a windmill, drawn on paper which has been handmade in the traditional way.

Although the sketch is titled ‘Molenpapier’, or ‘papermill’, it seems that the mill in the picture is not actually a papermill at all but the Dutch paint mill Verfmolen de Kat. Built in 1781 in Zaandam, North Holland, it is now the last working paint mill, which produces pigments for paint on a pair of large millstones and opens regularly to visitors.

Mills, powered by either wind, water, humans or animals, were commonly used to make paper until paper-making machines were invented during the Industrial Revolution.

The process of papermaking was done by a very poor group of people from developing towns and cities. Men, women and children could all work as rag pickers who collected old bits of material and brought them to the mill where women known as ‘rag girls’ would sort the rags into different types, open the seams, remove the buttons and cut the pieces to size. These rags could be made from various different types of material, from old clothes to sailcloth. There were two types of quality: lower quality fibres such as hemp making brown paper, and high-quality white paper being made from cotton and linen.

Once the women had prepared the rags, they would then feed them into the mill-driven machines which broke down the rags and separated the fibres, mixing them with water to create a soggy mixture called pulp. Using a wire mesh the same size as the desired piece of paper as a mould, portions of pulp were taken out and spread over the mesh, pressing it down hard so that the water is squeezed out through the mesh, the fibres knit together and a sheet of paper is formed. The sheets were then hung up to dry, and voila – there you have your paper.

Paper was originally invented in China around 200 BC. It came to Europe through the Islamic World, travelling up through Spain during the period of the Reconquista. From here it spread around Europe with the first recorded paper mill in the UK dating to 1488. The invention of the Fourdrinier Machine in 1803 industrialised the process, bringing to an end the centuries-old history of commercial traditional paper milling.

Gem from the Mildred Cookson Foundation Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: You can learn all about the history of paint mills such as the Verfmolen De Kat.
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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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A lonely fight for survival

“Newport’s cattle market had not seen anything like it before. There, talking business among the weather-beaten faces of Isle of Wight farmers, was a woman.”

This Gem is a newspaper cutting from The Southern Echo, a regional tabloid newspaper covering Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. The article, which was published on 14th March 1978, looks back to an Isle of Wight lady called Mrs Emma Weeks, who operated Upper Calbourne Watermill by herself whilst looking after nine children in the early 20th century. Following the death of Emma’s husband, the miller, in 1903, she was left to care for their four boys and five girls, who were all under the age of 12 years old. Taking over her husband’s watermill was a matter of neccessity, as she was left with no other way to put food on the table and a roof over her family’s heads. Unfortunately, back in 1903 a woman’s place was traditionally seen to be in the home, especially in rural farming communities like on the Isle of Wight. In the article, Emma’s last surviving son, Ronald, recounts that she used to go to Newport market on a pony and trap to get orders from farmers who wanted grain crushed for their animals, but she was not easily accepted by the community:

‘Some were very suspicious of a woman getting involved in such matters but she had to do it. There were mounting debts to be paid and there was no social security those days.’

We can imagine how hard it must have been for Emma, caught between the options of being judged and scorned by her community or not being able to support her children; but obviously, her children had to come first.

When her boys were old enough, Emma brought them into the business and taught them all about how to operate the watermill. They began at the age of 16 on one shilling a week. Emma continued to be involved in the business, looking after the accounts up until shortly before her death at the age of 77 in 1943.

Emma Week’s mill, Upper Calbourne Watermill on the Isle of Wight is one of the oldest mills in the country: a mill had been recorded at that site in the Doomsday book. The stopped commercial operation in 1953 after the government stopped granting subsidies to Country Mills, and was eventually turned into a heritage attraction. The mill and rural museum still runs demonstrations and produces around 30-40 tons of flour for local farmers markets and the gift shop.

Gem from the Press Cuttings Collection

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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.

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Milling for votes

The experience of a national suffrage campaigner which led to the saving of the nation’s watermills.

Miss Emilie Montgomery Gardner, known to most as E. M. Gardner, was an avid watermill enthusiast. It was through her diligent campaigning that in 1946, the SPAB agreed to expand their windmills section to include watermills. The SPAB were initially deeply resistant, but Miss Gardner’s determination and resilience managed to persuade the society of the importance of Britain’s watermills and the crucial need to preserve them for the good of posterity.  

Miss Gardner was born in America, but in 1892 her father moved the family to England in order to set up a company which manufactured steel and iron chains. She did well at school, winning a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, a women’s’-only college founded in 1871. Miss Gardner continued to thrive and became a civil servant, eventually receiving an OBE for her services upon her retirement.

Miss Gardener led an exciting life, rather atypical for a woman of the age. She became a member of the women’s suffrage movement, and was involved in two caravan tours to promote the campaign. The first tour, in July 1908, involved Miss Gardner and some fellow Newnham students taking a train to Glasgow, from where they worked their way down the country to Oxford in a horse-drawn caravan. The journey was a huge undertaking, covering a distance of approximately 1380.29 miles.

The second tour, only a month later, took her a bit closer to home, travelling around Yorkshire for the duration of August. The picture to the left was taken on this tour: Miss Gardner is the one standing in the left of the picture, proudly advertising a women’s suffrage meeting.

These tours helped to pave the way for E. M. Gardner’s later travels, in which she visited and documented watermills. Her work was instrumental in raising awareness of this key area of the nation’s heritage, which up until then had been virtually ignored.

A report in the Lakes Herald gives an indication of her determination and oratory skills that would persuade SPAB to include the preservation of watermills under the remit of the windmill section.

‘Their powers of eloquence were such as would put to shame many a male speaker who has figured on a local political platform.’

Miss Gardner passed away on the 8th April 1959. At the time she was working on booklet seven for the Watermills and Horizontal Wheel series, alongside Paul Wilson. His memorial foreword gives a touching account, describing her as 

‘a woman of great character, humour and charm … how much better this work would have been had she written it’.

It’s incredible to see the determination and energy that Emilie Gardner brought to the preservation of watermills, along with her pioneering spirit and sense of adventure. It is thanks to her that the watermills of our country still continue to be preserved, documented and enjoyed today.

Gem from the E.M. Gardner Collection
Photograph of the Caravan tour used with the kind permission of the Women’s Library at LSE.

Related links

  • Further Reading: Miss Gardner’s campaign tours were huge undertakings. Her passion and tenacity shaped this crucial part of the suffrage movement. You can learn more about this here. 
  • Trailblazing the way for Women’s Votes: Read the story about how we discovered Miss Gardner’s caravan tours here.
  • Gardner Collection: Here you can view the fantastic Gardner Collection containing more than 2.000 images and documents. Make sure to check out her passion by browsing her photographs of watermills.