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Milling in 19th century Norway

While sat in a meeting in our Founders’ Room, my eyes travelled across the spines of the antiquarian books visible from my seat, and I couldn’t help but notice a small, gold-decorated book covered in tan-coloured leather. The name of the book was too small for me to read from a distance.

After the meeting had finished, I decided to investigate, and was surprised to find a little book that at first glance did not seem relevant to milling. In fact, what it does is put milling into the wider social, economic and political context of early 19th-century Norway. Having previously not known as much about milling as I would like, and knowing even less about Norway, my knowledge on both has now significantly improved!

The spine declares the book to be “Laing’s Norway” in small gold lettering. On the first page the full title is provided: “Journal of a Residence in Norway during the Years 1834, 1835 and 1836: Made with a view to enquire into the moral and political economy of that country, and the condition of its inhabitants”.

The author, Samuel Laing (1780 – 1868) came from Orkney and was a well-known Scottish travel writer. He travelled throughout Scandinavia and northern Germany, and published works about his travels. His son, of the same name, was a railway administrator who wrote important works on religion and science, and became a Liberal Member of Parliament. I suspect that Samuel the Younger probably got some of his political leanings from his father, which become apparent in the book about the Elder’s Norwegian travels.

Our particular edition of “Laing’s Norway” was published in 1851, and was donated to the Mills Archive by the SPAB Mills Section. It is beautifully bound, and looks well-loved and well-handled! The pages are starting to come away from the spine, so this is a book to consider for future conservation and for limited handling. The chapters covers a wide range of subjects, such as: outfits and traditions of visiting Laplanders, diet and traditional dishes, winter scenery, potato brandy, state of the female sex in society, wildlife e.g. wolves, state of education, and hereditary attachments to the horse! And, of course, mills.

Norwegians, according to Samuel’s introduction, are “the most interesting and singular group of people in Europe”. They live under ancient laws and social arrangements unlike those that have grown up in feudally constituted countries. Samuel felt that Britain is honour bound to ensure that Norway remains independent as a nation, and that her liberal constitution is protected.

“The stream issuing from this snow turns a corn mill, which I went to examine while my pony was feeding”.

On 18th August 1834, Lang stumbled upon a corn watermill (p40). He noticed several things about this mill, and about Norwegian mills in general during his travels.

Norwegian mills were very distinctive in that they had horizontal water wheels (intriguing technology I have heard referred to at the Archive as “Norse mills” with examples to be found in Scotland). Samuel reasons that this technology (as opposed to using vertical wheels as in most British mills) helps to prevent the wheel getting clogged with ice, or hindered by back-water. The author notes that this design is similar to those used in the “Zetland islands” (Shetland Islands) but nowhere else in Britain has any quite like it.

Example of a horizontal water wheel from the Richard Hills Collection (https://catalogue.millsarchive.org/sanbu-norse-mill-wheel)

According the Samuel, there are no restrictions regarding who can build and operate a mill. Every man has “Odel’s right”, which refers to one’s right to claim family property as it gets passed down. He observed that each little farm had its own mill.

Samuel was surprised, however, to see that such ingenious structures were made of such basic materials: “There was not a nail in the mill, which was all put together with wood, or with fastenings of birch bands made of twigs bruised and twisted together” (p42).

Laing observed the mill stones themselves, which he described as very small – similar to the size of Scottish quern stones – and made out of very hard gneiss. The stones were placed together very closely and moved very fast, which meant that the grinding of whole unshelled oats produced flour almost as fine as wheaten flour. Laing writes that the process of using the whole oat (rather than shelling it first as in Scotland) must be much more economical than the Scottish process, during which the most nutritious part of the oat is stripped out. The meal is excellent for making flat cakes, though he notes that they are not superior to the gentleman’s standard oatcakes of Britain!

Stereograph card showing a Norwegian watermill (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:(54)_-_654_-_A_logbuilt_mill_and_a_waterwheel_grindstone,_on_Stalheim%27s_river,_Naerodal,_Norway_stereofotografi_-_no-nb_digifoto_20160629_00223_bldsa_stereo_0207.jpg)

Curiously, there are numerous references and descriptions of something called “bark bread” – on which Laing admits his views were altered as a result of his travels. Previously, when he had heard about grinding and baking birch bark during times of scarcity, he had laughed at the idea “of a traveller dining on sawdust pudding and timber bread” (p41)!

“Sawdust pudding and timber bread”.

It came to Laing’s attention during his journey that he saw many trees stood stripped of their bark, dead and whitened by the seasons, “mere ghosts of trees” (p219). This he attributed to the harvesting of their bark to make bread.

Bark bread is in fact made from the inner rind found next to the wood of the tree. This rind is taken off in flakes and steeped in water to remove its bitterness. The flakes are then hung on a rope to dry in the sun (or sometimes perhaps over a fire as the below image shows?) and would resemble sheets of parchment. Then once dry, the flake would be pounded into small pieces, mixed with corn and ground into meal on the hand-mill or quern.

Not only did the palatable quality of bark bread challenge the author’s assumptions, he was also surprised by the high use of such a food source, and wrote that many forests suffered much damage between 1812 and 1814, when war and poor crop yields combined to risk starvation for those who were not prepared to be resourceful with their meal for the mill.

While Laing admitted to the tolerable taste of the bark bread, if it was prepared well, he comments that it is a very costly way to feed oneself. “The value of the tree, which is left to perish on its root, would buy a sack of flour, if the English markets were open. They starve and we shiver in our wretched dwellings, although each country has the means of relieving the other with advantage to itself” (p220).

Fried fish for supper

And so ends our journey with Samuel Laing, for now at least. I like to imagine him on his pony, plodding across the dramatic Nordic scenery, with a few notebooks packed in his panniers, an emergency supply of potato brandy and bark bread, sometimes simply following his stomach.

“In the evening I reached this single farm-house, and got grass for my pony and quarters for myself; and the mistress gives me the comfortable hope, if I understand her right, of fried fish, which are still in the river, but which the mowers will catch in time for supper”.

I hope he got his fried fish supper.

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The story of Sant Janabai

An image found in Hindu temples shows a god and woman grinding together at a mill. This is the revered Hindu sant (holy person) called Janabai.

Janabai was a low-caste maidservant and poet. There are various versions of her story, but according to one of these she was taken as a five-year-old child to the temple of the god Vitthal or Vithoba in the city of Pandharpur, the centre of religious devotion for the Varkari Hindu tradition. She refused to leave, telling her parents that although they loved her, they would in time have to give her away in marriage, and instead she wished to remain in the temple and devote herself to God.

The temple of Vithoba in Pandharpur. Parag Mahalley / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Janabai was then taken in by the poet Namdev as his maid. Namdev (c 1270 – c 1350) is a poet revered in both the Varkari tradition and in Sikhism (some of his poems are included in the Sikh holy book, Guru Granth Sahib). Janabai was also a poet, and is said to have composed over 300 hymns to the god Vitthal. The deity was said to have appeared to her and helped her with her daily tasks – her songs described him as her fellow serving maid. They are usually shown grinding at the mill together.

Here are some examples of her poems:

Let me undergo as many births in this world as You please, but grant that my desires are fulfilled. They are that I see Pandharpur and serve Namdev in every birth. I do not mind if I am a bird or a swine, a dog or a cat, but my conditions are that in each of these lives, I must see Pandharpur and serve Namdev. This is the ambition of Namdev’s maid.

Give me only this girl, O Hari [supreme deity], that I shall always sing Your sacred Name. Fulfil my only desire that You will accept my humble homage and service. This is all that I desire. Have mercy on me and fulfil my desires. I want to concentrate my eyes and mind on You and have Your Name on my lips. For this the maid Jani falls at Your feet.

Sources

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More mills in the news

Here’s another round up of mills featured in the news over the past few weeks.

Wheat field. Photo: Sue Watts

As we mentioned in our previous blog, the impact of the pandemic on mills has been significant, with flour still in short supply and many smaller and traditional mills working overtime to meet demand.

In spite of the huge increase in demand from home bakers, however, the lockdown may lead to a fall in total flour consumption. There is also likely to be a smaller wheat harvest than usual this year due to dry weather.

Here are some of the stories from the media about the impact on traditional mills:

The larger mills are of course playing their part too, with mills and bakeries making donations to the NHS and local charities. Similar stories could be told about mills worldwide, but I’ll leave that for another blog.

Thanks to those who have contacted us to send information and pictures to add to the archive. If you’re involved with a mill, let us know how things are going through the contact page.

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A tree swallows a mill

An article in “The Miller” dating from 1900 tells this wonderful story of the mill-swallowing tree.

“The annexed cut, which is reproduced from the Strand Magazine, shows a tree in the act of swallowing a corn mill. Fifteen years ago, in Natal, South Africa, a hand corn mill was attached to a post some 6 ins. In diameter. Soon after the owner erected a small water mill, and the post mill fell into disuse. The post, which was green when placed in the ground, had meanwhile taken root, and commenced to grow. The mill is now in process of being swallowed by the tree, and if nothing intervenes will doubtless disappear in course of time, as innumerable other articles have which have been attached to trees.”

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The man in the brown paper boat: An epic voyage down the Thames

Sailing down the Thames in a brown paper boat is a rather unusual idea to say the least. One that many people would never imagine doing, but apparently someone did just that in 1620.

The person in question was John Taylor, author of “one of the earliest and most enthusiastic” texts in English, on the merits of a fibre often used for making brown paper – hemp.

John Taylor was born in 1580 in Gloucester as the son of a chirugeon (surgeon), who, after a few years of schooling, moved to London and became a waterman, ferrying the public up and down and across the Thames.

At the age of 16 he was one of many to enrol in the Navy and served with Sir Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Essex on the 1596 expedition to Cadiz, and other expeditions to Azores.

Unfortunately, following the coronation of James I in 1603, working as a Thames waterman and serving in the Navy became much less profitable. The number of watermen rose dramatically, and fares had remained unaltered since the days of Queen Mary, 60 years previous. He appealed directly to the King but was ignored.

He decided to change tactics and took up writing. He developed a rather unique, for the time, way to entertain people and involve them in some of the wider elements of his imagination and started to ‘live out his fantasies.’ This involved him proposing a challenge, such as a ‘poetic duel’ at the Hope Theatre in London against William Fennor in 1614. He was booed off the stage but became much better known by the public. London was a small town so once you had a name, ‘people would point you out in the street and talk about you.’

Portrait of John Taylor, the ‘water poet’.

Once he had an idea, he would print up handbills describing his adventure and invite readers to subscribe any amount of money they could (although no less than sixpence was allowed,) to be paid if he succeeded. At the end of each adventure he published an account in prose and verse, praising those who had helped him on his challenges, and insult those who had treated him badly. He sounds like quite a character- he often found many subscribers but struggled to collect the money after his successful challenges. Upon his return of one of his earliest challenges, entitled Penniless Pilgrimage, (in which he decided to travel from London to Edinburgh and back again without spending any money, ‘neither by borrowing nor stealing on the journey’), some 750 of his debtors refused to pay. So, he wrote a pamphlet, with a rather amusing title “A Kicksey-Winsey or a Larry-come-Twang,” where he threatened to name, ‘satirise, cauterise, and stigmatise all the whole kennel of curs.’ If his sponsors still refused to pay. He then got much of his money.

Arguably, his most fascinating challenge was his voyage down the Thames in a brown paper boat, with a companion, Roger Bird. He decided to take this challenge to celebrate the virtues of paper and hemp, a fibre used in many types of paper. He also discusses hemp at length in his poem “The Praise of Hemp.”

His description of their Epic Voyage down the Thames comes at the end of a ‘considerably long’ poem, in which he mostly covers the myriad of uses and possibilities for hemp. This included oil and textile manufacture. His greatest praise is its use in papermaking, in his epic called “The Originall of Paper.”

Unfortunately, we know very little about the boat. We do not know what the boat looked like, the size or how it was crafted. Despite this it is believed he managed to sail a reasonable distance, over at least a day:

 “I therefore to conclude this much will note
How I of paper lately made a Boat,
And how in forme of Paper I did row,
From London unto Quinborough Ile show
I and a Vintner (Roger Bird by name)
(And a man whom Fortune never yet could tame)
Tooke shipe upon the vigil of Saint Iames
And boldly ventur’d downe the River Thames
Laving and cutting through each raging billow,
(In such a Boat which never had a fellow)
Having no kinds of metal or no wood
To help us eyther in our Ebbe or Flood”

However, disaster struck as they headed down river towards the open sea “twixt Essex, Calves and Sheepe of Kent”- the boat began to leak!

“The water to the Paper being got,
In one halfe houre our boat began to rot:
The Thames (most lib’rall) fild her to the halves,
Whilst Hodge and I sate liquoured to the calves”

Taylor and Bird had attached eight bullocks’ bladders filled with air as buoyancy bags, although this did little to help the situation.

“….such we fear’d the graves our end would be
Before we could the Towne of Gravesend see:
Our boat drunke deeply with her dropsie thirst,
and quaft as if she would her bladders burst,
Whilst we within sixe inches of the brim
(Full of salt water) downe (half sunck) did swim
Thousands of people all the shores did hide,
And thousands more did meet us in the tide
With Scullers, Oares, with ship-boats, & with Barges,
To gaze on us, they put themselves to charges.”

Once rescued, they stayed the night at Queensborough before returning to London by coach. Unfortunately, their boat did not survive.

“But whilst we were at our dinners thus were merry
The Country people tore our tatter’d wherry
In mammocks peecemeale in a thousand scraps
Wearing the reliques in their hats and caps”

Taylor ends his poem with a curse upon his subscribers who refused to pay up, particularly those who refused to pay his friend Robert Bird

“And those that doe his coin from him detaine
(Which he did win with perill and much paines)
Let them not thinke that e’re ‘twill doe them good,
But eate their marrow and consume their blood
The worme of conscience gnaw them every day
That have the meanes, and not the will to pay
Those that are poore, and cannot, let them be
Both from the debt and malediction free…
…Thus ending (like to Jason’s Golden-fleece)
This work of Hempseed is my Master-peece.”

Taylor went on to complete many more challenges and write many more poems over the years. He enjoyed many comforts but none so much as clean bed linen, which was his favourite thing, and often the subject of many of his poems praising the hospitality he was shown from the various places he went to. He continued his writing and adventures, until his death around 1653.

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Smugglers’ Mills and Nefarious Thrills

Throughout the ages, the role of the miller has been subject to all sorts of stories and stereotypes: millers have been slandered, satirised, respected and romanticised all in equal measure.

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Langstone Mill, Havant. Photo: Ashok Vaidya

Oft-times in literature, the miller has been the recipient of a similar treatment to smugglers and pirates, his contemporary romantic ruffians: filling the role of a somewhat shady yet dazzlingly handsome heart-throb, feared yet envied, who takes part in some suspiciously clandestine but thrillingly passionate scandal or adventure.

It surprised me not at all, therefore, when flicking through a delightful 1930s tome in the Mills Archive library called The Mills of Man by George Long, I came across an account attesting that at one time, the jobs of milling and smuggling did in fact go hand in hand.

Mr Long describes how, at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries “when that nefarious traffic reached its zenith”, the miller had an important role to play in the highly-organised smuggling trade. The miller was “frequently the individual responsible for the actual delivery to the consumer of the articles ordered. The reason for this was that the mill was situated in every village – either wind or water – and could easily deliver contraband articles concealed beneath the sacks of grain or flour which formed its legitimate trade. Further, those small mills which had no delivery vehicles of their own could hand the articles to the callers as they brought their grist and took away their flour.”

So it seems that millers took a leading part in the work of delivering orders to the customers in towns and villages – an ingenious method indeed! This business would not have taken place completely secretly: often the whole village would have been in on it as many of them would have benefitted, as we hear in Rudyard Kipling’s poem A Smuggler’s Song: “Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk”. Those that didn’t benefit chose to subtly turn their heads:

“Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie –
Watch the wall my darling as the gentlemen go by!”

Langstone Windmill

Stories of the smuggling days are particularly rife around the Hampshire and Sussex coastline, and I was delighted to find in The Mills of Man a tale about Langstone Mill, very near to where I grew up. George Long even calls it the “Smuggler’s Windmill”, as “This district was for some years the head-quarters of the celebrated Langstone Gang, whose exploits are worth of a book to themselves, and their favourite rendezvous was the Royal Oak Inn, close to the windmill.”

There is an old tradition that an underground passage once connected the two inns of the village, the “Royal Oak” and the “Ship”.” It is also said that yet another tunnel ran from the Royal Oak to Langstone Windmill, just next door – and now we see how the smugglers ‘land crew’ would get the contraband to the miller, right under the noses of the customs men. When I stand on the Langstone shore and look over at the old, black tower mill which gives the feeling of having seen many an escapade over the years, I am inclined to agree with George Long when he says “I think we are safe in surmising that the Langstone Windmill, like its neighbour at Bedhampton, had its full share of illegal activities.”

Smuggling in its heyday was common across the whole of the southern coast of England, from Falmouth to Folkestone and anywhere in between. Down on the rugged west coast, we can read an account of “The resourceful smugglers of Crantock” in the book An Introduction to Cornish Watermills by D. E. Benney.

Treago Mill. Photo Martin Bodman

“Treago Farm [in Crantock near Newquay] is situated behind a sand dune ridge in a hollow, secluded and isolated from the outside world, and at the back of the hollow against the open rock face is Treago Mill. [The smugglers] ran cargoes of spirits, tobacco and tea into Porth Joke and concealed their contraband in the Mill at frequent intervals, until it could be removed to safer hiding places or distributed.”

It makes sense that a mill, a large structure with plenty of space to store a cargo that could perhaps easily be disguised as bags of flour or grain, would be the perfect smugglers’ hiding place. One place, according to the newspaper cutting below (from the West Sussex County Times, 1936), was even too good – so much so that the smugglers forgot it was there!

Smugglers chose their hiding places well, and often mills just happened to be ideally suited to their requirements – for example Ewhurst Mill on Hurtwood Common, Surrey. The windmill’s neighbourhood is very solitary so unlikely to attract attention, but near enough to London. Around the mill are numerous grassy tracks, soft roads along the downs which were well-suited to the smugglers’ pack horses, but useless for the wheeled traffic of police and customs men. At the summit of the hill, near the mill, a number of the tracks converge, whilst 10 minutes to the west in Puttenham, are vast underground store houses where the smugglers would keep their cargoes.

Staplecross Mill, Ewhurst

At the other end of the south coast we find the village of Rottingdean, near Brighton, where a gang of smugglers made their disreputable business for two hundred years. Up high upon the hill, the aptly named Beacon Mill (also known as Rottingdean Mill), a grade II-listed smock mill, still stands. The fact that it is now used as a navigational mark for ships out at sea indicates how useful the windmill’s situation on the hill would have been for smugglers, who apparently used its sails to signal that the coast was clear, a message or warning being conveyed by the angle at which the sails were set.

(Many mills seem to have used this signalling method, almost like semaphore – I wonder how long it was until the customs men caught on!)

This mill’s infamous adventures have been immortalised by Rudyard Kipling (who seemed to have had as much of a love for smugglers tales as I do) in his poem “Rottingdean Mill”:

“The smugglers used her dusty lofts
And dozed there through the day,
Or waited signals from the sea
To bring “moonshine” away.”

Rottingdean Windmill

This shows us that even when millers weren’t directly involved in the smuggling mission, it seems that they were able to take full advantage of the free trading by allowing smugglers to use their mills and turning a blind eye to whatever else went on.

It’s no wonder millers throughout the ages frequently had bad reputations; these stories of smugglers’ mills, and many more to be found, confirm that millers could be men of low (or at least opportunistic) morals. It’s strange to think that these smugglers’ daring deeds actually happened in real life, not just in the pages of storybooks or folksongs round a fire!

However, it’s curious to see that instead of casting condemnation on millers and smugglers and imparting counsel not to take up their wicked ways, each tale instead glorifies their misdeeds, painting them as loveable rogues; which I think actually is how smugglers were often seen in those days, as Robin Hood-type figures who robbed from the rich (by refusing to pay extortionate government taxes on imported goods) and gave to the poor (by trading with the general public at pre-tax prices).

Whatever questionable morals they promote, these tales really do conjure up evocative images of times past. They certainly give extra fuel to our imagination when we’re looking at an old windmill or watermill which has lasted for one, two or three hundred years or more, and wondering what epic adventures it’s seen: excitement, tragedy, bravery, romance, and the enduring, steady beat of day-to-day life. Yet again, Kipling describes it best:

“And yet she braves the centuries
And the wrath of storm and flood;
But the corn she ground, the corn she ground
Has passed into our blood.”

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Bored? Why not take a look at our images and documents

If you’re stuck with nothing to do, try having a look through our Archive Catalogue, and help us improve our data.

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Our Archive Catalogue can be found here. It contains 84,554 entries relating to mills and milling, including 70,382 photographs and 2,078 text documents.

There are various ways to search the catalogue. From the search bars on the home page you can search everything, or just look for images. To find everything on a specific mill, search the mill database. You can also browse through images by country, UK county and mill type. For more information about searching see here.

With all this data, there are bound to be some errors or omissions so if you spot any we would love to hear from you. You can also look through our images tagged ‘Unidentified mill’ to see if there are any you recognise. To give us your feedback just go to our contact page.

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Mills in the news

It seems the coronavirus pandemic has affected every area of life, and milling is no exception. In fact news stories about mills, milling, flour and bread production have been particularly frequent in the last few weeks. Here is an overview of some of the stories.

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Photo: Martin Watts

The main milling related story in the UK has been the shortage of flour in the supermarkets, as the popularity of home baking during lockdown has led to increased demand. According to Alex Waugh, director general of the National Association of British and Irish Millers, the real problem is not a shortage of flour but packaging. Usually 96% of flour is sold to food manufacturers and delivered by tanker or in bags larger than 16kg. Even though mills are working 24/7 and packing lines are running at maximum capacity, it is still not possible to pack enough supermarket size flour bags to meet demand.

This has had a knock on effect on traditional mills. While these have lost their income stream from visitors, those that still produce stone-ground flour have seen a massive increase in demand as the public searches for alternative sources for flour. Many of these have been featured in the media in past weeks, including:

Letheringsett Watermill, Norfolk. Photo Frank Gregory

Other news stories about milling in the UK in the past few weeks include:

World

Trends in the UK reflect those around the world, with similar stories of a rise in home baking and corresponding flour shortage reported in the USACanadaIrelandNew Zealand and Turkey.

In countries where buying flour and baking your own bread is not just a hobby but the only way to feed your family, the effects can be much more severe. In India millers are facing a severe wheat shortage due to the closure of ‘mandis’ (agricultural markets) because of the lockdown, alongside unseasonal rains. The government has begun a programme of distributing up to 5kg free wheat per person per month, but as ‘chakki shops’ (small local mills) have also closed in the lockdown, this has left many with wheat they are unable to grind.

Small electric-powered mills in India. Photo by Geoff Holman, 2010.

In one case ten bikers were arrested for looting a flour truck. A week after lockdown began some agricultural markets began reopening, but others remain closed and the flour milling industry as a whole is running at only 25% capacity.

It is a similar story in Pakistan, where the pandemic has come on top of an existing wheat shortage at a time of economic and political turmoil. Other countries are also suffering.

Let us know your story

If you’re involved with milling, we’d like here how the pandemic has been affecting you. Send us a diary, photos or just an email.

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Help us record the impact of coronavirus on mills

The Mills Archive needs your help to record the story of how mills have been affected by the current crisis. If you’re involved with a mill, why not send us a record of your experiences (e.g. a diary and/or pictures), so that this can be preserved for future generations?

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Tomorrow’s history depends on your efforts, so please can you help? Send anything you think is relevant to archivist@millsarchive.org and we will preserve and share the story. And please pass this message on to any who would be interested.

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The Mills Archive’s response to the coronavirus

During these unprecedented times, we thought we should reach out and reassure you that here at the Mills Archive Trust, we are working hard to continue to safeguard milling heritage.

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The Mills Archive is now closed to visitors and staff will be working from home, while continuing to maintain the security of the collections in our care. We will still be available to contact through our contact form, so please feel free to get in touch, but we would ask for your patience as it may take longer for us to get back to you, and in some cases we may be unable to answer your enquiry.
 
Our online resources and databases are of course still available and we’ll continue updating our blog and Facebook page with fascinating mill themed facts and stories, to keep you entertained if you’re stuck at home.
 
We encourage you to subscribe to one or more of our email newsletters, which address different aspects of milling history.
 
We wish all our supporters good health in this difficult time.