As soon as man discovered he could produce
food and drink from grass seed he required a
method of breaking down the hard seed. The
grain had to be ground to remove the husk
and crush the “germ” inside.
Initially he crushed the seed between two
pieces of stone; the bottom stone being
shaped like a saddle (saddle quern) and the
top stone rubbed to and fro over the
grain. `Saucer' querns were also used.
Later the task was made easier by using two
round stones, the bottom stone being
stationary and the top stone, with a hole
drilled in its centre to take the grain,
being rotated by hand (rotary quern) from
The Romans took the process a stage further
by adding power to drive the runner stone,
initially by horse or donkey, but later,
around the 3rd Century BC, by using a water
wheel which soon enabled larger stones to be
used. The Romans introduced the water mill
The Domesday Survey records some 5,624 water
mills in England, an average of one mill per
50 households. The windmill did not
arrive until around 1185. The eventual
general pattern in England was for windpower
to predominate in the area southeast of a
line drawn from Southampton to Scarborough
(i.e. the flatter lowland areas) and water
mills in the remaining more hilly areas.
There were exceptions, for example the
Lancashire Fylde, and there was an overlap
where local conditions favoured a particular
During the medieval period milling was
controlled by the customary law of Mill Soke.
The mill was built at the cost of the Lord
of the Manor in return for which his tenants
were obliged to bring their corn to be
ground by the Lord's miller, who retained a
percentage of the flour ground in payment,
his 'toll', usually about
This arrangement can be seen as either the
Lord providing a service for his tenants, or
as a form of subjection and taxation,
tenants being compelled to use the Lord's
mill. Millers were rarely popular figures,
often being accused of taking more than they
were entitled to, especially as they usually
had the fattest pigs in the village!
By 1750, mill soke was disappearing, being
replaced by a system where the miller bought
grain direct from the farmer and sold flour
direct to consumers. This resulted in
millers needing more storage space, thus
mills were enlarged and the tall tower
windmill began to appear.
Tastes also changed. White bread became
popular which resulted in the miller having
to install extra equipment to sieve out the
HISTORY OF MILLING post 1750
By 1850 the traditional wind or watermill
had reached a high state of development,
with many important operations automated and
considerable use being made of cast iron.
The period 1750 to 1850 had seen an increase
in demand for water power, as textile and
other industrial mills appeared. But more
far reaching events were taking place.
In Hungary a new method of milling was
perfected, using cast iron rollers instead
of millstones ·
In North America there was an over
production of grain (produced on very large
farms at a lower cost than in England).
This grain was exported at a cheap price to
England but, being very hard, could not be
ground economically using millstones. But
it could by using rollers.
The concept of fully automating grain and
flour handling was introduced, again from
Large steam engines became a reliable source
of power (although much more costly).
By 1850 England had a comprehensive rail
network which enabled producers to
distribute goods (including flour) quickly
to all parts of the country.
During the period 1750 to 1850 the
population of England rose from some 6.3
million to about 16.9 million, increasing
the demand for flour.
Leading millers brought all these items
together by building large steam powered
roller mills adjacent to the ports. Large
quantities of grain could be unloaded direct
from ship to silo, where the grain and flour
were moved about the mill automatically,
crushed and sifted not once, but up to six
times to extract every last bit of white
flour. The traditional millers could not
compete with these new mills, either in
quantity or price, particularly in urban
areas. They did survive in rural areas,
particularly by supplying animal feed as
well as flour, but by the outbreak of the
first world war, traditional flour milling
had all but ceased.
These local mills became derelict and were
assumed to be obsolete. But the
traditional mill can, and many do, produce
flour of equal quality to that of the large
concerns. What it cannot do is make as