For centuries corn was ground using mill stones
driven by wind or water, such as at Headley Mill.
It was ground to meal to feed animals and to flour
for bakers. The only differences would be perhaps
the variety of wheat used and most bakers would want
flour to be a bit finer than meal. The invention of
roller mills in the 1880s (in Hungary I believe)
brought in a new way of producing flour, and by the
early 1900s this was affecting the business of local
Roller mills had several commercial advantages over
mill stones. They could produce more tons per hour
and were usually electrically driven. This enabled
them to be sited at docks to grind the shiploads of
hard milling wheat coming in from North America.
Roller mills consist of a series of stages each of
which ‘nicks’ the grain, splitting it into smaller
pieces for the next stage. Furthermore, screens can
be placed between stages to remove bran and wheat
germ, leaving just the white carbohydrate part of
the grain. Thus roller mills produce white flour,
with all the fibre, essential oils, vitamins and
minerals and proteins removed. This ‘pure’ white
flour is so infertile that it has an almost infinite
shelf life, which is a huge advantage to the trade.
So this white flour was promoted as being ‘pure’ and
much better for you than the ‘dirty’ brown flour
coming from ‘unhygienic’ old water mills. Of course
it is exactly the reverse. White flour has had all
the goodness taken out, and is just pure starch.
Nevertheless, big money won out, and the public
developed a taste for white flour. Faced with this,
stone mills had to respond.
My great-grandfather had been apprenticed at the
Cross-in-Hand windmill in Sussex, but moved to water
mills to avoid getting up at 3am just because the
wind was blowing. He founded the family business at
Greatham Mill in 1889 and moved to Sheet Bridge Mill
a year or two later. My grandfather bought Headley
Mill in 1914.
Traditionally millers were paid with ‘mulch’,
usually 7% of the meal milled. To turn this into
money, they kept pigs and baked bread, which was
sold to the village. There is a bread oven at
Headley Mill, but as far as I know it was never
used, because my grandfather had decided to focus on
provender milling, so as to avoid direct competition
with roller mills. So he needed a pig farmer and
his son Peter took on this role.
By focussing on grinding meal for animal feeds, the
family business of J Ellis and Sons also became
agricultural merchants, buying and selling from
farmers, as well as milling. For example, we
supplied seeds, feeds, fertilisers (later on), hay
and straw, and many other things farmers and
small-holders needed. The business continued like
this through World War 2 (run by my Aunty Joan
whilst her brothers were away fighting), when it
played an important (local) role in food production.
After the war, huge efforts were made to build up
agriculture, and the business flourished in the
1950s, with 6 lorries on the road and 12 employees.
By the 1960s farms were getting bigger and more
mechanised, and the trade was changing. My father
John Ellis made a big effort to produce a brand of
animal feeds he called "Conquest" at Headley Mill.
Conquest feeds were compounded feeds with
additional nutrients added. However, changes in the
law introduced stiff penalties if these did not
correspond to the amounts stated on the bag. Errors
can occur and my father decided to stop this, as it
was too risky. At the same time BOCM, Dalgetty, and
other companies had built modern mills which
produced compounded animal feeds, and Headley Mill
could not have competed with them for long.
Another change was that farmers were able to buy
electric hammer mills to produce animal feeds
directly from their grain. As a result, my father
said that the last time he milled corn for farmers
was Poland's in Bramshott in the later 1960s.
In an attempt to expand the business, my father took
on Denyer's at Neatham Mill near Alton. There were
two staff, Pam in the office, and the miller Mr
Self. I remember Mr Self. He was white all over.
He had white hair, white eyebrows, a light dusting
of white flour on his skin, and white clothes,
because he was the flour miller. In response to
roller mills, Denyer's had installed a turbine and
their own roller mill, and it seems they managed to
hold onto the flour trade in the Alton area into the
1950s. By the 1960s, this started to fade, and my
father came in at the end. Running two premises was
a struggle and so he closed Neatham down in about
1970, and absorbed their farming customers into
So my father, in a complete change of strategy,
tried to market stoneground wholemeal flour in the
1970s. In addition to containing all the vitamins,
minerals, and proteins in the original grain,
stoneground flour also contains minute traces of
silica (found in sand and quartz) from the mill
stones. Note, the bran also contains silica.
Silica is a trace element. It is important for the
formation of collagen and building strong bones.
Cement contains silica and calcium. If you leave
out the silica, it becomes brittle – the same
happens with your bones. Healthy bones require
silica, yet to this day, most people think that
calcium is the solution to osteoporosis. However,
our diets are rich in dairy and poor in silica,
especially since modern food is washed so much that
there is no grit left in it. I don't wish to
suggest that stone ground flour is the answer to
osteoporosis, by itself it is almost certainly not
(colloidal silica might be better). The point is
that stoneground wholemeal flour is healthier than
wheat flour, and is part of the old way of life,
which was more in harmony with nature – water mills
do not produce greenhouse gases!
However, all this was lost on most of the public in
the 1970s, and the wholemeal flour project was not a
success. The timing was wrong. There were further
changes in agriculture which weakened the
agricultural merchanting business. But the business
struggled on until 2008 when it was forced to close.
Whilst we did not beat modern roller mills in the
end, we outmanoeuvred them for three generations.