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Introduction to milling

Until well into the 18th century, water and wind were the only sources of mechanical power. In medieval waterwheels the flow of water was regulated by sluice gates. A paddlewheel of elm wood turned in the water and drove the millstone via an axle and a system of interlocking cogwheels. Mills turned water or wind power into cost-effective energy that could be used to process a number of substances, including corn, leather, bones and paper.

The most common mill is one powered by water, which turns a device known as the waterwheel. The waterwheel effectively converts the linear motion from a stream into rotary motion that can be used for grinding grain and many other purposes. The location of mills was dictated by the availability of a water supply to turn the wheels. The earliest reference to a mill is by a Greek poet called Antipater in 85 BC, but this describes primitive handmills worked by women. In England watermills were in use from the time of the Roman occupation in the first century AD.

There were many watermills in medieval Herefordshire. The best source of information for the early period is the Domesday Book. It tells us that Harold Godwinson, for example, had a watermill attached to his manor in Much Marcle and another one with an eel pond at Burghill. If the water driving the wheel was too shallow or too slow, a millpond had to be made by damming the stream just above the mill. That is why you often find ponds mentioned alongside mills in the Domesday Book. William, son of Norman, for example, held a mill in Broadward and a fishery of 500 eels, an important fish in the medieval diet.

Most mills mentioned in the Domesday Book, however, were corn mills, used for grinding grain into flour for bread. The tenants of the manor were forced to use the mill attached to their manor and were obliged to give the miller a 10% cut. The lord also got a cut. Many millers in the Middle Ages had a bad reputation for taking advantage of customers and cheating them.

The first known mill in Herefordshire was at Wellington, dated by dendrochronolgy to AD 696. By the time of the Domesday Survey of 1086 there were at least 116 mills. This includes 16 in and around the important manor of Leominster. In addition there were probably several more unrecorded mills in the town of Hereford.

Mills are commonly mentioned in medieval documents in Herefordshire, normally it is watermills that are described (molendinium acque) but windmills are also sometimes recorded (molend venti). Windmills were used right into the 19th century; Muriel Tonkin's study "Windmills in Herefordshire" (published in A Herefordshire Miscellany. Commemorating 150 Years of the Woolhope Club, edited by David Whitehead and John Eisel, 2000) found 14% of parishes in Herefordshire may have had a windmill in the 18th/19th century.

Mills played an important economic role in the medieval period, and though the initial investment to set one up was high the long term return in profits was very good.

The Herefordshire Historic Environment Record database has records of 336 mills in Herefordshire at various periods. These are split into six different types. The most common was the corn mill, where corn would be ground to produce flour. The reason for this being the most prolific type of mill is the agricultural nature of Herefordshire and the amount of grain grown in the county. The next most common is the cider mill, which would help process some of the vast amounts of apples produced in the county. This number would be considerably higher if you counted all the individual cider mills on the farms of the county, which were a single trough and wheel powered by a horse. There were four paper mills in the county: one at Mortimer's Cross, near Kingsland; one at Leominster; one at Weston under Penyard; and one to the north of Hope Mansell. There was also a bone mill at Llanwarne, which would have ground up animal bones for use in the glue and gelatin industries.

The last type of mill is the fulling mill, of which there appears to be one example in Herefordshire. It is thought that the Pandy Inn at Dorstone was once a fulling mill, and indeed there seems to be some evidence of an old mill leat and pond to the rear while the pub sign shows a pair of fulling stocks.

Fulling was the processing of treating wool for use in the cloth industry. Originally wool had been converted from a loosely woven fabric into a close knit one by people trampling it under foot whilst it was soaking in water. From the 12th century onwards the fulling mill was equipped with a pair of fulling stocks (heavy wooden hammers) that when driven by the waterwheel would do the job much more efficiently and with less labour. Before the wool was worked in the mill it was cleaned using potash, pig dung and stale urine. After being processed in the mill the wool would be hung out to dry on special wooden frames called tenter frames. It was then sent elsewhere to be made into cloth.

Cloth became England's chief source of wealth in the Middle Ages and many small rural industries employing carders (men who combed the wool), staplers(people who graded and sold the wool), spinners and weavers sprang up alongside these watermills.

It is likely that there are many more mills in the county than those recorded in the Historic Environment Record database. Muriel Tonkin's survey of field-names (see above) found about 40 possible windmill sites, while the survey of the mills on the Wye in Herefordshire by S.D. Coates and D.G. Tucker (1983, Hereford Library), recorded about 40 post-medieval water mills, but elsewhere in the county no detailed survey has been carried out. Many of the mills were only in use for a few years at a time so it is possible that there are more still to discover.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]