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Fourth Extract – Exit the Jolly Miller

This is the fourth extracts taken from the book, Spalding in the Sixties and Seventies (1860 & 70’s) by F Ridlington.

The miller used to be a much more important and valuable member of the community than he is today. I refer to the owners of windmills, of which there was a dozen or so in Spalding and one in most of the surrounding villages. In these the corn was crushed between two revolving circular stones each weighing nearly half a ton.

Clever Craftsmen.

A race of clever craftsmen known as mill wrights have disappeared with the substitution of steam power for wind in this industry. Dressing and re-dressing the stones to produce on the surface the scoring necessary for making a fine powder look years Io learn. The millwright was also a clever carpenter, and without any aid except the primitive tools then known, had to make the huge gear wheels forming part of the mill equipment. The older mills were dangerous to humans and animals because the revolving sails often reached within three or even two feet of the ground. Owing to the absence of moving water there were no water mills in the Fens.

Flour for London.

I can just remember Johnson’s steam mill in St Thomas road (then known as Thomazin Lane) closing down. It was driven by one of the huge beam engines then in vogue similar to that of Pode Hole engine which was replaced comparative recently by a modem compact pumping motor. After that the largest steam mill in the town was that of C. and T. Steel of King’s Cross. on premises now owned by Messrs. Birch, in High Street. All the flour milled here was sent to the firms place of business in London and the wagons transporting this to the station could be seen all day long. The offal of the wheat being sold locally, provided an acceptable supply of cattle food. Mr. Sewell the local representative, bought the grain and superintended the work of the mill. Another large mill was that of Mr. Jacob Kelk. situated in High street and next to the timber yard. His was in the main a local trade.

As the steam mill made headway the windmills were gradually abandoned but not wholly so. They obtained work of grinding beans, oats, barley, maize etc. for farmers and corn dealers also grists in season. The wheat gathered by the gleaners was called grists. The miller would receive from these say a sack of wheat to reduce it to flour, bran and fine and course sharps. Gleaning an ancient custom going back to the days of Ruth, and beloved by poets and artists is one of the country’s lost institutions.

Modern Ruths. (Biblical reference)

Searching for odd ears of wheat left behind in the fields after the removal ofthe stooks occupied whole families over a period of several weeks. Gleaners often threshed the corn out of the ears with a brush handle or suitable piece of wood and removed the chaff by tossing the corn in the wind. The large quantities were threshed by the flail. Small farmers used the flail long after the thrashing machine appeared. The latter did not winnow the grain as it now does; there was a separate hand machine for this.

Irishmen Came Then.

Corn was reaped by means of scythes and sickles mostly by Irishmen who came over to work every harvest time in crowds to do this work. They lived “rough” on the farms, eating bread and Dutch cheese, fat bacon and potatoes. Whilst there was a lot drunkenness among them, on the whole they behaved well and their help was appreciated. They were paid by the acre of crop cut. Cutting grain with a scythes on a hot day is said to be the hardest of all manual labour and the Irish visitors worked from early morning to dewy eve. We used to admire the punctuality with which these poor men remitted the balance of their earnings to their distant cabin homes every Saturday night.

Our Daily Bread.

Spalding bread in the sixties was made from home-grown wheat. I believe little was imported as the great Middle West and the vast Canadian wheat growing lands were things of the future. Wet harvests being frequent, the wheat in ear was often beaten to the ground where it germinated and became “soft.” This caused the bread to be “puddingy” in the middle, and Yorkshire puddings had to be eaten with a spoon. The finest wheat-growing lands were the planes of Hungary, and Hungarian flour began to be imported to stiffen and whiten home grown flour. Bakers employed alum to give their bread a whiter colour until the practice was stopped by the passing of the Food and Drugs Act. Alum was said to be injurious to the health of the eaters of bread.

Topics of conversation at this period were few, and a favourite one was the various rises and falls of the prices of sugar and bread. “Well I hear bread is up” one would say addressing a neighbour. If the latter was of waggish turn she (or he) would reply: “Yes, but one can always get a penny loaf for a penny.” Accidently dropping a loaf usually evoked the exclamation: “Hello, bread’s down.” Many penny loaves and twists were made by bakers. Four-pound loaves were the rule; those with large families bought eight-pound ones. I have not seen a four-pound loaf for years. Until the eighties, when “patent” yeast was made, our bakers fermented their dough with brewers’ yeast.

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