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A history of milling

From the earliest pre-Roman days when agriculture was introduced into the Sacrewell area, the staple diet for the farming community was grain from cereal crops. These crops required grinding, using animal or human labour. 

Water power for milling was initially brought to Britain by the Romans, with watermills becoming increasingly popular by the Anglo-Saxon era. The Domesday Book of the late 11th century records several thousand watermills in Britain at that time. In the Wittering area there were three, of which Sacrewell was most likely one. Further mills were introduced in the early middle ages and although wind power was established in the 12th century, water power remained dominant.

Before the industrial revolution, most of the population worked on the land and, because transport was primitive, milling took place locally. As a result, small scale rural milling became commonplace. 

The primary reason for the demise of milling in Britain was the repeal in 1846 of the Corn Laws of 1815.  This was a trade law designed to protect cereal producers in Great Britain and Ireland against competition from cheaper foreign imports. Bread was an expensive commodity and the Corn Laws kept the landowners in profit. A dispute arose between landowners and a new class of manufacturers and industrialists. The landowners wanted to maximise their profits by keeping the price of their grain high, while the manufacturers and industrialists wanted to reduce the cost of grain. Industrial workers, agricultural labourers, and tenant farmers joined the cause and Corn Law reform became one of the largest movements in British history.

The dispute was fought in parliament, and the Corn Laws were abolished. Free trade grew as a result and cheaper cereals were imported to Great Britain and Ireland on a grand scale. 

At the same time, white bread was becoming more popular – and that meant using hard wheat, which the British could not grow and which was imported from the USA and Canada. Steam-powered roller mills were used at the docksides where grain ships regularly came in and the milled cereals were transported by railway to an increasingly urban population. By the end of the 19th century, farmland was largely given over to pasture for animals.