British Milling achievements

by Chrystal Shannon
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New book details the history of the British milling industry from the mid-19th century to today

American millers have had a detailed history of their industry since 1952, when J. Storck and W.D. Teague published "Flour for Man’s Bread" (University of Minnesota). Now with the publication of "The Millers: A Story of Technological Endeavour and Industrial Success, 1870 to 2001," by Glyn Jones, the British industry has its chronicle of achievement, from the first introduction of roller milling to the beginning of the new millennium.

The book is the culmination of many years of study. It is securely based on an engineer’s understanding of the machines and systems involved in the new processes that within a very short period replaced traditional grindstones.

By the late 1800s, the British milling industry consisted of perhaps 10,000 wind and water mills. By 1887, a surge toward new technology led to the installation of nearly 500 roller mill plants and the dramatic decline of the traditional mills had begun. There are now less than 100 modern flour mills in Britain, but their capacity and technical sophistication far outpace the mills of 50 years earlier.

Jones sets the scene with a review of the challenges facing British millers in 1875, most strongly from imports of American flour. Inventions and innovations on the continent of Europe and in the U.S. provided stimulus to their search for answers; British millers visited Budapest, Hungary; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. But the British millers faced different raw material and market conditions, and their successful adoption of new techniques was dependent on parallel development, not on imitation.

Outstanding in the early years was the engineer Henry Simon (see World Grain, November 1999). From his base in Manchester, Simon established a thriving business. He saw the opportunity, understood the mechanical principles and pursued the milling business with imagination.

Several chapters in the book are closely concerned with Simon, including many insights into his personality. Other milling engineering firms are also considered, including Thomas Robinson & Son Ltd., which together with Henry Simon Ltd. has been absorbed into the Japanese-owned Satake Corp., and E.R. & F. Turner Ltd. of Ipswich.

Jones also details the great contribution made by the British milling press to the dissemination of new ideas. Details were published of machinery, reports of technical papers and descriptions of mills.

The survival of the British milling industry against the fierce competition from American millers, who had scaled up very rapidly, was partly to the credit of a devoted, energetic journalist and publisher, William Dunham. He publicized the ideas and aims of the National Association of British and Irish Millers, which strongly encouraged collaboration.

Individual millers of entrepreneurial drive also were crucial to the industry’s success, such as Joseph Rank and W.E. Nicholls of Spillers; William Voller of Gloucester, the pioneer of technical education; and many others. One of the delights of Glyn Jones’ book is the portrait of personalities involved in the story and the humor they contributed to meetings and discussions.

War, bureaucracy, overcapacity, problems of reduced profitability and a search for the means to rationalize the industry have been strong preoccupations for millers in the 20th century, and the reorganization of the industry is carefully described in this book. The author notes in the last chapter, which is an overview of the past 50 years, that a team of experts is needed to do justice to the technicality of modern flour production: miller, engineer, chemist, food scientist and administrator. This calls for a second volume to show further profound changes that have recently taken place.

Throughout, the book is illustrated with diagrams of machines, contemporary pictures of mills, portraits and some of the author’s own photographs showing the new uses to which some of the fine old mill buildings have been put.

Modern millers and milling engineers may read with pride of the development and achievements of the industry, and those interested in Britain’s economic position can find much illumination into the nature of innovation. The milling industry is alive and well and deserves wider public awareness.