UK Milling Industry Timeline

by Emily Buckley
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From 36,000 to 68 mills in 150 years — how the U.K. milling and baking industry became one of the most concentrated in the world

1800s: Britain has around 36,000 wind and water mills processing grain from local farmers.

1825: Rank family starts milling.

1830: Spillers founded and becomes one of the largest flour millers in the west of England.

1860s: New mills built at ports to process wheat from newly developed land in North America. British agriculture declines, and small country mills begin to close.

1891: Joseph Rank builds his first port mill in Hull.

1914-20: First World War brings country mills back into production as imported supplies are cut off. U.K. agricultural production increases.

1920s-30s: U.K. agriculture declines. Grain production falls. Ranks and Spillers buy up country mills to rationalize industry. Ranks now producing one-third of Britain’s flour. ABF founded as chain of bakeries.

1940s: Second World War sees destruction of many port mills. Country mills brought back into use as imported supplies of wheat are cut off.

1950s-60s: British agriculture begins period of expansion. New varieties begin major increase in cereal production. Prospect of EEC (European Economic Community) membership convinces millers of need to build closer links with U.K. grain industry. Ranks and Spillers buy more country mills and grain merchants. ABF moves into milling by purchasing 25 regional mills. Ranks and Spillers retaliate by buying bakeries. Rank becomes largest baker in U.K.

1960s-70s: U.K. wheat production increases to 7 million tonnes. Percentage of U.K. wheat used in grist increases from less than 20% to an average of 80% by 1980s. Chorleywood baking process opens way for large-scale industrial production of bread. By 1970 more than 75% of loaves are produced by this process. Proves to be a mixed blessing, as product with no specific characteristics becomes victim of fierce price wars.

1970s-80s: Pattern of food retailing in Britain changes fundamentally as supermarkets begin road to domination of sector. Standard white loaf becomes an important marketing tool sold as a loss-leader and slashing bakers’ margins. Bread consumption falls as lifestyles change. Effect on millers and bakers is disastrous. Spillers quits baking in 1977 with accumulated losses of $45 million. Sells seven bakeries to RHM, six to ABF and closes 25. Flour mills sold to Dalgety. RHM, under pressure to rationalize, closes mills and bakeries but profits continue to fall. U.K. wheat production reaches a new record of 14 million tonnes. ABF invests $48 million in new technology to use more U.K. wheat.

1980s-90s: Bread price wars in supermarkets continue. Consumption continues to fall but tastes begin to change as consumers begin to demand wider varieties of bread. Bakers respond to changes in consumer tastes and see opportunities in producing loaves with specialty image and potential to sell at a premium over standard white loaf. RHM sold to Tomkins. Tomkins attempts to buy six Spillers mills but is foiled by Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which orders sale of four that are bought by ADM. RHM sold to equity finance specialists Doughty Hanson.

2003: ABF sells six mills to ADM.