Even before Neolithic people began to grow cereal crops in earnest, they had adapted and used stones to crush and grind seeds and nuts to make food. During the Neolithic, cereal crops had to be processed continuously to produce meal and flour to feed the family group. From this date, stone querns start to appear in the archaeological record. The earliest are simple saddle querns where a smaller stone is rubbed across the top of a heavy, rounded base stone. By the Iron Age, beehive querns are found where the dome shaped upper stone is rotated by hand around a peg set into a flat lower stone.
The hard gritty stone called Millstone Grit is found in abundance capping certain areas of limestone in the Yorkshire Dales. It is ideal for grinding cereals and there is evidence that querns were being manufactured here from an early date. A site where Iron Age beehive querns were manufactured was excavated in 1964 at Helwith Bridge. Excavations of several late Romano-British period farmsteads in Littondale have revealed more sophisticated rotary querns. At the 3rd century AD New Ing Barn site, an unfinished quern stone was found and the excavators concluded that rotary querns were being manufactured on site.
By the time of the Norman Conquest, nearly every household would have ground corn for its own use. This all changed with the imposition of the Norman feudal custom called ‘milling soke’ whereby all grain grown on the lord’s estate had to be ground at the lord’s corn mill. Owning querns and hand mills was forbidden. As a result nearly every manor came to have its own water mill. Starting in the early 12th century, monasteries with estates in the Dales acquired many former manorial mills or built their own. Fountain’s Abbey had a corn mill on Foss Beck in Litton and this served a scattered population of tenants on the Abbey’s large estate in Littondale. The site of a possible Norman mill has been found by field archaeologists at the site of the first Knights Templar Preceptory at Penhill in Wensleydale.
It was not always plain sailing since the highly profitable right to grind corn was jealously guarded. Some time before 1194 Elias, lord of the manor of Langcliffe, began a dispute with Furness Abbey. The Abbey was accused of building a new corn mill on the lord’s land and taking away business from his own mill at Giggleswick. After a long drawn out legal battle, judgement was made in 1221 and the mill was handed over to the manorial lord. Nineteen years later he gifted it to Sawley Abbey.
As the climate worsened after 1250 and with the advent of the Black Death in the 14th century, the feudal grip began to loosen. Some corn mills were simply abandoned where growing conditions became too harsh for cereals or where the population became too small. It was the start of a long decline in the growing of cereals throughout the Yorkshire Dales. One of the best preserved medieval mill sites in the Dales is at Newbiggin on Mill Beck in Bishopdale. Field surveyors have found the earthwork remains of the mill building standing on its leat as well as the associated water system, building platforms and mill pond.
The corn mills that survived were rented out and their locations and the names of the generations of millers who worked them can be traced in historical documents. Sometimes new ones were built or replaced older structures. In Dentdale the 16th century miller at Gawthrop, John Dexter, is recorded as saying “One mylne was buylded after another as the Corne, people and husbandry increased in Dent”. Both cereal production and milling were always highly dependent on the weather in the Dales and many of these millers must have struggled to make a living. Research in Dentdale has shown that the mill near Barth Bridge had its dam destroyed several times by floods in the 17th century while the mill at Gawthrop was often idle due to lack of water or the stream being frozen. There was also the problem of competition. The corn mill built at Rash in 1587 was torn down in 1590 during a dispute between its owners and rival millers joined by the owner of Middleton Hall who claimed it had been built on his land.
Cereal growing continued to decline in the Dales through the 17th and 18th centuries and as transport links improved, more and more cereals were brought in by road. Oats were the staple diet of the lead miners and farmers of the area and this continued right through the 18th century as the records kept by the corn miller at Bainbridge Mill, George Terry, show. His account book was started in 1784 and at that time his customers were buying oatmeal in large quantities. Very little was being grown in the Dale. George Terry bought his at Richmond and then later at markets in Leyburn. The oatmeal was eaten as porridge, oatcakes, hasty pudding or gruel. Sometimes farmers bought their own cereals at market, especially when prices were high. They then brought it to Bainbridge Mill to be dried and ground. At the beginning of the 19th century some of Terry’s customers stayed loyal to oatmeal, but wheat flour becomes increasingly popular.
From the early 1880s roller milling began to replace millstones and the fine white flour produced on an industrial scale begins to take over. Traditional rural mills could not compete, especially as new railway systems could bring the new product right into the heart of their markets. The Bedale to Leyburn railway was opened in 1856 and from census records it seems that the ancient corn mill at West Witton ceased grinding sometime between 1861 and 1871. By the end of the 19th century virtually every surviving corn mill had closed in the Dales. Some had already been adapted to become textile mills. Others like Bainbridge Mill, were used as saw mills or converted to generate electricity. Fremington Mill near Reeth closed down sometime between 1897 and 1909 and inside it looks as if the miller simply closed the door and never came back.
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