How Do You Make Flour? Ex-miller and Museums & Heritage Adviser, Rob Shoreland-Ball, Tells All

The guru for July is Rob Shorland-Ball, one-time flour miller and, since 1994 museums and heritage adviser and consultant: he tells us all about flour and the mills where it is made.

saucy dressings best food and drink blogSaucy Dressings took this photo of me when we met by chance at Caudwell’s Roller Flour Mill at Rowsley in the Peak District. I was being recorded for a film about windmills, watermills and roller flour mills and I was asked if I would like to be a Guest Blogger – so here goes.

In 1975 – after ten years teaching – I became the first curator / manager / miller and general dogsbody at Worsbrough water and steam flour mill on the outskirts of Barnsley. The mill was being developed as a working museum and we opened to the public in 1976. On a set of French burr millstones I milled some wheat to make flour and Meg, my wife, baked some loaves which our children still recall as “Mum’s bricks.” We soon learned that it is the gluten content of wheat, and the milled flour, which determines the ability of dough to hold in the gas bubbles from the yeast in a bread mixture and make a ‘well risen loaf.’ I was milling a soft English wheat and I needed a hard, probably Canadian, wheat; hard wheat generally has a high gluten content so makes good bread flour.

If you are still reading you may have noticed that this blog started at Caudwell’s Roller Flour mill but at Worsbrough I was using millstones in a traditional water-mill to produce flour. So there are two different processes used to produce flour from wheat and flour millers have generic names for the two processes which are usefully self-explanatory: Millstones employ a ‘sudden death’ process – for the wheat, not the miller – and the roller flour mills employ a ‘gradual reduction’ process.

Early flour milling was done by pounding wheat berries between two stones, often known as ‘saddle-stones’. Rotary milling was exemplified by the quern, possibly originated in China, and distinguished by the Romans from the more primitive saddle-stone as the ‘mola versatilis.’ The rotary motion of millstones became the essential principle of grinding grain and continued for many centuries.

The ‘sudden death’ process of millstone milling produces a ‘whole meal’ or brown flour and even sieving the whole meal cannot produce an unadulterated white flour so, for many centuries, flour – and most bread – was brown. The Roller Flour Milling Revolution introduced a ‘gradual reduction’ process which separated the milled wheat into streams of white flour, bran and wheat germ so pure white bread could be produced.

In the 1850s there were at least 10,000 flour mills throughout the British Isles. They were often no more than 5 to 10 miles apart – distances horse-drawn wagons could comfortably travel between farms supplying the wheat and customers buying the flour  Generically these were ‘stone mills’ producing ‘stone-ground flour’ and most were still powered by wind or water.

The growing UK population – by 1891 the UK Census recorded 37,880,764 – was mostly in industrial towns like the cotton and woollen textile mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. More mouths needed more bread – for centuries the ‘staff of life’ – so bakers needed more flour and millers needed bigger mills to meet the demand.

Bigger mills initially meant more pairs of millstones but that required more power and the answer, to some more entrepreneurial millers, was the rotative steam engine. Coal for the steam boiler could be delivered with the wheat for milling and the development of canals, river navigations and railways made bulk transport easier and cheaper than with horse-drawn transport.

Bigger mills also often implied newly-built mills and steam power meant that a new mill site no longer needed to be on a windy hill or on a fast-flowing river. Ideal sites were at first near wheat-fields and where good communications by water or rail were available. Stone mills, driven by wind, water or steam, were still milling soft English wheat, as they had done for over 500 years. The English wheat flour was ideal for biscuits, cakes, scones but white bread, for which there was a growing market, needed a harder or ‘stronger’ wheat with a higher gluten content so a milling technology which could separate out the principal parts of the wheat grain was required – the ‘gradual reduction’ roller flour milling process.

In Europe the hard wheat of the Russian Steppes and the Danube Basin was already producing good quality white flour because, especially in Hungary, large roller flour mills using rolls and efficient sifters to separate bran and wheat germ from white endosperm were being developed. Towards the end of the 19th century some Hungarian wheat and flour was being imported to the UK and, in 1884 Britain received the first imports of Canadian wheat – Manitoban No 1 Hard and in the USA, especially in Minneapolis, huge roller flour mills were taking hard wheat from the prairies and producing many tons per day of white flour which steam ships could carry to the UK for sale.


One of the biggest European roller flour mills was the Pesther Walzmuhle in Budapest:


The Pesther Walzmuhle mill in Budapest.
The Pesther Walzmuhle mill in Budapest.


Many traditionally conservative UK flour millers were resistant to change but they were aware that harder wheat and purer white flour were being imported so ‘agents of change’ began to operate in the UK and the roller flour milling revolution was underway.

By 1887 some 460 complete roller process flour mills had been built in Britain, representing a capacity of 3,800 sacks of 280 lb per hour. Between 1879 and 1887 the British flour milling industry had made a total capital expenditure in the region of £5,000,000 – the equivalent of more than £250,550,000 today.

1891 saw Joseph Rank open in Hull the most advanced roller mill in Britain and other large port mills also switched to roller-milling. Rank, a wind miller who became a leading roller flour milling entrepreneur, developing the Rank Hovis McDougall combine. Today the Rank name remains as Rank Hovis the UK’s leading flour miller and one of the most recognised names in the milling and baking world. Today there are just 30 or so milling companies in the UK – including several independents like Marriages of Chelmsford, E B Bradshaw & Sons of Driffield and Carrs Milling Industries of Carlisle and Silloth – altogether operating around 50 flour mills.
Each year, the UK flour milling industry produces around 5m tonnes of flour from over 7m tonnes of wheat. In the early 1970s, around 30% of the wheat used by UK millers was grown in the UK. Nowadays that figure is closer to 85% (though 2012 was an exception because of the worst UK harvest on record).

Some windmills and watermills have been restored, often by voluntary goodwill and skills, and are producing stone-ground flour again. One early roller flour mill has been preserved at Rowsley in Derbyshire – Caudwell’s Mill – which brings me back to where I started with a chance meeting.

I have been researching and recording the Roller Flour Milling Revolution for many years and, for the last three, with a small team in an English Heritage project which has recorded 196 roller flour mills, some still working, some converted to offices or apartments, some demolished and built over. With The Mills Archive in Reading we are now extending the project to the whole of the UK and on towards Hungary and the USA. In October I shall be working in Budapest for five days, photographing and recording roller mills there.

If, as I hope, you have read this far you may be thinking, “Why does all this matter; I can buy my flour in the local supermarket?” Fine, but how did it get there? Who made it? Is it all the same or are their varieties I can try? Caudwell’s Mill Shop price list is a good way to end this blog – and encourage readers to visit the mill!Saucy Dressings best food and drink blog




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