Thomas Hardy and the World of Milling

September 08th 2017 by Hannah Pomeroy

‘Time changes everything except something within us which is always surprised by change’. This quote by Thomas Hardy could aptly be used to describe many people’s reaction to the change to roller milling, surprise. Before starting my internship here at the archive, I never thought I would be finding a connection between a Victorian novelist and the roller milling industry, yet this is exactly what I’ve managed this week!!
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It all started, as many of the recent blogs have, with the John Munnings collection. Among his sketches of mills was one of Bindon Abbey Mill on the River Frome in Dorset. It was less the drawing and more the comment underneath that was curious to me. It was installed with a 2 sack per hour Armfield Roller Plant in 1893, which I noted as of use to my project, however this was not what caught my attention. Instead it was the comment that it was ‘Wellbridge Mill in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Not having read or watched ‘Tess’ that recently I was struggling to remember the inclusion of a mill in the work, let alone Wellbridge. However, after searching through the work I came across Wellbridge Mill at an important junction in the book, just before Tess marries her love Angel Clare. In fact it is Angel Clare who is connected to mill:

‘Next, he wished to see a little of the working of a flour-mill, having an idea that he might combine the use of one with corn-growing. The proprietor of a large old water-mill at Wellbridge – once the mill of an Abbey – had offered him the inspection of time-honoured mode of procedure, and a hand in the operations for a few days, whenever he should choose to come’ (Chapter 32).

So Angel Clare wished to learn the trade of milling. Little would he, as a fictional character, have known when the work he was in was published in 1891, that two years later the mill would no longer be using the ‘time-honoured mode of procedure’ but instead be transferred to the newly installed roller machinery. Time changes everything…

This idea is further enforced with the description of the Abbey. Given that the mill Wellbridge was based on a mill called Bindon Abbey Mill, there was clearly an abbey connected to the original mill. However, despite changing the name of the mill, Hardy kept the description of the surrounding area the same:

‘They had rambled round by a road which led to the well-known ruins of the Cistercian abbey behind the mill, the latter having, in centuries past, been attached to the monastic establishment. The mill still worked on, food being a perennial necessity; the abbey had perished’ (Chapter 35).

Whilst time had changed and destroyed the abbey, the perennial need for food meant that the mill had not changed yet. Indeed, a painting of Bindon Mill from the Alan Stoyel Foundation Collection shows the mill as Hardy may have seen it. These paintings and sketches and other materials held here at the archive can freeze time and allow us to see what our ancestors may have seen and preserve records of many mills that no longer exist.

Furthermore, this was not the last of the Thomas Hardy connections to the milling industry that I have come across this week. As a part of my project, I am intending to include a section on the Corn Exchange, the place where farmers and merchants traded corn and many millers purchased corn for their mills. When watching Far From the Madding Crowd the other week, I was surprised to see the appearance of a Corn Exchange as an important location. Key character and plot developments took place within the four walls of the Casterbridge Corn Exchange, based on the Dorchester Corn Exchange. Firstly, it marks a new stage in the life of the heroine, Bathsheba Everdene:

‘The first public evidence of Bathsheba’s decision to be a farmer in her own person and by proxy no more was her appearance the following market-day in the cornmarket at Casterbridge.’ (Chapter 12).

Secondly, it is the location where she receives the news of her husband’s death. However, after some more research, I discovered that this fictional Casterbridge Corn Exchange is featured even more frequently in another of Hardy’s works’, The Mayor of Casterbridge. In this work many of the main characters all live within a few minutes’ walk of the Corn Exchange and business is often seen taking place there. For those characters, the Corn Exchange was a part of daily life.

So, in these works that Hardy set in rural Britain, he could not escape the world of milling and the corn trade so instead made it a part of his novels. Time here at the archive should have taught me not to be so surprised at finding these sorts of connections, however, there’s still something within me that is most definitely surprised!