Glossary of terms used in relation to watermills
Mills were an important part of the local economy and therefore involved a variety of taxes and other arrangements to finance their operations and generate an income for their owners and operators. Many of the traditional words describing these arrangements have fallen into disuse because they are no longer relevant in today’s world, but they may occur in historical documents, and one or two persist in sayings that are still in modern usage. The mill in Michaelchurch was owned by the Michaelchurch Estate, and was leased to Millers for an annual rent. However, the precise details of the arrangements are not documented, nor are the conditions and fees imposed on tenants of the Estate farms regarding their use of the Mill. Some or all of the following are likely to have applied.
This was a share that the Miller was entitled to take out of the ground corn, as payment in lieu of money. Otherwise known as ‘taking toll’, the quantities involved varied considerably and are variously quoted as 1/24th, 1/20th, 1/16th, 1/14th, 1/13th, or 1/11th of the finished product. Honesty and fairness were often in doubt when it came to levying such ill-defined tolls, hence Millers’ proverbial reputation as rogues over the centuries. It may also explain modern usage of the word ‘mulct’ as to deprive by fraudulent means, or to swindle.
The portion of grain taken as compensation for grinding was also called the miller’s knaveship. The term also sometimes seems to be used to refer to an allowance to the miller’s assistant (rather than the Miller himself), though it is unclear whether this was taken out of the Miller’s toll, or in addition to it.
‘Toll (toule) dish’:
The miller’s toll-dish was used to measure the meal taken as pay for grinding at the mill. The miller was supposed to take toll with a toll-dish of lawful size, which had been sealed by the mayor of the town – an early attempt at imposing ‘weights and measures’ regulations.
The Lord of the Manor usually built and owned the Mill that serviced his estate, and tenants of his land were bound to “make suit to the mill” as part of their tenancy agreement. This obliged them to take all their corn there to be ground (and thus to pay the mulcture). Millers and estate owners jealously guarded this kind of monopoly, and were constantly alert for any attempts to take corn to other mills that might offer lower tolls. Such offences were treated very seriously.
‘Suit and Soake’ (soak):
Tenancy agreements were sometimes drawn up to include Suit and Soake, which not only required corn to be ground at a particular mill (Suit), but also obliged the tenant to contribute to repairing the mill equipment as necessary and keep the mill race clear of obstructions (Soake). The latter was particularly onerous, since mill leats (races) can be of considerable length, and are prone to silting up, so that they can require substantial annual work to maintain. The extent of the tenants’ liabilities relating to the working machinery of the mill is not clear; if it included for example the periodic replacement of millstones or structural repairs to the mill beyond the abilities of local craftsmen, this too would have been a very heavy burden. Again, this may explain occasional modern usage of the word ‘soak’ in the context of extracting money by extortionate charges or taxation.