Oral History: Warren Lewis’ recollections of Michaelchurch Mill etc.
Transcription of an interview with Warren Lewis by Hilary Engel c. 1991.
I was born at the lower Hunt House, Clodock. That’s a farm, my parents were farming there. I was born on the 22nd of January 1907. Well then, I’m 84. I went first of all to Longtown School. Then my parents moved up to Michaelchurch mill and kept the mill as a going concern; it was working in those days. And a post office and shop. And we were bakers, and everything else. My uncle lived at the post office, he was Postmaster. And there was a smallholding, about thirty acres. But then he decided to go farming. And my mother was keen on the post office and she said we’ve got to move there. I was ten years old, and that was my home until I married and went away.
We sold everything at the post office, it was a country grocers, including this bread, which was a great thing. That came to an end during the last war; flour and everything was rationed. People couldn’t buy enough flour to bake their own, so that was when they finished baking at home.
Our oven would hold 32 four-pound loaves, round. We used to bake three times a day sometimes. A four pound loaf would take 2 hours to bake, and the fire had to be lit first to hot it up ready to cook the dough. The baking oven was in what we called the back kitchen.
When I left school I had great ambitions of going farming, and I was away for two years. But then I suffered a broken leg in a motor accident. Well, I had to change my ways then. I was in hospital in Hereford for twelve months. They messed it up. Well, about that time the post office at Longtown became vacant, the people were retiring. The property belonged to my uncle, my mother’s brother. Well, my father decided I’d never be able to do any heavy work again, that was the medical opinion, but I got a lot better than the medical people expected. So my father went down to work at Longtown and I stayed at the mill with my mother.
So then I more or less took over the baking side of it. My mother was the baker, but I could roll these four pound loaves one in each hand. You kneaded the dough first of all and then you had to leave it for about an hour to rise in what we called the kneading trough. It was about as long as that couch you’re sitting on. It took about one hundred and twelve or fourteen pounds of flour to make 32 four-pound loaves.
We used to send the bread into Hereford and Abergavenny once or twice a week on the bus. They had it for miles around. It was quite a different bread to today’s bread. It was white bread; it would keep for a week. When the war was on it was very difficult on occasions to get the yeast. Sometimes I’d go eight or ten miles to see if I could get some. The pubs made their own beer, and the fermentation, that was the yeast, so I’d have a couple of jars of that to go back home and bake the bread. Normally the yeast came from Hereford, the United Yeast Company. We’d probably put some kind of lard in, from the pig, home produced. You could eat the crust of this bread when it came out of the oven, you know.
Well, we were a good many kids – six, seven – but never all at home at the same time. And we always had a maid and a young lad out of school working outside with the animals. And the inspector used to come in those days and checked the weight of the loaves. Because the loaves were put close together, when you pulled them apart one would rob the other, and they allowed a certain leeway for that.
The fire was all made with wood of course. There was a lot of timber in those days and we used to buy it by the cord. That was about seven yards long by about three foot high. Oak wood was never a good thing, but we had to use it because there was nothing else. The best wood was wood that grows in swamps, that’s the best burning wood. The name of that is Orrels [Alders] – perhaps that’s a local word. It always grows in damp places. But you couldn’t always get it, because in those days a lot of it went for clog-making. Everybody had clogs then, with wooden soles.
There was one other shop in Michaelchurch, in the little house by the lych gate that goes to the church. There was a lady there, a widow. She didn’t do the same kind of business we were doing, but she sold sweets and apples and anything like that. We were general grocers. We got our supplies form Hereford mostly, there were two suppliers but not as we know wholesalers now. We had to go and fetch it. I helped with the buying, that would be in the twenties.
I got married in 1934 or 32, thereabouts. My wife is no longer with us, or she’d know like. She died soon after we came here [to Clehonger]. She wasn’t well when we left Longtown. We were there forty years, at Longtown. She more or less looked after the shop there, and I’d got vans by then and I went out round the country delivering and selling what I could. I was a butcher, a grocer, you name it, I did it. I had lots of those customers when I started till I finished, quite a few. From Longtown I went up to Michaelchurch, down the Slough to Vowchurch, along the bottom up to Peterchurch and then up the back road to Urishay. That was the route, a sort of horseshoe shape. I did all the houses in Vowchurch, I didn’t go by any house if they wanted little or more like. I went every Friday and Saturday. And some of the places that weren’t on the road we delivered on another day. That was more or less packed ready like, what they wanted for a week.
I don’t know how old the mill is, I’ve never heard that. It’d be 200 years, anyway. And the farmers brought their grain – they were only small fields – from Craswall, as far as Vowchurch, to grind into animal feed, and they brought what wheat they had grown to make into flour. That was a different kind of process. We made the flour for them. We used to charge ninepence a hundredweight, old money, for the animal feed, but the wheat was two processes as I’ll explain, so that was eighteen pence – one and six. But then of course with the rationing that had to cease, as the farmers had to sell their wheat unless they had got just a small area, they could keep that. But all the big farms as far as Vowchurch and Peterchurch used to bring it up here. There was nowhere else they could take it. There was a mill halfway between Vowchurch and Peterchurch [? Poston mill] but they ceased during this time. They turned it into a bakery or something. Well, the next mill was at Skenfrith, I believe. That’s a long way off. There were mills at Clodock and Longtown, but they didn’t make flour.
And from a hundredweight of wheat they’d get about seventy pounds of flour. The rest was bran and what we called middlings; that and the bran as well was used for animals. For brown bread that would have to be left, that was wholemeal then, but our bread was all white. That was flour we had to buy, that came from Hereford, from mills in Hereford. They delivered once a fortnight. They delivered down Clodock, there was a bakers down there, and in Longtown.
There wasn’t much maintenance with the waterwheel itself; that was just a wheel on bearings. You had to see that the bearings were all right. And there was a long axle, about as long as from here to the window, the wheel was fixed on that, and the water came over the top and drove the wheel. That drove the whole lot, the whole concern. In the summertime we couldn’t do anything; well, we stanked the water up you see, and that would only last for perhaps an hour at the most and then you had to stank again. Well, people knew it was no good bringing anything much there, because we couldn’t do it. The river would get very low in those days. Well, it does now, look.
Then there was two pairs of stones. The base stones are there now, in the house. They’re fixed. And there was a spindle going up through, and the top stone, that revolved round, and that did the grinding. And the grain come down in the centre. The stone was three or four feet across, and one pair of stones was for the farmers’ feed and the other one was for flour. They were kept separate, and according to how much work we did the stones had to be what we called dressed. The top one had to be lifted off and rolled over here and whupped over, and then the old miller he dressed them. He used a steel chisel or mill peck. It had to be done once or twice a year; it was usually done in the summertime when the mill wasn’t in operation. There were these ridges in the stone that channelled the grain out from the centre and they had to be chiselled out; that was what we called dressing. It didn’t wear the stone out because it was so hard; it was flint. The chisels had to be sharpened by the blacksmith in the way of heat and then cooled; that was a process of hardening them. Because if they got too hard pieces would fly out of them, so the blacksmith had to be a man who understood them. In the early days we had a miller who’d come and stay for about a fortnight just to do one pair of stones. And if you allowed the stones to run empty without any grain coming in the centre, they’d get hot and burn. You could smell them. So you had to be careful, or else that would stop the works. So it wasn’t safe to leave it.
So then after the grain had been smashed it had to be taken back up to the top and tipped into what we called the flour dresser. That was a silk cloth, revolving, and that sieved it. It was a circle, something more than two foot. The middlings, that came down in the centre, and the bran, that wouldn’t go through the cloth you see so that came out down into another compartment. And the flour came down into a bag that was waiting underneath, and you’d bag it up. So with this job particularly you had to pay attention because sometimes the cloth would get too heavy and tear. It didn’t make a lot of noise, but there was a lot of dust. But I never heard of anybody getting ill with it. But it’s not ideal.
The store for the grain and the dresser took up a good part of the ground floor. And then the room up above, that was where you had to take it up to feed it into these machines. There was a staircase inside. Then there was a second floor with a door, and that was the loading place for when the farmers came to collect their flour. And if we said it would be ready on a Thursday, well we endeavoured to get it ready for then. And we were corn merchants as well. Maize was the chief thing in those days for cheap feed. That came from Argentina. It was called plate maize and that came down the river Plate, because most farmers round here didn’t grow enough grain of their own.
There’d only be one man working the mill at a time. There’d be someone else milking the cows. So it was very efficient. And when the replacement supplies came off the lorries it had to be stored up above so we had to be one each end of the chain. That was a long chain that came right down from the top and then it wound around a long beam, and you had to be there at the top to stop it otherwise it would go up into the roof. There was a loop in the chain and you had to slip that over the neck of the sack. So that saved us running up and down the stairs. And that was driven by the water power as well. We used hurricane lamps for lighting.
At a busy time the mill would have to be going most of the day, from shall we say nine o’clock until six at night. You stopped for meals, but I’ve been in there myself working until twelve at night. Because if you told the farmer that their feed would be ready on a certain day it would have to be ready.
Well, then the war came and all that more or less faded out. And the farmers then decided to buy their own mills, steel mills, and they were able to grind their own feed, but not make flour. But we carried on baking the bread. We finished with it about 1942 or 3, and then my brother came out of the forces and he took the mill on, and stripped it all out and turned it into a bakery. He carried on baking for four or five years, but he didn’t use a wood oven, he installed a steam oven. He’s about ten years younger than me I expect. I’ve got a sister who’s 3 years older than me; she’s 87.
I enjoyed the baking. I enjoyed it all. It was hard work and you worked a good many hours, but you didn’t know anything different. And you had to make your own pleasure, and it was a kind of meeting place. All the young ones came down there and stood on the corner and told yarns, so we’d get to know everything that was going on.