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Flour bread and biscuits

Flour Mills

Flour in Britain is most commonly made from wheat. Flour mills came in a wide range of sizes, from the small 'family' concerns found in areas such as East Anglia to the larger mills in towns and cities. As with most industries the trend has been towards the larger establishment and in the period under consideration the production of flour has generally been a highly mechanised process.

Flour milling was done at mills all over the country, in the early nineteenth century large windmills had been built in the rural areas and continued in use into the middle of the twentieth century. For more on windmills see also 'Appendix One - General Information - Engines and prime movers'. Supplies to the towns and cities were often intermittent however and during the wars against the French prior to 1815 working class consumers in larger towns had formed co-operatives to build and run steam powered mills, these were usually called 'Union Mill'.

Associated with the docks would be the great flour mills, dealing with imported grain from Canada and America. With the repeal of the corn laws British farmers lost their protection from imported goods and many suffered great hardship, but the general public saw a steady fall in the cost of basic foods. Large grain elevators or silos were built at a British docks from the 1890's, most followed the American trends using rolled steel and reinforced concrete construction.

British flour millers had seen this development coming, they were threatened with imported flour arriving from Hungary, Russia and the USA and in the 1870's they responded with a general modernisation of the flour milling business. The mills changed from old stone grinding to steel roller milling (invented in Switzerland in the 1830's but really developed by the Americans).

This change was quite abrupt and a lot of millstones were en route from the quarries to the mills at the time. These were just dumped by the roadside and even in the 1990's one occasionally sees an overgrown millstone alongside a country road.

As noted elsewhere grain produced in Britain was usually shipped in sacks, bulk grain was mainly imported and seldom travelled far from the docks. Flour was shipped out in sacks, usually in vans for obvious reasons.

In the country a mill would take in the grain, mainly delivered in sacks, carried on horse drawn carts from local farms or from grin warehouses (not silos, these building stored the grain in sacks), and ship out the flour in sacks.

Cloth sacks continue in use even today to supply small local bakeries, although sacks are now commonly woven from plastic fibres rather than sack-cloth or hessian (which was made from 'jute'). Until relatively recently most flour in this country was shipped in sacks, only after air fluidisation systems appeared in the 1950's did bulk shipment become common. In the 1960s BR built some bulk flour containers for this traffic but by the early 1970s the big bakery firms were all using bulk flour delivered by road tanker.

Traffic to a mill would include large quantities of wheat, either locally sourced in sacks or imported grain in bulk. Vacuum unloading was commonly used from the 1920's on for bulk loads of grain at larger mills. Traffic out would include sacks of milled flour and semolina (a coarser grind), bran and wheat feed. These two latter were used as animal feeds before the 'high fibre' diet became popular following research in the 1930's (although Dr Allinson of Allinsons flour fame, had suggested this many years earlier). Animals can digest bran, humans cannot which is why it is used in health foods to 'scour' one's innards.

The milled flour is a cream colour but becomes white, and makes better bread, if stored for three or four months. These days chemical chlorine based bleaches are used to whiten the flour.

After the First World War cheap imports became available and a lot of flour millers found they had over expanded. Three concerns then bought up many of the smaller firms; Ranks Limited, Spillers Limited and the Cooperative Wholesale Society Limited. By the mid 1930s these three firms accounted for 39 per cent of total output. As recently as 1935 there were over 2,600 establishments engaged in grain milling in Great Britain, by 1948 there were just over a thousand, by the early 1960s about 500 and in the early 1970s there were only about 300, operated by 255 firms.

This is largely due to one man, an American baker by the name of Mr Garfield Weston who arrived in the UK in 1932 and set up Allied Bakeries in 1935. He initially imported his grain from Canada, and when this resumed after the war Ranks and Spillers decided they better diversify as he had been their main customer. They began buying into bakeries on a large scale in the mid 1950s. At that time the only other combined milling and baking enterprise was the Co-Op (who supplied about a quarter of the flour and bread in Britain).

In 1961 Allied Bakeries Limited decided to enter the flour milling industry. This was because if Britain entered the Common Market, the forerunner of the EU, then Canadian grain would no longer be available under preferential fiscal arrangements that existed for Commonwealth goods. Hence Allied Bakeries might have to buy flour from Ranks and Spillers who had by now become its principal competitors in baking. By the early 1970s there were three industry giants in the milling and baking trade; Associated British Foods Limited (ABF, which grew out of Allied Bakeries), Ranks Hovis McDougall Limited (RHM) and Spillers Limited (Spillers). By 1977 there were only 39 flour millers in the UK who were independent of the Big Three group millers. Notably Allinsons (set up by a doctor of that name who produced the first wholemeal bread in the 19th century), however I believe Allinsons was taken over by RHM in about 2007.

Bread & Cakes

Bakeries are by their nature geared up to supply local demand, prior to the 1960's most were small and few were rail connected, relying instead on road deliveries from the local goods yard. Bakeries had been closely regulated up to 1815 but then the controls were lifted and small enterprises started up, often in cellars where hygiene was not the best. By the 1860's specialist cakes were being shipped around the country, Pontifract cakes, made with locally grown licorice, are an example.

The Food and Drugs Act of 1875 was partly a response to the problems caused by the proliferation of small bakeries and one consequence was the trend in the 1880's towards larger bakeries able to invest in powered equipment. These larger bakeries provided the real impetus for national distribution of more specialised goods and there were some wonderful names, one which I rather like being 'The Far Famed Cake Company'.

The smaller bakeries, in order to compete, began offering doorstep deliveries shortly after this and the large national bakeries of the 1960's initially continued this practice (see also under Flour above for the post 1960s development of this industry).


Bread does not keep and so could not be sent very far from the bakeries, biscuits however do keep and a number of bakers went into the biscuit business in the 1870's and 1880's. By the 1830's specialist biscuits such as gingerbread and Banbury cakes were being sold nationally and by the mid nineteenth century national biscuit brands began to appear. McVitie the Edinburgh based firm started as baker in the early nineteenth century and went into the biscuit trade in the 1870's and in the south of England Peak Freens were established in 1857.

In the 1880's a Mr. Price became a partner in the McVitie business, becoming McVitie and Price, and a few years later in during upsurge of interest in healthy foods they launched the 'digestive biscuit', so called because it contained baking soda which reduced flatulence.

Biscuits are not part of a staple diet and sales depended to a large extent on advertising and colourful packaging, by the 1850's Huntley & Palmer were offering specially decorated tins for the Christmas market and biscuit tins remain a common sight in British shops. Up to the 1950's most biscuits were sold by weight from large square shaped tins, roughly a foot cube and covered with a simple paper wrapper. Called 'stock boxes' these were the steady year-round trade for the tin box makers.

Breakfast Cereals

Breakfast cereals are another American invention, originally small quantities were imported but about the turn of the century the Americans began building factories in the UK, mainly around the docks to allow the use of bulk imported grain. Kellogs built their factory in Manchester, the grain being brought in via the ship canal. Later they built a grain mill near Liverpool which remains today the largest in the world.

Weetabix, invented by a Vet from Denver in 1892, was imported from 1908 to 1925 when the American parent built its UK factory at Wellin Garden City.

The characteristic features of the cereal factory would be the tall silos for storing the grain with a large production hall. The silos would need to be something between an inch and two inches (25 - 50mm) in diameter in N scale and a minimum of three inches high or taller. The top of the silos might be covered with a simple corrugated iron building with a simple pitched roof, the Weetabix factory had silos of this type. Extending down from the top would be a series of pipes, typically six inches in diameter (1mm in N). The base of the silos would often be enclosed in a simple brick building. Heljan offer a rail connected grain silo which would do rather well in this application.

The production hall would normally be butted up to the base of the silos, it would be a single floor building with walls perhaps twenty feet high. There would be some on-site warehousing for the finished goods and an office building for administrative staff.

XXXX Not all breakfast cereal factories were American and not all were on the coast,

More on cereals especially stick-on labels.

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