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The Miller and His Tolls.

Charles Howell (1926-1993), master miller, millwright & millstone dresser.
He was the miller at the Upper Mills, Philipsburg Manor,
Tarrytwon (now Sleepy Hollow), New York, from 1969 to 1988.



In old times corn mills were always important factors in manors, and a source of considerable profit to the lord of the same. All the tenants of the manor were bound by custom to have their corn ground at the manor mill, paying a toll to the lord, for the mill was part of his demesne. The tenants owed suit to the mill in the same manner as they owed suit and service at the Manor Court. This, however, did not apply to the grinding or bruising of malt, and there were probably two good reasons for it — one, that the tenants could perform the operation on their own premises ; and the second, that if it were done at the mill it would be likely to spoil the flour next ground.

Very many instances of these mills may be given, but one will suffice, more especially as in this case it was carried down to modern times. There was at Wakefield, Yorkshire, a corn mill which was a franchise of the Pilkington family, of Chevel Park, by charters from one of the Edwards. The monopoly of grinding the corn at this mill was a great sore to the inhabitants, and the cause of much litigation, but the holders of the rights always came off the victors. They claimed the right of grinding not only for the town of Wakefied, but for some miles round, including the villages of Horbury, Ossett, Newmiliardam, and others ; so that all the corn used in this district was obliged to be ground at the 'Soke Mill,' or, as it was otherwise called, the ' King's Mill,' and neither meal nor flour could be sold unless it were ground there. The tenant of the mill demanded a ' mulcture' of one- sixteenth—that is, out of 16 sacks of corn he kept one for himself for grinding the other 15.

Some time about 1850 the inhabitants of Wake- field and the adjacent villages determined to purchase the rights, and this was done by a rate spread over a series of years, and called the 'Soke Rate.' The purchase money amounted to about ;£ 20,000. The same kind of property existed at Leeds and at Bradford ; but from neglect on the part of the owners, and lapse of time, the inhabitants turned restive and independent, and 'broke the Soke,' without compensating the Lords of the Manors. These mills are still called the King's Mills.

Nor was this custom confined to England. In Scotland, in feudal times, it was common for the tenants of a barony to be bound to have their corn ground at the barony mill. Centuries ago the erection of a substantial building, with the millstones, driving machinery, and other plant necessary for a mill, together with the drying-kilns, mill-dams, lades, weirs, and watercourses requisite for a corn mill involved the expenditure of a considerable sum of money, such as only the baron could find. He, therefore, assured himself of a return for his capital invested by binding his tenants to use his mill. Of course, he got a good rent for his mill, which was the manner in which the benefit arising from the bondage of his tenants found its way into his coffers.

Sir James A. Picton, in his City of Liverpool selections from the municipal archives and records, states that in 1558 the Corporation of the Borough ordered that' every miller, on warning, shall bring his toll-dish to Mr. Mayor, to a lawful size thereof sealed, under a penalty of 6d.' That this toll-taking on the part of millers was occasionally perverted there can be but little doubt, and it was sometimes very severely commented on, as we may see in this passage from a tragedy by Wm. Sampson (1636), called The Vow-Breaker ; or, the Fair Maid of Clifton. ' Fellow Bateman, farewell ; commend me to my old windmill at Rudington. Oh! the mooter dish—[Multure or Toll-dish]—the miller's thumbe, and the maide behind the hopper!'

In the Roxburghe ballads (vol. iii., 681) we have The Miller's Advice to his Three Sons in Taking of Toll:

'There was a miller who had three sons,
And knowing his life was almost run,
He called them all, and asked their will,
If that to them he left his mill.

He called first for his eldest son,
Saying, "My life is almost run,
If I to you this mill do make,
What toll do you intend to take ?"

" Father," said he, " my name is Jack,
Out of a bushel I'll take a peck,
From every bushel that I grind,
That I may a good living find."

"Thou art a fool," the old man said.
" Thou hast not well learned thy trade.
This mill to thee I ne'er will give,
For by such toll no man can live."

He called for his middlemost son,
Saying, "My life is almost run.
If I to thee the mill do make,
What toll do you intend to take ?"

" Father," says he, " my name is Ralph.
Out of a bushel I'll take it half,
From every bushel that I grind,
So that I may a good living find."

" Thou art a fool," the old man said ;
"Thou hast not learned well thy trade.
This mill to you I ne'er can give,
For by such toll no man can live."

He called for his youngest son,
Saying, " My life is almost run.
If I to you this mill do make,
What toll do you intend to take?"

" Father," said he, " I am your only boy,
For taking toll is all my joy.
Before I will a good living lack,
I'll take it all, and forswear the sack."

" Thou art my boy," the old man said,
" For thou has well learned thy trade.
This mill to thee I'll give," he cried,
And then he clos'd his eyes, and died.'

To show the popular idea of a miller's integrity, I may mention that the children in Somersetshire, when they have caught a certain kind of large white moth, which they call a Miller, chant over it this refrain :

' Millery ! millery ! Dousty Poll!
How many sacks of corn hast thou stole?'

and then they put the poor insect to death on account of its imaginary misdeeds.

Even Chaucer must have his gird at the miller :

' The millere was a stout carl for the nones,
Ful byg he was of brawn and eek of bones ;
That proved wel, for over al ther he cam
At wrastlygne he wolde have alwey the ram (1).
He was short sholdred, brood, a thikke knarre (2),
There was no dore that he ne wolde heve of harre (3).
Or breke it at a reunying with his head
His berd, or any sowe or fox was reed,
And ther to brood, as though it were a spade
Upon the cope right of his nose he hade
A werte, and ther on stood a toft of herys,
Reed as the brustles of a sowcs erys ;
His nose thirles (4) blake were and wyde ;
A swerd and a bokelcr bar he by his syde ;
His mouth as greet was as a greet forneys,
He was a janglere and a goliardeys (5),
And that was moost of synne and harlotries,
Wel konde he stelen corne and totten thries (6),
And yet he hadde ' a thombe of gold' pardee
A whit cote and a blew hood wered he,
A bagge pipe wel konde he blowe and sowne,
And ther with al he broghte us out of townc.'

The ' thombe of gold' has somewhat puzzled commentators on Chaucer. One thing is certain: that a miller has been traditionally credited with a broad thumb, and the little fish the Bullhead is called The Millers' Thumb, from a fancied resemblance. Every one connected with the navy knows what the ' purser's thumb' is, from the legend that, when serving out their tots of rum to the men, his thumb was invariably inside the measure (doubtless necessitated by the rolling of the old men-of-war), which resulted in a large profit to himself during a long cruise, and this seems to illustrate Chaucer's meaning, especially as it occurs immediately after the miller's ill-gotten gains, that by putting his broad thumb into every measure he made thereby gold during the year.

But there is another and a kindlier explanation of the term, which rests on the authority of Constable, the painter, according to Yarrell, in his History of British Fishes, when writing of the Bullhead. ' The head of the fish is smooth, broad, and rounded, and is said to resemble exactly the form of a miller's thumb, as produced by a peculiar and constant action of the muscles in the exercise of a particular and most important part of his occupation. It is well known that all the science and tact of a miller are directed so to regulate the machinery of his mill that the meal produced shall be of the most valuable description that the operation of grinding will permit, when performed under the most advantageous circumstances. His profit or his loss, even his fortune or his ruin, depend upon the exact adjustment of all the various parts of the machinery in operation. The miller's ear is constantly directed to the note made by the running-stone in its circular course over the bedstone, the exact parallelism of their two surfaces, indicated by a particular sound, being a matter of the first consequence ; and his hand is as constantly placed under the meal spout to ascertain, by actual contact, the character and qualities of the meal produced. The thumb, by a particular movement, spreads the sample over the fingers ; the thumb is the gauge of the value of the produce, and hence have arisen the saying of -worth a miller s thumb, and an honest miller hath a golden thumb, in reference to the amount of profit that is the reward of his skill.'


1. Prize.
2. Knot.
3. Hinges.
4. Nostrils.
5. Jongleur and joker.
6. Took toll thrice.

Source: The History of Bread from Pre-Historic to Modern Times, by John Ashton, 1904.

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Copyright 2009 by T. R. Hazen.