My recent visit to the Verdant Works gave me the perfect excuse to compare mill poetry with Erin Farley, who is currently researching the subject in relation to Dundee’s textile industry. You can check out her amazing blog here. I suppose a part of me assumed that the long hours and poor conditions of factory work would leave little time or energy for creative pursuits, so it was a bit of a revelation to discover that many female jute workers not only penned poems about their lives, loves and concerns, but also managed to get them published in magazines. Lanarkshire-born Ellen Johnston, began working as a weaver at the age of eleven, and published a volume of verse in 1867.
By comparison, the female voice in the literature of the rural water mill is mainly silent. Our most familiar mill poems are male-authored, such as the nostalgic ‘Keepsake Mill’, by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Walter De La Mare’s quirky Five Eyes, about mill cats. One exception is Victorian poet and composer of hymns, Sarah Doudney. Her poem ‘The Lesson of the Watermill’ is a rather sentimental call for her readers to live an upright life and look to the future rather then the past:
Listen to the water mill,
Through the livelong day;
How the clicking of the wheel
Wears the hours away.
Languidly the autumn wind
Stirs the withered leaves;
On the field the reapers sing,
Binding up the sheaves;
And a proverb haunts my mind,
And as a spell is cast,
” The mill will never grind
With the water that has passed. ”
While the Miller is celebrated in country ballad form as a bawdy rogue, his female customers tend to get a bit of a raw deal. Much ribald wordplay around the notion of ‘grinding the corn’ has led to the figure of the female farm servant being lampooned as either an innocent or a temptress. Below is part of a traditional song which tells the consequences of an ill-advised liaison between ‘the Miller and the Maid’. The girl is described as ‘wanton’ and seduces the Miller in order to evade the ‘multure’ or milling fee.
‘When forty weeks had passed and gaen,
Hech hey sae wanton
When forty weeks had passed and gaen,
Hech hey sae wanton she
This lassie had a braw lad bairn,
because she’d got her corn grund,
Because she’d got her corn grund,
meal and multure free.
Many versions of this narrative were printed on broadsides, and sold on the street for a penny. Such scurrilous stuff was hugely popular, but no doubt provided an accurate reflection of how women were viewed in the male-dominated world of the corn mill. In my recent interview with former miller and musician Alex Green, we can see that these social attitudes and gender roles were to continue for many decades. Women had a limited presence in the meal mill, and certainly no influence. It is interesting to contrast these literary stereotypes with the women of the pre-industrial era. The notion of the matriarch grinding the family corn at the quern is an empowering one, and the spirituality of the charms and rhymes associated with the practice reflect this power.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the rural woman, however. Some ballads (although not many) show that girls of a certain class (probably the daughters of farmers, blacksmiths etc) did have a certain amount of freedom in choosing a husband. The Miller, with his abundance of corn and land, was considered quite a catch, as you can see from the following verse:
‘Merry may the maid be
that marries the miller
for foul day and fair day
he’s aye bringing till her;
Has aye a penny in his purse
For dinner and for supper;
And gin she please a good fat cheese
And lumps of yellow butter.’