The best of Dorset in words and pictures

The water that is passed

John Newth visits Sturminster Newton Mill

The mill is most often photographed from the other side of the Stour, but this view along the river’s Newton bank gives a better impression of its pastoral setting

Dorset has certain iconic images, of which the Cerne Abbas Giant and Corfe Castle come immediately to mind, but up there with them is the instantly recognisable Sturminster Newton Mill, seen from Sturminster bridge or from the meadows, with the white water rushing over the weir and giving way to the calmer pools in the foreground as the Stour continues on its serene course.

There has probably been a mill on the site for over 1000 years, although the first documentary evidence is in the Domesday Book of 1086. Four mills in the Sturminster area were mentioned, ‘Newenton Kastle Mill’ being on the site of the present one. Like two of the others, it belonged to the Abbot of Glastonbury, and continued to do so until the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII.

The main part of the present mill dates back to a re-build in about 1650, although some of the roof-timbers are thought to be up to 300 years older than that. Also in the 17th century, an entirely separate mill was built alongside, not to grind corn but as a fulling mill. Fulling is the process by which heavy woollen cloth was hammered and treated with various substances, including fuller’s earth and human urine. This treatment made the fabric stronger and more waterproof and, in the case of Sturminster, was part of the production of swanskin. This was used particularly to make weatherproof garments for the fishermen of Newfoundland, many of whom came originally from Dorset, especially Poole.

The postmark on the back of this postcard is 1913. The building behind the mill was the miller’s cottage, probably pulled down in the 1920s to provide stone for the re-building of the weir after it was washed away by floods. The path still crosses the bank to Newton but is now much overgrown. The figure in the top window may be Harry Elkins, the miller from 1904 to 1946.

The fulling mill, probably built of timber on a stone foundation, survived until about 1800, by which time the swanskin industry had declined almost to nothing. The wooden structure was knocked down, re-built in brick on the original stone foundation and joined to the original mill. The history explains why throughout the 19th century the mill had two waterwheels working side by side. They were both undershot wheels, the least efficient type, and produced only about twelve horsepower between them.

The coming of steam power meant the beginning of the end for the small local watermills. Grain could be imported to a steam-powered mill by the dockside and the flour either shipped out again or transported inland by railway; there was a massive mill behind Poole Quay, for example. The response of many watermill operators was to install turbines, which are much more efficient than wheels, and Sturminster was no exception. The turbine there dates from 1904 and is still in place. It sits in seven feet of water and the flow forced through its nine blades produces at least 24 horsepower – more than twice the power of the two wheels.

The inevitable could only be postponed, however, and after Blandford & Webb took over the running of the mill in the 1920s, they installed rolling machines and more and more of the mill’s production was animal feed rather than flour for human consumption. In 1970, all milling operations ceased and the building was boarded up.

Harry Elkins at the doorway of the first-storey stone floor. This was probably taken in the 1930s by his daughter, Phyllis, on her box Brownie.

So it stayed for ten years, while local people from time to time fretted about such a potential asset being neglected and possibly deteriorating. In the end, local stalwarts like Tom Fox, Bryan Young and John and Kathleen Musto combined with the mill’s owner, the Rivers Estate, and the Town Council and Dorset CC to form a Mill Trust. Money was raised for extensive repairs, including removing the roof, lining it with marine ply and putting the tiles back on. The mill started producing flour and even if the quantities were not large, at least it was a working, living building again. Bryan Young, Kathleen Musto and Christopher Ayres were among the millers at this time.

Like so many worthwhile traditional activities, the production of flour at mills like Sturminster was scuppered by tighter health and hygiene regulations. Fortunately, this coincided with a period of growth and increasing professionalism for the Sturminster Newton Museum Society, which had been founded in 1984 and whose collection was then on display in the former Union Workhouse Chapel in Bath Road. In 1994, the Mill Trust declared itself happy to take a back seat and the Museum Society took over the running of the mill. This arrangement suited everybody: the authorities knew that the mill was in good hands and the Museum Society, with access to voluntary labour, had a new and important source of income. The formal arrangement was that the Town Council leased the mill from the Rivers Estate and had a management agreement with the Museum Society, and that is how it continues to this day.

When the Museum Society took over the mill, they advertised in the Blackmore Vale Magazine for someone to run it. Peter Loosmore had been born in one of the cottages opposite Sturminster bridge. The mill was in his blood: his grandfather, Harry Elkins, had been the miller from 1904 and through into the Blandford & Webb days, retiring in 1946. The mill was then taken on by his nephew, Sam, who ran it until its closure in 1970. So it was inevitable that Peter Loosmore, who had taken early retirement from teaching art at Shaftesbury School, should apply for the job. He got it, and today not only continues to run the mill but is also Chairman of the Sturminster Newton Museum Society.

An innocuous-looking iron wheel is the starter for the milling process. It opens the sluice-gate which allows water into the turbine, and a two-ton flywheel, eight feet in diameter, begins to turn. As it does so, the whole building comes to life. From the flywheel lead belts, shafts and cogs by which every process in the mill is driven. The movement and noise remind you that mills were in effect the first factories, long before the Industrial Revolution was thought of.

The crushing and grinding mill on the left took on more importance when the mill’s output was limited to animal feed. The wooden contraption in the centre is the winnower.

After the power generated by the water, gravity was the miller’s next best friend. The grain would come in on the ground floor, known to the miller as the meal floor, and be lifted in a sack hoist (powered by a drive from the main flywheel) to the second-floor bin loft. From here it would fall into the winnower to remove all the impurities and drop down again by gravity into sacks on the floor below. Full of wheat, these sacks weighed 2¼ hundredweight, or 250 lbs (about 114 kilos), but the old-time millers would move them about with ease.

Up to the bin floor the sacks would go on the sack hoist again. In the great hoppers on the bin floor, some sixty tons of grain could be stored, which gives an idea of the strength of the building. With an output of about two tons a day, a full bin floor would provide rather over a month’s grist. Over the hoppers runs a narrow wooden floor, the edges of which have been polished by centuries of sack-tipping. The grain would fall through an opening in the hopper into the mill-stones on the floor below (the stone floor), being automatically fed into them at a rate proportionate to the speed at which they are turning.

Setting the stones was a skilful job because they must not touch when empty of grain, or they will produce sparks and powdered stone, yet they must be close enough to grind the coarse grain into fine meal. The stones also had to be ‘dressed’ from time to time, in other words have grooves cut in their surface to help split the grain and to ventilate the stones, which would heat up while milling. Dressing was another job requiring great skill, and one begins to understand what a combination of craft and strength was required of an active miller.

The meal would fall down from the edges of the millstones and descend by gravity to the ground floor again, where it would be sacked up ready for despatch.

During the heavy rains of this winter, Peter Loosmore experienced an occupational hazard for Sturminster millers!

All these stages can be followed at Sturminster Mill, which stages occasional milling weekends when grain is actually processed. That is not a commercial undertaking, of course, but the mill itself is a significant tourist attraction for North Dorset, and between 2000 and 3000 visitors a year are shown round, usually by Peter Loosmore or his assistant, Jane Palmer. Most importantly, though, a historically important and attractive building has a worthwhile role as it enters the second millennium of its history.

Open: From the Easter weekend to the end of September, from 11am to 5 pm on Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays. Groups are welcome at any time by appointment.
Admission: Adults £2.50, children 50p
Phone for information: 01747 854355
The tour of the mill takes about 45 minutes.

David Bailey
Sturminster Newton Museum
Richard Brown

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