Ahead of National Mills Weekend, Mariette Richardson reveals the watermills of Dorset; David Bailey takes the pictures
Published in May ’13
Mills have been used for many purposes: in rural situations to grind flour for baking and feed for farm livestock, to pump water and to provide irrigation and drainage. In the industrial age they were able to fulfil even more functions: to power textile and paper mills, to drive sawmills and those producing a vast range of other commodities, and to generate electricity. Mills are an important part of both the rural and urban heritage of this country, including from an architectural point of view. Fortunately they do have guardians, in the form of the members of the Wessex branch of the Mills section of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and of individual owners with a concern for their conservation.
In Dorset, as elsewhere, watermills are much more numerous than windmills; the Normans recorded 6082 in the Domesday Book of 1086. As most towns and villages had grown up close to a river, there was often a suitable site for a mill and the harnessing of the power of the water.
Among those mentioned in the Domesday Book is Place Mill at Christchurch. There it is described as being valued at ’30s a year’ and being the property of the canons of Holy Trinity Church. The original building was Anglo-Saxon; the present building shows medieval stonework and Tudor and 18th-century brickwork. When it ceased operation in 1908, it was being used to grind corn and as a fulling mill, for the thickening of cloth. From then until 1981 it became increasingly derelict until a restoration scheme was begun. An unusual feature of Place Mill is that it takes water from one river and returns it to another; it flows for nearly half a mile to the mill from the River Avon before going on to join the River Stour at the Town Quay.
The stone and brickwork of Sturminster Newton Mill dates from the mid-17th and mid-18th centuries, but only in the past year there was an exciting find showing that some work is of earlier date. It had been known that there was a lintel stone above a doorway, but not that it would show a date – one that was revealed when layer upon layer of whitewash was scraped away, and the figures 1566 appeared. The origins of the mill go back to Anglo-Saxon times. At one time there were two mills, one for the production of ‘swanskin’. This was a particularly heavily felted woollen cloth valued by fishermen for its ability to keep them warm when at sea in tempestuous winds and lashing rain. By the 1800s, however, other materials such as oilskin were taking over, and one of the mills was demolished and rebuilt as an extension to the first to make one larger mill building. The mill is usually open to the public on Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 11.00 to 5.00 from 30 March to 30 September.
White Mill at Shapwick near Sturminster Marshall was restored in 1994 by the National Trust. This is a lowland 18th-century mill, standing by the River Stour, and three storeys high. Floods were as serious an issue in the late 18th century as they have been in the early 21st century, and White Mill suffered badly during one such period. The weir which had controlled its water supply was washed away, and when it eventually began working again, its power came from a traction engine standing near the leat. The mill contains rare wooden machinery – now so fragile that it cannot be removed for fear of its disintegration. A team of volunteers share in providing guided tours of the mill, where the visitors can see a meticulous working model made in different types of wood by John Garnish, one of the volunteers.
Also a National Trust property is Boar Mill at Corfe Castle. It is one of two mills either side of the castle, the other being West Mill – although only the foundations of the latter now remain, local people can still remember its working days, up to the 1950s. Nowadays Boar Mill has some very important residents. They are roosting bats, and for this reason the mill can only be entered if a bat expert is available, to prevent any disturbance of the roost. Boar Mill was built in the 18th and early 19th centuries as a grain mill and was powered by water from the local stream. The waterwheel was replaced by a water turbine in the early 20th century and the mill was still working until the 1950s.
Another workable watermill is Mangerton Mill, near Bridport. Much work of restoration has been carried out over the past 25 years. Here Paul Harris is continuing the work begun by his parents when they bought the mill in 1986, restoration work including that of the 26-feet overshot waterwheel. The gear wheel is of cast iron, but with teeth of wood. Different types of wood were used for various stages of the restoration work, including oak and apple, and the family have sought to keep true to the original construction. At Mangerton Mill there is also a Museum of Bygones, which includes farming and domestic artefacts as well as those relating to milling.
Volunteer millers help to run the Town Mill at Lyme Regis, undertaking training to operate it. The mill is generally open for six days a week from April to October, and its visitors often include school parties. The flour, ground from locally grown organic wheat, can be purchased for a donation. The present building dates from 1648, when it replaced an earlier mill that had been damaged by fire. It last worked commercially in 1926. Restoration took place in 2001, and included the installation of a 13-feet waterwheel acquired from South Devon, which drives the two sets of millstones that grind the flour. A hydro-electric turbine installed in 2006 provides electricity for the mill, with the surplus for the National Grid.
There is also a turbine at Upwey Mill, in a village four miles from both Dorchester and Weymouth. Schools also visit here, when taking part in river-based projects. They can see how the mill has two sources of water supply, which enable the 20-feet waterwheel to operate as either overshot by the water or breastshot, with the water reaching a central point. One source is from the River Wey and the other from a spring. The Grade II-listed building dates from 1802. It worked until the early 1960s, grinding barley for animal feed, and comes back into action when guided tours are taking place.
• Watermills and windmills nationwide are brought particularly into focus during National Mills weekend, held annually on the second weekend in May, this year 11 and 12 May. Many are open to the public and details are shown on the website www.nationalmillsweekend.co.uk