A millennium of milling?
Roger Guttridge on the long history of Sturminster Newton Mill
Published in August ’16
In the year 1016, half-a-century before the Norman Conquest, the monastic empire that was Glastonbury Abbey added a slice of North Dorset to its already considerable assets. This was also an eventful year for Edmund Ironside, who became King of the English after his father’s death in April, fought five battles in six months against Cnut and the Danes, then died in November and was buried at Glastonbury. At some point during this short but busy reign, the valiant Edmund found time to give ‘Newenton Kastle’ to the Abbey, or perhaps he bequeathed it in his will.
Either way, Newton Castle (that part of Sturminster Newton that lay south of the River Stour) was added to Glastonbury’s portfolio. And while no mill is specifically mentioned in the 1016 document, Sturminster’s historians regard it as evidence that their mill existed in 1016 – which is why the town is this year celebrating the 1000th anniversary of milling.
‘Logic says that the King of Wessex wasn’t going to give a rich abbey something tatty and down-and-out,’ says Pete Loosmore, the mill supervisor. ‘It was going to be worthwhile. There would almost certainly have been a manor house and they usually had a mill connected with them. We don’t know how long there has been a mill here, but it’s probably longer than we think.’
The Romans introduced water power to Britain in the 1st century AD, although whether it survived the Dark Ages is unclear. ‘There’s a theory that after the Romans left, the mills went out of use and people went back to using hand querns for 200 to 300 years before returning to the technology of water power,’ says Pete. Either way, Sturminster probably had a mill long before 1016 – we just lack the evidence to prove it.
The Domesday Book confirms that by 1086 Sturminster Newton had four mills, three of which were held by Glastonbury Abbey. William the Conqueror’s nationwide survey of agricultural assets provides the earliest dating for many mills up and down the country, but Pete comments: ‘We are proud that we can go back a further 70 years.’
Former millers have included ‘John the Miller’, named in an abbey document in 1234, Richard Whyffin, who was fined 6d in the 16th century for overcharging customers, and several members of the Newman, Rose and Lawrence families in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Guide books tell us that the ‘south wing’ of the present L-shaped building dates from the 1650s, but a recent discovery suggests they are wrong. Two years ago, chunks of plaster fell from a ground floor wall and revealed a large lintel stone with various inscriptions, including the date 1566. This suggests that the south wing was last rebuilt almost a century earlier than previously thought. The inscriptions also include what may be a drawing of a sack and a second date of 1610 above which are zigzag lines and the letters ‘V’ and ‘M’, thought to stand for ‘Virgin Mary’. This was probably designed to keep witchcraft at bay.
A survivor from an even earlier time is a roof truss at one end of the south wing’s upper floor. It differs from the other trusses and is of a design normally seen in 14th-century buildings. ‘It could have been brought here from elsewhere but you could argue that it’s a leftover from the 1300s,’ says Pete. ‘A mill was an important place, producing food for both people and animals, and if the building began to crumble, they had to do something about it. These days you would bulldoze it and start again but then everything had to be shifted by hand so if you had a good wall, why take it down? You just knocked down the rubbish and built on to what you had left.’
The original north wing, which juts out over the river, was built in 1611 as a fulling mill for use in the manufacture of swanskin, a coarse woollen cloth or flannel. The industry was centred on Sturminster and employed many hundreds in the Blackmore Vale for more than 200 years. The cloth was ideal for clothing people in cold climates and most of it went to Poole for shipment to Newfoundland, where thousands of people with Wessex origins worked in the cod fisheries.
The carters who took the cloth to Poole were apt to stop at a few pubs along the way, safe in the knowledge that if they fell asleep at the reins, their horse knew the route well enough to complete the journey unassisted. But not all these journeys went to plan. At Spetisbury, the local lads thought it a jolly jape to turn the horse around and point it in the direction from which it had come. When the carter awoke, he would find himself back where his journey had begun. This mischief became such a problem that in the Dorset Archives is a letter from a carter asking a magistrate to do something about it. The alternative, of course, would have been for the carters to cut back on the pub-crawling and stay awake.
The fulling mill was used in the finishing process. Ann Baseden, of the Dorset Guild of Weavers Spinners and Dyers, writes: ‘Swanskin was fulled at the mill using water power to move fulling stocks. These hammered the fabric until it was fulled or felted sufficiently to make it water repellent. The swanskin cloth would have been dried on tentering frames in the open air.’
The fulling mill wheel operated independently but side by side with the grain wheel until the early 1800s, when the swanskin trade collapsed almost overnight, probably due to competition from the cotton mills in northern England. The collapse left a big hole in the local economy. Sturminster’s swanskin merchants solved the problem by going directly into the cod trade, setting up new settlements in Newfoundland and employing local people across the Atlantic. Many never returned and two centuries later their descendants still speak with a Blackmore Vale accent, while Dorset surnames abound.
It may be no coincidence that the fulling mill was demolished in about 1800, when the swanskin trade was in sharp decline. It was rebuilt in brick on its original stone base to extend the grain mill. The building had a thatched roof until 1862, when tiles replaced the thatch to reduce the fire risk. The 18th- and 19th-century millers lived in a thatched cottage, which stood where the car park meets the picnic area today.
After the weir was swept away in a flood in the early 1920s, the cottage was demolished to provide stone to rebuild it. Notches in the stonework indicate that there have been greater floods, the worst in 1756, when the water reached a depth of five feet. One of the two 1979 floods accounts for the second notch, while the third watermark dates from Christmas Eve 2013.
Throughout the 19th century, the mill’s two undershot wheels worked in tandem, each powering two sets of millstones. Whatever came into the mill was known as ‘grist’ (hence the expression ‘It’s all grist to the mill’) and whatever went out was generically known as ‘meal’. By the late 1800s, however, a combination of steam power and imported grain from North America was undermining traditional mills. ‘Grain was being unloaded from ships, put through steam-powered mills at the docksides and taken straight to the centres of population,’ says Pete. Many mills closed, but Sturminster met the challenge in 1904 by replacing its wheels with a water-powered turbine. By 1920, it had also become an animal feed specialist, which did not need to be crushed as finely as modern machinery could achieve.
Corn and seed merchants Blandford & Webb ran the mill from the 1920s until 1970, when full-time milling ended. Farmer Johnny Cox ground his own animal feed there for 10 years. By 1980 a Mill Trust had been formed which allowed several tenant millers to work there until 1991, when the mill closed completely for three years. Sturminster Museum Society negotiated with the Town Council and the owners, the Pitt Rivers Estate, to take over the running of the mill. They advertised for a supervisor and the applicants included retired art teacher Pete Loosmore, whose maternal grandfather, Harry Elkins, had first worked there aged 14 in 1894, returning as miller from 1904 to 1946, when his nephew, Sam Elkins, took over. ‘I think there was an assumption that because my grandfather was here, I knew all about milling,’ Pete says. ‘In fact I knew nothing but I kept my mouth shut and they gave me the job. I then had to start learning.’
The mill opened to the public on 8 May 1994, and is this year open from 11am to 5 pm on Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays until 29 September. Although Pete receives a small salary, the mill is only viable because it is mostly run by volunteer labour.