THE WATERMILLS OF THE RIVER STOUR
‘Water-wheels, combined with their twin stones, are part of the mechanism of necessity, cogs in man’s machine for keeping himself alive.’
H.E. Bates ‘Down the River’ (1937)
When I was asked to write about the watermills along the Stour I had no idea of the potential enormity of the task so I accepted the challenge. It was only when I began to research the subject that I discovered that there are, or have been, some 45 watermills along the river and its tributaries. In order to restrict the size and scope of this article for the Annual Report, I decided to limit the watermills to those on both banks of the river from its source (in practical terms the watermill at Kedington) to the estuary at Manningtree. The mills along the tributaries and the estuary must await further research.
Some way into the project I began to think that every riverside village would have had a watermill. This proved not to be the case. Some seem never to have had a watermill whilst other villages had not just one, but two or three. A number of individual watermills along the Stour have already been extensively researched and I am grateful to my predecessors for their work.
In view of the large number of watermills under consideration I have produced a gazetteer rather than a narrative description. Bearing in mind my difficulty in locating a number of mills and finding little of their history, I feel that the gazetteer approach will whet the reader’s appetite and, I hope, encourage him or her to carry out extensive research on the mill or mills that they find of particular interest. In this context I would be very glad to hear from anyone with further information about the mills I mention, or indeed information about any mill I have not located.
It has been a great pleasure to visit the watermills (or their remains) along the Stour and to make this brief record of a wonderful industrial heritage, all the more enjoyable for its location in an Area of Outstanding Beauty. It is easy to forget that these often picturesque buildings were originally at the cutting edge of known technology and I hope that every effort will be made to preserve what remains of them and to save them from further decay.
I was surprised to discover that there is apparently no single comprehensive and accurate list of the watermills of the Stour; the best I have found is that produced by the Suffolk Mills Group (which records the watermills on both banks of the Stour and its tributaries) which is authoritative but as yet incomplete. Where possible I have included my own photographs of the Stour watermills but the Suffolk Mills Group has many historic photos of these watermills, freely available on its website.
‘Seek till you find, and you’ll not lose your labour.’
The research for this article was largely undertaken by reference to documents in the Essex and Suffolk Record Offices, visiting the sites of watermills during the summer of 2012 and contact with individuals with special knowledge of particular mills, whose help I gratefully acknowledge. I would also like to thank Mr Bob Paterson of the Suffolk Mills Group for his advice. The Group’s website is www.suffolkmills.org.uk/watermills I am especially grateful to Mr Ken Rickwood whose ‘Stour Odyssey’ (2010) has proved to be an invaluable guide to the watermills on the Stour.
In respect of early medieval documents, it is sometimes difficult to identify which mill is being referred to as there is usually no distinction drawn between watermills and windmills, and a parish might have both. The name of a particular watermill may have changed over the centuries and can thus be difficult to track. It is sometimes said that the name ‘mill field’ or ‘mill lane’ in a village is an indicator of the former whereabouts of a mill; if that is the case it is rarely precise. In the thousand years since Domesday was compiled the course of the Stour has altered, usually by the hand of man rather than by nature, and the site of some watermills seem to have been lost, as for example at Sturmer. Early watermills may have had two sets of millstones and have therefore been counted as two mills. Occasionally two or more mills were built on the same site, each with a separate function, typically a corn mill and a fulling mill.
Visiting the site of a watermill is often rewarding and sometimes frustrating (particularly when the building is visually inaccessible). That said, the present owners of such buildings, often occupied for residential purposes, are of course entitled to their privacy and this has been respected in the course of my research.
Mr Harvey Benham’s ‘Some Essex Water Mills’ (1976) is an excellent introduction to the subject of watermills, but unfortunately it does not cover the watermills on the Stour.
‘Much water goes by the mill that the miller knows not of.’
Essentially a watermill is a structure that uses a waterwheel to drive a mechanical process such as the grinding of corn or the fulling of cloth. The number of different processes is quite considerable and includes the following additional types: flax, paper, oil, pepper, animal feed, and macaroni (pasta).
There are two basic types of watermill: one powered by a vertical waterwheel utilising a system of gears; the other one powered by a horizontal waterwheel with no gears. The earliest watermill to have been found in England was probably constructed in the eighth century, but the technology of watermills was known to the Romans.
By the time Domesday Book was compiled in 1086 there were some 6000 watermills for corn milling in England, most of which have been located by various survey techniques. There were perhaps 200 watermills in Suffolk in 1086 and a somewhat smaller number in Essex. By 1300 the number had probably doubled due largely to the introduction of fulling mills for the production of cloth.
Until about 1185 any documentary reference to a mill is to a watermill (and this includes tide mills), as windmills were not introduced into England until the late twelfth century.
Most watermills operated on the principal whereby water was directed along a channel known as a flume or mill race directly from a river or via a millpond to a waterwheel. The force of the water drove the blades attached to the wheel which in turn rotated an axle that drove the mill’s machinery. The passage of water to the mill was controlled by sluice gates. Most watermills along the Stour had a vertical wheel and these were referred to variously as undershot, overshot or breastshot. This action produced a rotary motion which could be used to lift hammers in a fulling mill. Here (from the twelfth century) cloth was first scoured using fuller’s earth and then pounded by hammers, which thickened the cloth by matting the fibres before the cloth was hung by tenter hooks on wooden frames known as tenters. In the eighteenth century a similar pounding process was used in watermills to convert rags to high quality paper. However, in cereal mills, (usually referred to as corn mills), rotation around a vertical axis was required to drive millstones; the horizontal rotation being converted into vertical rotation by means of gearing.
It is interesting how many mills were sited at river crossing points. This theme is explored by Mr James Kemble in his article ‘Crossings of the River Stour’, Essex Journal Spring 2012.
Watermills were considered to be extremely valuable assets by their owners, who in the medieval period were usually manorial proprietors with a monopoly on their use. They leased the watermills to millers, who often worked as middlemen between the cereal producers (the peasantry) and the feudal lord.
Over the course of centuries, watermills came and went on the same site: a cycle of destruction and rebuilding, resulting not just from wear and tear but destruction by flooding, fire (or even the explosion of flour dust) and as a result of changes in technology. During the nineteenth century many mills became uneconomical and, in order to increase their efficiency, steam boilers and steel rollers were installed. Mills which failed to keep abreast of new technology were closed down. By the 1950s the majority of mills on the Stour had either closed or gone over to animal feed production. Even this became uneconomical and all milling activity on the Stour has now ceased.
In many cases what survives are the mill houses (invariably the home of the miller) rather than the watermills themselves, as they retained their usefulness after the watermills became redundant. However, certain watermills have survived in excellent condition, sometimes with machinery still in situ (as at Sudbury Mill), together with the mill house. The last working watermill in Suffolk (not on the Stour) is at Packenham near Bury St Edmunds which still produces stone-ground wholemeal flour. For further information visit www.packenhamwatermill.co.uk
‘Follow the river, get to the sea.’
The Stour from source to estuary is reckoned variously to be about 47 miles in length. From the earliest times it has formed a territorial boundary, a transportation route, a source of food, a recreational asset, a processional way, and to judge from the number of ancient burials along its route, it also had important religious significance for our ancestors. Now of course it has national importance in an Area of Outstanding Beauty. The name Stour derives from the Old English or possibly Celtic word sture meaning ‘strong’ or perhaps ‘mighty’ and the same river name occurs in various other parts of England. The Stour basin covers a considerable area in the counties of Suffolk and Essex (whose borders it defines for much of its length) and contains within it not only the Stour but its tributaries: the rivers Glem, Box, and Brett together with Kirtling Brook, Stour Brook, Chad Brook, Bumpstead Brook, Belchamp Brook, and Ramsey Brook. The source of the river is at Wratting Common on the Cambridgeshire border. It becomes tidal at Manningtree and it joins the sea at Harwich.
The river boundaries have changed slightly over the last one thousand years, principally as a result of the Navigation Act of 1705, which affected the river between Sudbury and Manningtree.
‘Wel coude he stelen corn and tollen thries, And yet he hadde a thumbe of gold, pardee.’ Chaucer
During the medieval period the miller is usually represented in literature and folklore as a sometimes sinister but proverbially dishonest member of the village community. In Chaucer’s mocking, ribald ‘Miller’s Tale’, an honest miller was said to have a ‘thumb of gold’.
However unpopular, the cereal miller was an important man. The usual arrangement was that he rented the mill from the manorial lord for a year at a time and he was paid for his work with between a twelfth and a sixteenth of the grain he ground. Opportunities for dishonesty were clearly available. Arrangements in fulling mills, where cloth was pounded to improve its quality, were different and opportunities for dishonesty by fullers were fewer.
‘Every miller hath a golden thumb. None but a cuckold can see it.’
I have chosen a route which begins at Kedington Mill (nearest to the source of the Stour) along the Suffolk riverside to Brantham Mill, crosses the river at Cattawade and then travels west to Sturmer where there was a watermill, but its precise location is at present unknown.
What follows is a list of the watermills (or their remains) to be found on the route I have described, together with a few notes about their history. Where precision is lacking it is because I have been unable to find the information required and would appreciate any further information known to readers. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org I have included recent photographs of the watermills and mill houses mentioned in the text. For historic photographs, please visit the Suffolk Mills Group website. Just for fun I have included a selection of sayings collected by Theodore R. Hazen regarding mills and millers.
Kedington Mill (Suffolk)
‘Remember the miller when you eat your daily bread.’
The watermill existed in 1066 according to Domesday Book (DB) but had disappeared by 1086 when DB was compiled. The mill was subsequently rebuilt and continued working as a corn mill until 1901. It was converted to residential use in the recent past.
Wixoe Mill (Suffolk)
‘Wait your “turn”.’
Appears in DB as a watermill before and after the Conquest. The Chapman Andre map of 1777 shows Wixoe Mill was probably the last watermill to be constructed on the site. The eighteenth-century weatherboarded building still survives as does the mill house.
Stoke by Clare Mill aka Fulling Mill Green Mill or Moor Mill (Suffolk)
‘Every miller draws water to his own mill.’
Not recorded in DB. Later, a water corn mill and presumably a fulling mill were built here but ceased operation after about 1785. Moor Mill in Stoke by Clare was purchased by Samuel Colling in 1688. This seems to have been Fulling Mill Green Mill by another name. The deeds of Hunts Hall in Ashen mention ‘a fulling mill, long since demolished’ in Stoke by Clare in 1737. There is now little or no trace of the mill to be seen.
Clare Mill aka Waymans Mill (Suffolk)
‘Many a miller, many a thief.’
There was a watermill here in 1066 and in 1086 DB. It was later associated with the castle and priory in Clare. It appears on the Chapman Andre map of 1777 as Clare Mill. In the nineteenth century a brick boiler house containing a steam engine was added to the existing timber-framed building. The watermill burned down in about 1978 leaving little trace of its former existence.
Cavendish Mill aka Paddock or Puddock Mill (Suffolk)
‘When heather bells grow cockle shells, the miller and the priest will forget themselves.’
Not in DB but shown on the 1777 Chapman Andre map as Paddock Mill. Near the former railway station, all that remains of this eighteenth-century corn mill is the mill house. The mill was demolished after it had ceased to produce animal feed in the 1920s.
‘The mill gets by going.’
The mills here were on the Glem and not the Stour.
Long Melford Mill aka Withindale Mill (Suffolk)
‘Put a miller, a weaver, and a tailor in a bag, and shake them, the first that comes out will be a thief.’
There were two watermills in Long Melford in 1066 and 1086 DB and possibly one more in the medieval period and later. One mill was on the Stour, the other (Hall Mill) on the river Chad, subsequently the home of the poet Edmund Blunden. The Stour watermill (Withindale Mill) was a large building, housing three pairs of stones used for grinding cereals. Today the mill has mixed residential and commercial use.
Sudbury Mill (Suffolk)
‘Much water runs while the miller sleeps.’
A watermill was recorded here in 1086 but not 1066 DB. It is likely that there were two or more mills here throughout the medieval period, at least one cereal mill and one fulling mill. The present mill retains traces of a timber-framed building but is mainly of about 1890. The waterwheel of 1889 (which still turns) was augmented by steam powered rollers in the early twentieth century. The mill was taken over by the Clover family about 1850 and they owned the mill until it closed in 1964 when it was producing animal feed rather than flour. The mill has since been developed as the Mill Hotel.
Great Cornard Mill aka Baker’s Mill (Suffolk)
‘Keep your nose to the grindstone.’
A watermill existed in 1086 DB at which time Great and Little Cornard were shown as a single estate. The deeds of the manor of Abbas Hall, Great Cornard show that Great Cornard Mill, with a mill house and 4 acres of land (all in the occupation of Francis Kinge), were part of the manorial estate. The watermill was purchased by Edward Baker in 1851 and the family continued to mill flour here until 1967 when the mill switched to the production of animal feed. Since the closure of the mill, the site has been developed for high density housing.
Little Cornard Mill (Suffolk)
‘What is bolder than a miller’s neck-cloth which takes a thief by the throat every morning?’ (There is an almost identical proverb in Germany)
A single mill is shown for ‘Cornard’ in DB and it is likely that this was in what is now Great Cornard. Dr Jonathan Belsey considers that there appears to have been a fulling mill on the Stour in Little Cornard and cites early fourteenth century manorial documents as evidence. These mention ‘Melnefeld’ (Mill Field) which can still be located close to the river, and repairs to the ‘fulling mill’. The mill seems to have fallen into disuse by the end of the seventeenth century.
Bures (St Mary) Mill aka Hitchcock’s Mill (Suffolk)
‘Just a cog in a wheel.’
This watermill has been extensively researched by Nicholas Temple the present owner whose fascinating article about the mill was published in the CSCA Magazine in April 2011.
Nayland Mill (Suffolk)
Two watermills were recorded both in 1066 and 1086 DB. In the eighteenth century there were at least two mills, one for cereal milling and one for fulling. A new corn mill was built in 1823 and this operated until the twentieth century when milling ceased; it has since been converted for residential use. Another mill was built in Fenn Street and housed a steam boiler.
Wissington Mill aka Wiston Mill (Suffolk)
‘Judge your feed by your speed.’
Wissington was included in the DB under Nayland, which had two mills. During the seventeenth century there were cereal and fulling mills on the site. The existing building has traces of a sixteenth century structure and retains some of the nineteenth century mill machinery. Milling ceased here in the 1920s and it was converted to residential use about 1935.
Stoke by Nayland Mill (Suffolk)
‘The miller’s horse is fed upon the grain of others.’
On the river Box. Higham Mill (Suffolk) ‘The mill that is always going grinds coarse and fine.’ On the river Brett. Stratford St Mary Mill (Suffolk) ‘A miller’s sweat is strong enough to kill a toad.’ There was a watermill here in 1066 and 1086 DB. The seventeenth century mill was eventually replaced by a brick structure about 1890. This functioned as a ‘macaroni’ mill in the twentieth century but was demolished in 1947. A few walls and footings remain.
East Bergholt Mill aka Flatford Mill (Suffolk)
‘There are mill-wrights and mill-wrongs.’
There was a watermill here in 1066 and 1086 DB. The mill’s association with the Constable family is well known. The mill seems to have operated throughout the medieval period but by the late seventeenth century it was a ruin. It was later reconstructed and operated until 1901 when it fell victim to competition from more efficient mills and was shut down. The mill was eventually restored and given to the National Trust, who leased it to the Field Studies Council. This now operates a successful field studies centre on the site.
Brantham Mill aka Green’s Mill (Suffolk)
‘Sharp teeth biting the corn.’
There was a watermill here in 1086 DB possibly operating as a tide mill where the mill was driven by the tidal rise and fall of the river. It was certainly a tide mill later, and was rebuilt in 1778. Eventually it was supplied with a steam engine which drove steel rollers. Cereal milling ceased before World War II, during which time it operated briefly as a pepper mill. War damage brought about the closure of the mill and it burned down about 1965. The extensive site has one or two remaining buildings from the mill complex and is now the location of several industrial and storage companies. I would like to thank Mr David Brasted for allowing me access to the site of the mill and sight of some early photographs of the mill.
Dedham Mill (Essex)
‘Down by the old mill stream.’
There was one watermill in 1066, and two in 1086 DB. When the manor was partitioned c.1240 each recipient received a half share of the mill. By 1427 corn milling and fulling took place on the same site and continued until at least 1777 when both activities were depicted on the Chapman Andre map. By 1858 only a corn mill remained.
The Clover family took over the mill in the late nineteenth century and, after the mill burned down they built another by 1913. Flour for biscuit making was produced until the mill closed in the 1980s.
A second fulling mill was built on the river c.1380; it continued to operate until about 1620 but seems to have been demolished by the end of the seventeenth century.
Langham Mill (Essex)
‘Grist to the mill.’
There was one watermill here in 1066, two in 1086 DB. By 1273 one is recorded as a corn mill, the other as a fulling mill. The latter was demolished c.1510. By 1752 the remaining mill was said to be capable of use in either capacity. About 1779 the mill was rebuilt in brick. By 1912 the mill had ceased to function and was demolished. A pumping house was built c.1928 by a water company.
‘Run of the mill.’
There was a water mill here in 1066 but DB suggests that this was out of use in 1086. Later there was a corn mill and possibly two fulling mills. The mill was demolished in the 1920s but the two-storied nineteenth century brick mill house survives.
Great Horkesley (Essex)
‘And the sound of the millstone shall be heard in thee no more.’ Revelation 18:22.
No evidence for a watermill on the Stour here. Little Horkesley (Essex) ‘The mill cannot grind with the water that is past.’ Possibly a watermill here, if so it may have been recorded under Nayland at the time of DB.
Wormingford Mill (Essex)
‘To set the Thames on fire.’ Originally ‘tense’, being the sieve in which flour was sifted (a boring task).
There was a watermill here in 1086 DB. A grant of land in Wormingford to the church of St Mary Wix (Essex) by Thomas le Harpur c.1240 reserves ‘a footpath over the land and right of entry to the mill and of return by boat in the middle of the old river’. Wormingford Mill was in the occupation of Thomas Green in 1742.
The mill burned down in 1929 but the mill house survives.
A sketch of the mill house by Constable dated c.1834 was sold at Bonhams in 2009 for £9000.
Mount Bures Mill aka Crudmill (Essex)
A watermill existed here in 1066 and 1086 DB. There is also evidence of a watermill in the fourteenth century. Nothing now remains of the building but it is thought to have stood on what is now Crudmill Meadow.
A watermill (Cambridge Mill) dating from perhaps the eleventh century on Cambridge Brook, a tributary of the Stour, was partly excavated at Craig’s Lane by the Colchester Archaeology Group.
Further details of the two mills can be found on the Mount Bures Community Website.
Bures Hamlet (Essex)
‘Her thoughts were as still as the water under a ruined mill.’
No evidence for a watermill on the Stour here.
‘The mills of God grind slowly but exceedingly small.’
No evidence for a watermill on the Stour here.
Great Henny Mill aka Sharneford Mill (Essex)
There was a watermill here in 1066 and 1086 DB. On a map drawn in 1600 by William Sands for Roger Gwynn, a London apothecary and lord of the manor of Great Henny, the watermill is described as Sharneford Mill alias Henny Mill. The same map shows that there was another watermill called Loshes at Great Henny. This mill has disappeared and Loshes is now a nature reserve. The watermill closed down shortly before World War II, during which time it was damaged by enemy bombing. After the War the mill was demolished but the mill house remains in residential use.
‘A millstone round one’s neck’
No evidence of a watermill on the Stour here.
Ballingdon (now in Suffolk, formerly in Essex)
‘To come to a grinding halt’
No evidence of a watermill on the Stour here.
Brundon Mill (now in Suffolk, formerly in Essex)
‘Still as a mill pond.’
The watermill existed in 1086 DB and is shown as a mill on the Chapman Andre map of 1777. Evidently there was a fulling mill and a corn mill at Brundon in the medieval period, probably on the same site. A steam engine was installed in 1857 but cereal milling finished in 1923. The surviving building is weatherboarded and of the eighteenth century and has been in residential use since 1932.
This watermill has been extensively researched by Mr David Burnett and described in his Brundon: The Enigma in Sudbury’s Shadow (2010).
Borley Mill (Essex)
‘Safe as a thief in a mill.’
No watermill is recorded here in DB. There was a mill in the fourteenth century and this is shown on the Chapman Andre map of 1777 as a corn mill. A lease dated 1483 to John Talbon of Long Melford, fuller, was for the mills of Borley ‘under one roof’ which suggests that there may then have been a corn mill and a fulling mill on the same site. By 1533 this was certainly the case, as William Firmyn of Borley, yeoman, received a lease of ‘fulling and corn mills’ at Borley from Canterbury Cathedral Priory for 21 years for an annual payment of £12 6s. 8d. The mill continued to grind cereals until 1916 when it went over to animal feed production. This process ceased in 1969.
Much of the present building is timber-framed and dates from the mid-eighteenth century. A photograph taken in the 1940s clearly shows a tall chimney (now vanished) indicative of a steam engine house on the side of the mill.
Liston Mill and Humme Mill (Essex)
‘It’s just water over the dam.’
There was a watermill here in 1086 DB. A lease dated 1813 of ‘a watermill called Liston Mill’ with house and lands (13 acres), contains a detailed list of fixtures in the mill. The mill was demolished in 1887 after falling into disuse. The mill house remains.
A second watermill in Liston known as Humme Mill was established in the eighteenth century or earlier for the manufacture of paper. The ‘road to the paper mill’ in Liston was mentioned in a deed of 1746. Following a fire in 1868 which destroyed the mill house, the mill became a flax mill and so continued until 1899 when it closed.
Foxearth Mill aka Weston Mill (Essex)
‘The mill is never silent while the damsel sings her song.’
No reference to a watermill here in DB. In 1691 it was owned by John Haynes of Copford Hall, Copford in Essex when he left it to his son John under the terms of his will. Cereal milling ended in 1894 and the watermill was switched to flax milling. Both the mill and the mill house burned down at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Pentlow Mill (Essex)
‘Mills and wives are ever wanting.’
There was a watermill here in 1086 DB. The eighteenth century watermill and mill house form one continuous range. The building is timber-framed and brick-faced. After milling ceased the mill was converted to residential use.
Belchamp St Paul (Essex)
‘The lower millstone grinds as well as the upper.’
The mill was on Belchamp Brook, a tributary of the Stour.
Ashen Mill aka (Essex)
‘Millery, millery, dusty soul, how many sacks have you stole?’
Nursery Rhyme Recorded as a watermill in 1086 DB. Known as Claret Hall Mill in the medieval period, and in the late eighteenth century was part of the manor of Claret Hall. Shown on Chapman Andre map of 1777 as Ashen Mill. The mill was situated close to present day Mill Farm, a sixteenth century house. Fulling Mill Croft in Ashen is mentioned in a deed of 1725.
Birdbrook Mill aka Baythorne Mill (Essex)
‘No miller can enter Heaven.’
French saying There was a watermill here in 1066 and 1086 DB. In 1716 property including a ‘double water cornmill’ in Birdbrook was assigned to Stephen Style in trust for Samuel Rush of Southwark, Surrey. A steam engine was added to the mill in the mid-nineteenth century and its chimney remains. Cereal milling came to an end about 1910 and the mill was converted to residential use thereafter.
Steeple Bumpstead (Essex)
‘The daily grind.’
No evidence for a watermill on the Stour here.
Sturmer Mill (Essex)
‘Here lies an honest miller, and that is Strange.’
Epitaph of a miller named Strange in an Essex churchyard.
There was a watermill in 1086 DB but it was on a tributary of the Stour.
Dr. Christopher Star is an Historian living in Sudbury.