Researching the history of mills

Watermill from the Lutterell Psalter (British Library)

Water cornmills tend to remain on the same site, however often rebuilt. So a mill that now looks 18th or 19th-century could be concealing a much longer history. The Domesday Book lists around 6,000 mills in England in 1086. Many of these mills continue to be mentioned in documents in succeeding centuries and eventually appear on maps.

The earliest mills in Europe used the horizontal wheel. There are examples today in the Orkneys and Shetland, known as clack mills or Norse mills. More familiar today are the vertical wheel mills. In the undershot type the water turns flat blades from the bottom of the wheel. In the Middle Ages the more efficient overshot type (see image left) was introduced. Diagram of types of water wheel.

Tidal mills made use of the power of the tide in coastal areas. The earliest tidal mill so far discovered in Europe was excavated at Nendrum, Northern Ireland. It was built in 619-21 for an early Christian monastery. Tidal mills have continued in use until modern times, but were always rare by comparison with standard riverine mills.

Norfolk Mill, by John Sell Cotman (Victoria and Albert Museum, London)Windmills appeared in England from c.1180. A fixed structure would only work if the wind was blowing in the right direction, so the post mill, which could be turned into the wind, was soon preferred. They were often sited high or built on a raised mound to catch more wind. A logical development by the end of the Middle Ages was the tower mill. The tower gave height, and only a cap holding the sails revolved. Smock mills, which arrived by the late 16th century, are similar, but entirely timber-built, whereas the tower type was built of durable brick or stone, so more tower mills survive. Windmills were favoured in the windy flatlands of East Anglia and watermills in upland areas, with fast- running rivers and streams.

Most villages had a mill to grind corn, but this power-source could be turned to other uses. The invention of mechanical fulling by waterpower was apparently introduced to these islands by religious orders, particularly the Cistercians. Fulling mills turned England into a major cloth-making country from the 14th century. They were known as walk mills in northern England and tuck mills in the South-west.

By Tudor times mills were adapted to other industrial uses, such as paper-making, lead-smelting and tanning. The most dangerous of these was gunpowder-making. The risk of violent explosions meant that powder mills were generally sited well away from towns and villages. The Industrial Revolution saw the creation of large-scale spinning mills - see Factories.

Secondary sources

Primary sources

Mills are among the easier buildings to research. Unlike dwellings which may have many confusing changes of name and/or number over the years, a mill is always known as such. Medieval mills came under the control of the manorial lord and so should appear in manorial court rolls and estate papers. (A building lease for a tidal mill at Eling, Hants 1418 gives interesting details of the proposed construction.) For the joint ownership of some medieval Welsh mills see medieval land-holding in Wales.

The Mills Archive in Reading holds records about traditional mills and milling, including the collection of the Mills Section of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Thousands of digital images are online, together with a full catalogue of the rest of the archive, and some documents, such as information on English mills extracted from the 1881 Census Returns.

The Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey has an archive ofmaps and architectural drawings relating to the site, along witharound 2000 documents and images, covering the history of gunpowder and explosives manufacture with particular reference to Waltham Abbey.

Millers were so often fined for dishonesty that they regularly appear in hundred court rolls as well, some of which have been calendared in print by local record societies - see Mullins.

See also sources for houses.