Watermills revolutionised the processing of grain from the time when this work was done by hand with querns. On 31 March 2011, Sheila Viner spoke to AiM on watermills and the important role that they once played in the life of this area. Sheila is a researcher at the Mills Archive*, based in Reading, a national resource that holds a wealth of material extending up until the 1950s-1960s when mills, as working concerns, went into a steep decline.
Millers were often prosperous members of their communities. Holding tenure from the Lord of the Manor, they were guaranteed the whole of the business of the tenants on the estate and entitled to one sixteenth of all the grain brought to them for milling. But they were often suspected of taking more than their fair share. They were also unpopular with bargees as the millers controlled the flash locks and could impede the flow of river traffic. But as master millers were vital to the functioning of local communities, any suspected shortcomings had to be tolerated.
While iron had come to replace some of the mills’ working parts by the seventeenth century, wood was still favoured because of the risk of fire – the curse of milling – being generated by sparks. Different woods were used according to the qualities needed, e.g. elm for paddle wheels; apple or pear for wheel cogs.
The Domesday Book recorded that there were two corn watermills at Great Marlow. By the eighteenth century, flour and rape seed oil were being milled in the town. Paper and thimbles were also produced here. John Lofting, a Dutch thimble manufacturer, had first set up a thimble factory in 1693 at Islington in London, where he began production on a larger scale than had hitherto been known in England. He subsequently moved to Great Marlow where the use of water, rather than horse, power enabled him to double his output of thimbles. With a capacity of about two million thimbles per year, Lofting clearly had ambitions beyond the home market, and probably exported to the American colonies. John Lofting died in 1742, but his Great Marlow mill is believed to have continued producing thimbles for several years, possibly until it succumbed to competition from manufacturers in Birmingham. Benjamin and William, John’s sons, made generous benefactions in 1759 to the church and to the poor in Marlow, establishing a local charity that still exists.
Increasing literacy boosted the demand for paper production, which became a major industry in this area, especially at High Wycombe, the biggest market for this product being close by in London. Paper production extended well into the twentieth century: Pann Mill remains the last example of the many watermills that once existed on the river Wye. Jackson’s Mill at Bourne End produced gunpowder at the time of the English Civil War.
Temple Mills were originally built as flour mills but changed to copper and brass production about 1710. Daniel Defoe referred to the mills in his Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, undertaken in the 1720s. He recorded there the “three very remarkable mills, called Temple-Mills, for making Bisham Abbey Battery-work viz. Brass Kettles and Pans &c of all sorts.” The opening of the Thames-Severn canal, completed in 1789, enabled copper to be more easily transported from the main production source at Swansea. Thomas Williams (1737-1802), who became the leading figure of the British copper industry, employed the architect Samuel Wyatt to develop the Temple Mill copper works, which reputedly had the largest waterwheel on the Thames. This mill was later converted to manufacture paper and board: during the Second World War it produced ticker tape for communication purposes. Temple Mills closed in 1969 after having reputedly manufactured the paper used to print bank notes in its latter days of operation.
In time, the wheatlands of the American continent, the grain ships and port mills became too great a competition for the farmers and thus the grain mills in this country. In their later years, some watermills were converted to steam power, with coal being transported up the Thames to power the machinery. Nationally, rioters in the nineteenth century attacked mills that were being mechanised in protest against the loss of jobs this caused.
While the remaining watermills now present us with a picturesque reminder of the past, it should be remembered that over hundreds of years they provided the power by which our staple foods and manufactures were once produced. The watermill at Mapledurham remains the sole working watermill now to be found on the river Thames.
By Jeff Griffiths
* See http://www.millarchive.com/