History Group Talk July 2009


This month’s Illustrated Talk was given by Martin Watts, a Millwright and Mill Historian.
The title was “Devon Watermills”

Martin Watts began by telling us that he had spent much of his life deeply interested in the subject of Watermills. It was in the 1990s that he first came to Devon and took on the task of restoring Crowdy Mill at Harbertonford. This was just one of the many mills that had been originally powered by the River Harbourne. He eventually got the mill up and working, grinding corn into flour as it had done in the nineteenth century. He obtained a contract to supply many schools in Devon with his flour, one of these being the local school at Widecombe. This was not very financially rewarding so he decided to widen his horizons and decided that he would do “anything concerned with mills”. This lead him into doing historical research and archaeological exploration and recording, into the whole history of Watermills, and he soon realised that there were over 1800 water-powered sites in Devon. Most of these had an agricultural connection as in addition to grist mills (corn), there were tucking and fulling mills(wool), as well as those connected with the production of metal tools, tin and other products.Most of the grist mills were situated in the south-east of the county where the better cereal growing land is situated. Early forms of milling can be dated to pre-historic times and with the Roman invasion larger and more efficient mills were created. In the Will of Alfred, dated 881AD, he mentions a mill connected to a burn (stream) and a similar burn can be found along the boundary of the Silverton parish.By the late medieval period there were many mills in Devon and in the Doomsday Book it is recorded that there were ninety-six and a half mills in Devon. Could the half be a mill shared on a county border with a neighbouring county or manor?  Martin Watts was the instigator of getting the “Time Team”, a BBC Television Programme, into doing a televised dig at Dotton Mill, East Devon. He showed aerial views of the site and it was possible to pick out the course of the leat that ran to the mill. During  the exploration, mill stones and the wheel pit were unearthed as were several pieces of pottery. The original mill had burnt down and evidence of this was clearly shown in the excavations. He also spends much time in doing archaeological recordings of mill sites before the buildings are converted into living accommodation. The trend of converting rather than restoring mills, is quite prevalent at this time. Working mills are few and far between. However, there are still a few that can be visited, Finches Foundry at Sticklepath, Coldharbour Mill at Uffculme and a mill at Monkokehampton. Mills were an important part of the community, generally owned by the Squire or Lord of the Manor, and were kept very secure, as the value of their products played such an important part in the economy of any community. Some interesting photographs showing the design and structure of these old mills and from this information some can be dated (re-edified) to 1560 by the style of the roof trusses, the style of the roofs themselves and other details. 
Of particular interest to the meeting were a few photographs and some information about Ponsworthy Mill. There is evidence that at one time there were two mill wheels working in line, fed by the one supply and the amount of water supplied to each wheel was controlled by a hinged flap in the base of the launder. Some mills had metal gearing that drove the mill stones but many had wooden gearing which was quieter when working, and easier to repair, as individual cogs could be replaced as needed.
In the fifteenth century Guildhall in Exeter, there is an example of plague/crest showing the connection to the Fullers Guild.   Many mill stones were made of granite, being a local stone it was plentiful and easy to source. However, it did need dressing more regularly. There were more suitable stones obtainable from the north of England and the very best came from France. On average mill stones needed re-dressing about once a fortnight. One of most famous Millwrights was a man by the name of Bodley of Exeter who re-built and restored many mills in that area. His relation being the founder of the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. A visit to one or more of the few working mills still available would be an interesting experience. Martin was thanked for a very interesting and informative talk.

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