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Newsletter 119, Winter 2017    © Hampshire Mills Group



Country House Tour in Northern Ireland



Angela Smith

In August, Nigel and I visited Northern Ireland to join a group trip with the AIA’s Heritage of Industry, visiting Country Houses with the aim of learning about the technology rather than the grandiose interiors.  What had caught our eye was the promise of such gems as “saw mill”, “corn mill”, “gas manufacture”, and other IA-related subjects.  The tour was being led by Prof Marilyn Palmer, the AIA’s Honorary President, and was commencing on the afternoon of Monday 7 August with the last visit on the morning of Friday 11.  Participants had to make their own transport arrangements to Belfast.  We decided to travel on the Saturday, Flybe from Southampton Airport, to give us time for independent sightseeing.  We were in the Titanic Quarter by 11:30.


On Sunday we had planned to visit the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra, a mere 20 minute train ride.  The morning was wet so we spent that in the excellent Transport Museum before taking the shuttle bus to the Folk Museum.  Like open-air museums such as Weald & Downland, this is composed of relocated buildings from all over Northern Ireland and has a “village” and rural exhibits, three of which are mills.


Straid Corn Mill:  The site map describes this mill as “currently closed” – it looked like it had been neglected for some years.  The large wheel and leat were covered in vegetation so we didn’t bother trying to take any photos.  The mill, consisting of several stone, slated, single, and 2-storey buildings, comes from Straid near Ballymena in Co Tyrone.  It was part of a large farm complex which also had two scutch mills.  A mill had been on the site since 1785 but was rebuilt in 1852.  It ceased production after WW2 following a reduction in operation due to competition from larger mills.  It was dismantled and moved to the museum in the 1980s.


Gorticashel Flax Mill:  Like Straid Mill, this single 2-storey building has also seen better days, with the wheel very overgrown.  It had been a scutch mill from Co Tyrone, but the website gives no details of its history and there is no guide book available.  Scutching is the process of extracting linen fibres from flax stems by being passed through cogged rollers.  It was a highly dangerous occupation as workers were at risk from machinery that could not be stopped quickly, the air was thick with dust, and there was an ever-present danger of fire.  On at least two occasions this mill had been severely damaged by fire.


Coalisland Spade Mill:  Although in a good state of repair, this mill was not manned so we were unable to visit it and the adjoining building which once housed 4 finishing shops.  The mill, from Derry in Co Tyrone, was built in the 1850s and moved to the museum in 1960.



It is a single storey building constructed mostly of stone, with the back gable wall and chimney of brick.  A wooden launder – which was dry – leads from a small dam.  There are two external breast-shot wheels.  A massive hammer in the mill is tripped by a cast iron wheel driven directly from the larger water wheel.  I was able to take a couple of flash shots through the mill window.



Between 1800 and 1900 in Ireland, the spade was the most usual tool of cultivation.  Ulster spades had welded sockets and spade mills were erected to mass-produce them.  A skilled spade maker could make up to 120 varieties of spade, in up to 5 sizes.  This mill was operated until the 1950s by one family over five generations.



The Tour

On Monday we met up with the group after lunch.  We were led by Bill Barksfield and Prof Marilyn Palmer and there were 18 other participants.  The afternoon’s visit was to Mount Stewart which only re-opened 3 years ago and parts are currently still undergoing major restoration.  As I was unable to glean much information about the mills and so on seen on the tour, I am grateful to Marilyn for giving permission to use her tour notes for some mills.

Myra Castle Farm (south end of Strangford Lough):  Tuesday morning saw us making a private visit to Myra Castle Farm, owned by David Good who guided us around.  The main house was built about 1844 and the model farm complex was linked to the house by a meandering “cut-and-cover” tunnel built for the servants, top-lit by ships’ portholes, though it was mostly in darkness.  Apart from the water wheel, the site also has a small lime kiln, weighbridge and almost complete estate acetylene gas works.



The large but narrow water wheel had been installed to power farm machinery including a circular saw sited nearby in an open-sided shed and threshing machinery in the adjacent barn.


Water power proved inadequate because there is also a single cylinder horizontal steam engine with an upright steam boiler.  Some line shafting survives.  Projecting from the servants’ quarters at the rear of the house is a circular roofed horse gin which was apparently built to power a butter churner in the dairy inside the house.  This was built sometime after 1874 but was disused by 1900.


Castle Ward Estate Yard (south end of Strangford Lough):  After the farm we then moved on to nearby Castle Ward, remarkable for the fact that it has two differing frontages.  The 1st Viscount Bangor wanted a Classical frontage while his wife fancied Gothick.  So both the exteriors and interiors reflect these tastes.  It was built in the 1760s at a cost of £40,000.


Our very knowledgeable guide, Martin Gibson, told us that tide mills are rare in Ireland, although several were constructed around Strangford Lough during the 1800s.  He said that the earliest tide mill was thought to be at Nedrum, further north on the lough on a monastic site, dating to around 700AD, and had a “vertical axis propeller”.

Unlike other mills seen on this tour, there are a number of useful descriptive panels with text and diagrams in the barn adjacent to the mill which I have drawn on for this section.



The first mill at Castle Ward was built in the early 1700s and was used to grind oats, barley and wheat into meal and flour.  It was initially a tide mill operating from the tidal Strangford Lough which filled a millpond at the rear at high tide. 

A 1744 description of the operation by Walter Harris says: “On the bay that opens to the garden is a singular contrivance for supplying a mill with water. A dead wall is carried across the gut in which are two arches and in them two flood gates fixed, the one to admit the tide, the other to keep it in or let it out, as occasion serves. By this means a corn-mill is perpetually supplied with water which can never fail as long as the tide flows here.”


Martin explained that the bottom of the waterwheel was not far above low water level so, in the 1800s, it was converted to normal stream operation from the spring-fed large ornamental lake on the estate, Temple Water, with channels cut down to the mill.

A corn-drying kiln was built in 1800.  During the 1830s the corn mill was enlarged and a threshing mill added.  New grinding machinery and a replacement waterwheel were incorporated, powered exclusively from the Temple Water without tidal assistance.  The machinery was again renewed in the 1870s but, by the early 1900s, the mill had ceased operation.  It lay dormant, gradually falling into disrepair, until 1991 when the National Trust began to restore the mill to full working order again. 




The complex houses a kiln, thresher, winnower and two pairs of millstones.  Remains of the tide mill can still be seen in the façade.  Adjacent to the corn mill is a sawmill in a barn (left), preserved but not working.


On our tour of the house I had inspected an old map and spotted a “Windmill Hill” not far from the estate and asked Martin about it.   He explained to everyone that there was a line of post mills but, due to being hand turned, they fell out of use.  There is a preserved smock or tower mill somewhere around the lough.


Castle Coole (near Enniskillen):  Built between 1789 and 1798 for the 1st Earl Belmore.  He commissioned an ice house so that he could preserve meats and have cool drinks and ice cream.  He built a pump to bring water from Lough Coole to the new house which is located in a small octagonal pump house, pumping water to a tank off the servants’ tunnel from where water was carried into the house.


Florence Court:  This ‘family home’ was built c1756-64 but suffered a severe fire in 1955, not long after the National Trust acquired it.  It has now been fully restored.  In the grounds are a sawmill, hydraulic ram and icehouse. The single storey stone sawmill has a metal high breast-shot wheel manufactured by William Maxwell in 1848, and fed by a launder, crossing a main path, with water from the Larganess River.


The mill was established in 1840 by the 3rd Earl of Enniskillen to process timber from the estate.  It produced rough-sawn timber Finished products such as cartwheels would have been completed in the carpenter’s shop north of the sawmill.


There is also a Bark House where bark stripped from the wood was crushed to extract tannin.  The drive for the saw bench comes from a cog wheel off the pit wheel.  The saw bench was converted to electricity after mains power arrived about 1951.  There is a small electric motor in a recess in the wall which probably drove a small free-standing saw bench.





The Argory:  There were at least three different sources of water for the house.  Outside the east garden pavilion is a submerged water pump (by W Davis, Navan) presumably raising water from a well, driven by a horse gin which is missing its swivelling drive arm.  The west garden pavilion is closer to the river and contains a manually-cranked water pump, presumably for pumping up river water.  There was also a rainwater collection tank which may have been the source of water for a manual pump in the middle of the garden south-west of the laundry.


The only feature which we saw which might be associated with water supply was what appeared to be a sluice mechanism near the river with a pipe coming out of it which then disappears under the grass towards the house. There was insufficient time to investigate further as we then had to make our way back to George Best Airport and the flight home.


All in all, a very interesting visit to many properties with some mills thrown in for good measure!


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