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Newsletter 122, Autumn 2018    © Hampshire Mills Group

 

 

Headley Mill Visit

 

 Putty

Robin Appel
Pictures by Keith and Ruth Andrews

, Forging to

 

It was a near perfect summer’s evening when Richard Ellis, HMG stalwart, welcomed 24 members to his iconic mill sat astride the River Wey at Headley.  The mill pond appeared to be at capacity, and the ducks were aplenty, but the mill looked a little sad, deteriorating structures crying out for help.  They deserve it, there is more than 1000 years of history here, and the mill and machinery is complete.

At 6.30pm Richard was invited to begin his guided tour, but he is obviously an old hand at this.  “If I start promptly, others will continue to arrive” he declared, but he did, and, of course, they did!

Richard began by describing the continuous range of mostly stone buildings which comprise the mill and the mill house.

 

 

He explained “mills made money, but they shook themselves to bits” so millers were forever rebuilding them, which is why Headley Mill combined four separate structures. The first, the mill house, with its Georgian front is 1796, confirmed by a coin of that date found concealed in the front door structure, a well-known signature employed by builders over 2-300 years.  Moving from right to left, next is the facade which houses the wheel – 1831, and is made of bricks, which was probably a way the then miller advertised his prosperity.  Then comes the main body of the mill, which is mediaeval.  Finally the most southerly structure, is again stone, 16th-17th century.

 

The history of the mill is not without controversy.  The River Wey, or more definitively, the middle of the River Wey, once formed the boundary of land owned by the Bishop of Winchester (to the north east), and a hunting forest owned by King John (to the south west).  The bishop was comfortable with the mill from which he drew taxes, the king was not.  The king saw the mill as an encroachment of his sacred hunting grounds.  The dispute went on for many years, rendering the mill inoperable (the mill pond being drained by the king), but was finally resolved in 1272.

 

 

In 1831 all the wooden machinery within the mill was replaced with iron, although, as was common practice, all the gears retained wooden teeth (apple wood) for quieter running, and the avoidance of sparks.  The wooden waterwheel, still outside, but about to become ‘inside’, was not replaced until much later in 1926, albeit, even then, the wooden shaft was retained.

 

Coopers of Romsey fitted the new iron waterwheel, which weighs in the order of 2 tons, and today requires some urgent maintenance work.  There are three pairs of French Burr stones, and a pair of Derby Peak stones, two pairs of which are capable of continuous running at any one time.

 

The Ellis family took over the mill in 1913, so it was they who commissioned the new waterwheel.  As a corn merchant myself, of 55 years standing, I was particularly intrigued to learn that the elevators and conveyors within the mill, which replaced the manual handling of heavy and cumbersome grain sacks, were installed in the 1950s, well ahead of grain sacks disappearing off farms in the late 1960s.  Clearly the Ellis family, to revisit Richard’s earlier quote, were “making money” in those days to have invested ahead of the need to.

 

 

But when Richard was asked what volume grain could be stored in the wooden grain bins at the top of the mill (second floor), he replied that his father always advised “never more than 50 tons”!  But that would have been a minimum of 500 sacks in the days of the sack hoist, so perhaps the expenditure on elevators and conveyors was a more prudent than profligate spend after all.

Today, all the equipment cluttering the floors of the mill is a veritable ‘Aladdin’s cave’ of period hardware which would all fit very nicely into my maltings museum in Warminster. Sack trucks, weighing machines, and an outstanding ‘miller’s desk’ all caught my eye.  Also a piece of remarkable modern technology which Richard was justly proud of – “a screw that bends” for lifting the millstones.

 

 

This was my first visit to Headley Mill, and it was a truly fascinating experience, but Richard’s prophecy of “one day a property developer will take over” screams of a missed opportunity.  There are a lot of former watermills like Headley Mill that offer that iconic image of the “old mill by the stream” which, another day, could become a very successful brand.

But Headley Mill, which could be made to grind corn again, is different from most of them.  If I am not mistaken, it has land around it.  That is the asset which would make the difference and which could be so important to any new venture allowing the scope to develop.  Let us hope the Ellis family can hang on long enough for an opportunity like that to come along.

 

 


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