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Kent Millers’ Tales

Cranbrook’s Tale

Cranbrook’s famous Union mill is the best known of more than 20 windmills and watermills which once stood in and around the town. This page tells the stories behind these mills, most of which have disappeared leaving no trace.

Excerpt from Watermills and Windmills of Cranbrook by C. R. R. Pile, June 1954. The watermills are dealt with first, followed by the windmills.


In attempting to record as much as has been possible to learn of these bygone mills it will be more convenient if those operated by water power are dealt with separately. In this task acknowledgment must be paid to William Tarbutt who made a careful survey of most of the streams in the parish in the year 1856, noting the bays of the ponds then existing and estimating the amount of water they held back. During the time that has elapsed since Tarbutt made this survey, other information has become available, revealing the existence of water-mills of which no visible traces then remained.

The first stream to be considered is naturally The Crane, from which the name of Cranbrook may be derived. It flows from its source at Hartley through the middle of the parish, the uppermost pond on this little brook being formed by a dam, near the site of the Crane Lane footbridge, where sufficient water could be held back to fill the ground now known as The Bottoms.

In evidence given before the Star Chamber in 1503 there is mention of this “upper pond.” The Court had under investigation the activities of one Alexander Simpson, an alleged spy for the Yorkist faction, and one time employed by Walter Roberts of Glassenbury, whom he sought to incriminate, alleging that Roberts had asked him to go overseas on a mission to the Earl of Suffolk (Edmund de la Pole) whilst he, Simpson, was working in “a strake of a medowe lyeing yon the bak syde of Cranebroke . . . mending the upper pond.”

More detailed information regarding this mill is contained in a deed dated 1545 whereby Thomas Roberts grants to Thomas Burgess of Cranebroke “a fenye pece of land and the tayle of one ponde ther called the uppermost myll ponde ” reserving the right to pass by a lane from Cranbrook Street (now Crane Lane) between the house of Lawrence Sharp and the said Thomas Burgess ” to goo and come to carrye the netts and all other engynnes and thyngs necessarye to fyshe the sayde ponde and all the fyshe then takyn to cary away at the wyll and pleasure of the sayde Thos. Roberts, but he shall have no waye on the sayde fenye pece of land to fyshe the sayd ponde with anglynge and leying of hookys.” The Lawrence Sharp mentioned lived on the west side of the lane, and being an important clothier, it suggests the possibility that this mill may have been his fulling mill. The bays of this pond are clearly visible to-day.

The next mill on the Crane stood somewhere near the site of the gas works although there are now no indications of the existence of a mill (neither were there in 1856, for Tarbutt does not mention it), but a deed dated 1416 relating to property lying ” between the house of Thomas Hordern and a lane called Mellane ” and a further deed of 1447 again referring to Mellane gives the clue to its position. A reference to the 1464 rental of Glassenbury furnishes this entry, “Raff .Crypse for a house late his fader John Crypse lying fast by the millane 6d.,” whilst George Barten paid a quit rent for his dwelling ” by the strete ” and for ” a noder pece of land lying between his place and the mill pond called Anthony’s mill pond.” Later rentals establish that George Barten’s house was “formerly Hordens ” (it is now the site of Cornwallis House), whilst Mill Lane appears to be the lane exactly opposite Vicarage Lane which runs down towards the stream, and marked on a late 18th century map as an ancient right of way. At the end of the 14th century, Cranbrook was developing apace, and a mill placed in a central position in the town would be fully employed grinding corn for the growing population. It is possible that it ceased working when a windmill was built close to the town sometime during the early i6th century.

Proceeding to follow the Crane, the next mill appears to have been situated near the present Moat Farm. Tarbutt noted two ponds there and estimated that the original bays had held back as much as ten acres of water. No reference to a mill at this point can be found, but it seems a likely position for a fulling mill connected with Buckhurst or Swifts which were both clothiers’ establishments in the early 16th century.

Lake Chad, of modern construction, partly covers the site of a much older mill pond and mill, associated for many years with the name of Chittenden. In 1499, Stephen Chittenden granted to Richard Baker a house and five pieces of land containing 12 acres on the Den of Beaghenden. Among the entries in the parish registers is the marriage of John Chittenden, miller to Mary Pyper of Smarden in 1654 and of Francis Chittenden to Susan Reynolds in 1634. Among the baptisms we find Stephen, son of Francis in 1635, and Francis, son of Stephen in 1669.

Turning to the rental of the Manor of Copton  (a dependant manor of Sissinghurst) for the year 1734 there is an entry for “House, water-mill and pond and 33 acres of land in the occupation of Francis Chittenden,” the rental including, “Liberty of the Lord of the Manor to take a draught of fish annually from the water of the said mill pond.”

It is interesting to note the value placed on the fishing rights in these mill ponds by the Lord of the Manor.

The ownership of this mill passed to the Plumers of Millhouse Place, who continued to own the land until the death of Mrs. Philadelphia Nairn in the year 1841, but the mill had ceased to work many years before this date.

William Chittenden, an early settler in New England, who crossed the Atlantic in 1639 as a member of the party led by Rev. H. Whitfield, and rose to some eminence in the Colony, is believed to have been a member of this family of millers.

The next mill to be noted is Karckeregge Mill, situated on the Den of that name belonging to the Manor of Little Chart, the exact position on the stream can only be a matter of conjecture for nothing now exists to indicate its whereabouts.

Leases granted by the Lord of the Manor in 1353 and 1416 refer to a “water-mill called Karkeregge,” the later deed mentioning John Bettenham, son of Stephen as the occupier. Later deeds of 1451 and 1472 grant a lease to Peter Courtnope — an early reference to this well-known family of clothiers — suggesting that it may have been converted into use as a fulling mill. Stephen Bettenham, father of the above-mentioned John refers in his will to his houses at Bettenham and Harkeregge (the spelling of this name varies in almost every reference, other variants being Hokeregge, Karkredge, Carkeregg, etc.). There is a further mention of this mill in the will of Thomas Karkeregge—a name derived from the place name presumably—dated 1477, “James my son, house where I now dwell, a wood called Tunstall and a mill.” The house, like the mill has long since been demolished, the land now forms part of Plumers Farm.

At Branden there are clear indications of the existence of a mill pond; for many years the Lynes, and later the Holdens lived at this house, both families were clothiers and this mill would appear to have been a fulling mill, but it ceased to work, probably in the 16th century. The property passed to the Holdens in 1603 and there is no reference to a mill at that date.

The stream leaves Cranbrook close to Branden and flows into Biddenden, bending at Hammer Mill to cross the road into Cranbrook again. Thus the Hammer Mill does not strictly come within the range of this review, nevertheless it is so closely connected with the history of the parish that some reference to it is called for. As the name implies it was an iron mill, the most easterly one in the Weald of Kent; a return made in the latter part of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I includes ”Sir Richard Butler: a furnace and forge in Biddenden.” The property formed part of the Sissinghurst estate and was charged with the upkeep of the road-bridge over the stream. An entry in the rental of the Manor of Boughton Aluph mentions certain quit rents unpaid and due from the heirs of Sir John Baker for ”Lands at Cranbrook or Biddenden near the Iron Mills.”

By the middle of the 17th century the production of iron had finished and the mill was converted to a corn mill, only ceasing to work about forty years ago, although a steam engine had been installed some time previously. The Hammer pond, now an orchard, was a very large one, and extended to 30 acres. When the proposed Medway-Rother canal plans were submitted in 1802, they included a suggestion to embank this pond and make it the head reservoir for the canal.

At Sissinghurst Castle there were extensive bays, but Tarbutt thought these were for the purpose of providing ornamental water, but the rate book for 1687 mentions the occupier of Sissinghurst Mill House, and two years later Dame Howard, then the occupier of all the Sissinghurst property, is assessed for the Mill House and Land.

The last mill in Cranbrook on the Crane is near Bettenham, by the bridge on the road from Bettenham to the brickfields; two fields on either side of the bridge are named Millpond Field and Mill Field on the 1840 Tithe Redemption map.

The second stream to supply power to a number of water-mills rises in Angley Woods, west of the Pin Pond, now drained ; this may have been a fulling mill, but more probably served as a reservoir for the mills lower down the stream. The first of these, Tuckers Pond, fed Spratsbourne Mill; at first sight the name suggests a fulling mill, for the “tucker” was the name applied to the mill-man by the clothiers, but in this case a more probable reason is furnished by the rate books which give the occupier in 1685 as a man called Thomas Tucker. Until the collapse of a bay resulting in the emptying of the pond a few years ago it was a favourite place for skating in the winter and picnics in summer, being known as Little Switzerland. Edmund Luckhurst of Spratsbouine Pond, miller, is mentioned in the registers in 1656 and 1660, and some years later it is described in a marriage settlement of John Tilden as “Water-mill, pond and 12 pieces of land containing 30 acres.”

Dog Kennel has traces of a mill pond, the field where it stood being named Old Pond Field, the road being constructed on the original bay, and this, also applies to Friezley Mill, where the mill pond came up to the right-hand side of the main road going to Goudhurst; apart from the physical indications of the existence of probable fulling mills at these two places, no other information has been traced.

Hockeredge Mill is well-known, its history can be authenticated for nearly five hundred years, and it was the last water-mill in the parish to function. The earliest deed dated August 6th, 1523 records the sale by James Wilford, Citizen and Alderman of the City of London, and Thomas Wilford of Cranbrook, gentleman to Alexander Courthope of “One mylle with a ponde thereto belonging called Hokkeredge.” Alexander Courthope, in his will, left ” Hokregmyll which I purchased of Master Welford ” to his son William, by whom it was sold to Robert Hovenden of Friezley in 1551. It remained in the possession of the Hovenden family for over 150 years, and is mentioned in the wills of successive Robert Hovendens in 1614, 1656, and 1704, being let to the Holdens for much of the earlier part of this time. Richard Holden, miller, is recorded in the burial register for 1667.

Later Nicholas Bonnick acquired Hockeredge, leasing it to his son William, who also had Spratsbourne. The road by Friezley to Hockeredge was considered to be a private road, a toll charge being claimed on all wheeled traffic.

Hartridge Mill, almost adjoining to Hockeredge, does not furnish so much information. It is not specifically mentioned by Sir James Wilford who purchased the Manor, although it presumably existed. Tarbutt ventured the opinion that it had been an iron mill, as he noticed a certain amount of slag in the roadway, but there is no evidence to support this theory. This mill was worked in conjunction with the Union windmill during the last century, the tenant being Mr. E. Russell, grandfather of Mr. John Russell.

The final mill within the parish boundary is the Paley Water-mill, of which there is little information available.

There is a small stream rising near Colliers Green, and flowing through Mad Dog Shaw past Hazelden farm to join the main flow near the Hartridge pond. On this small stretch of water Tarbutt noted a bay in Mad Dog Shaw which he judged to be a storage pond, and indications of a mill lower down the stream, which receive confirmation from the name of the adjoining osier bed, formerly called the Mill Field.

Another small brook rises at Swattenden, passing the Freight, to Bakers Cross, finally joining the Crane; when Tarbutt made his survey a hundred years ago he stated that there were clear signs of at least five dams between the source and Bakers Cross. The valley is narrow and the bays were high, sufficient to hold the water back to a depth of nine feet, with mills at the Freight and Bakers Cross. There can be little doubt that these were fulling mills, and were not worked later than the sixteenth century.

To the south, at Chittenden, a field near to the stream is marked on the Tithe Apportionment Map of 1840 as Mill Field. The brook is very small but the gill through which it flows, being very steep, could be dammed to contain a large amount of water.

At Great Trenley, on the Hawkhurst boundary, stood a fulling mill, the property of Thomas Sheafe; a deed dated April 9th, 1577, between Stephen Beeching of Rye and Thomas Sheafe of Cranbrook, clothier, grants to the latter the right ”to make and have certain dycke upon a piece of woodland of said Stephen Beeching … to carry and void away all the waste water coming out of a certain pond of the said Thos. Sheafe.”

A later deed of 1687 describes the property as ” one corn mill and one fulling mill,” although it is doubtful whether the fulling mill was being used as such at this late date, the miller at the corn mill, by name William Randall, is mentioned in the registers on several occasions between 1653 and 1660.

On Hallwood Farm are two fields named Mill Field and Mill Pond Field situated near to White Limes in a steep little valley. This land belonged to a branch of the Bettenham family in the 15th century, and although there are a number of references to the property no mention of a mill—probably a fulling mill—can be traced.

Furnace Farm perpetuates the history of the only iron mill actually situated within Cranbrook parish, together with the adjoining Forge Farm in Goudhurst it formed the Bedgbury iron works, owned by the Culpepers, and let, in the second half of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign to Sir Richard Baker of Sissinghurst, who was required in 1574 to enter into a bond not to sell iron ordnance without a licence from the Queen under penalty of £2,000; this followed a complaint by Ralph Hogge, Queen’s gun-maker, of infringement of his patents for the sole exportation of iron ordnance by other iron-masters.

In 1637, Cranbrook and other parishes petitioned the Council, on behalf of the clothiers, to restrain John Browne, maker of brass and iron ordnance and shot, from felling wood for his furnace, within the parish.

In his reply Browne states that he only continues the use of “one ancient furnace in Cranbrook, that ordnance and shot cannot be made without wood, but cloth may be made with sea-coals, and the inhabitants of Cranbrook may have their coals conveniently from Maidstone or Newenden.”

By 1664 the mill “was discontinued, but repaired and stock’d upon account of the warre.” The rate book for 1680 notes that it is unoccupied.

The Mill is recorded by Pond Field, Furnace Field and Moat Meadow.

Thus far it has been possible to identify the situation of all these water-mills with reasonable certainty, but there remain others more difficult to place. In his will dated 1485 John Sharpey mentions a mill called “Redford Mille” — “quod pertinet magistro Ricardo Muge vicario.” Richard Mugge was vicar of Cranbrook between 1473 and 1486, and in 1502, is mentioned as Vicar of Goudhurst, where he seems to have continued until his death in 1509. He owned other property called New Marlyng which he sold to Alexander Courthope.

Redford again appears in 1563 as the property of Peter Courthope who, in his will, states that he bought it of Thomas Taylor, and he leaves it to his son William, but it no longer mentions a mill. Later, it passed into the ownership of the Bakers of Sissinghurst.

Another deed of 1322 relates to the granting of land and a mill called Wynelolces pend, by Stephen at More to Henry Pistoris; this may have reference to a mill between Bakers Cross and the main stream of the Crane, but definite evidence is lacking.

Angley belonged to Battle Abbey and the Abbot usually held it as a personal holding. When the estates of the Abbey passed to the Crown after the suppression of the monasteries, Angley was sold to Sir Walter Henley, the property included two fulling mills, the exact whereabouts of which have never been identified.

Doubtless, other early mills have disappeared without trace, but one quite modern installation is worthy of mention. When John Tooth bought a house in Stone Street (now Mr. Chittenden’s) towards the end of the eighteenth century as a shop for the sale of his hats, he put up a building in the rear as a factory for the manufacture of hats. At that time an open stream crossed the High Street, passing at the back of the George and so on to the Tanyard and the Crane.

Tooth put a small dam on this stream and installed a water-wheel to supply power for his machinery, this tiny mill continued to operate for a number of years with apparent success, the beaver hats of Cranbrook enjoying a wide sale.


“I had rather live with cheese and garlic in a Windmill, far . . .”


Windmills came to England some time about the reign of Richard I, and by the close of the 15th century they were in fairly general use.

These early types of small post mills on a tripod stand left little or no indication to show where they had been when they were demolished or removed to another site, and almost the only clue to their position is that furnished by field or place-names.

Thus Windmill Hill and the Windmill fields at once came to notice, and it may well be that the earliest windmills in the parish are recorded by these names, for there is no evidence to suggest that there has been a mill on this site for the past two hundred years or more, yet these names go much further back than that, it may be to the reign of Henry VIII, or earlier.

In 1550, Sir Walter Hendley bequeathed to Richard Taykrur and Margery his wife ” the parsonage of Cranbrook and also the Windmill.” The reference to the parsonage shows him to have been the contemporary lessee from the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury of the rectory farm and lands, which included those fields now named the Ball Fields and Upper Windmill Field, and offers a basis for the assumption that the windmill mentioned stood on this piece of ground. But the evidence is not entirely satisfactory, on the other side of the main road facing Quaker Lane and nearer to the entrance to Swifts there was a field formerly known as Windmill Meadow. Now in 1569 Peter Courthope died and an enquiry held to determine his heir reported that among other property he held ” a mansion house in Cranbrooke near the Wynne mill there.” This house was Old Wilsley and suggests that the windmill—or another one for that matter— stood near to the house, which would place it in Windmill Meadow. No further record of a mill or mills at either of the two sites has been discovered, and the exact whereabouts must await further information. In 1678, Samuel Tilden, the then lessee of the Rectory Farm is assessed at £7 for the Windmill Field.

There are references to another windmill nearby — in Angley Road. In 1758 William Bonnick is assessed at £6 10s. 0d. for the windmill and four years later in the rate book, “Mr. Tempest for the windmill late Bonnick £6″, this assessment being increased to £12 in 1766. In a will of 1781, Nicholas Bonnick leaves to his son William, ”Lease of the Wind Mill in Cranbrooke aforesaid from George Tempest, Esq., subject to the Rents and Covenants therein contained.” The Andrews Drury map, dated 1769 marks a windmiH• in”‘;: Angley. As far as can be judged it stood nearby the present, lodge gate. It does not appear on the first Ordnance Survey Map of 1801, and local tradition suggests it may “have been removed to Mill Lane, Sissinghurst, but there are reasons to doubt this.

Near Glassenbury a lane leads off to Little Glassenbury, and on the corner are cottages known as Windmill Cottages, and a little beyond is a field called Windmill Field. None of the maps available from 1769 onwards give any reference to a mill here; it may have been demolished long before that date. Possibly this mill served the needs of the Glassenbury Estate, replacing the old water-mill in the grounds on the Goudhurst side.

A little nearer to Cranbrook at Huggins Hall, a field at the back of the late Union House is marked as Windmill Field, but here again no details can be traced to enable a date to be established. There are better reasons for believing that it is this mill that was transferred to Mill Lane, prior to the year 1801.

Passing to the other side of the parish, a reference to the Andrew Drury map of 1769 already mentioned, shows a mill at Satins Hill, but no local knowledge or tradition could be discovered that pointed to a mill having stood at this point. The field is known as the Five Acres, but an examination of earlier deeds reveals that this field was originally in two pieces, and the smaller one, of two acres, at the point where Spongs Lane joins the Frittenden road, bore the name of Windmill Field when sold in 1806. The actual windmill had disappeared before this date.

The original mill in Mill Lane is always supposed to have been moved from Hartley, and if this is so it could only be the Huggins Hall Mill. It is marked on the 1801 Ordnance Survey Map, but in 1839 a new mill was re-erected on the site, at a cost of £800. A small mill working two pairs of stones, it continued to work until 1926. In 1928 the sweeps were removed, being sold for £5. The structure stood on until 1953, when it became necessary to pull it down owing to its dangerous condition. The last memory of this mill is the large Union Jack that proudly floated above the derelict cap at the end of the war in 1945.

The ailing smock mill on Cranbrook Common - now long gone
The ailing smock mill on Cranbrook Common – now long gone

Cranbrook Common Mill, an octagonal smock mill was built about 1815. It was situated on the west of the Maidstone road to the right of the lane leading to the Convalescent Home. By the terms of a lease dated 26th March, 1824, it was granted to Matthew Jenner by John Sparks at an annual rental of £55 per annum being described as “a house wind cornmill and about five acres of land at Hazelden Common in Cranbrook.” For the purpose of the lease a valuation of the tackle, running gear, sweeps, etc., made by Robert Relf of Cranbrook and Thomas Firminger of Hawkhurst, millwright, put the value at £249 175. 6d., as described in the schedule attached to the lease, beginning with ” four sweeps with iron bolts and bars, two oak middlings, one wind shaft with pillar blocks and bearing brasses. Brake wheel and cogs,” and so on to “one pair of french stones 4ft. 4in., one pair of peake stones 4ft. 4in.”, ending with “two meal troughs and meal spouts.” After the Jenners, this mill was associated for many years with the Crampton family until they moved to Mill Lane. The mill stood until 1901 when it was finally demolished by the usual method of placing a wire rope round the body of the mill, attaching it to a traction engine, loosening a few bricks, and pulling.

The sails were of cloth, they became worn and tattered at the latter end, flapping in the wind like a giant scarecrow.

At Three Chimneys near the extreme eastern boundary of the parish there is a sandpit on the left-hand side of the hill leading up from the Hammer Mill, and here stood a windmill.

It is shown on Greenwoods map of 1819, but had been there some years at that date. It is assessed in the rate book of 1827 at £6 10s., but by 1833 the entry appears as “vacant ” and it remained out of use for some time, until in 1856 it was pulled down and removed by wagon and team to Punnetts Town, Heathfield, Sussex, being re-erected there to replace a mill that had been burnt down. It continued to work by wind until 1927, then, the sweeps were removed and an oil engine installed.

There can be little doubt that at one time or another other windmills have stood at various places in the parish— local tradition tells of a post mill on  the high ground near Hartridge House, another close to Hammer Mill, and yet another at Flishinghurst. This latter receives some confirmation from an entry in the rate book for 1678 where the assessment of Spratsbourne Mill and wood at £16, has the additional note “and for the windmill £2.”

John Russell, miller of Union Mill Cranbrook, photographed by H E S Simmons, c1935
John Russell, miller of Union Mill Cranbrook, photographed by H E S Simmons, c.1935

Other entries both in the Rate Books and Church Registers relate to millers and mills difficult to fit in with any of the known locations; a small post mill presented little difficulty if a change of position appeared desirable, unless the site became known as Windmill Field there remained nothing to indicate there had ever been a mill there.

And so we come back to the Union Mill, the last and the best of the long succession of mills that have served Cranbrook in their day. It is too well known to need more than the briefest note. Built in 1814 by Humphrey, the millwright of Cranbrook for Henry Dobell, its early days were not very successful ones. Henry Dobell died, and his widow Mary, overcome by the difficulties that beset the country at the close of the war against Napoleon, could not meet her engagements ; on October nth, 1819 she conveyed to the Trustees for her creditors “all that dwelling house, with one acre of land and that wind corn mill lately erected and built thereon, being at a certain place called the Hill in Cranbrook.”

Christian Bremer, the Dutch millwright, on the dust floor at Cranbrook's Union Mill
Christian Bremer, the Dutch millwright, on the dust floor at Cranbrook’s Union Mill

The creditors carried on the business for a time, arid it is suggested that this led to the name of the Union Mill being given to it.

In time it came into the ownership of the Russell family — the name first appears in the rate book in 1833 — it is very largely due to this continuous family connection that the mill has been preserved and handed down to the present day, a superb example of the millwright’s craft — a craft, sad to relate, that has almost, if not entirely, died out in England —to which such millwrights as Humphrey of Cranbrook, Medhurst of Lewes, and Warren of Hawkhurst contributed their skill.


I was intrigued to see what had been included in “Cranbrook’s Tale” but a little dismayed to see that some misleading information from Pile’s book on “Watermills and Windmills” have been reproduced, perpetuating several misunderstandings, particularly that the Union Mill was built for Henry Dobell and that he died leaving his widow Mary to deal with his creditors. I had really hoped that this myth had been put to rest. Mary Dobell was Henry’s mother and she had the mill built for Henry to work, which is why she went bankrupt.  Both she and Henry were buried in Cranbrook many years later.

In his research, Tony has identified 16 definite watermill sites (there may one or two more) and 5 windmill sites in the parish of Cranbrook. More information about these sites, and others nearby, is featured in a number of articles written by Tony, which are reproduced on his website. To find them, follow the links below:


Click on the links below to see profiles for mills in Cranbrook, together with all the catalogued items we have available for each one.