Posted on

Watermills and Windmills of Middlesex (Second Edition)


The watermill has a much longer ancestry than the windmill, one which goes back to classical times. We cannot be sure whether it was the Greeks or the Romans who invented it, nor when exactly it replaced the cumbersome and inefficient practice of grinding corn manually by pounding it between two stones or using a hand quern.  Watermills were fairly widespread in Anglo-Saxon England, as the number recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, William the Conqueror’s attempt to take stock of his relatively recently acquired new kingdom, indicates (it is worthwhile pointing out here that a “mill” as the people of the time classified it could mean any set of machinery driven by a waterwheel, rather than the building in which it was situated, which often had more than one within their walls, so the actual number of watermill structures was not as large as might appear). Thirty and a half mills are recorded in Middlesex, and listed here along with the sums they were worth:

  • Stibenhede (Stepney), 4, amounting in total to £4 16s 4 1/2d.
  • Hesa (Hayes), 1:4s
  • Draitone (Drayton), 1:13s 5d
  • Staines, 6:64s
  • Hanewell (Hanwell), 1:2s 2d
  • Covelie (Cowley), 1:5s
  • Hermondeswerde (Harmondsworth), 3:60s, 50 eels
  • Coleham (Colham), 2:41s. Also half a mill (see explanation of this in entry on Colham in watermill gazetteer) worth 5s.
  • Adelmetone (Edmonton), 1:10s
  • Enefelde (Enfield), 1:10s
  • Chingesberie (Kingsbury), 1:3s
  • Stanwelle (Stanwell), 4:70s
  • Gistelesworde (Isleworth), 2:10s
  • Herefelle (Harefield), 2:15s
  • Islington: Hugh de Berners had a mill here worth 66s 8d

 There may also have been a mill in existence at Yeoveney near Staines.

 It is a reasonably safe assumption that none of these would have been windmills, as there is no firm evidence for any of the latter in England before the last two decades of the following century.

 As with the windmills, the number of watermills increased with the growth of population. In Middlesex, although the availability of water was a factor restricting watermill numbers, which the windmills of course were unaffected by, the existence of the Thames, along with other rivers and their tributaries, was an obvious spur to their increase. Initially watermills, again like windmills, were owned by the local lord of the manor, one of whose tenants usually performed the task of miller. In Middlesex and elsewhere this might remain the case well into the nineteenth century, until which time wealthy landowners like the Duke of Northumberland still owned large areas of the county. In mediaeval times the tenants were obliged to grind their corn at the lord’s mill – he took a certain share of the profits from its trade – and nowhere else, facing a severe fine or worse if they failed to comply.

 The greatest concentration of mills was in the Uxbridge area, which in the size of its industrial sector appears to have been the equivalent in Middlesex of Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. They tended to have as grim and forbidding an appearance as their counterparts, whether driven by water or steam, in those parts of the country. These mills owed their rise to the construction of the Grand Junction Canal, which along with a high level of agricultural productivity made the area an important centre of the flour milling industry. During 1799 4,612 and a half tons of flour were transported from them along the Canal. The millers of Uxbridge are said to have been characterised by Dissent and Quakerism. 

 Many sites were occupied by a mill for eight hundred years or more but, as with the windmills, it is unlikely that in such cases the one existing in mediaeval times and that which survived into the nineteenth or twentieth century were the same building. A mill might be periodically rebuilt to take advantage of technological improvements, being enlarged to accommodate additional millstones and machinery, so that the plan of the site changed considerably during its history. A largely timber structure might be renewed in brick, like Clock Mill at Bromley-by-Bow just over the Essex border, although it was not unusual for a timber-built example to remain so throughout its working life, Ponders End mill at Enfield being one example of this. The final stage in the development of the watermill was represented in Middlesex by the huge brick-built Kidd’s Mill at Isleworth with its twenty-nine pairs of stones.

 The earliest watermills, small wooden constructions, had the wheel fixed horizontally to the lower end of a vertical shaft at whose top was mounted the upper of a single pair of stones. (The upper or runner stone rotated while the lower or bedstone was always stationary, this remaining the case right through to the eventual demise of stone grinding). Later the wheel was mounted vertically on a horizontal shaft, at the other end of which was another vertical wheel usually situated within a kind of pit and therefore called a pit wheel. The cogs or teeth on this wheel engaged with those of a horizontal wheel known as a wallower, the latter being carried on an vertical main shaft (generally known as the “upright shaft”). Also on this shaft, above the wallower, was to be found a great spur wheel which usually drove the runner stones from underneath via small gears called stone nuts on spindles which passed up through the centre of the bedstone and were fixed to that of the runner stone. A crown wheel further up drove hoisting equipment and other machinery, e.g. for extracting the flour from the ground corn, or meal, by breaking it down into its various components, a process known as “dressing”, via belts and pulleys, bevel gearing or both. In only a very few cases was the great spur wheel above the stones (where this arrangement was adopted the stone spindles were known as “quants”. Windmills were “overdriven” or “underdriven” in roughly equal amounts.

 Wheels came in several different types, according to the point at which the water impacted on them (they were usually constructed with two sets of spokes and two rims between which were fixed buckets, the weight of the water in these plus the force with which it struck the wheel being what made them turn). If it was directed onto the top of the wheel, the latter was called an overshot; if it struck the wheel more or less halfway up, a breast shot; if striking the lower part, an undershot. The pit wheel and associated machinery were usually located on the lowermost floor; above this was the stone floor which as its name suggests contained the millstones. The number of storeys in a watermill varied with size, the largest having five or more. The uppermost storey, within the roof, normally contained the bins for storing grain, situated on either side of a central walkway.

 The wheel was by no means always driven directly by the river or stream; sometimes the water was channelled off either from there or a mill pond by means of a cut. The amount of water reaching the wheel could be controlled by a sluice gate. As we will see, the need for millers to draw off a certain amount of water from the river for their mills sometimes brought them into conflict with others who used it.

 Instances of use for purposes other than the most common one of grinding corn into flour for bread are more common with watermills than windmills. In Middlesex we know of silk, oil, leather, gunpowder, brass, mustard, paper and millboard (a form of cardboard often used in books) mills. The structure of a windmill, especially in the case of post mills, appears to have been less suited to accommodating the kind of machinery needed for these processes.  

 Watermills were just as affected by the march of progress as  windmills, but not necessarily in the same ways, and over a much longer period. Since they were not dependent on the wind, of which a mill could be robbed by too much building in its vicinity, for their motive power they were not as adversely affected by urban development. Watermill buildings were also more easily adaptable for other uses, or susceptible to alterations and improvements, than the structure of a windmill with its own special requirements and restrictions. Windmills tended on the whole to be smaller and narrower, with less room for the installation of new plant. It is principally for these reasons that many watermills remained in use until well into the twentieth century while their wind-powered cousins, particularly in Middlesex, tended to cease operating much earlier. Modifications such as the replacement of waterwheels by turbines and of stones by roller plants ensured that the mills continued to operate efficiently and thus remain economical. Some survived to become power mills, driven by steam, gas, or electricity. Even when a mill had altogether ceased to be such the building might nonetheless contribute to the functioning of a business by serving as a warehouse. The Upper Mill at Stanwell houses a chemical company, while Clock Mill, to give an example just outside Middlesex, has been converted to offices. The remains of Black Jack’s Mill at Harefield have been incorporated into a private house while Fountains Mill has served the local community in several different ways since ceasing to be an industrial concern.

It is mainly for the above reasons that whereas the windmills have virtually all disappeared, half-a-dozen or so watermills are still standing in the county today, structurally intact, although none retain their original working machinery. These are Stanwell (Upper Mill), Enfield (Ponders End), Uxbridge (Fountains Mill), Cowley, and Harefield (Black Jack’s and the copper mill). There are also some remains at West Drayton and Bedfont (the gunpowder mills).