Power from water

Chapter Eight of Life Along the River by Kathryn Shreeve

Local historian and writer Kathryn Shreeve has been with Friends of the Rib & Quin from the very beginning. She has published several books on the area through the ages and in ‘Life Along the River’ tells the story of our river valleys through history, serialised into chapters on our website.

Chapter six Kathryn discusses the bridges that cross the rivers

Power from water

Aspenden Mill, circa 1900 Source: Hertfordshire Geneology

The greatest of all engineering projects that affected the rivers of this country were of course the water-mills, and our own rivers were no different in this respect.  “The idea of harnessing the power of flowing water to mill corn was probably introduced to Britain by the Romans, and archaeologists have found leats which may have directed water to Roman waterwheels near a villa in Gadebridge Park, Hemel Heampstead”. All of these would have started as corn mills, before the technology was adapted for other processes as time went on.  The upper reaches of both the Rib and Quin were unsuitable for mills, so the first mill on the Rib coming south looks to have been at Aspenden, the remains of which can still be seen today.  The miller’s house also survives, both it and the mill dating to the 17th century or earlier.  

Land of Robert Gernon
Households: 18 villagers. 12 smallholders. 15 cottagers. 2 slaves. 5 Frenchmen. 
Ploughland: 14 ploughlands. 4 lord’s plough teams. 10 men’s plough teams. 
Other resources: Meadow 4 ploughs. Woodland 100 pigs. 3 mills, value 1 pound 1 shilling and 7 pence. 
Annual value to lord: 17 pounds in 1086; 10 pounds when acquired by the 1086 owner; 20 pounds in 1066.
Owners Tenant-in-chief in 1086: Robert Gernon. Lord in 1086: Ansketil. Overlord in 1066: Earl Harold. Lord in 1066: Aki (the Dane).

No mill was listed for Aspenden in Domesday so we can assume that Westmill claimed the honour of being the first mill coming downstream at that time.  In fact Westmill is listed as having three mills in Domesday – an astonishing number for such a small place.  Their whereabouts have been hard to establish, but one is suggested by the names Millcroft Wood and Upper and Lower Mill Field close to the Rib there.  Archaeological excavations might one day pin this down.  Another may not have been in Westmill itself at all: Braughing was listed as having one mill, and there has been an assumption this was what is known today as Gatesbury Mill, but written evidence suggests that the Manor of Gatesbury actually belonged to Westmill originally, so it’s possible that this was counted as one of Westmill’s three!  Maybe this was the ‘east’ mill, leaving a ‘west’ mill to be sited on the other side of Ermine Street.  It’s therefore possible that Braughing’s mill was on the Quin, with a suggested siting being quite close to the church.

Coming downstream, the Domesday Book reveals that Standon Manor had a total of five mills.  Some of these are hard to place – the only surviving one that can be seen today being in Paper Mill Lane in Standon itself.  As the name suggests, this became a Paper Mill in the 17th century and ultimately a Sawmill.  Mill End, at the north end of the village and across the A120, housed another, thought to be the medieval mill to which the peasants owed ‘multure’ to the lords of the manor.  Another of Standon’s mills was called Latchford Mill, although it was actually sited further down-river close to the ford at Hanging Wood.  Mill number four may have been the one that was north of Puckeridge.  Confusingly, this was recorded in a Tudor Survey of Milkley (now Mentley) Manor, one of Standon’s sub-manors, as being in Braughing Parish.  In itself, this is not unusual, but by 1839 the Tithe Map of Standon Parish clearly puts it in a detached part of this Parish.  Whichever parish it was in and whether or not it was one of Standon’s five at the time of Domesday, it was once called Bauds Mill after the le Baud family who had Milkley Manor in the 14th century.  Over time it has had other names: Hull Mill, Hamels Mill and Braughing Mill.

The fifth of Standon’s mills could have been the one at Wadesmill – Wadesmill being part of Standon Manor/Parish at that time.  Now turned into apartments on the south bank of the Rib, this is thought to have been named after a William Wade mentioned in records of 1287.   Confusingly, in a 1503 deed it is described as “two water mills called ‘Wades Milles’”, but this may have been an incorrect reference to both Wadesmill and Thundridge mills– Thundridge also having one listed at Domesday.  In front of Wadesmill was once a blacksmith’s forge: “It was the blacksmith’s job to monitor the water levels and open the floodgates if the river was too high.  .. Boys would dive off the gates into the water.”  This would have been quite a feat, as the water could reach over four metres!

Westmill, Ware circa 1947. Photo: Annette Bryant

Confusingly, the last mill down the Rib was another one called West Mill!  This was once east of the A602 just south of Anchor Lane. [photo?]  A re-build is known to have taken place in 1580 which included adding a second wheel, making it the largest mill in the county.  The two wheels remained in place and during the 18th and 19th centuries – the golden age of milling, the mill became very prosperous, but ended its life in 1936 for reasons we shall come to later.  However, the Rib also fed one further mill called Ware Park Mill, although this was actually on the River Lea.  Built in 1721, it was provided with water by a 2-mile-long leat from the Rib close to Westmill Farm.

The engineering associated with mills was immense, largely because of the leats that were required – most of which still survive today and can be a good way of finding lost mills!  Dams were also required as well as weirs and ponds, and all of them were to control the flow of water through the mill-wheel and thus the speed of the grinding stones.  All of this work would have been done by the medieval peasants for the benefit of the lord of the manor.  For it was he who built and owned the mill, and it was he who required all of them to grind their own corn at his mill and then pay him for the privilege!  This was to change over the centuries as feudalism disappeared, and mills came into private hands whose owners then employed a miller to do the work of milling.  

When mills were in close proximity to each other, it was easy for one to influence the next one down-river, and many a falling-out between millers took place over the centuries.  Mills were also dangerous places, corn-mills especially, as the dust from the flour was highly combustible and many mills burnt down for this reason, as may have happened to Wadesmill in 1865.  The constant and heavy vibrations also took a tremendous toll on the buildings, which had to be re-built regularly over the centuries.  Thus it was that millwrights as well as millers frequent the records for our parishes.

As mentioned before, another type of major disaster was to befall the mill at Westmill in Ware during a huge storm in 1936.  Without telling the miller, someone upstream had opened a sluice gate allowing a fallen tree to come down the river and through the mill race which ran under the house, causing immense structural damage to the whole building.  So costly would the repairs have been that the miller was unable to pay them, and he had to leave the mill which never worked again.  One other interesting point about the mill-house here is that the Rib acts as the Parish boundary which still runs through the house!

The Old Paper Mill, Standon, once also a fulling mill

As early as the 12th century, some corn-mills were turned into fulling mills for ‘fulling’ woollen cloth.  Prior to this there had been ‘walkers’ and ‘fullers’ who had done this by hand, or rather by foot – hence the ‘fuller’ surname which appears in the court rolls for Standon as early as 1304.  Latchford became a fulling mill in this same century, and Standon’s paper mill had probably previously been a fulling mill as the wooden mallets used in the fulling process could easily be adapted for pounding rags into pulp for paper.  In the late 18th century the Militia Lists show at least one man in Standon parish employed as a ‘ragman’ presumably for the purpose of collecting them.  Gatesbury was also a fulling mill by the middle of the 17th century, but this mill was pulled down in 1906 and only a few tell-tale signs of its existence can still be seen, including the leat.

Another industrial process that once required the proximity of the river was tanning.  It used a good deal of water and was also an extremely smelly business which was therefore condemned to the nether reaches of any town.  Two are known of in Standon parish – one at Latchford and another at Mill End in Standon – although again the Tanner surname appears at the beginning of the 14th century so both of these tanneries could have been in existence as early as this.  However, neither appears in written evidence before the 16th century, and one at least had disappeared by the mid-17th.  Buntingford also had a tannery, this one surviving until 1925, which had been one of the town’s biggest employers.

A final industrial venture of more recent times that was situated close to the Rib was that of gunpowder-making, which also required a mill to power the grinding process.  The Smokeless Powder Company at Barwick was founded in 1888 by a man called James Dougall who took a lease of a large piece of land from the Youngsbury Estate, and the factory was designed to manufacture various high explosives in which it excelled, becoming the market leader employing over 100 men.  However, in 1893, only 5 years after it opened, there was an explosion at the plant and two local men were killed.

Sabulite gun cartridge advertisement, 1921

Subsequently the company went into liquidation, was bought out, changed its name and carried on the same business until it ceased trading in 1910.  Around 1912 another company, Sabulite, took over the site and continued to produce high explosives until it too went into liquidation in 1933.  After World War II, the entire site went up for auction and part of it was bought by an employee, Harry Sears, and used to make snaps for crackers!  Harry was also responsible for dismantling a tram system that had once covered the entire 126-acre site!  A great deal of the remains can still be seen at Barwick today, including a millstone built into the bank there.

Mill stone at Barwick. Photo: Peter Sinclair

1 See FORQ website for more on the geology of the area
2 Natural History article – see ‘Sources’
3 High/Nokes, memory of Lillian Allen

Blowers, Emma: Around Cold Christmas – 4th edition, 2020
Gover, Mawer & Stenton: The Place-Names of Hertfordshire, 1938
High, Val. and Nokes, Mary, ed.: No Washing Machines Then: Braughing People Remember, 2004
Partridge, Clive: Skeleton Green: a Late Iron Age and Romano-British Site, 1981
Perowne, Christopher: A History of the Parish of Standon, 1967
Plumb, Philip W., compiled by: The Archive Photographs Series: Buntingford, 1995
Rowe, Anne: Medieval Parks of Hertfordshire, 2009
Short, David, ed.: An Historical Atlas of Hertfordshire, 2011
Tott, Victor: A Braughing Countryman’s Diary, 2010
The Braughing of Victor Tott, 2010
The Way It Was: A Collection of Memories of Country Life in and around Standon and Puckeridge over the last 100 years, 1999
Hertfordshire Mercury, 26.6.1880: article entitled: “Hertfordshire Natural History and Field Club”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.