Water Mills – The first engines of industry

For around 6,000 years the power of rivers has been harnessed. It was used to mechanise the processing of grain to make flour, treatment of fabric, cutting and shaping wood, stone and iron. The power of water was also used to drive pumps and bellows which moved water or air in support of other activities. The Land of Oak and Iron became industrialised before the Industrial Revolution and before the invention of the steam engine. Water and wind mills provided the power for this industry.

Volunteers of the Trust have carried out research into these mills and have made an interactive map showing their location . If you wish to proceed straight to the map you can do so by selecting the link. If you wish to continue reading these notes, there is another link to the map at the end of the page.

The following diagram illustrates different arrangements for driving the waterwheel.

In the third century AD an undershot water wheel was fitted to the bridge abutment of the Roman bridge over the North Tyne at Chesters near Chollerford. This is the earliest water mill ever recorded in the North East, and one of the earliest in the country. The earliest record of a post-Roman mill in England is in AD762 but by 1086 Domesday book records 5,624 mills in lands south of Northumbria.

Many of these early Saxon mills were of a primitive ‘Norse’ horizontal type where the mill wheel lay on its side with grindstones mounted atop a vertical axle whose vaned lower end dipped into a swift stream. These were simple to build but inefficient and were superseded by the vertical wheels we are familiar with.  Unfortunately, because the Domesday survey didn’t cover Northumbria, significantly fewer details exist about our mills and those listed in the Boldon Buke of 1183 only cover estates administered by the Bishop of Durham.

Our research at the Land of Oak and Iron has so far identified over 150 water mills on the Rivers Team, Derwent and Devil’s Water. One local example is the Fulling Mill for Winlaton located at Huntley’s Haugh (now called Winlaton Mill) which is described as a Fulling Mill and Corn Mill in 1591 but is almost certainly several centuries older and may be the mill mentioned in the Boldon Buke entry for Winlaton.

Most early mills in medieval times were corn mills used in the fertile agricultural landscape in the lower valleys. The mechanical technology was quickly adapted by fitting additional sets of gears, cams or belts to supply power to other emerging industries.  For example, Britain grew as a wool producing country, and with an increasing demand for homespun clothing many fulling mills were developed alongside or even as a side-use of the same mill wheel. Fulling is the means by which woollen fabric is cleaned of oils and impurities, and made more dense, generally by pounding the wool with hammers or rollers. The thicker material is more robust, provides more warmth and is suitable for use in garments.

Research has identified that our mills had many functions through their life, and often multi-functionally, carrying out tasks such as grinding corn, fulling, sawing, metal working, ore extraction, pumping water and in the case of Pockerley on the Beamish Burn, grinding Flints (for the Sunderland potter industry). Flint is not naturally found in the North East but was used as ballast in empty colliers returning from their destination. One imagines the opportunity to resell the ballast locally to the emerging pottery industries would be readily acted upon. Ballast would have been discarded previously, the land at Byker behind the Victorian Ouseburn School was among places known as Ballast Hills because of this activity.

The following diagram is taken from a survey of a mill at Low Waskerley Fam carried out in November 1972 by G.J.Fisher ARIBA Chartered Arcitect. It illustrates the usual arrangement for millstones driven by a waterwheel.

In the late 17th century the fast flowing Derwent at Shotley Bridge and Lintzford began powering impressive paper mills. The Annandale Mill at Shotley Bridge shredded rags to provide high quality paper for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.   The supply of rags could not meet the demand and, by the 1870s, 50 tons of grass were imported each week from Spain as pulp for the process.

At Ebchester the Derwent drove three mills which were used for fulling woollens, grinding corn, producing wood products and in particular Poss Sticks, used by housewives to agitate clothes being washed in Poss-Tubs prior to washing machines.

Converting mills could be complex and require significant re-engineering. A classic example which required some heavy engineering were Forge Mills. On the Derwent Forge-mills were established at Shotley Bridge around 1691, coinciding with ironworks at Allensford, Blackhall Mill and Derwentcote. The most technologically advanced Iron works of its time was established at Winlaton Mill by Sir Ambrose Crowley around 1697. Forge mills used cams arranged around the water wheel shaft to depress leather bellows to force air into the furnace to increase the temperature of the forge. Other cams lifted and dropped hammers, drove rollers or heavy blades to mould metals.

In the Pennines at the headwaters of the Derwent and Devil’s Water Smelt mills emerged in the 17th century to extract lead, silver and other minerals from ores hewn from mines. The lead mines provided ingenious engineering solutions to challenges for underground mining, where surface and subterranean water wheels of enormous size (52 feet in diameter at West Whiteheaps near Hunstanworth) were used for winding lifts, pumping water, driving crushing machines or to drive power forges. At the same mine, hundred yard lengths of interconnecting rods extended the reach of the water wheels to other equipment.  Perhaps the most well documented smelt mill is Dukesfield Mill near Whitley Chapel which Sir Walter Blackett opened in 1666 closing in 1835. It was producing 3,000 tons of lead annually by the 1780s and is well-preserved and worth visiting.