Mills and their legacies

Flowing water can be harnessed to power mills. Various Oxford streams, lanes and walks commemorate Oxford mills: thus Weirs Mill Stream; Castle Mill Stream; Mill Street (Osney), King’s Mill Lane (off the Marston Road beneath Headington Hill), and Mill Lane Iffley. Some names commemorate mills long defunct, like Milham (the island in the Cherwell south of Magdalen bridge), Milham Ford Nature Park (which, obscurely) commemorates the fact that the school that once occupied this site was initially established at Milham) and Mill Lane, Marston.

According to the Victoria County History, the late middle ages was the heyday of Oxford mills. Only six survived into the seventeenth century – seven if one counts Iffley too. In any case, that was far from the end for mills. All mills surviving in the seventeenth century survived as working mills into the nineteenth century, and most into the twentieth century. Weirs Mill was first established as late as 1797. The flour mill at Osney operated until it was destroyed by fire in 1946. There were also outlying mills at, for example, Wolvercote, Wytham, Headington (on the Bayswater brook, which drains into the Cherwell) and at Sandford.

Oxford nineteeth and twentieth-century mills (nineteenth only in italics)

Among late- surviving Oxford mills, two operated on the Cherwell, the remainder on the Thames or its tributaries. Passing north to south in each case, King’s Mill and Holywell Mill were on the Cherwell; Osney Mill, Folly Bridge Mill and Iffley Mill on what’s now the main course of the Thames. Botley Mill stood on the Seacourt Stream (the Botley Road crosses this on the way to or from Seacourt Towers); New Hinksey Mill on Hinksey Stream (opposite what’s now the Redbridge recycling centre). Castle Mill and Weirs Mill stood on their eponymous streams.

Many of these mills were at some stage corn mills, but not all were, and mills often changed function. The Osney Mill made gunpowder during the Civil War; in the nineteenth century there were saw mills and bone mills on the site. Hinksey and Weirs Mill became paper mills in the 1820s, and later made cardboard. John Towle, who ran both Weirs and Hinksey Mill also leased the Grandpont (ie, Folly Bridge) mill from the city in the 1860s and 70s; this then powered the City’s waterworks. Ultimately the City bought him out when a new waterworks was established in New Hinksey. Osney and Castle Mills were operating as corn mills at the point of their twentieth-century demise (the first was relocated after the fire; the second demolished to make possible the widening of a road).

Mill owners and tenants had a vested interest in a flow of water with which they also interfered. They were accordingly sometimes at odds with other river-users: Iffley Mill, linked with fisheries and also the lock, experienced a series of difficulties of this kind. The braiding of the rivers around Oxford helped, in that a mill might occupy one braid while leaving others free for traffic; still, mills affected water flow and water levels elsewhere.

From the 2nd series Ordnance Survey map (c1888-1914), it is possible to see what complex watercourses usually existed around them – and how varied in size and design mill-building assemblages were.

(nls.maps.uk)

Pictures of some of these mills — e.g. Castle Mill Weirs Mill , Botley Mill— preserve their memory. Otherwise names, elements of complex watercourses and a few buildings are what’s left now. Some private houses occupy mill sites or buildings: Holywell Ford; King’s Mill House; Osney Mill apartments.

Weirs Mill Stream, early April 2020

Revised to include maps of mill sites.

2 thoughts on “Mills and their legacies

  1. Hello Joanna
    Fascinating article. But you don’t do enough justice to the Wolvercote mill, where fine paper was made for many years to supply the university printer to print bibles and scholarly works. It also ground swords for the royalist army during the civil war. Very much an Oxford mill; not an outlier.
    Best wishes
    Tony Dale

    1. Thanks, yes. The post dates from early in my blogging career, when my posts were quite brief. I do know about the university printing — and Jackson’s Oxford Journal before that, and you’re right, this makes it functionally very much an Oxford mill. Probably better water up there — the miller who ran mills at South Hinksey and the Weirs complained in the late nineteenth century that the water was so polluted after passing through Oxford that he couldn’t make white paper but only cardboard.. The ‘outlying’ partly reflects my South Oxford perspective. I don’t know about the swords, though — I knew Osney mill made weaponry. But could the royalists rely on (dare I say it) an outlying mill to supply their swords?

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