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Witheridge has had at least six mills through the centuries, but, as with so many other areas, the absence of written records makes accurate dating impossible. The Mills at Witheridge, Bradford and Drayford were water powered, whilst that at Woodington was wind powered. Devon has never been a County known for its windmills, as, for the most part, there was ample waterpower for Grist Mills. In his book entitled 'Windmills of Devon', Walter Minchinton states that 'the 56 possible windmills in Devon must be compared with the certain existence of 13 tide mills and over 600 water mills.' The earliest windmill mentioned was one in Woodbury in 1296, and Cruwys Morchard had one in 1561, whilst Donne's 1765 map of Devon shows only four, Abbotsham, Rackenford, Holsworthy and Woodington Farm at Witheridge.

The Witheridge Windmill was in a field across the road from Woodington Farm on the road to Puddington, the Tithe Map of 1837 recorded a Windmill Field there. This location is one of the original outlying parts of the parish, re-allocated in the 1880's and the location is puzzling, for the old Westway and Stourton mills on the River Dalch were much closer. The 1841 census shows the mill occupied, not by a miller, but by a labourer, Richard Phillips and his family. It may have stopped working long before that, as it does not appear on the land tax returns of 1780 -1830, whereas the other mills in the parish do.

The Mills at Bradford and Woodington clearly appear on Donn's map of 1765, and the 'Tuck Mill' at Drayford was in existence in 1632, when it was part of the Manor of Drayford sold by Scipio Stucley to Sir Edward Chichester. The schedule of properties in Drayford itself showed four tenements, two cottages, a house, and the Mill, which is described as a "Tuck Mill". Tuck Mills were not used in the grinding of grain, but instead they powered a wheel studded with wooden hammers used in pounding cloth. Before 'Tuck Mills' were introduced, woven cloth had to be pounded or "tucked" by being trodden in troughs, but by the early 1500s, some watermills had been converted to play their part in the cloth industry, which was well established in North Devon. However, the cloth trade did not thrive forever, and, by the early 19th century many mills had reverted to grinding corn, and Drayford Mill may have changed at that time.

In 1632, the miller was Hugh Moore, but then there are no records until the Land Tax Assessment of 1780 when the Miller was given as being one John Foxford, and the owner Henry Arthur Fellowes Esq. The next name is found in a document dated 1811, which lists the properties charged a special rate for the repair of Drayford and Worlington Bridges. Drayford Mill was one of these, and the miller was William White. The next reference is the Schedule to the 1840 Tithe Map, which shows the Mill as having seven acres of ground, and John Moss as the Miller. The 1851 census shows that the new miller was George Phillips, who came to Drayford in 1845, when he was 27. His family would run the Mill until the arrival of the Stonemans in the 1890s. In 1871, George was still there, and the land had grown to 15 acres. Before the next census George died, for in 1881 his widow Anne was miller, assisted by her daughter Jane as "dairyman" and by her brother Thomas Stoneman, also a miller. Ten years later, Anne has gone, leaving her daughter Jane as miller, and her 14-year old son William as "Assistant Miller", and Thomas Stoneman is still there.

By 1889, the old mill house attached to the barn was gone, and replaced with the present house which had allowed the addition of a second wheel on to the east side of the barn, and for the mill leat to be divided so that both wheels could be used, as the map indicates. Loveday Venner can recall no barn wheel or barn leat, and believes spoil generated by the opening of Mill Quarry may have hidden all the remains. She is sure however that the barn machinery was still in use, linked across to that in the Mill itself. By the turn of the century, Richard Stoneman was miller, and his son Richard followed him as Miller until the mill ceased working at some time in the 1930s.

In a 1692 rate for the reparation of the Parish Church of Witheridge, William Govier paid 6d for 'Dreford Mill.' Donne's map shows Drayford Mill, as does the Tithe Map. In 1811, William White paid a 5d farthing rate towards the repair of Drayford Bridge. In 1841, John White was miller there, with his 15-year-old son John, also described as 'miller'. In 1851, it was George Phillips, with his wife Ann, and three children. He came there in either 1846 or 1847. By 1878, George had died and his wife was miller. In 1891, their daughter Jane had taken over, with her 14-year-old son William, as miller's assistant, and her miller uncle, Thomas Stoneman. The Stonemans continued as Millers there until the end of the Mills working life in the 1930's. Loveday Venner (nee Stoneman) remembers her father Richard's decision to close the mill, and how on the final day of working, he asked her mother to start the mechanism for the last grinding.

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Details regarding Bradford Mill are scarce. There is a lease for Bradford Tracy Mill in 1579, from John Snow to John Crooke, and a reference in 1726, to 'a new unfinished mill beside the River Dart at Bradford Bridge in Bradford Tracy Manor.' Donne has it on the map of 1765, and in the 1780 Land Tax Assessment the miller is shown as being John Burgess and the owner Rev Mr Melhuish. The Mill is shown on the Tithe Map, and we have a fairly complete record of the millers for the next 100 years. William Crooke was miller in 1841, 1857 and 1870. In 1891 the census shows Thomas Nott as the miller, but in 1893, it was Henry Blackford followed by William Roberts in 1902, 1919 and 1930. His grandchildren, William and Pamela, recall that towards the end of the 1930's there was a very severe winter, during which the leat froze solid and no grinding could be done, soon after closure came. The leat continued to be popular with anglers, as eels were plentiful.

Witheridge Mill is not on Donne's map, but it is in the Land Tax returns. In 1870, the miller was James Davey, and the owner was Henry Arthur Fellowes (members of this family later became Earls of Portsmouth). In 1820, William Bodley was there, as he was in 1841 and 1871, but by 1883 the new miller was Amos Maire, and the Maire family in the shape of his sons remained at the mill until its closure in the 1950s when Charlie Maire was the miller.

The first documented reference to an English Watermill is in an English Charter dated AD 762, which relates to a mill at a place called Cert in Kent. Just over 300 years later, in 1086, the Domesday Book recorded that of the 9,250 manors mentioned, 3,463 had 5,624 mills working watermills in England, mostly used for the grinding of grain into flour for bread. Powered by water wheels fixed in leats drawn from the rivers and streams, they were kept busy grinding barley for meal to be used on the farms or for food for the villagers' pigs and poultry. Most, if not all, of these Mills belonged to either manorial or monastic estates and would have exercised "soke rights". This meant that all the tenants on the land were obliged to have their corn ground at the mill and they would have to pay one sixteenth of the grain for the privilege, and this gave rise to the expression to get "soaked".

By the middle ages, as well as grinding corn, mills were increasingly being used for drainage and for fulling. By the 13th Century, the invention of the water-powered fulling, or tucking mill, brought about a rapid dispersal of cloth making from the towns, and into the countryside, so that by the early fourteenth century, many Devon streams supported at least one mill. Tiverton certainly had on in 1245. Wool, originally cleaned and felted in water by treading, was, from the early days of the 12th Century, done by the newly developed water powered Fulling Mill. Cloth became England's chief source of wealth in the middle ages, and many small rural industries employing carders (men who combed the wool), staplers (people who graded and sold the wool), spinners and weavers sprang up alongside these watermills.

By the 18th century, the mills had long since ceased to be in the control of the landowners or the church. The dissolution of the monasteries, the growth in the population and improved transportation had led to the establishment of the independent mill, owned and run by the miller. He became a very important person in the village, and the skills of the Miller would often pass down through generations of a family, with the son taking over the mill from the father.

The miller, however, as had been the case with the manorial or monastic mills, gained a reputation for dishonesty, with people, believing him possessed of a "golden thumb", meaning he would press his thumb on the scales to increase the weight, and therefore the price he charged. In 1796, it became illegal to make payment for the miller's services in anything other than money, and failure on the part of the miller to display clearly his prices would result in a fine 20 shillings. This was done to eliminate the illegal practice of "hanging up the cat", in which a miller took some of the farmer's grain for himself.

Watermills utilise the momentum of the moving water to turn a waterwheel, which in turn powers the internal machinery of the mill. Unsurprisingly, for it is a County with an abundance of water, most mills in Devon are water-driven. There are three main types of waterwheel; undershot wheels, where the water hits the blades at a low level, and which are used mainly on shallow, slow running rivers in flat areas. Overshot wheels, powered by water falling on to the blades from above, will be found on fast flowing rivers in hilly areas. Breastshot wheels are particularly suited to rivers where there is a large volume of water flowing at a low velocity. To ensure the steady running of the wheel, a gate, called a penstock, operated by the miller, controlled the flow of water to the mill.

Both the undershot and the breastshot mills are not suited to the Devon terrain. The advantage of the overshot mill is that it can run on just a small amount of water, provided enough of a fall is achieved, the hilly Devonian landscape with its plentiful small streams is thus ideal for the overshot mill. The over-shot wheel is by far the most powerful; both because it receives the water at the very commencement of descent, and that the buckets with which this kind of wheel is ordinarily furnished retain the power until they gradually discharge their contents, as these buckets successively become inferior parts of the circumference. In England by the end of the 17th Century, there were some 20,000 working watermills, and Waterpower continued to be the main source of mechanical power until superseded by steam power during the Industrial Revolution. Throughout the centuries that followed, millers continued to prosper from increased trade. During the second half of the 19th century, however, the introduction of steam powered roller mills, first seen in Britain in the 860s, threatened the continued existence of the rural millers.

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In this new method of milling, the grain passed between two adjustable metal cylinders instead of millstones. At the same time, Britain started to import large quantities of grain from North America and when these grain shipments arrived, they were usually ground in roller mills housed in new mill buildings beside the docks. Additionally, an improved transport system meant that grain moved around the countryside quickly to its destination. These factors combined against the millers, few of whom chose to adapt by converting to roller mills. As a result, roller mills had largely replaced the traditional rural watermills by the end of the nineteenth century.


For the actual grinding of flour, optimum performance depended on the control of three main adjustments, all of which could be made from the ground floor of the mill, with any adjustment to one affecting the other two, and all reliant on skill of the miller.

Firstly, by adjusting the setting of the sluice gates, you could adjust the rate at which the water flowed, and consequently the rate at which the waterwheel rotated. (Optimum is about 10 revolutions per minute).

Secondly, by adjusting the clearance between the rotating mill stone over the fixed stone set by raising or lowering the bottom shaft bearing with the bridge tree using a screw, the closer the stones, the finer the flour.

Thirdly, by adjusting the rate at which the grain fed into the millstones by raising or lowering the shaker shoe under the hopper, you could alter the quality of the flour. (The slower the feed the finer the flour)

The finer the flour, the more power used in turning waterwheel, the slower is the milling, the greater is the wear on the stones. The coarser the flour, and the faster the water wheel turns, the more grain is ground. If the grain stops flowing for any reason the mill stones will grind against each other, get overheated, worn and probably damaged.

Dressing the Grinding Stones

For every 50 to 100 tonnes of grain milled, the millstones had to be dressed. When in use the faces of the stones became polished and the grooves for pulling-in the grain become too shallow. Dressing involves roughening the surfaces of the millstones and re-cutting the grooves. Dressing the stones was a highly skilled job as the working surfaces of the stones have to remain perfectly flat. To do this the hopper and the circular box around the stones, designed to keep the flour from spreading and directs it to the bagging area on the ground floor below were removed. The procedure involved lifting the top stone, and turning it over. Once both stones were dressed, they were replaced with the lower stone re-levelled if necessary. The central bearing for the shaft would be cleaned, re-packed and re-lubricated, and all other shafts and bearings checked and lubricated. The final act would involve the careful replacement of the top stone, followed by the box and hopper. Once this was all completed, milling could resume.


Windmills were widely used to produce flour, with the earliest known illustration of an English windmill appears on a thirteenth century psalter and the earliest written reference to windmills in England date from the late twelfth century. Wind was more difficult to harness, and a lot less reliable source of power than water.

The earliest form of windmill was the 'post mill', where the entire body of the mill would pivot around a massive central post in order to face the wind. Some 'post mills' had a structure known as a roundhouse build beneath the body of the mill to protect the wooden trestle, and to provide additional storage.

Two other types of windmill common in this country were the smock mill, and the tower mill. Probably developed during the 17th century, the smock mill had a wooden tower in which only the cap and sails turned to face the wind. Whilst the tower mill, developed towards the end of the 18th century, was very similar except that the tower was of brick or stone rather than wood.

The milling of grain had always been a small-scale rural industry, but from the 1840s, large-scale commercial milling began to replace the local mill. However, until the transport infrastructure had improved sufficiently to make commercially milled flour widely available, windmills continued to supply the local market in rural areas. Some mills switched to producing animal feed, but, from the beginning of the 20th century, windmills began to close down at a rapidly increasing rate, with most either being demolished, or left to fall into disrepair.

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Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

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