Water-powered mills

Water power was employed by several industries through the Post-Medieval period, although corn milling remained the most prevalent user. Some informative studies of corn mills have been carried out since 2006, with a particular focus on waterwheel pits and power systems. Restoration work at the 18th-century Heron Corn Mill on the River Beela at Beetham (C) in 2013-14, for instance, involved producing a detailed record of the power systems. A comprehensive survey of the 16th-century Nether Alderley Mill, near Alderley Edge (Ch), has also been carried out, although this corn mill was rebuilt in c 1746 and the surviving power systems and milling machinery date from the mid-19th century (Fletcher 2012).

Technical drawing of a mill
A cross-section of Nether Alderley Mill produced during an archaeological survey of the building in 2011 (courtesy of Matrix Archaeology)

Important work on Post-Medieval water-powered mills has also been undertaken in the Lake District. One of the largest archaeological surveys in the area was carried out as part of ‘Windermere Reflections’, a Heritage Lottery Fund supported Landscape Partnership Scheme that ran between 2011-14. This examined five possible fulling mills, four of which are located within an area documented as important for fulling and weaving. The condition of the mills was variable, with one at Sourmilk Gill being an exceptional survival. Two of the mills, that at Sourmilk Gill and Stickle Ghyll, were originally stone-founded structures, associated with well-defined water-supply systems, comprising a head race, wheel pit and tail race, and, at Sourmilk Gill, a launder platform. Both mills were potentially reused, however, and a full chronological account of their operational life remains uncertain (Schofield and Vannan 2012). Excavations at the 17th-century Cunsey Forge were also carried out as part of the ‘Windermere Reflections’ project, and uncovered rare evidence for the early application of water power to the iron industry (Quartermaine and Miller 2017).

Sections of mill races are more frequently uncovered, with an interesting example being part of the headrace that supplied the late 17th-century Duxbury Corn Mill, in the Red Bank area of Chorley (L). Excavation in 2006 in advance of construction works for a new road showed that the width of the headrace reduced from 6.25m to 3.4m on its approach to the waterwheel, and that a stone revetment wall and an earthen embankment between the water channel and the River Yarrow represented 18th-century improvements to the water-management system. A thick deposit of water-lain silt on the base of the headrace was indicative of a damp wooded local environment at the time, including alder. Palaeo-environmental evidence also suggested some arable farming and waste ground slightly further afield, with evidence of corn fields, and wayside verges or waste ground from waterlogged seeds, including corn cockle, corn marigold and weld (Howard-Davis 2008-09).

Elsewhere in Lancashire, but in an urban setting, part of an 18th-century stone-arched culvert over a mill race was identified during archaeological monitoring on Damside Street in Lancaster city centre in 2013. The substantial foundation walls of the overlying 18th-century properties were also recorded, together with a substantial assemblage of Post-Medieval pottery, clay tobacco pipe fragments, animal bones and pieces of leather (Mounsey 2013).

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