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Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   Text © Copyright May 2013, John M; licensed for re-use under a Creative Commons Licence.

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Watermills in various forms were introduced into Britain and Ireland in the late Roman and early medieval period. Numbers grew through the Medieval Period and at the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 there were around 6500 in England alone.

The number of mills in Britain peaked at the start of the Industrial Revolution at more than 20000 with a proportion now used for industrial processes, metal working, smelting and forging.

Major mill buildings were built for the cotton industry in the second half of the 18th century to exploit Arkwright’s breakthrough in technology. These were often at remote upland sites with suitable waterpower. The unreliability of water supply and scale of the new cotton industry led to the use of steam powered beam engines to return water to the mill pond in the 1790s. In the 1820s steam engines were introduced to power the mill machinery directly although many mills continued to use both water and steam power. From the 1860s most cotton mills were built or converted to use steam power only and could be located next to canals or docks.

A change to reliance on imported wheat after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 led to milling becoming centred on coastal sites with steam mills. Flour milling was further transformed in the 1880s with the introduction of roller milling. New mills were constructed and existing mills converted to install the new technology. Wheels were often removed to install more efficient turbines.

The numbers of rural watermills declined as demand for stoneground flour diminished and the industry consolidated with many reduced to meeting existing and local demand for animal feed. Numbers dwindled and in the 1960s there was a major reduction in numbers as the Miller’s Guild bought the ‘goodwill’ of smaller flour mills to strip out excess capacity.

As can be seen from the photographs of the surviving mills there is a mixture of ruins, home conversions, offices, barns, museums, heritage sites and the odd working mill. Some are open to the public or may be open on 'National Mills Weekend' and some retain the mill machinery and waterwheels.

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