The History Of The Old Watermill On Bosham Quay

Archive Reference: BGA840
December 2, 2023
The Millpond, Bosham, Sussex, England c1903
The Millpond, Bosham, Sussex, England c1903


Bosham used to have a millpond behind Holy Trinity Church, adjacent to the Bosham stream. The Bosham stream is a man-made water course diverted from a chalk stream running between Funtingdon and West Ashling, and flows into the sea. The purpose of the millpond was to supply water to the old watermill on Bosham Quay, and to even out seasonal variations in water levels to produce a reliable flow of water to the mill. It was a very large millpond, with sluice gates to control the flow, and over the centuries it was stocked with fish and eel, which were regularly trapped for food.


The fame of the high-quality grain of the Bosham area, due to the above average sun hours and good fertile soil, has been known since Roman times. Wheat was grown almost entirely for bread, and the majority of barley was grown for malting (making beer). Bosham’s watermill on the Quay is mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1080, which recorded it as one of eight mills working in the parish. For centuries, the trading ketches and schooners left Bosham Quay with their holds filled with grain that had been ground in the watermill next to the Quay, bound for Kent and West Country ports.


Watermills are perhaps the most enduring technology throughout the ages. They were certainly used in the first century BC and the technology spread quickly throughout the world. They were used commercially in Roman Britain. According to the Domesday Book records, there were more than 6000 watermills in England by the eleventh century, and almost all communities had easy access to one. In Norman times (1066-1154), the feudal system of ‘soke rights’ made it compulsory for all farmers to have their grain milled at the Lord’s mill, and a percentage of the corn was taken as payment. The number of mills increased rapidly during the medieval period, probably doubling between 1086 and 1300. After 1300, the number of mills declined as mills took on industrial functions. An estimated 20,000 watermills were still in use in Britain during the nineteenth century.


Bosham’s watermill was very efficient due to the relatively fast flowing water in the Bosham stream and reliable flow from the millpond, and because of the natural slope in the ground and the water arriving at the wheel ‘overshot’ - meaning that the water was fed to the top of the water wheel.


As the water arrived at the top of the water wheel, the paddles in the wheel caught the water and gravity moved the wheel downwards, turning it. A shaft connecting the wheel’s axis to a series of cogs and gears worked the millstone inside the mill, to grind the wheat. Bosham’s millwright was a skilled craftsman who would have used wood, and later iron, to build the watermill. Hardwoods such as oak were used for the shafts and wheels. Elm was used for the hardworking paddles, as it was more resistant to rot. Iron was later used for the gears. The millstone itself had to be hard-wearing and the Romans were known to have sourced their stone from the Rhine Valley in Germany. Two millstones were used, and were usually about 4 feet in diameter, and weighed at least a ton each. A skilled stonemason would have cut grooves in the stones to grind the flour to the correct fineness. The stones had to be perfectly set so that they only touched the wheat and not the opposite stone, or they would quickly wear out. With the heavy wear and tear and the risks of sparks and fire, watermills had to be rebuilt every 200 years or so. Because they were constructed of wood, little evidence remains of them today.


When the restrictive Corn Laws were repealed in 1846 (removing tariffs on imported cereal grains which came into force in 1815), more and more corn was imported, and efficient steam mills gradually took over the work from the watermills. The steam mills used a roller rather than a millstone to grind the corn. They produced superior, whiter flour which had less oil and consequently lasted longer, so the days of the watermills were doomed. The 1870s saw the beginning of large-scale centralised milling with the introduction of electric mills. Silk bolting cloth was also used for separating fine flour from the coarse components. These new mills were situated in or near towns, so Bosham’s wind and watermills slowly declined in use. They had only limited output, and could only produce coarse brown flour. This decline is evidenced by the disappearance of the Bosham millwright after the 1871 census.  By the end of the nineteenth century, most watermills in developed countries had ceased their commercial operations – the availability of cheap electrical energy had made them obsolete.


The last miller at Bosham Quay’s watermill was George Brown, who ground maize as animal feed until 1925. The mill finally closed in 1936.


This photograph then, made in 1903, captures the end of an era. Waterpower had been the most important source of mechanical power for almost 2000 years and the watermill on the Quay, along with its millpond, had served Bosham’s farmers for over 850 years. Here, a man is seen rowing across the millpond, behind is Holy Trinity Church, Bosham’s Saxon/Norman church which has been the dominant physical feature of the village, and virtually unchanged since the thirteenth century.


In 1956, Bosham Sailing Club moved into the old watermill and bought the adjoining cottage and garden, which was converted into a patio. In 1973, the building was given a Grade II listed status. In 2019, the sailing club bought the freehold to the old watermill.


Today, across Britain some old mills which have not been in operation for a century are being upgraded with modern hydropower technology. Interestingly, in some developed countries, traditional watermills are still widely used for processing grain. For example, there are thought to be 25,000 operating in Nepal, and 200,000 in India.


© Luke Whitaker


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Luke Whitaker

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