Rise and decline of a milling powerhouse at Houghton Mill

 An old painting of Houghton Mill c1906

The fortunes of Houghton Mill have changed dramatically in the thousand or so years there has been a mill on this site. From early beginnings as a mill for tenant farmers, the mill reached its peak of prosperity in the 1850s when it produced top quality white flour in huge quantities. Yet in a matter of decades the Mill was reduced to producing animal feed for local farmers. What went wrong?

Early beginnings

No-one knows for sure the exact origins of the mill but early documents tell us that by 974 AD the manor of Houghton, including a mill, was given to the newly established Ramsey Abbey.
This area would be have been surrounded by fertile agricultural land and all the local tenant farmers were bound to bring their grain here to be made into flour (and pay a price to do so, known as multure) otherwise they faced being fined by the Abbey.

Indeed, the relationship between the local villagers and the Abbey’s managers of the mill were not always harmonious. There are documented reports of serious flooding in the area caused by the introduction of sluice gates to hold back the river flow. The rioting villagers successfully campaigned to have them removed.

After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1530s the Abbey’s lands and mill were taken over by the Crown. Ownership eventually passed to the Earls of Manchester who leased out the mill as a commercial concern.

Flour power

During the 18th Century there was a rapid development in mill technology and this marked the start of a very prosperous period for Houghton Mill. Along this central 70 mile stretch of the River Great Ouse there would eventually have been around 120 water mills. 

Grain arrived from far and wide using barges on the river. The course of the River Great Ouse around Houghton Mill had to be diverted to maximise the amount of water power needed to enlarge the mill. At peak production there were three working water wheels and ten pairs of mill stones operated by a team of eighteen.

Houghton Mill reached its height of prosperity by around 1850 under the management of successive members of the Brown and Goodman families. At this point the Mill was producing a tonne of top quality flour per hour which was sold as far as London and Leicester.

Decline of the watermill

In the second half of the 19th Century the march of technology took milling in a different direction. There was a move away from using millstones and Houghton Mill couldn’t compete with the newly built local mills (also managed  by Brown and Goodman) that were now powered by steam.  

At the same time the agricultural economy was in decline following the repeal of the Corn Laws. Imported grain from overseas was available more cheaply and in the greater quantities needed to feed the rapidly expanding population that resulted from the industrial revolution.  For economic reasons this grain tended to be processed close to the ports of entry.

By the 1920s the mill had been sold several times and was working at a much reduced rate, probably only for local animal feed. Houghton Mill closed in 1928 when the last miller, Arthur Chopping, retired and the water wheels were removed.