Threats to survival and the rescue of Houghton Mill

Inside Houghton Mill

Over the centuries Houghton Mill has faced a series of potential disasters, most notably a major fire in 1754 caused by an arson attack that lead to the building of the Mill that stands today. However, by the 1920s its very survival was threatened while it stood as a neglected, obsolete reminder of a time gone by.

In 1929 a London property developer hoped to buy the Mill and turn it into a dwelling but Godmanchester and Huntingdon Town Council and the Ouse Drainage Board stepped in to buy it instead. However, by 1931 they were seriously considering demolition if funds were not found for its repair and maintenance. 

An unusual place to stay

A local initiative in 1934  formed a Houghton Mill Restoration Committee to lease the mill from the Council and then sublet it to the recently established Youth Hostel Association. Around 50 young men and women were able to stay at Houghton Mill at a time, many of whom were passing through on their cycling holidays. As part of their stay, each guest was required to complete a household chore such as sweeping or cleaning.

By 1938 the local group were able to buy the mill and transfer the ownership to the National Trust. During this time the mill foundations were found by chance to be in a fragile state, and to avoid the threat of subsidence and building collapse the foundations were reinforced with concrete in 1974.

Bringing the flour mill back to life

The Youth Hostel Association vacated the mill in 1982 and the following year the National Trust opened the mill to the public. Following repairs, the mill machinery was bought back to life and the mill was able to start making flour once again. Although the flour was milled using the original millstones, they were powered by an electric motor as the water wheel had been removed following closure in the 1920s.

The dawn of the new millennium was an opportunity to bid for a Heritage Lottery Grant to reinstate a working water wheel and enable the mill to produce the stoneground wholemeal flour it does today. A separate electricity generating turbine was also installed at this time. 

Today the river flow is controlled by the Environment Agency. In 2013 a new set of electric-powered millstones were installed which allows the mill to continue to operate at times when the river levels are not suitable for the traditional water wheel.