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History of Houghton Mill

18th-century watermill at Houghton Mill, Cambridgeshire in spring
Exterior of the 18th-century watermill at Houghton Mill, Cambridgeshire | © National Trust Images/Mike Selby

The fortunes of Houghton Mill have changed dramatically in the 1,000 or so years there has been a mill on this site. From being at the peak of its prosperity in the 1850s, by the end of the 1920s it was reduced to producing animal feed. Discover the history of the mill and how it was used by local artists as a place to work and meet up, to then being sub-let to the Youth Hostel Association for cyclists passing through.

Early beginnings of the Mill

No one knows for sure the exact origins of the mill, but early documents tell us that by AD 974 the manor of Houghton, including a mill, was given to the newly established Ramsey Abbey. The area would have been surrounded by fertile agricultural land and all the local tenant farmers were beholden to bringing their grain here to be made into flour or they faced being fined by the abbey. They also had to pay a proportion of their grain (a custom known as 'multure') to the abbey.

The relationship between the local villagers and the abbey’s managers of the mill was 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 the 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.

Victorian 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 potentially have been around 120 watermills.

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 waterpower needed to enlarge the mill. At peak production there were three working waterwheels and 10 pairs of millstones operated by a team of 18 people.

Houghton Mill reached the height of its prosperity 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 away as London and Leicester.

The millers behind the success

Potto Brown and Joseph Goodman built up a thriving milling business that produced high-quality flour using French burr millstones and the latest machinery.

Potto Brown’s father, William Brown, was a baker and miller in Earith before he moved to run Houghton Mill. Joseph Goodman and Potto Brown met when they were at school together at Slepe Hall in St Ives. Together they became business partners and took over the running of the mill in 1821, after Potto's father retired.

Following Goodman's death in 1844, Brown continued to expand the business by embracing new technology and building steam-powered mills at St Ives and Godmanchester with the help of Goodman's sons.

The village philanthropist

Once Potto Brown had established his wealth and success he focused on religion and charity work. He founded the chapel in Houghton and schools in Houghton and St Ives. After his death in 1871, a bronze bust was erected in the village square which still stands today.

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, as a result of 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 waterwheels were removed.

Grindstones for milling flour at Houghton Mill, Cambridgeshire
Grindstones for milling flour at Houghton Mill, Cambridgeshire | © National Trust Images/Mike Selby

Artists along the Ouse

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries many artists lived and worked around Houghton Mill and St Ives.

The Huntingdonshire (now Cambridgeshire) St Ives was 'discovered' by the art world in the early 1880s when river and landscape artists came to visit this picturesque but hitherto unpainted area. At first these artists confined themselves to a 5-mile stretch of the River Great Ouse from Holywell, east of St Ives, to the small villages of Hemingford Grey, Hemingford Abbots, Houghton, Wyton and Hartford to the west of St Ives.

Why did so many artists congregate here?

Established artists attracted other artists who found that the Ouse villages were delightful places to work and to meet fellow artists. But the group disappeared nearly as quickly as it had arrived – by the mid-1930s almost all the artists had gone. Changing tastes in the art market and the effects of the Depression had moved them away.

The artists of this time included James John Hissey, Edmund Morrison Wimperis, Frederick George Cotman, Fritz Althaus, Henry H Parker, John Shirley Fox, the Fraser brothers: Garden William Fraser, George Gordon Fraser, Robert Winchester Fraser and Arthur Anderson Fraser. You can see works by some of these artists in the gallery at Houghton Mill.

Threats to survival and the rescue of 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 led 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.

Swans on the river at Houghton Mill in Cambridgeshire
Enjoy riverside walks at Houghton Mill | © National Trust Images / Chris Lacey

An unusual place to stay

A local initiative in 1934 formed the 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 had to complete a household chore.

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 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 left the mill in 1983 and the following year the Trust opened the mill to the public. Following repairs, the mill machinery was brought 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.

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