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The history of Bourne Mill

Exterior of Bourne Mill, Essex
Exterior of Bourne Mill | © National Trust Images/John Miller

The Grade I-listed Bourne Mill has a rich history dating back over 1,000 years, which is inseparable from that of the town of Colchester. From a fishing site for monks to an Elizabethan banqueting house to a fulling and corn mill, there's so much to discover here.

A fishing spot for monks

The existing Bourne Mill is not the first to have stood here on the man-made pond damming Bourne Brook. Historical evidence for the site goes back over a millennium. It is mentioned in 1120 as ‘Bournemill and Ponds’ in the Colchester court rolls, when it was part of the endowment of St John’s Abbey.

Fish was an important part of a monk’s diet and therefore a good fishpond near the abbey was seen as essential. The pond is still used for fishing and, on one occasion, in the 19th century, a monster pike from the pond was dispatched to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace.

Dissolution of the monasteries

In 1539, at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, the MP for Colchester was a lawyer named John Lucas. He acted as prosecutor for the Crown and that year hanged the Abbot of St John’s and dismantled the monastery.

Nine years later Lucas purchased the abbey grounds himself and built a mansion on the site, which became the family seat. In 1591, using leftover abbey stone, his son Sir Thomas Lucas built Bourne Mill as a fishing and banqueting lodge. Much of the stone still shows signs of decorative carving from the abbey.

Exterior of Bourne Mill, Essex
Exterior of Bourne Mill | © National Trust Images/John Miller

A turbulent family history

Thomas was known to have an ‘imperious and violent temper’, which led to two spells in prison. He was involved in many legal disputes with local people, and even his own brother, which earned him the reputation of being extremely ruthless.

In 1597, when his eldest son was accused of murder, Thomas was obliged to dispose of all his lands – worth about £7 million – to prevent them being taken over by the Crown. In the end his son was pardoned and Thomas was able to leave everything to his family on his death.

But then Thomas’s grandson, Sir Charles Lucas, later achieved notoriety as the royalist commander at the siege of Colchester. After he was executed in 1648, the family mansion was destroyed and Bourne Mill was probably saved only because it had the potential to generate wealth from the cloth industry.

Line drawing of Bourne Mill
Line drawing of Bourne Mill | © The National Trust 2000

Colchester’s textile industry

Around 1640 the fishing lodge was fitted out as a ‘fulling’ mill and run by Flemish refugees. It became one of the many local mills making the ‘Bay’ and ‘Say’ cloth that brought much fame and wealth to Colchester in the 17th century.

The ‘fulling’ process involved shrinking and cleaning woollen cloth to improve the quality of the fabric. Watermills like Bourne were an essential part of this process by powering the wooden hammers which pounded the cloth. They are considered one of the earliest forms of labour-saving technology.

The final years

Colchester’s production of woollen textile fabrics peaked between the 16th and 18th centuries, then began to decline midway through the 18th century as the trade moved north to Yorkshire.

Bourne Mill was converted back to a corn mill in about 1840 and made flour until the 1930s when the machinery became uneconomic to maintain. The National Trust bought the mill in 1936 from the last miller, Mr A. E. Pulford, with the help of two donations from people who wished to remain anonymous.

Visitors exploring the garden at Bourne Mill, Essex

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Please note you need to book tickets to Bourne Mill. You can book for today up until 8am. Every Thursday time slots will be available for the next 14 days.

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