The history of Bourne Mill
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.
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.
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.
Find out how we’re researching and reinterpreting Bourne Mill thanks to Heritage Lottery Funding, and discover the vital conservation work we’re doing to preserve this place.
With its fulling stocks and 72-bucket waterwheel, Bourne Mill offers a fascinating peek into the history of Colchester's textile industry. Explore its highlights on a tour of the mill.