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The history of Winchester City Mill

Winchester City Mill, Hampshire, and bridge spanning the River Itchen
Winchester City Mill and bridge spanning the River Itchen | © National Trust Images/Phil Ripley

Winchester City Mill is one of the oldest watermills in the country, with a history dating back over a thousand years. The building’s historical connections range from King Alfred the Great to JMW Turner, and through its preservation from demolition in 1928 to its rebirth as a working mill by the National Trust. The next phase of the mill's history includes a full-restoration of the mill wheel so we can begin milling and producing flour once again.

Early records

Saxon origins

A mill has existed on the site of Winchester City Mill since at least Saxon times; the foundation of the building suggests that the Saxon mill was established on the site of an earlier Roman mill. Early records from 932AD and 989AD refer to a watermill owned by the Benedictine nunnery of Wherwell Abbey. 

Declining fortunes

In the Domesday survey of 1086 the mill is recorded as returning a rent of 48 shillings, making it one of the most profitable in the country. However, a series of bad harvests in the early 14th century, coupled with Winchester losing its capital status, reduced its value. The Black Death accelerated the decline and the mill was recorded as derelict by 1471.

A gift to the city

Following dissolution it fell into Crown ownership. Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary Tudor, gifted it to the city in 1554 after her wedding in the nearby cathedral.

Later centuries

The mill rebuilt

In 1743, a new tenant named James Cooke began rebuilding and extending the medieval mill. This is the building you see today. The central section with its fine gable was completed first, the eastern section added later. Many structural timbers date back to the 14th and 15th centuries, suggesting much of the structure of the earlier building was retained.

Winchester City Mill and JMW Turner

JMW Turner sketched the mill in 1795 when visiting the area as a young student of the Royal Academy. His image is the earliest known depiction of the building. 

A profitable corn mill

In 1820, John Benham bought the mill and adjoining land. It remained in his family for over 100 years, operating profitably as a corn mill. By the 1880s though, roller milling had largely replaced stone grinding, and milling ceased in the early 1900s.

Close view of the machinery at Winchester City Mill, Hampshire, where corn is ground into flour
Close view of the machinery at Winchester City Mill, where corn is ground into flour | © National Trust Images/Phil Ripley

Recent history

20th century

Following its use as a laundry during the First World War, the mill was offered for sale in 1928. It was saved from demolition by a group of local benefactors who presented it to the National Trust. 

A new use

In 1931 part of the building was leased to the Youth Hostels Association. The mill became the first youth hostel for the London region of the Association, establishing a chain of hostels along the Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury. The hostel remained until 2004.

Milling again

Little thought was given to milling flour again until the 1980s. Over the following decade a new waterwheel, gearing and millstones were acquired thanks to donations from the Science Museum, among others.

Restoring the equipment

In 2003, millwright and restoration engineer Ian Clarke became involved. He worked through the winter to bring the equipment up to the standard required for milling.

The first flour production in 90 years

The first milling demonstration open to the public took place in March 2004 after a gap in commercial production of around 90 years. The years since have seen continued repairs and improvements to the machinery.

The next phase in the Mill's history

In February 2023 the mill wheel was declared unsuitable for continued use and was decommissioned. However, we are not stopping there! Our attention now lies in raising the funds needed to restore the mill to full working order and start producing flour once again.

Close view of the wooden mill gearing at Winchester City Mill, Hampshire
Close view of the wooden mill gearing at Winchester City Mill | © National Trust Images/Phil Ripley

Heavy flood damage

The heavy rainfall over the winter of 2013/14 had a catastrophic impact throughout the UK. As water levels continued to rise throughout January 2014, a major flood alert was declared.

Underwater for weeks

The whole lower floor of the mill was completely underwater, forcing the closure of the main museum due to the potential risk of damage to the building’s ancient structure. By 14 February, the River Itchen reached the highest level ever recorded by the Environment Agency.

Assessing the damage

Thankfully, by late February, the levels began to recede and the flood alert was lifted but it wasn’t until April that a structural survey was able to fully assess the damage to the building, waterwheel and mill machinery. 

Repairs to the damaged waterwheel were completed that month but there still remained significant structural damage to address.

Fundraising and restoration

In February 2017 fundraising began to make essential repairs to the damaged structural beams. The raising of over £90,000 through the generous support of visitors and the local community enabled the vital restoration and saving of the building's structure. 

Continued heavy rainfall and high water levels have further damaged the wheel and in February 2023, the decision was made to decommission the wheel. We are now looking to raise additional funds to commission a new wheel and begin milling once again.

Today the mill welcomes over 50,000 visitors a year, and looks forward to its continuing future.

A view of Winchester City Mill from the riverside footpath beyond the Soke Bridge over the River Itchen.

Discover more at Winchester City Mill

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