A thousand years of milling history
The City Mill is probably the oldest working watermill in the country, with a history dating back over a thousand years. The building has a fascinating past and historic connections that range from King Alfred the Great, Queen Mary Tudor and JMW Turner through to its preservation from destruction in the early days of the National Trust.
We know that a Mill has existed on this site since at least Saxon times; the foundation of the building suggests that the Saxon mill was possibly 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. The Mill is adjacent to a major entrance to the city where the East Gate in the city walls led to Soke Bridge.
Domesday and a time of prosperity
In the Domesday survey of 1086 the mill is recorded as returning a rent of 48s (£2.40), making it one of the most profitable in the country. The Mill continued to prosper through the early medieval period producing fine grade flour for the nobility of Winchester.
A series of bad harvests in the early fourteenth-century, coupled with Winchester having lost its status as the nation’s capital, quickly reduced the value of many of the mills in the area. The Black Death, which struck in 1348, followed by the loss of the wool trade to Calais soon after, would have accelerated the decline. The Mill was recorded as being derelict by 1471.
A royal gift to Winchester
In 1539, following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, King Henry VIII took the Mill into Crown ownership. His daughter Queen Mary Tudor made a gift of it to the city in 1554, partly in recompense for the cost of her wedding in the nearby cathedral and partly in response to earlier pleas for financial assistance from the city.
The present mill is built
In 1743, a new tenant, the tanner 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 and the eastern section was added later. Many of the structural timbers date back to the fourteenth and fifteenth-century suggesting that much of the structure and fabric of the earlier mill was incorporated into the new building.
The artist 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.
In 1820, John Benham bought the Mill and adjoining land. It remained with the Benham family for more than 100 years and for much of the nineteenth-century operated profitably as a corn mill. By the 1880s roller milling had largely replaced stone grinding, and milling ceased here in the early 1900s.
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. In 1931 part of the building was leased to the Youth Hostels Association.