A thousand years of milling history
Winchester City Mill has stood at the heart of the historic city of Winchester since Saxon times. Over 1,000 years old, Winchester City Mill is probably the oldest working watermill in the country. The building has a fascinating past, with connections to Alfred the Great, Mary Tudor and JMW Turner. From near destruction in the 1920s, City Mill has been painstakingly restored by the National Trust. Today, it still produces and sells freshly ground wholemeal flour.
The beginnings of our mill
A Mill has existed on this site since at least Saxon times; with foundations possibly from the Roman period. Early records from 932AD and 989AD refer to a watermill, owned by the Benedictine nunnery of Wherwell Abbey. The Domesday Survey of 1086 shows that the mill was prosperous throughout the early Medieval period. The survey tells us that the mill was returning a rent of 48s (£2.40) a year-plus two chickens for the mayor! This sum tells is that it was one of the most prosperous mill’s in the country.
Winchester’s decline and the Black Death
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries power and wealth shifted to London with Winchester losing its status as the nation’s capital. The City and surrounding areas began to decline. In the early fourteenth century there were a series of bad harvests and many mills reduced in value. In 1348 the Black Death spread across the country causing vast changes. The City’s downfall was accelerated by the loss of the Calais wool trade and in 1471 the mill is recorded as being derelict.
A Tudor wedding
The Tudor period is well associated with Henry VIII and his exploits. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, the mill came under the ownership of the Crown. In 1554 Winchester Cathedral hosted the wedding of Queen Mary Tudor to Philip II of Spain. The wedding was costly and Winchester had appealed to the Crown for financial assistance. In response, one of Mary’s acts was to gift the mill to the city. This is when the mill became known as City Mill-the name it bears today.
The present Mill is Built
In 1743 the Mill had a new tenant, James Cooke, who invested in the Mill. Cooke is responsible for how the Mill looks today. 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.
We know that Cooke invested huge sums of money into the mill making it look aesthetically pleasing. He added in lead to the windows and replaced the thatch roof with tiles. He is also responsible for taking out the wattle and daub and using expensive imported Flemish bricks. It is a mystery as to why he spent such vast sums on what is essentially an industrial building. This suggests that he really cared for City Mill, and understood its historical importance to Winchester.
The legacy of James Cooke and his work was clearly admired at the time. JMW Turner was touring the area as a young student of the Royal Academy and sketching what he saw along the way. His sketches are now in the ownership and care of the Tate Britain. In 1795 he sketched the mill and this work is the earliest known depiction of the building following Cooke’s restoration. We owe Turner a great deal as his sketch has informed our understanding of the mill architecturally.
The Benham family
In 1820, John Benham bought the mill and it stayed in the family for more than 100 years and operated profitably as a corn mill. By the 1880s roller milling had largely replaced stone grinding, and milling ceased here in the early 1900s.
The twentieth century and the National Trust
During the First World War the mill was used as a laundry. Following this, the mill was put up 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 mill was leased to the Youth Hostels Association. The London Region of the Association was establishing several hostels along the Pilgrims Way which ran from Winchester to Canterbury. The mill was the first of these and remained open until 2004.
A new age of milling
From the 1980s a new waterwheel, gearing and millstones were acquired thanks to donations from Winchester Association of National Trust Members and the Science Museum amongst others.
In 2003, Ian Clarke, a millwright and restoration engineer, became involved. He worked through the winter to bring the equipment up to the standard required for milling.
Restoring the equipment
The first milling demonstration open to the public took place on Saturday 20 March 2004 after a gap in commercial production of around 90 years. In the years since we’ve continued to make repairs and improvements to the machinery. We now mill flour every Saturday and Sunday throughout the year and demonstrate what the mill can do during the week to visiting schools and groups. The amount of flour produced and sold has increased steadily and in 2018 we sold over 20 tonnes.
Saving City Mill
Following serious flooding in 2013 and 2014, this ancient building was at risk of closure. In February 2017, the property began fundraising in order to make essential repairs to the damaged structural beams. We were determined to protect the mill and safeguard its future, but the only way we could achieve our goal was with your help.
Having raised over £90,000 through the generous support of our visitors and the local community, we were able to begin the vital restoration of the building's structure in 2018.
Having raised over £90,000 through the generous support of our visitors and the local community, we were able to begin the vital restoration of the building's structure in 2018. Today, the mill welcomes over 50,000 visitors a year, and hosts regular milling and baking days, as well as a wide variety of family activities.