The Watermills of Modbury

‘’For men may come, and men may go,
But I go on for ever.’’

Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote this in ‘The Miller’s Daughter’ in the mid eighteen hundreds when watermills were the centre of commerce in most rural areas. Modbury’s seven mills were no exception, apart from the fact that they did not mill continuously because of low water flows, which necessitated mill pond reservoirs.

The mills were all overshot which suited the hilly nature of the Modbury area and by spacing them along the two brooks running through the parish it was possible to maximise their frugal water supplies. Thus Shilston Brook served Spriddlescombe through Sheepham and on to New Mills and similarly Swanbridge, Cotlass and Orcheton mills were equally spaced along Aylestone Brook. The seventh mill at Clyng shared the work and the water supplies of the two parishes of Kingston and Modbury.

All seven mills were of similar design and capacity and probably shared the same millwright. On average they were sixteen foot in diameter overshot wheels driving two pairs of stones with a milling time of four to six hours per day, allowing the mill ponds to fill between work. With the advent of electricity, Modbury mills suffered the same fate as most of the seventy thousand water mills in this country, but the remains of some can still be seen to a greater or lesser extent.

Spriddlescombe Mill

The first mill on Shilston Brook had a sixteen foot diameter overshot wheel driving two pairs of stones. This mill produced both flour for bread making and crushed corn for animal fodder. The last miller, S. Harris, worked the mill until 1917. An interesting trend in the Modbury area is seen here where Mrs Williams worked the mill in 1850, to be followed, after Nick Chaffe, by Mrs A Chaffe in 1910. Milling was not the exclusive right of the menfolk!

The composite wheel (cast iron and wood), which is still in place, has cast into the rim FICE MODBURY indicating that he was the local wheelwright in the mid nineteenth century when the change from all wood to cast iron on wood took place.

The maker’s mark on the wheel of Spriddlescombe Mill.

This mill had an unusual drive with two horizontal wallowers (or secondary shafts) taking power to the millstone grit (animal meal) and french burr (fine bread flour) grindstones.

Shilston Manor, which dates back to Domesday Records, would certainly have had its own flour mill. Since water supplies dictate mill sites, it is likely that the remains of this old mill go back a thousand years.

Sheepham Mill

This mill, approximately one mile down the Shilston Brook from Spriddlescombe, stopped milling in 1954 and is almost certainly the last of the Modbury mills to go out of production. The millers listed in Kelly’s Directory are: Richard Brown 1850, Benjamin May 1873 and 1878 and E J Bickford 1919-1954.

Few signs of mill work can be seen now except for the water wheel rim marks on the end wall. A fourteen-foot diameter overshot wheel with mill pond are indicated and signs of the rebuild and raising of the wheel in 1867 by W Fice are carved on a mill beam. Sheepham Mill is mentioned in a deed of 1561 as working two pairs of stones for flour and animal feed.

New Mills

No trace of this mill can be seen other than the mill leat which ran under the road by Sheepham Bridge taking the tail race from Sheepham Mill.

Despite the name ‘New’, this mill was mentioned in a deed concerning the Champernownes in 1693 and was in use until the beginning of the twentieth century, being dismantled about the time of the First World War.

Because of the lack of any signs of a mill pond and a poor head of water, it is likely this wheel, although overshot, was small in diameter (10 feet) but wide in capacity.

It ran ‘pigaback’ on the discharge of Sheepham Mill and thus was probably limited to the operating hours of that mill. Kelly’s Directory name millers as John Chidley 1850 and Treeby Davis 1878. This is an interesting mill since it illustrates the need to maximize the water potential of the area.

Swanbridge or Swallowbridge Mill

This mill might be rightly called Town Mill. It is close to the town centre with a good size mill pond and two streams feeding the wheel. It is the first mill on the Aylestone Brook series of sites.

The mill wheel, of overshot fourteen-foot diameter composite construction, would have driven two composite pairs of mill stones. The wheel gained potential by its width rather than fall of water, thus taking the full flow of Aylestone Brook and Tuckers Brook.

In 1827 the mill was extended by enlarging the granary and was probably modernized by installing the composite water wheel at the same time.

Swanbridge is probably the oldest mill site in Modbury being mentioned in the Charters of Modbury Priory of the thirteenth century. It was leased to the Lords of the Manor, the Oxtons, with the requirement to ‘mill from an empty hopper’ for that family and with a similar privilege for Richard Fortescue of Whympston. More up-to-date is the listing of John Treeby as miller in 1850, 1873 and 1878 in Kelly’s Directory.

Sadly the only remains of this beautiful mill in its idyllic setting are the silted mill pond, the odd millstone and the building itself.

Cotlass Mill

Travelling a mile down Aylestone Brook from Swanbridge, by which time the water height potential has again built up, is Cotlass Mill. The mill house remains in this peaceful setting but nothing can be seen of the mill itself which was burnt down sometime before 1871. Again the site dictates an overshot wheel, probably driving two pairs of stones and sitting on a crossroad with easy access from adjoining farms.

Orcheton Mill

The last mill in the Aylestone Brook series is situated at the head of the canal from the river Erme. This mill, with its present day modern overshot wheel, would have driven two pairs of stones and was in operation into the twentieth century with millers listed as F. Wyatt 1873 and Edwin Steer 1878.

No signs of a millpond can be seen now but the size of the brook just before it enters the canal and the height potential would seem to indicate an eighteen foot wheel with the possibility of continuous milling. The mill would have served Great Orcheton Manor, the home of the Prideaux family for twelve generations, thus indicating the site of this mill to be of considerable antiquity.

Clyng Mill

This mill is correctly in the Parish of Kingston but took much of its water from the Modbury area and served Oldaport Manor. Ownership, prior to the early eighteen hundreds, appears to be tied to the De La Portes of Oldaport and could possibly have associations with the fortifications covering the peninsular to the west of that manor.

The mill has an eighteen foot composite overshot wheel which operated two pairs of stones. The wheel has been restored and now drives an electric generator served by a millpond and leat.

Clyng Mill is first mentioned in 1690-1 when James Watson (vicar) paid poor law rates for the mill.

Entries in the poor law registry showed Mrs Joane Ashford paying 16 shillings (£0.80p) rates in 1732 with a similar entry for John Ayshford in 1741 of One Guinea, 21shillings, (£1.05p). Rates were increasing even in the eighteenth century!

Millers entered in Kelly’s Directory give a good continuous record from 1757 thus:

1757 William and Morris Spry
1801 Luke Pearse and William Brown
1816 Samuel Goss
1830 Robert Antony
1840 John Prout
1857 John Torr
1890 James Torr (son of above)
1906 Charlotte Torr (wife of above)
1923 Haytor J Torr (son of above)
1936 Mill ceased to operate as a corn mill

Clyng Mill serves as a typical example of mills in the area, since many could not mill full time because of insufficient water and had land attached for farming to augment their income.

In 1801 Mary Dunning of Ashburton leased Oldaport and Clyng to Luke Pearse and William Brown for farming and milling. The lease shows an entry ‘complete with boat and barge’ (presumably for use on the adjoining canal which served Modbury).


The millers of most rural areas set the economies of those areas and thus the happiness and well being of the community. Grain was heavy, transport limited and wind and water power the only way of converting it to flour and meal.

Most farmers were tenants, as indeed were millers since the Lord of the Manor owned both farms and mills. The Lord dictated where the corn was to be processed and received his ‘tithe’ but the miller fixed his price and his honesty, or otherwise, dictated the stability of the community.

Modbury was lucky in that its people had a choice of seven mills and a healthy competition prevailed between the millers.
Watermills, although their conversion of corn to flour (about 2cwt or 100kg per hour per pair of stones) is slow, have one great advantage over modern methods — they use renewable and non-polluting energy with millstone grit to aid our digestion!

Author: Nobby Clegg