What do an artist, a queen and a launderer have in common?

August 23rd 2017 by Lydia Smith

You may have heard of City Mill in Winchester, but did you know it is connected to world famous artist JMW Turner? Or do you know how it is related to Queen Mary I? And why did it have a brief spell as a laundry room? Read on to find out…
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This remarkable building possesses a series of connections that stretch throughout history, besides being a rarity in its own right. It is likely the oldest water powered corn mill in England, and it certainly takes the title as being one of the oldest surviving mills overall, with a history dating back over 1000 years!  Some of the earliest records of a watermill present date to 932AD and 989AD, and a corn mill on site was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. The foundations of the present building suggest there could have even been a Roman mill onsite before the Saxon building was established.  In this survey it was recorded as being one of the more profitable in the country, being the main source of white flour for the Winchester nobility. This prosperity continued until the 14th century, when the advance of the Black Death caused a decline in productivity. This coupled with a few poor harvests in the years prior and Winchester declining in importance, resulted in the mill being recorded as derelict in 1471.

During the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1589 Henry VIII took ownership of the mill, along with many other similar buildings, as a means to raise money for the crown. However, upon his daughter Mary’s ascension to the throne, she gifted the mill back to the city of Winchester in 1554.  This was done partly to compensate for the cost of her wedding to Philip I of Spain in the nearby cathedral, but also as a response to calls for financial help to be given to the city. It was on this occasion that the mill got its current name, City Mill, as it had been previously called Eastgate Mill.

After it had been gifted by the Queen, the mill was then rebuilt in 1744 to its present form by James Cook. Under his ownership the mill underwent extensive renovations and additions, however due to the presence of beams dating back to the 14th century, it is reasonable to believe that the building we see today incorporates much of the previous structure. In 1820 the mill changed hands to the Benham family, where it remained for 100 years under their ownership. During this time it was a successful corn mill, made more prosperous by the change to roller milling in the 1880s- reflecting a wider shift to modernisation in this period. Unfortunately however, milling here stopped before the First World War, and it was used as a launderers! An interesting change from producing a key food source to washing clothes!

In the later 20th century it was also used as a youth hostel, until it was brought under the National Trust’s care. One of our volunteers even remembers staying in the hostel in his early years. Today the mill is an open tourist attraction, where visitors can see a working waterwheel, grind some grain using a hand quern and buy some flour ground onsite.

Another famous name to add to the City Mill’s connections is JMW Turner, who drew the mill in 1795. The sketch of the building fortunately still survives to this day, and can be viewed at the Tate Britain, who’d have thought a watermill would have made it into the Tate? The drawing is believed to be the first ever depiction of the mill, and one of the earliest drawings of Turner’s that still survives. On the Tate’s website they describe the drawing as an “interesting early instance of Turner’s fascination with incongruous juxtapositions”, due to the inclusion of a still life sculpture in front.

If you would like to see Turner’s drawing of the mill for yourself, click here.

Winchester City Mill is also a Mills Archive Corporate Friend. You can read more about the mill and discover our related images and documents here.

Sources:

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-winchester-city-mill-d00408

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/winchester-city-mill/features/a-thousand-years-of-milling-history