Bourne Mill is a picturesque watermill with a working waterwheel. A delightful piece of late Elizabethan playfulness, built for banquets and converted into a mill in the 19th century. Just a mile south of Colchester sits Bourne Mill, a grade 1 listed building steeped in history. It was built as a fishing lodge in 1591, converted to a fulling mill around 1640 and then converted to a corn mill in about 1840, which continued working until the 1930s. It is well worth a visit for all the family.
Bourne Mill is set in tranquil grounds, next to a millpond and babbling stream. The mill still has a working waterwheel and the grounds give plenty of scope for family fun. The grounds have a pond, wetlands and woods and are home to a variety of wildlife including birds, bats, waterfowl, bugs and beetles.
Bourne Mill has a history going back over a 1,000 years. From a fishing pond for monks, an Elizabethan fishing and banqueting house, fulling mill to a corn mill and private home in the twentieth century, there's lots to discover. Built as a fishing in lodge 1591 and described by Pevsner as: ‘A delightful piece of late Elizabethan playfulness with two wildly oversized end gables of the utmost exuberance’, this Grade I listed building hides a history that is inseparable from the town of Colchester.
Despite having passed its 400th birthday, the existing Mill is not the first to have stood here on the manmade pond damming Bourne Brook. There's historical evidence for the site going back over 1,000 years. It is mentioned in 1120 as ‘Bournemill and Ponds’ in the Colchester court rolls, when it was part of the endowment of St Johns Abbey. Fish was an important part of a monk’s diet and therefore a good fishpond near to the Abbey would have been seen as essential. The pond is still used for fishing and on one occasion, in the 19th-century, a monster pike was dispatched to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace.
A Haven for herbs. The grounds at Bourne Mill are also well known for the herbs that can be found there, as the famous herbalist John Gerard noted in his 16th-century Herball:
At the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, in 1539, the Member of Parliament for Colchester was John Lucas, a lawyer. He acted as prosecutor for the crown and in December of that year hanged the Abbot of St Johns and dismantled the monastery. Nine years later John Lucas purchased the Abbey grounds and built himself a mansion on the site. In 1591, using leftover abbey stone, his grandson Sir Thomas Lucas built Bourne Mill as a fishing lodge. The materials used in the construction are a mix of Roman brick, Abbey stone and locally sourced Septaria. Much of the stone still shows signs of decorative carving from the Abbey.
The grandson of Thomas Lucas, Sir Charles Lucas, was later to achieve notoriety as the royalist commander at the siege of Colchester. His last words were: 'See, I am ready for you; and now, rebels, do your worst.' He was executed by firing squad in Castle Park in 1648, alongside his friend and fellow royalist George Lisle. His mansion was destroyed and Bourne Mill was probably saved only because it had the potential to generate wealth from the cloth industry.
The building remained as a fishing lodge until around 1640 when it was fitted out as a fulling mill and run by Flemish refugees. It became one of the many local mills making the Bay and Say cloth that brought much fame and wealth to Colchester in the 17th-century. It was converted back to a corn mill in about 1840 and made flour until the 1930s when the machinery became uneconomic to maintain. The last miller, Mr A E Pulford gave Bourne Mill to the National Trust in 1935.
'Bourne stream flows through Colchester’s Bourne Valley, a wooded and wetland area of conservation importance, from under Mersea Road and spring-fed Bourne Pond, through to Distillery Pond and eventually down to join the River Colne. In the Middle Ages along the stream banks three watermills were built: Bourne Mill, Cannock Mill and Hull Mill. These watermills harnessed energy from ponds constructed using the flowing water and so powered the industries of Colchester.
With other watermills in Colchester, Bourne Mill, Cannock Mill and Hull Mill were essential to the town which was then a thriving centre for commerce and industry. Watermills are considered man’s earliest form of labour saving technology. Early in Colchester’s long history the watermills were used for grinding corn to produce flour for bread, the staple food of the population. Eventually at the heart of Colchester’s industry was the woollen industry with its fulling process. Fulling improved the quality of the fabric and the watermills were an essential part of this process by powering the wooden hammers which pounded the cloth.
The first documented record of mills in Colchester was in 1068 in Doomsday Book. Earliest records show that the mills on Bourne stream belonged to monastic houses. Bourne Mill and its ponds were first mentioned in St John’s Abbey’s 12th century records though it could have been those granted to St John’s Abbey on its foundation in the late 11th century. Fish taken from the man-made ponds were an essential part of the monks’ diet. By 1311 Cannock Mill belonged to St Botolph’s Priory. Hull Mill, between 1311 and 1386, was known as the new priory mill. Both Cannock Mill and Hull Mill may have been built in previous centuries.
Bourne Mill continued as a corn mill throughout the Middle Ages with perhaps fulling also. With the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536-1541) ownership of the mill eventually passed to Sir Thomas Lucas who rebuilt it in its present form as perhaps a banqueting lodge with a watermill for milling corn. Dutch refugees converted it into a fulling mill in the early 1600s which continued until the 1830s when it became a corn mill again till the mid 1930s. It remained in the Lucas family until 1917. In 1936 Bourne Mill, now a delightfully decorative Grade 1 listed building, was donated to the National Trust who are developing its role in keeping alive its woollen trade history.
Cannock Mill worked as a corn mill throughout the Middle Ages and in 1576, after the Dissolution, it was also owned by Sir Thomas Lucas and remained in the family until 1917. Cannock Mill is recorded as being a corn mill in 1632 and included a fulling mill in 1651. It was rebuilt in 1835 and was a corn mill until the 1940s. It was restored in 1973 and is now a picturesque weather-boarded Grade 11 listed building. Cannock Mill Cohousing Colchester Ltd now owns Cannock Mill and has planning permission for further development.
Hull Mill was a corn mill during the Middle Ages and also a fulling mill in 1405. After the Dissolution it was owned by Sir Thomas Audley until it was resold after his death in 1544. In 1690 it was also an oil mill. Oil was produced by the crushing of oil rich seeds such as rape-seed and flax. The oil mill lasted until 1811 when it was demolished. A distillery and corn mill was then built. The mill was finally demolished in 1896. Today the site, called Distillery Pond, is a modern residential development.
The three mills along the stream in Bourne Valley were an integral part of Colchester's colourful industrial past. Their existence and what they represented is still relevant in the life of Colchester today.'
Colchester was associated with the production of woollen textile fabrics between the 16th and 18th Centuries. Bourne Mill was at various times the site for spinning wool yarns and Fulling woven woollen cloths (production of wool felts) These fabrics became so well known that they carried a trademarked Seal of quality. The Colchester wool trade began to decline midway through the 18th century as it moved north to Yorkshire.
These were lightweight woollen fabrics, prepared by hand weaving using hand-spun yarns. They are typified by simple plain weave (or Tabby) constructions which might vary in weight from about 100 – 200 grammes per square metre. They were often supplied in natural or bleached white.
These were heavier weight woollen fabrics, again originally hand woven using hand-spun yarns. They featured 2/2 Twill diagonal weaves which are more robust, but slightly more complex to weave. The weights might vary from about 150- 350 grammes per square metre
Fulling Wool Cloths.
Bays and Says would be woven in the Dutch quarter of Colchester and sent to Bourne Mill to be processed in Fulling Stocks to produce felts. The process involved folding the cloth into stacks about a metre square, placing in a wooden trough, and steeping in water, soap, and sometimes stale human urine (chamber lye) for a few days. The mill water wheel would then drive large wooden (oak) hammers to pound the cloth, which would be moved around by the fuller to achieve uniform treatment.
The aims of fulling were to :-
Use of stale human urine in fulling.
This is often cited as one of the liquids used, as ”chamber lye” was readily available to be bought and sold – there being no flush toilets or sewers for disposal in those days. Stale urine is a source of alkaline chemicals such as ammonia and amines. However, clean wool is attacked by alkali, so it would only be used on greasy undyed fabrics. The reaction between wool oils and greases and alkali produces soap, which would assist with the lubrication and ultimate cleaning of the fabric.
Use of Fullers earth.
Fullers earth is an absorptive clay mineral containing aluminium silicates. It absorbs oil and grease from the woollen fabric to aid with the final cleansing process after fulling. Current uses of Fullers Earth include cat and pet litter tray absorbants, wound dressings, and as a lubricant/sealant in oil drilling rig shafts (Bentonite®)
Drying and Tentering.
After fulling and washing the felt would be removed from the stocks, unwrapped, and stretched outdoors on a wooden tenter frame to remove creases and to allow drying. The cloth would be attached to tenter hooks on the frame (hence the term “to be on tenterhooks”). There were regional differences in the nomenclature. Tenters were used in East Anglia and Yorkshire, whereas Stenters were used in the Lancashire cotton industry.
Before the advent of synthetic organic dyes cloths were often coloured using natural vegetable and animal dyes. Cellulosic based vegetable dyes would preferentially be substantive to vegetable fibres such as cotton, and linen. Animal protein sourced dyes would be substantive to animal protein fibres such as wool and silk to achieve fast colours. However, wool treated with a mordant such as alum or chromium compounds would also absorb vegetable dyes.
'Thomas Lucas was born in 1531, the eldest son of John Lucas and Mary Abell. His father, who moved to Colchester in the 1530’s, was a successful lawyer and his mother was the daughter of a local wealthy cloth merchant family. John and Mary had a second son Robert. John Lucas served as MP and town clerk for Colchester and in 1548, some years after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, John Lucas bought St. Johns Abbey and built a large manor house in the grounds. This became the family seat. Over a period of time the original Abbey church was demolished but the outer wall and the Abbey gatehouse were left intact.
'The Lucas family were very religious and strong royalist supporters. They were also ambitious and power driven. Farms they owned in Greenstead, Lexden and Great Horksley generated wealth from rents. Thomas was educated at Cambridge University and, like his father, trained as a lawyer. He was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1550. When John Lucas died in 1556 Thomas Lucas inherited the estate. He was twenty-five.
Thomas Lucas held a number of public roles. He was elected as MP for Colchester in 1558, during the reign of Mary Tudor. From 1566-72 he held the post of Town Clerk. In 1568-9 he was Sheriff of Essex and again in 1583-4. From 1575-6 he was Recorder of Colchester. He received his knighthood in September 1571 from Elizabeth I. Although Sir Thomas was removed from his role as Recorder in 1576 he continued as a Justice of the Peace and remained a powerful force in local politics. In 1579 Queen Elizabeth made a three day visit to the family seat of St. John’s. This would have been very expensive for him.
Sir Thomas was known to have an ‘imperious and violent temper’ which caused problems for him throughout his life. In 1556 an outburst resulted in him being expelled from the Inner Temple and imprisoned. He also had another spell in prison for alleged involvement in an assault on one of the Queens footmen. Despite holding public roles and being knighted Thomas was in fact involved in many disputes with local people and this earned him the reputation of being extremely ruthless. In 1582 and 1583 the borough of Colchester was in dispute with Sir Thomas over waste ground in Greenstead. Later on, in the 1600’s there were disagreements over the enclosure of communal ground and damage to pipes of the town’s waterworks. He was also in dispute with his own brother who died in 1576 owing Thomas money.
Thomas married Mary Fermor of Northamptonshire and had five children – Thomas, John, Anne, Constance and Mary. In 1597, when his eldest son was accused of murder, Sir Thomas was obliged to dispose of all his lands to prevent them being taken over by the crown. The estimated value of his estate was about £70 million in todays money and included land and property in Northamptonshire, Essex, Wiltshire and Surrey. In the end his son was pardoned and Sir Thomas was able to leave his land and property to his wife and children on his death. Sir Thomas purchased Bourne Mill in 1590 – this would have included existing buildings, ponds and fish. In 1591 a new mill building was constructed – a panel on the south gable wall shows his name and the date.'
** – Visiting – **
Spot the wildlife, try out the new pedal-power fulling stocks, relax with a picnic topped up with a scone and drink by the water's edge, or try the NT's new Downloadable walk.
** – A Wee Wander Circular Walk – **
When Bourne Mill was a fulling mill, in order to wash oils out of the cloth, urine was used in the fulling process. This may well have come from local inns. This circular three-mile walk takes you through some of Colchester's country nooks, visiting the River Colne, Bourne Valley, Cannock Mill, Distillery Pond and Almshouses in Winsley Square, before visiting the streets and pubs that were built in the mid to late 19th century. Classified as Easy, it should take about an hour and a quarter.
Start: Bourne Mill car park.
** – Facilities – **
Location : Bourne Mill, Bourne Road, Colchester, Essex, CO2 8RT
Transport: Colchester (then 66 bus), Colchester Town (13 minutes) or Hythe (18 minutes). Bus routes: Bus Numbers 66/66A go from the town centre to Old Heath Road nearby.
Opening Times : Wednesday to Sunday, 11:00 to 16:30.
Tickets : Adults £3.75; Children £1.90.
Tel: 01206 549799