Bourne Mill

Bourne Mill

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:

  • " Marsh Cinkfoile groweth in a marsh ground adjoining to the land called Bourne ponds from whence I brought some plants for my garden, where they flourish and prosper well.’"
  • - John Gerard

    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.'

  • Author: Angela Blakeway CDFAS.
  • 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.

    Bay Cloths.

    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.

    Say Cloths.

    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 :-

  • 1. Consolidate woven fabrics by using the natural tendency for wool fabrics to felt. Wool is one of the few fibres which shrinks and felts, due to the scaly surface of the fibres. The scales all point in direction from the root to the tip of the fibre, so that when a cloth is agitated in a lubricant such as water or soap solutions the fibres ratchet over one another leading to shrinkage, matting and thickening.
  • 2. Increase the thermal insulation properties to provide more warmth in clothing and blankets.
  • 3. Improve the wind resistance (reducing air permeability) of the material.
  • 4. Improve the dimensional stability of the fabric for washing and wearing. Felting causes about 20 - 40% shrinkage and consolidation of the fabric – effectively pre-shrinking the material so that further dimensional change is limited.
  • 5. Change the surface appearance, texture and handle of the fabric for aesthetic and fashion reasons.
  • 6. Improve the durability of the fabric for wear and usage, as textiles and clothing were very expensive, meaning that many people had far fewer items of clothing.
  • 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.

    Textile colouration.

    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.

    Vegetable dyes

  • • Forsythia, Honeysuckle and Horseradish would produce the colour green.
  • • Walnuts produce a rich brown.
  • • Ragwort and Saffron produce yellow.
  • • Madder would produce the colour red.
  • • Indigo would produce the colour blue.
  • Animal dyes
  • • Cochineal beetles are still used today in some parts of the world to produce a rich red.
  • Author: Dr Richard A Scott

    '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.'

  • Author: Janet Kerry CDFAS
  • Bourne Mill in Summer

    Bourne Mill in summer

    ** – 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.

  • The working water wheel.
  • With an 18ft circumference and 72 buckets to turn, this cast-iron overshot wheel sits proudly beneath the main floor. The machinery is now long gone but you can experience the thrill of starting the wheel and hearing the sound of the rushing water. Please note: The water wheel does not run mid-week but they are hoping to run it most weekends in the foreseeable future.
  • Fulling Stocks.
  • Can you take the place of water to operate the fulling stocks by pedal power? Their recent addition to the Mill brings the fulling industry of the Mill back to life. Discover what 'chamber-lye' was and why it was so important in the production of Colchester white, a special cloth known as 'Bay' famed for miles around.
  • People and personalities.
  • The Mill was originally built in 1591 by Sir Thomas Lucas for partying with the aristocracy but was later converted for working with fullers and then millers until 1935. Come and find out about the people that have lived and worked here.
  • Scoping for wildlife.
  • For a relatively small area, there's a deluge of wildlife on their doorstep. So that you can get that up-close perspective without scaring it off, they now have a wildlife scope. You may find some of the ducks even pose!
  • Picnic by the pond.
  • The grounds may be small but when they're open they like to see people enjoy every part of them. They have plenty of pleasant spots to enjoy a bite to eat.
  • Family fun.
  • Looking for something for the younger guests? How about trying their Kids activity booklet designed by Rachel Simson as part of their HLF young roots project to get your budding adventurers scouring the grounds for answers? If you want to explore futher afield then head down the Bourne Valley boardwalk to see what else you can discover. You should find the distillery ponds and Cannock Mill...
  • Hand stitched banner.
  • The Colne and Colchester Embroiderers Guild created a magnificent banner which depicts items from the grounds and fascinating chunks of history that make up the story of Bourne Mill. They also have a quiz to go with the banner for their younger visitors.
  • Recycled Colchester.
  • Their walls read like a book on the history of Colchester. Made from Roman clay brick, Septaria and monastic limestone, they then got treated with black flint galloting and Dutch styled gables. This ubercool building was the ultimate in showing off one's wealth.
  • How it works.
  • After many years of use in the cloth industry, Bourne Mill was converted back to use as a corn mill around 1840 and made flour until the 1930s. Come and see it working to get a hint of the sights and sounds of yesteryear!
  • What's on at the Mill.
  • They offer a range of programmed activities including costumed re-enactment, talks on local history, drama and craft workshops. Check out their forthcoming events by clicking here.
  • Bugs and beetles.
  • Many a creature calls the mill home, with beetles in their new bug hotel, bats in the walls and trees, and larger furry friends being caught on their new trail camera. Download the Woodland Trust ID sheets.
  • Pond dipping.
  • Why not borrow their pond dipping equipment and have hours of fun discovering what lives in our pond? See if you can catch a water scorpion or dragonfly nymph - the T-Rex of the pond world! Get the iSpot app.

    ** – 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.

  • 1. Starting from the car park with your back to Bourne Mill entrance, turn right and look for a footpath which goes down between buildings about 20 metres away.
  • 2. Follow this footpath and take the path to the left which goes along a boardwalk next to the River Colne.
  • 3. This path is known locally as the Bourne Valley; you will pass some ponds, so stop to look at the birdlife for a moment; there is a lot going on.
  • Birdlife. There are a number of birds that call these ponds home, such as mallard and tufted ducks,coots, and swans, to name but a few.
  • 4. Continue along this path towards Old Heath Road, and as you reach Old Heath Road you will notice Cannock Mill on your right. Turn right, and cross the road immediately (opposite Cannock Mill House). Continue along the river on Distillery Lane.
  • Cannock Mill. The Crown leased Cannock Mill in 1575 to Edward Lucas, who in 1576 assigned the lease to Sir Thomas Lucas. Sir Thomas bought the mill soon after taking out a new lease in 1594, and rebuilt it c. 1600 as an overshot mill with two ponds. It was a corn mill in 1632, and included a fulling mill in 1651. It seems to have been a corn mill, perhaps with a fulling mill, in the 18th century; in 1803 and in the 1820s it was a flour and fulling mill. The mill remained in the Lucas family until 1917. It was rebuilt in 1845, as an overshot mill fed by iron pipes from a high pond; new buildings were erected in 1875. It worked as a corn mill until the later 1940s when it became a store for Cramphorn's. The building was restored in 1973.
  • 5. Continuing along the track until you reach the Distillery Ponds, again stop and watch the wildlife in the calm of the Mill pond. Hull Mill is at the end of the Pond; this was later the Distillery and is now rather attractive living accommodation. Pass in front of the building and follow the path round to the right. After about 50m you will see a yellow finger post signalling a footpath which goes up to the left.
  • Hull Mill. Hull mill, below Cannock mill on the stream south of the town, was recorded by that name in 1438; was a corn mill through the middle-ages; had a fulling mill added, and later an oil mill. It was all demolished in 1896, so the current building has been built on the site since that time. It is now all part of the Distillery Pond housing development.
  • 6. Take this footpath to the left. This is quite a narrow footpath, and has a gradual incline. Continuing, pass ‘Grants Meadow Allotments’ on your right. When reaching the top of the rise, you will reach the end of Recreation Road, (adjoining Smith’s Field). Turn left into Recreation Road, and follow it until you meet Old Heath Road.
  • 7. When reaching Old Heath Road, directly opposite is Winsley Square, a group of Almshouses, all of which have been ‘gifted’ and each house indicates from where. It is worth taking a few minutes to wander around.
  • Winsley’s Charity. Established by the Will of Arthur Winsley, who died on 30th January 1726, the charity has been in existence now for over 290 years. Along with the original Almshouses, a Chapel was also built, which is still in use today. Within his Will, Arthur Winsley stipulated that a “Good Preacher” should be paid to preach a sermon every New Year, a tradition which continues to this day. There are now 80 Almshouses, but originally there were just twelve, built for ‘Twelve Ancient Men that have lived well, and fallen into decay’. Wives being originally evicted on the death of their husband! The square became Grade 2 listed in 1950.
  • 8. When coming back out onto Old Heath Road, turn left and follow the road towards Colchester. Pass a playground and park on your right on Old Heath Road; continuing past the Bourne Road/Wimpole Road crossroads, the road now becomes Military Road; keep going until you reach the first wee stop – the Royal Mortar, at No. 120 Military road.
  • The Royal Mortar. Built in 1862, before many of the houses around it, the pub was built as part of ‘New Town’ and is part of the group of pubs in Colchester with military names. The Leech family ran it from 1891-1933.
  • 9. Continue along Military Road to wee stop 2, which is the British Grenadier at no.67.
  • British Grenadier. Its earliest known date is 1859. The first licensee was John Neville certainly until at least 1874.
  • 10. From the British Grenadier continue along the road until turning into Roberts Road on your left. Take the first footpath on your right into Parade Square; turn left into the square and then right along Sargeant Street. Follow Sargeant Street round to the left and follow it all the way to the end, and continuing straight ahead along a footpath through to the Mersea Road. At Mersea Road, turn right and walk 100 metres to Lucas road on the right, and wee stop 3 the 'Odd One Out' at 28 Mersea road.
  • the Odd One Out. Affectionately known as ‘the Oddie’. Step inside the door and get transported back in time; it really is a traditional pub; no mobile phones, a choice of ales and whiskies – it is worth a look! The Pub was previously known as ‘the Mermaid’, and the current licensee has been there for 30 years.
  • 11. From the Oddie, turn round and walk back along Mersea Road for 200m until you reach Berechurch road, 2nd turning on your right. Follow Berechurch road until you reach the junction with Meyrick Crescent and Wee Stop number 4 nestles in the junction.
  • The Britannia. This pub was built in 1865; has been taken over by a Gurkha family, and is now a Nepalese Restaurant and Bar. It has very good reviews.
  • 12. Leaving the Britannia on your left, continue along Meyrick Crescent. Turn left when you reach Mersea Road and next wee stop 5 is the Grapes on the left at 87 Mersea road.
  • The Grapes. The Grapes was 'known' in 1876, but its building date is unclear. Clearly this building looks relatively new.
  • 13. On leaving the Grapes, continue along Meyrick Crescent turning right along Mersea Road; pass Bourne Road on your left and then cross over, and where the road bears to the right, go through a gap on the left onto a footpath and follow the path along the south side of Bourne Mill ponds. Turn left and follow the path up to Stalin Road continuing round the road until you meet a footpath which goes down Bourne Valley to meet the footpath where you started.
  • End: Bourne Mill car park.

    ** – Facilities – **


  • • Dogs welcome on lead.
  • • Pond dipping equipment and lawn games available.
  • Family

  • • Baby back-carriers admitted.
  • • Free hire of pond-dipping equipment and lawn games.
  • • Quizzes available on site.
  • Access

  • • All parking is close to the building.
  • • Braille guide.
  • • Large print guide available.
  • • Grassy paths and slopes, some steps around grounds.
  • • Building accessible via slope, steps into lower floor and ladder stair to upper floor.
  • Click here to read their full access statement (PDF)


    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