Standing the test of time: a brief history of the mill

Pakenham Water Mill is one of the oldest surviving mills still working in England.

The mill you see here today was built around 1780, over two hundred years ago, but there has been a mill on this site for much longer than that. We know there was a watermill here before 1066 when William the Conqueror defeated the English at the battle of Hastings, so its long history stretches back almost a thousand years.

At that time it was owned by the great Benedictine abbey at Bury St Edmunds.  In the early Middle Ages most people in Pakenham were forced to work several days each week on the abbey’s farm,  and take their grain to be milled in the abbey’s watermill. The income from this and many other Suffolk manors went to support the abbey and its monks, helping it to become one of the richest in England.

Bury St Edmunds Abbey owned the watermill for about 500 years until the Reformation, when Henry VIII closed down all the monasteries in England and seized their lands and property, much of which was later sold.  In 1545 Pakenham and its water mill were acquired by Robert Spring, a  wealthy clothier from Lavenham. His descendants leased the mill out to millers for the next 200 years. The back kitchen of the Miller’s House, with its great open fireplace and brick oven, date from the early 18th century when one of the Springs rebuilt it.

By the middle of the 18th century the mill had new owners, the Leheups, a wealthy family who settled in Suffolk after fleeing religious persecution in France. In the 1780s they pulled down the old mill and in its place built the much larger one that stands here today. This is four storeys high with room for storing large amounts of grain as well as space for more sets of millstones to increase the output of the mill. Further significant improvements were carried out in 1814 by their tenant miller, Charles Lowe. He spent £400 of his own money improving the machinery and installing the first breastshot waterwheel, a much more efficient design than the old undershot one it replaced. This was a profitable time to be a miller and Lowe was confident of recovering his outlay through the profits coming from increased productivity. He inserted a stone with his initials and the date 1814 in the end wall of the mill.

The fortunes of millers everywhere changed dramatically in the late 19th century with the invention of roller milling, a process which made flour more quickly and economically using steel rollers instead of millstones, and proved much more efficient at making white flour, then much in demand. The result was that by the 1930s most windmills and water mills in England were rapidly going out of business, (which is why only a handful remain today of thousands that once existed). Pakenham Water Mill was one that survived, partly because of its excellent water supply and good machinery and partly through the hard work and enterprise of its last two millers, Walter Hitchcock and Bryan Marriage. Marriage, who bought the mill in 1930, installed a Tattersall Roller Mill and a Blackstone oil engine, and concentrated the business on preparing animal feed for local farmers. In this way he managed to keep the mill working commercially until 1974 – a remarkably late survival, making it the last working water mill in Suffolk.

When Bryan Marriage retired he tried to get planning permission to convert the mill to a private house (the fate of many former water mills), but permission was refused because of the historical importance of this sole surviving mill and its long history. In 1978 it was purchased by the Suffolk Preservation Society with the help of a substantial private donation, and completely restored so that it could resume flour milling and open to the public to keep alive knowledge of this ancient craft and understanding of the historic building. It was then handed over to the Suffolk Building Preservation Trust who own it today.

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