Local history: Thwaite Watermill in Stourton (part one)

Thwaite watermill could be considered a unique heritage attraction because it is one of the last working water-powered mills in Britain and due to its varying uses by trade offers a unique lens in which to study the many aspects of local society and industrial history.

The life of the mill started when Charles I was King in 1641 when a weir was constructed on a natural bend in the River Aire. This weir stemmed the flow of water and created a large pond; this water supplied the first mill.

Little is known about this mill other than it being used for “fulling” a textile process in which cloth was pounded in human urine sold by the poorest in society for a few extra pence, and then fullers’ earth, which was a clay like substance. Originally this process was completed by foot, as people physically tramped the cloth in tubs but in the Middle Ages the process was mechanised by using wooden mallets or “fulling-stocks” to pummel the cloth, this was powered by the turning of a water wheel.

Fulling was an important part of cloth production because it cleaned the natural grease from newly woven threads and matted them together more tightly, thus producing a smooth thick compact fabric. Once fulled and stretched to the desired size, cloth was then suitable for dyeing or making into clothes.

The first known reference to Thwaite Mill was made in the Aire & Calder Navigation Act of 1774 where it is mentioned that a toll of one shilling (5p) for every lock of water used was payable to the tenants of the mill as compensation for the water loss from the mill dam by operating the lock. By 1774 the mill was the property of the Navigation Company, into whose hands they probably came when the River Aire was made navigable at the turn of the century. Two Sun Insurance policies for 1809-1812 show that the mill was, by that date, not only grinding corn but was also engaged in other milling activities, including the crushing of oil bearing seeds. Oils derived from vegetables were increasingly in demand in the late 18th and early 19th century; at which time they were used for, amongst other purposes, the lubrication of machinery.

In 1822 the mill was let to W & E Joy for £525 per annum Shortly afterwards the decision was made to carry out much needed repairs to the building, but the condition of it was so bad that the mill had to be completely rebuilt. The Navigation consulted John Rennie and the contract for the work was awarded to the Manchester firm of Hewes & Wren.

Thomas Cheek Hewes was one of the foremost millwrights of the period and Thwaite Mills is one of the few remaining examples of his work. The mill was rebuilt as a three-storey brick structure astride the mill race which served to house two low breasted water wheels within it. As well as a new mill other constructions included a workshop, a warehouse, stables, workers’ cottages, and the mill tenants’ house. Apart from ‘Dandy Row’ the workers’ cottages that were demolished in 1968, all the other buildings remain. When the new mill was completed in 1825 it had cost the Navigation Company £15,876. This was reflected by the new rent of £1,000 per annum when relet to Joy & Company in 1826.

When the Joy family arrived back at the mill it was as Edward Joy & Sons Limited and they produced lighting and lubricating ‘Filtrate’ oils by crushing seeds such as Linseed and Rapeseed. Many railway companies, still in their infancy in this period, were supplied with oils produced by the Joys at Thwaite Mill. One particular recipient of their lubricating oil is thought to have been George Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’.

Although oil was the main concern of the Joys they also used their crushing machinery for other purposes, one example of which was crushing exotic woods imported from South America to produce colour dyes for textile manufacture. In 1845 the partnership between William and Edward Joy was broken up by mutual consent and the Joy family left Thwaite Mill, but the Company continued successfully for many years, eventually manufacturing oil for motor cars and carrying on business in Junction Street opposite the old Hunslet Goods Terminus.

Census information indicates that a number of tenants, including Robson and Bucktrout continued to run the mill as a seed crushing business. However, in 1871 the mill is not listed and it was around this period the buildings experienced a time of neglect and disuse leaving it to return to a state of disrepair.

We will continue the story of Thwaite Mill in the April.


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2 Replies to “Local history: Thwaite Watermill in Stourton (part one)”

  1. A very interesting article to read, lots of facts about the history of the mill that I didn’t know about

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