Corn Mills

From Watermills of Cumbria by Mike Davies-Shiel with kind permission of the author

Drybeck Mill, High Rutter, April 1964 (14-047)

Click here for more photos of Corn Mills in Cumbria

Two common corn mill building patterns can be seen within Cumbria:

1. The Manorial or Large Corn Mill

Many mills were rebuilt during the early 19th century, shortly after the main period of field enclosures was completed (about 1825). They are to be found in the richer farming lowlands of Cumbria, and are fine structures of red sandstone, brick, or white limestone. Such mills are usually free-standing on level ground, alongside a beck “never known to run dry”, and at the best natural site for a mill in the parish. The mill house may be attached or separate.

There will be a square drying kiln at one end, integrally part of the main mill. The building is usually three-storeyed, and may have either a hipped of a gable roof. Hipped roofs are mostly on mills of the late 18th century. Orton Mill near Tebay is a fine example of such a mill. Gable roofed mills often have the mill house or kiln set against them to make an L-shaped plan. This gives the edifice stability. Town Mill Ulverston is an excellent gable mill.

Waterwheels were usually placed to the rear of the mill, away from the site entrance, and they are often encased in a small outshut or lean-to shed, such as at Wreay Hall Mill on the River Petteril south of Carlisle. It may seem very odd to say that the purpose of the outshut was to keep the waterwheel dry, but that was quite true. Even though wheels were constructed of water-resistant timbers, much damage could occur on frosty nights if the wheel was not in constant use. Also a half-dry, half-wet wheel might warp badly, and a pit roof also ensured that grease stayed on the bearings longer. Wythop Mill, west Bassenthwaite, has its own toy roof over the axle bearings. At some mills the waterwheel was inside the building, especially if it was a lowder mill such as Heron Mill, Beetham or Milton Mill, Preston Richard.

At the front of the mill a large and graceful Georgian or early Victorian archway should be visible at the kiln end. This was where laden carts of grain entered to be unloaded in the dry. An alternative method, rare in Cumbria, can be seen at High Goat Mill, Cockermouth. There the carts stayed outside the mill to permit maximum use of the building, and sacks were hoisted up into a lucam – a wooden roof cover protecting an external sack hoist.

These larger mills were fine structures. It is worth looking for refined embellishments such as stone finials on the roof, and peculiarly-shaped window openings that mark all the buildings of an estate or parish in a lordship. The facings of sandstone blocks in the walls are often carefully chiselled to a pattern (as in Roman times), and downspouts often display individual designs.

Being large mills, with custom guaranteed, they usually worked at least four pairs of stones driven from a vertical tree-axle. A large waterwheel could turn up to five pairs of stones directly, and others by installing extra gearing shafts or pulley belts. The waterwheel would have to be of overshot or high breast type, and the head race rebuilt to accomodate the higher fall. A very large mill might have two big waterwheels, the smaller driving various accessory cleaning machines, conveyor belts, stock-hoists, sack-hoists, and the like, but not all two-wheeled mills were of the large manorial type.

2. The Smaller Bank Mills

They are the older mills, and are usually situated on the earlier township trackways that today lie well back from the modern roads. Unfortunately it is their sheer isolation that makes them difficult to preserve. An early bank mill would date from about 1690, and most would seem to have been built by 1730.

The bank mill is placed on the side of a major valley at a point where a lateral beck comes down. The mill is superbly placed to get the benefit of several factors. It is at a place where a contoured head race will supply the mill with ample water for a small but powerful overshot wheel. It is on the old valley road, linking the hamlets on that side of the valley like a string of pearls. It is also specifically built into the hillside so that carts full of grain can be driven up around the back of the mill to the level of the drying kiln, unloaded by the waggoner, and put directly onto the kiln floor. This eliminated the need for complex sack-hoist equipment, and meant that the mill could be worked quite efficiently by one man only – the miller himself.

There tends to be a set order of internal arrangement from bankside outwards and downhill:- kiln, waterwheel and stones, stable, cottage; and all under one long hipped roof. At such mills the miller’s horse fared badly, for his stable was deliberately placed between mill and cottage, especially in those mills where the waterwheel lies inside the mill and the water race crosses the width of the mill. The stable lay parallel to the wheelpit, and any rising damp affected the horse and not the house.

Most bank mills had layshaft arrangements, and ran at the most three pairs of stones per waterwheel. There was little chance for wheat to ripen in the fell dales, and most of these mills made oatmeal and barleymeal only, so French burr stones are unlikely. These could not cope with the hard spring wheat grains which came to us in abundance from the Canadian prairies from the 1870s, and struggled to survive. Many were demolished over 100 years ago, other such as Boot Mill and Little Salkeld Mill have survived to the present day.

The Barrow steam corn mill, 1870-1972 : Daniel W Elsworth & Sam Whitehead, CWAAS Transactions, 2010. (See also a short description at Barrow 1901)
The life and times of Buttermere Mill in Journal 52 of The Lorton and Derwent Fells Local History Society
The history of the corn mill at Lindale is recorded on the Cartmel Peninsula LHS’ website here.
Loaves and fishes – the mills and fish ponds of Shap Abbey : Jeremy Rowan Robinson et al, CWAAS Transactions 2023

Natland Mill Beck Mill (article)
Gleaston Mill (website)
Little Salkeld Mill (website)
Heron Corn Mill (website)
Muncaster Mill (photo gallery)
Warwick Bridge Corn Mill – article, photo gallery, and website
Eskdale Mill, Boot (website)


Warwick Bridge NY474569 A square 3 storey mill with 2 storey kiln attached. There is a large mill house on site.
Arkleby Mill, Aspatria NY144403 A square plan two storey corn mill now converted to farm use, and surrounded by modern farm buildings.
Priests Mill, Caldbeck NY328399 A water mill built by the Rector of Caldbeck on the river bank just below the church. Worked as a corn mill from 1702 to 1933.
Acorn Bank Mill NY614283 A mill is first mentioned around 1323. Current building dates from about 1800, but substantially altered around 1840 when a French Burr millstone was added. Open to the public.
Rutter Mill, Appleby NY682158 On the Hoff Beck south of the town. A small rectangular red sandstone building, it was a corn mill in 1829 and 1851.
Lupton, Kirkby Lonsdale SD564803 On a medieval site, a small mill with mid-breast wheel, which worked until 1964.
Double Mills, Cockermouth NY118299 A pair of corn mills from 1470, one on each bank.
Boot Mill, Eskdale NY176012 Bank mill, with the drying kiln upslope of the mill proper. Present mill dates from about 1730. Second wheel added about 1750, this one now driving mill. Mill closed 1930 but has been restored.
Muncaster Mill SD095978 Fully restored mill, currently closed to the public.
Corn Mill, Waberthwaite SD115946 Stainton mill of late 18th century, with small overshot wheel and kiln. Bobbin mill and smithy downstream.
Stock Beck, Ambleside NY377045 A 17th century building, now a craft shop. The entrance footpath is along the old headrace. The machinery was removed in 1945, a replacement waterwheel is in situ.
Heron Corn Mill, Beetham SD496799 A water mill of 1740 with some contemporary machinery, internal waterwheel and four sets of stones. Open to the public.
Newby Bridge SD366863 Built 1780. Used as a blacking mill in the 1850s, but later a corn mill again. Undershot wheel. Private site.
Sea Mill, Bardsea SD299741 The buildings are in use as a restaurant. The reservoir is visible although overgrown, also the sluice, now culverted under the road.
Beckside Mill, Kirkby-in-Furness SD236822 Corn mill converted into private dwelling. Overshot wheel.
Town Mill, Ulverston SD286785 One of a series of mills fed by Gillbank Beck. Now a public house – machinery visible inside.

(Page created 19/04/05. Last updated 06/01/24)