Brief History of The Mill House [previously The Mill Stores], Michaelchurch Escley, 1795 - 2023
Brief history of The Mill House, Michaelchurch Escley 1795 - 2023
[previously known as ‘The Mill Stores’]
By Bob Steele
There has been a water corn and grist mill in Michaelchurch Escley for more than 800 years. From Norman times it was owned by the Lord of the Manor of Ewyas Lacy and formed part of his estate until it was sold and converted to a private dwelling house in the 1980s. For its entire commercial life it seems to have been exclusively a working mill, with the miller and any assistants living elsewhere. For most of that time it was a manorial mill, serving the Manor of Ewyas Lacy and later the Michaelchurch Estate which subsequently developed from the manor. Surviving records suggest that the mill operated on a part-time basis as needed to meet local demand and that the early millers were either ‘servants’ quartered at Michaelchurch Court or visiting journeymen who were presumably lodged in nearby estate cottages.
The first known reference to a permanent house to accommodate a resident miller and his family is found in sale particulars for the Manor of Ewyas Lacy and the Michaelchurch Court Estate in 1815. An advertisement in the Hereford Journal shown below announcing the sale on 13th July 1815 in the Green Dragon Inn, Hereford, describes [as Lot 2] ‘a very excellent water corn grist mill... with a Mill House and Buildings.
We also know from the history of the Thomas family, who had held the freehold of the Michaelchurch Estate for some two hundred and fifty years, that the sale of 1815 was prompted by the need to pay off substantial debts incurred through the profligate lifestyle of their descendant Edmund Thomas Lewis, who had inherited the estate on his father’s death in 1795 but seems to have rapidly squandered his inheritance on high living and revelry. In the event the 1815 sale was unsuccessful and Edmund was declared bankrupt in 1818, when the Estate including the Mill and Mill House were sold off by his creditors. This scenario strongly suggests that building a house for the miller and his family was not an investment that Edmund would have chosen or been able to make and so by implication the Mill House referred to in the sale documents would have most likely been built sometime before 1795 when the family was in stronger financial shape.
In about 1835 things changed again. The then owner of the Michaelchurch Estate and Lord of the Manor, Thomas Daniell, was the son and heir of a wealthy Cornish mining family and after buying the Estate following the 1818 bankruptcy proceedings he seems to have invested heavily to bring it up to the standards he expected to suit the lifestyle of a country gentleman. Part of this involved an extensive refurbishment and upgrade of the watermill, including the installation of a new iron waterwheel and more sophisticated gearing arrangements to drive two pairs of millstones. Up until that time it is probable that the mill wheel and main gears at Michaelchurch would have been made of wood - usually oak or elm - driving a single pair of millstones directly. This was the traditional set up for rural watermills before the technology to produce large metal castings emerged from the industrial revolution and it became possible to manufacture iron wheels and gears that were capable of sustaining much heavier loading.
This extra capacity in turn meant that the earlier more casual arrangements for running the mill were most likely no longer sustainable and we can presume that there was a need to attract a professional full-time miller. The extract below from a survey of the Michaelchurch Estate in the 1830s notes that ‘a new Mill House has been built on a fresh site’ and is in the tenancy of Thomas Gwillim. Other sources reveal that Thomas Gwillim was the resident miller at Michaelchurch from 1835 to 1843, so it is reasonable to conclude that the new Mill House referred to here dates from about 1835 or perhaps a few years earlier.
It is possible that the earlier Mill House was adapted and refurbished that time, and certainly today’s house shows several building lines where the original structure has been modified or extended. However, the reference to a ‘new Mill House’ and a ‘fresh site’ in the 1830s document seems to make it more probable that the Mill House of today was built from scratch in the 1830s and that subsequent modifications and additions to it relate to later developments there as the premises evolved in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to become a village shop, Post Office and bakery as well as the miller’s family home. If so, no record remains of the location and nature of the earlier mill house, although a logical candidate might be the property now known as ‘The Gables’ adjacent to the Corn Mill, which was converted in the mid twentieth century from reputed use as a storage barn associated with a seed merchant trade run before the Second World War as part of the mill business.
The house and the mill remained in the hands of the Gwillim family as tenants of the Michaelchurch Estate until 1847, when the affairs of the Estate fell into chaos with the bankruptcy of Thomas Daniell following the collapse of his Cornish mining interests. The Gwillims’ position as millers seems to have been amongst the casualties of this and for the next seventeen years the operation of the mill appears to have fallen back into the hands of a succession of short-term journeymen. There is no record of whether these millers lived in the Mill House or whether it was let to others during this time.
In 1864 the fortunes of the Michaelchurch Estate again changed dramatically when it was bought by a wealthy Bradford heiress for her relatives in the Trafford family. Major investments in improving the estate were once again made and the tenancy of the mill and the Mill House was granted to Cheshire-born miller Thomas Realey. The Realey family were to live there for the next thirty-seven years; by 1871 they had established a shop at the Mill House [which seems to have become known locally at the time and referred to in subsequent legal documents as ‘The Mill Stores’, presumably because of the shop there] and by 1891 they had also opened a Post Office on the premises.
Thomas Realey seems to have made a considerable success of the mill business in Michaelchurch and became a wealthy man by local standards; there are surviving mortgage indentures for several local properties that show him as lending large sums of money to local people against the security of their properties. It therefore seems likely that the major lean-to extension at the rear [south] of the Mill House was added during his tenure. This may have been simply to increase the living area to compensate for the loss of the front room to accommodate the shop around 1870. However the discovery during refurbishments in 2023 of what seems to be an underfloor stone-built drain and the remains of what may have been a well or water reservoir suggests it may have been added as or included a wash house or other ‘modern conveniences’ reflecting the miller’s wealth and status at the time.
In 1901 Charles Price took over the tenancy of the Mill House from the Realey family together with the mill and the other businesses; by 1917 the tenancy had passed to his sister and her husband, Charles Lewis, who moved to the Mill House from Clodock. At some point during this period a bakery business was added to the enterprise. A large wood-fired brick bread oven was constructed ‘in the back kitchen’ at the Mill House and loaves baked with the stone-ground flour from Michaelchurch Mill were sold as far afield as Hereford and Abergavenny. The bakery was in a lean-to structure added on the west side of the property, which is clearly visible at the right of the picture below with the oven chimney protruding through the roof.
Photograph courtesy of Grace Davies & Antony Fernandez
Refurbishment of the property in 2023 uncovered the remains of the brick oven and sufficient of it survived to suggest, taken together with the above picture of the chimney, that it may have been of the type shown in the diagram below:
Diagram of a wood-fired brick bread oven [Internet]
After starting a fire inside the oven, the dome chamber absorbs the heat until it becomes white hot (sometimes up to 800 Fahrenheit or more). At that point, the fire is either extinguished or left burning gently. The embers from the fire can be swept out before using the oven to cook. Once the oven is up to the correct temperature, the oven door is closed to contain the heat. After the temperature has evened itself throughout the oven, it’s ready to use. The heat that has been absorbed by the oven walls and floor now radiates from them.
After the bread was baked, ovens of this type would stay hot for a considerable length of time and sometimes communities would use this fact to their advantage. Stories are told of bakers who would rise early on Sundays to fire their oven and finish baking the bread in time to attend the morning service in church. Then as local families passed by on their own way to church they would bring their Sunday roast in a pan and place it in the baker’s otherwise empty oven to cook in the residual heat while they worshipped. Assuming the vicar’s sermon was not overly lengthy, their lunch would be done to perfection by the time they collected it on the way back home. We don’t know for sure that this tradition applied in Michaelchurch, though oral history does tell of geese being roasted in bread ovens there for a dinner to celebrate the Escleyside Ploughing Team’s victory at a local ploughing competition.
The discovery of an old cider millstone buried in the Mill House garden in 2023 suggests that the place may have made at least one other important contribution to the local community. Oral history records that the Corn Mill across the road was a gathering place where local farmers would drink cider with the miller and chat while waiting for their corn to be ground. Finding the millstone suggests that apples may have been pressed and the cider made at the Mill House, although the other part of the cider mill, the trough, has not been found there.
Traditional cider mill with stone and trough
Corn milling at Michaelchurch ended in 1942 as did baking at the Mill House, although the redundant bread oven was only removed in the 1960s. The shop and Post Office businesses continued at the Mill House in a state of gradual decline until they finally closed on the retirement of the last Postmistress in the early 2000s. The tenancy of the property seems to have changed hands several times in the post-war period, but ownership of the freehold remained with the Michaelchurch Court Estate until the estate was sold as a job lot in 1990, although the vendors [the Hunter family] retained possession of a number of individual properties including the Mill House. The Hunter heirs finally sold the freehold to the property on the open market in 2009 when the tenancy fell vacant.
Edited and updated July 2023