Theme: Millers in Michaelchurch Escley


1500s - 1900s


Millers in Michaelchurch Escley

There are records referring to a water corn and grist mill operating in Michaelchurch Escley [sometimes called Llanvihangel Escle in earlier times] for over seven hundred years, from Norman times until the mid twentieth century. It is difficult to be certain that the mill in Michaelchurch has always occupied the present-day site, since few details survive from the distant past, and at one time or another there were many watermills in various places along the Escley Brook. However, the location of watermills depends critically on the lie of the land along the watercourses that power them, and this does not change with the centuries; there is no evidence of a suitable alternative location at Michaelchurch today. In addition, because of their importance in the local community and economy plus the practical needs of farmers to transport their produce to and fro, mills typically became focal points for tracks and roads. Michaelchurch Mill is located at a crossroads that can be traced back many centuries on maps of Herefordshire and the Borders. For all these reasons it is realistic to presume that the site of the mill has remained unchanged over the centuries, although the building and machinery will of course have been renewed and replaced many times during its history.


Throughout its working life and until it was sold in 1985 Michaelchurch Mill remained in the ownership of the various Lords of Ewyas Lacy [click here for more information] whose local tenant farmers were almost certainly bound to the mill by the custom of ‘suit and soake’. This would have forced them not only to take all their corn and grist to be ground at the mill, paying the designated ‘tolls’ or taxes for the privilege, but also to assist with the maintenance of the leat, pools and sluices.


At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 the border area that was to become Ewyas Lacy was given to Walter de Lacy, one of William the Conqueror’s leading knights, and it remained in the possession of the de Lacy family [click here for more information] for nearly two centuries. It is likely that Michaelchurch Mill formed part of the Lordship of Ewyas Lacy by the time of Walter II de Lacy’s death in 1241, and may date back even earlier. The evidence for this arises from the peculiar provisions of Walter II de Lacy’s will in which the Lordship of Ewyas Lacy was split between his two granddaughters Margery and Maude, who were each given a moiety of both the lands and the mills. A moiety of Michaelchurch Mill continued to be held by successive Lords of the two parts of Ewyas Lacy for many centuries, and later documentary references to this unusual type of ownership as the two estates devolved separately by succession provide the links back to the inheritance of 1241. There is no reference to Michaelchurch in the earlier Domesday books, but their coverage of this part of the border [at that time regarded as being in Wales] is very sketchy, and this does not necessarily mean that there was no earlier mill here.


Few records of millers’ names have been found prior to 1719 when the first surviving Parish Registers commence, and it is not until 1776 (when the Land Tax records begin) that there is a reasonably reliable and continuous trail of documentary evidence. Even then, a few uncertainties and gaps remain in the list of occupants of the mill, because the surviving documentation is by no means complete or easy to follow. However, the first miller for whom there is written evidence is John ap Henry in 1504/5. The Ewyas manorial accounts of that year [private research - National Archive reference G33/1/4-5] include an entry of ‘13s 4d of farm rent for the moiety of a mill called Eskelly [by] John ap Henry this year’. These accounts refer to only three mills in Ewyas, being Castelmyll [which ‘lies ruinous and totally in decay’], Cradockesmyll [likewise in decay] and the mill called Eskelly. The reference to the farm rents of ‘a moiety’ of each of the three mills provides a link back to earlier records, as mentioned above.


The next reference dated 1508/9, in the Ewyas Lacy records ‘Exitus Molendinorum’ [National Archive reference SC6/HENVIII/1341] is an entry [in Latin] to the effect that ten shillings rent has been paid for the water mill of Michaelchurche by David ap Philip ap Rees . After that, the record is silent until 1594, by which time the mill had reportedly been ‘thrown down’ and the site was in the hands of the bailiffs, Lewis Harris and Harry Watkin. Their manorial accounts of the Lordship of Ewyas Lacy from 1594 to 1600 [Gwent Record Office, reference D1583.107.2] for each of the above seven years reads ‘Of any profits issuing from a moiety of the mills called Castle Mill, Uske Mill otherwise Michell Churche, and Cradok Mill had this year as in divers years preceding, nothing, because for many years past they have been thrown down and are totally in ruins’. This is the only known reference to ‘Uske Mill’ as an alternative name for Michaelchurch Mill, and it is most probably a mis-spelling of Eskelly or Eskle.


There is no reference to exactly when or for what reason the mill fell into ruin at that time, although earlier Ewyas Accounts of 1505 noted many defaults of rent ‘for want of tenants, because the tenants who lately had the said lands and tenements, and which said lands and tenements were destroyed and burned by the invasion and appropriation of the Rebels of our Lord the King in parts of Wales, relinquished them into the Lord’s hands by reason of their poverty’. Up to 1509 Michaelchurch Mill was still working, but might easily have subsequently suffered a similar fate as troubles and armed conflict continued in the Marches.


There is no record of when the mill was rebuilt, but rebuilt it was sometime in the next forty years when conditions [presumably] improved in the Marches and the local economy began to recover. The next reference in the records is 1642, and from then onwards the surviving records suggest that the mill operated continuously for a further three hundred years until its final closure in 1942/3. The names of the millers where they are known during that period are listed below, together with any additional information that is available about them.




James Harry Howell


In a ‘quitclaim’ of 6th March 1642 [reference Herefordshire Record office P82/11/8836 LC Books], James Harry Howell releases the water corn or grist mill and three acres of adjoining land in Michaelchurch Escley to Phillip Watkine of Ewyas Harold, apparently as security for a loan [mortgage].



William Thomas


A release dated June 1652 [reference Herefordshire Record Office P82/11/8837 LC Books] records the sale by James Harry Howell to William Thomas for £22 of “all that messuage or tenement wherein William Thomas now inhabits, one garden, one water corn or grist mill and one parcel of meadow ground adjoining the said mill containing by estimation two days and a half of hay or thereabouts, together with all yards, banksides, waters, watercourses, easements, banks, sluices, weirs, ponds and materials, lying in the parish of Michaelchurch Escley between the river of Escley , the lands late of Abraham Powell deceased and a parcel of land of the said William Thomas called Cae Mawre.” An indenture of the same date [reference Herefordshire Record Office P82/11/8843 LC Books] records the assumption by William Thomas of the mortgage held by Phillip Watkine, with a principal of £60, and interest payments of three pounds twelve shillings due each year until 1658.


David Harris


The Michaelchurch Escley Parish Registers [Herefordshire Record Office] record the burial of David Harris of Michaelchurch (miller) on 27th October 1726.



John Harris


The Michaelchurch Escley Parish Registers [Herefordshire Record Office] record that Mary, daughter of John Harris of Craswall, miller, was buried August 19th 1730, and James, son of John Harris of Craswall, Miller, was baptised 21st November 1736. Although John Harris is identified as ‘of Craswall’, and there were at least two mills there (Taylor’s map of 1786 shows Forest Mill and one other upstream of Craswall church), the fact that the burial of Mary and the baptism of James took place in Michaelchurch rather than Craswall leads to a strong presumption that John Harris was practising his trade at Michaelchurch Mill.



Thomas Stanford


The Land Tax records [Herefordshire Record Office] for 1776 show Thomas Stanford paying the tax and therefore [presumably] occupying and working the mill.



John Mathews


Reference Land Tax records [Herefordshire Record Office]



Thomas Robinson


There is a gap in the Land Tax records between 1781 and 1788, but from 1788 to 1791 the tax is shown as paid by Thomas Robinson.



Benjamin Whistance


Benjamin Whistance paid the Land Tax on Michaelchurch Mill in 1795, 1798, 1804 and 1806; the records do not show the intervening years.



Howell Powell


Reference Land Tax records [Herefordshire Record Office]



James Johnson


Reference Land Tax records [Herefordshire Record Office]



William Prosser


Reference Land Tax records [Herefordshire Record Office]



James Lewis


Reference Land Tax records [Herefordshire Record Office]



Sylvanus Watkins


In 1823 and 1824 Sylvanus Watkins also appears in the Land Tax records as one of the Land Tax collectors for Michaelchurch Escley. This duty may account for the appearance of one Samuel Price who is shown as paying the land tax on the mill in the year 1823, and may have been working for Sylvanus Watkins at that time.



John Walters


Reference Land Tax records [Herefordshire Record Office]



John Wistance


Reference Land Tax records [Herefordshire Record Office]



Richard Wistance


Reference Land Tax records [Herefordshire Record Office]

Despite the slightly different spelling of the unusual surname, it is tempting to conclude that John and Richard Wistance were related to the Benjamin Whistance who was miller from about 1795 to 1806. According to independent genealogical research three brothers of these names moved from southern Shropshire, where their father Edward Whistance was a miller, to west Herefordshire in about 1795.



Joseph Beavan


Reference Land Tax records [Herefordshire Record Office]



Samuel Morgan


Reference Land Tax records [Herefordshire Record Office]



Thomas Parsons


Reference Land Tax records [Herefordshire Record Office]



Thomas Gwillim


Between 1835 and 1839, Michaelchurch Estate records [Herefordshire Record Office O19/1] show receipts of £36 per year from Thomas Gwillim for Michaelchurch Mill and lands. In 1840 the rent was increased to £46, although a year later it was reduced again to £40 pa. These were substantial sums at a time when a certain Mr. Winters received a salary of only £30 pa for ‘managing the Estate and superintending repairs, etc.’. The milling business seems to have operated on a sound basis, with regular expenditure on maintenance. Jenkins, Blacksmith, was paid £3-2s-6d for ‘repairing the wheel at the mill’ in 1837, though the quality of his work may have been suspect since the following year Mr. Wheeler, millwright, was paid £24 ‘for repairs at Michaelchurch Mill’. A further disbursement of £18-12s-4d was allowed in 1842. The 1841 census shows Thomas Gwillim as miller, age 35.



William Gwillim, James Gwillim

William is shown as ‘occupier’ in the Tithe map records of 1843, and the parish registers show James’ occupation as ‘miller’ in 1844, although the estate records continue to show Thomas Gwillim as paying the mill rent at least until 1846. However, it is about 1843 that the fortunes of the mill decline, perhaps because of a change of management. By the end of that year, rent arrears of £19-8s-7½d had accumulated, rising to nearly £60 by 1845. The annual rent was then reduced to £25, presumably to reflect harder times, but when the surviving estate records cease in 1846 the rent arrears for the mill are still recorded as £51-7s-6d.



John Jones


In 1847 the Michaelchurch Escley Parish Registers [Herefordshire Record Office] record that John Jones of The Mill was buried on 10th August. However Lascelles & Co’s 1851 Directory and Gazetteer of Herefordshire refers to John Jones as miller in Michaelchurch Escley, ‘the noble mansion of Richard Watson Barton, Esquire.’ This apparent contradiction might be explained if the mill passed from father to son of the same name, although there is no other evidence to confirm this, and Directories of the time are not always accurate. Another possibility is that the John Jones buried was a son of the miller.



James Meek


The 1851 census describes James Meek, born in Llanvapley, as a ‘journeyman miller’, aged 25, and shows him living at Michaelchurch Court as “servant” to R Barton, Esq. Both he and Mr Bowen [below] were probably working for John Jones or perhaps for his widow who was recorded as running the mill from 1856 to 1858. The 1851 census shows Thomas Gwillim [presumably the previous miller] is still resident in Michaelchurch but his occupation is now given as ‘farmer’.



Mr. Bowen


The Michaelchurch Escley Parish Registers [Herefordshire Record Office] record the death of Selina Bowen of the Mill, aged 15, who was buried on December 26th 1855. It is inferred that her father was miller at the time.



Mrs Jones


The Post Office Directory of Herefordshire of 1856 records Mrs Jones as Miller and Shopkeeper in Michaelchurch Escley, and Cassey’s ‘History, Topography & Directory of Herefordshire’ of 1858 contains a similar entry, along with two blacksmiths, a beer retailer, a publican, a carpenter and numerous farmers.



Mr. Thomas


The Michaelchurch Escley Parish Registers [Herefordshire Record Office] record the death of Ann Thomas of the Mill, aged 2 months, on May 29th 1858. It is inferred that her father was miller at the time.



William Watkins


Born in Grosmont, William Watkins’ status was shown as “servant”, aged 48, in the 1861 census.



Thomas Realey


Cheshire born Thomas and his wife Mary brought stability to the tenancy of the mill, as they settled down and raised a family in Michaelchurch. The census of 1871 shows Thomas as shopkeeper & miller, aged 41 living at the Mill House with his son, three daughters , a servant and a boarder. Evan Evans aged 24, is also shown as a miller at this time. The mill was clearly a profitable business, since in 1877 Thomas Realey was able to lend the local shoemaker, James Griffiths, the sum of £200 by way of a mortgage on property in St. Margarets called Mairissis farm, and a further £40 on the same security in 1879 [Private Collection documents]. These were very substantial sums in those days. The mortgage was redeemed in 1881, and the census in that year shows that Thomas has become ‘miller & farmer of 18 Acres’. His son William was still resident, described as ‘farmer and miller’s son’ and so probably helping in the mill. The last reference to Thomas Realey as miller at Michaelchurch is in Kelly’s 1885 Commercial Directory of Herefordshire.



Mary Realey , William J. Realey

In the 1891 census Mary Realey is shown as a widow, age 53, but was now postmistress and grocer as well as miller and farmer. William is shown as ‘miller and farmer’, and was presumably running the mill. There is reference in an 1893 document to a Samuel Jones , from Cheshire, at the mill, who was Mary Realey's brother and may have been working as a journeyman miller here around that time, although local directories record Mary Realey as running the mill until 1901.



Charles Eugene Price


The entry in Jakeman & Carver’s Directory and Gazetteer of Herefordshire of 1902 records Charles Price as sub-postmaster, miller, grocer and provisions dealer, and farmer, continuing the business built by the Realey family. Judging by the minutes of the parish council [Michaelchurch Escley Parish Council Minutes Book, 1891-1973, held privately] he also became a man of some influence in the local community, serving on the parish council from 1901 to 1917, and acting as parish constable from 1901 to 1907. At the parish council meeting of 22nd March 1907 he was elected chairman for the year, and from 1908 to 1917 he served as assistant overseer for the parish, initially at a salary of £12-10s-0 per annum, though this was raised to £20 per annum by vote of the parish council at a meeting on 22nd June 1916.



Charles Lewis


According to Warren Lewis’s recollections, Charles Lewis married Charles Price’s younger sister, and when the mill passed to her in 1917 he and his family moved from Lower Hunt House, Clodock, where they were farmers, and took over the corn mill, together with the post office [which then included a grocery shop and a bakery] and a smallholding of about 30 acres.  Mr. Britain , father of 6, living at Yew Tree Cottage on the Longtown road, was employed as a miller. Charles Lewis continued the tradition of his predecessor by serving on the parish council, which he did from 1921 to 1939.



Warren Lewis


Warren Lewis recalled that he worked in the bakery for his mother for several years before taking over as the Miller at Michaelchurch about 1925. He operated the Mill until he married c.1930, though it remained in his father’s name. Then he moved to Longtown with his wife, where they ran the Post Office together with a local butchery and meat delivery business for forty years before retiring to Clehonger. At this time there were also a number of local craftsmen whose livelihood depended in part on the Mill. Bill Powell had a carpenter’s shop at the Iron Pear Tree, and made the wooden teeth for the mill machinery. He also made coffins and acted as an undertaker. Blacksmith Burt Davis had his workshop down near the Church at what is now Forge Cottage. He would have made any metal tools for the mill and any running repairs to the machinery.



George Maddy


Local people recall that the mill tenancy still remained in Charles Lewis’ hands, but it was operated by George Maddy. Another local man, Arthur Leighton , also worked at the mill for a few years in the 1930’s, before he left to join the Army.

According to some, around this time a diesel engine was installed to run the mill when water levels were too low for normal working, but others do not remember such an arrangement and there is no physical evidence remaining in the mill to suggest the fixed machinery was ever powered by anything other than the waterwheel. It is of course possible that a separate diesel powered roller mill may have been used somewhere on the premises, or that other equipment such as the bolter was run with the aid of an engine.

George Maddy is remembered as a strong man, with a reputation for winning trials of strength. Such competitions often took place on the floor of the mill on Saturday nights, when local people would congregate there for a bit of entertainment.

The mill was not only grinding flour for the Lewis’s bakery, but also for the local farmers, many of whom grew their own wheat and baked their own bread. It is said that sometimes the wheat was diseased and the flour would come out black, but there wasn’t much money about in those days and apparently the farmers would often take it back and make bread with it anyway, despite the look of it. Barley was also being milled for animal feed, together with so-called ‘Plate Maize’, imported from Argentina [down the River Plate, hence the name]. Times were getting harder for millers, though, and local mills were gradually closing down as demand for their services declined.


Milling ceased at Michaelchurch in 1942, although business as a corn merchant continued until 1943, when the mill finally closed after more than 700 years.



Eric Lewis


Warren Lewis recalled that his younger brother, Eric Lewis, returned from the forces at the end of the war, stripped out the runner stones and other milling machinery and turned it into a bakery with steam ovens. He served as a parish councillor from 1947 to 1950 and as Rural District Councillor in 1948. In 1950 Eric Lewis closed the Mill in Michaelchurch and moved with his bakery business to Kingstone. The corn mill was left unoccupied, and gradually fell to ruin.


Michaelchurch Mill, derelict c.1968


Top - Back

Ref: rs_mic_0401