Pioneers of Green Electricity in Ewyas Lacy

Pioneers of Green Electricity in Ewyas Lacy

By Bob Steele





Green electricity and renewable energy are often regarded as inventions of the twenty-first century. However, the reality is that carbon-free renewable power from wind and water has been used for thousands of years. Today’s labels may be fashionably different and greenhouse gases may provide a different rationale but until the beginnings of the steam age wind and water mills were the only significant sources of mechanical energy other than animal power to sustain local economies. Of the two, wind has always been more unreliable and more difficult to harness, and there is no surviving evidence of any past windmills in Ewyas Lacy. However, the local climate and topography is such that there are many well-supplied watercourses running down hillsides and in steep valleys, which means that the area has been well populated with watermills over the centuries.

For most of their history waterwheels have been utilised for their mechanical power, initially for simple tasks like grinding corn and then increasingly to drive more complex processes such as smelting and forging metals, sawing timber, processing textiles and even manufacturing gunpowder. Along the way the technology became more sophisticated, with more efficient wheel designs, improved gearing and better controls over the supply and flows of water. The nineteenth century in particular saw a step change in mills’ power output when wooden wheels and gears were replaced with iron castings that permitted much greater loading.

However, wider changes had also started to take place that threatened to make the traditional uses of waterwheels for mechanical work obsolete. Steam engines and later internal combustion engines provided much greater power output allied with the flexibility to deliver it wherever it was needed; industrial applications were no longer limited to often remote, hard to access areas where the topography and water supply happened to be suitable for waterwheels. At the same time a revolutionary new technology, electricity, was evolving that also promised to alter fundamentally the generation and applications of power.

The phenomenon of electricity had been known for centuries but largely as a scientific curiosity. Then in 1820, in arguably the most pivotal contribution to modern power systems, Michael Faraday and Joseph Henry invented a primitive electric motor and in 1831 documented that an electric current can be produced in a wire moving near a magnet, demonstrating the principle of the generator. By the 1870s reliable systems for generating and distributing electricity were emerging and the world's first electric street lights were set up in London in 1878. Near the end of the Victorian period electricity was first introduced into people’s homes, initially for lighting but very quickly followed in the early part of the twentieth century by a host of other electrically powered appliances that we take for granted today.

Alongside all this the technology of extracting power from water was continuing to evolve too, stimulated by the potential for generating the new-fangled electricity as a substitute for mechanical power. In 1827, French engineer Benoit Fourneyron developed a reaction turbine capable of producing around six horsepower and in 1849 British–American engineer James Francis developed the first modern water turbine – the Francis turbine – which remains the most widely-used design in the world today. It became apparent that these devices were not only a significantly more efficient means of generating power from water - albeit electrical rather than mechanical - than traditional waterwheels but were also cheaper to manufacture and simpler to maintain. This differential became even more pronounced as turbine technology continued to evolve with the development of the Pelton wheel by the 1870s, and the Kaplan turbine in 1913.

By the early twentieth century the effect of all these changes was that watermills had by and large disappeared from the wider industrial landscape and gone back to their rural origins in local corn and grist milling. There the survivors remained [at least for a time] eking out an ever more fragile living. It is against this background that we pick up the story of green electricity in Ewyas Lacy and the surrounding area.


Hydropower case studies in Ewyas Lacy


Technological change of all types tended to arrive in Ewyas Lacy later than most places, perhaps because of remoteness, respect for traditional ways or reluctance to spend hard-earned cash on new-fangled ideas from ‘outsiders’. Maybe for local watermills it was a combination of all of these, but more likely it was simply that, apart from a few obscure medieval fulling mills and the long-abandoned forges at Llancillo and Peterchurch, mills in the area had always been used for producing animal feed or flour for bread making, which meant that changes in the wider industrial applications of waterpower passed Ewyas Lacy by.

However, even for the corn and grist mills there was no escaping the relentless march of technology and the demands of economics. Waterwheels and other machinery wore out meaning decisions about adopting newer technologies had to be made, and the accelerating pace of economic and social change meant that traditional business models had to be revised. These challenges came to a head in broadly two ‘waves’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries respectively.

In the mid nineteenth century competitive and pricing pressures on traditional mills intensified as steam engines proliferated. These provided alternative ways for farmers to grind their own animal feed using small stand-alone feed mills and for flour mills to be set up in more convenient locations independently of the availability of water sources to drive them. And no sooner had water millers responded to this by using new metal-working technologies to increase the capacity and efficiency of their machinery than an even more difficult set of challenges came along.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw the emergence of a new form of power that would radically and permanently change commercial and social life - electricity. For corn millers, the immediate threat to their livelihood was from emerging industrial-scale electrically powered roller mills which could produce flour and feed in large quantities relatively cheaply. The process of producing stone-ground meal was costly and slow, meaning traditional millers were once again left struggling to compete. At the same time the growth of more efficient private and public transport meant that country people were no longer tied to making purchases locally but could readily obtain their supplies from further afield. The effect of all these factors on local mills at the beginning of the twentieth century was profound, and as the following three case studies illustrate the potential for generation of ‘green’ hydroelectricity played an important part in their response.


Poston Mill

There was a mill at Poston, adjacent to Ewyas Lacy, since at least 1588 when records of the Sheriff’s Court refer to “…profits of the mill at Poston…” and it appears on later maps of Herefordshire including Bryant’s map of 1835 which was the first to name it as “Poston Mill”. It was reputedly the largest mill in the Golden Valley and in its day also possessed a number of ‘mill meadows’ reflecting the fact that millers were often wealthy enough to acquire land and become farmers. The supply of water came from a weir on the River Dore down a long leat to a pond adjacent to the mill, with a sluice before the mill complex to divert surplus water back to the river if need be. This arrangement provided a ‘head’ of about six metres for a large overshot waterwheel powerful enough to drive a number of pairs of millstones; it is not known how many were installed at Poston, but at least one pair were of high quality French Burr for producing fine bread flour.

So how did changing times affect Poston Mill? No details are known of their response to the ‘first wave’ of change, but we can presume that about the mid 1800s the business would have made the transition to replace wooden machinery with metal and improve the mill’s capacity and efficiency accordingly. We do however have a record of how Poston responded to the next wave of challenges in the early twentieth century.

A natural first step to try and maintain profitability in the face of competitive and other pressures of the times was to diversify and add value to the flour they produced by using it themselves to bake and sell bread. By the nineteen twenties and thirties the Poston Mill bakery was firmly established and did brisk business, making deliveries around the Golden Valley and beyond.


Photo courtesy of https://hotsourcecreative.com/poston-mill-herefordshire-history/


There is no record of exactly when baking started at Poston Mill but it reputedly continued there until it was halted by rationing and other measures introduced during the Second World War. It seems likely however that it began in the late nineteenth or very early twentieth century, but may quite soon thereafter have been overshadowed by more fundamental changes. Perhaps as early as 1900, but certainly by 1913, the waterwheel at Poston was removed along with the millstones and all the associated gears and mechanical hardware. The water supply was directed instead to a 44 horsepower hydro-electric turbine manufactured by Joseph Armfield, which was installed in the original wheel pit and all the machinery was replaced with electrically-powered equipment including ‘roller mills’ to produce the flour for the bakery. Foreshadowing modern-day thinking about the need to back-up intermittent renewable energy sources an auxiliary 36 horsepower gas powered engine, fuelled by its own on-site gas plant, was also installed to drive the generator and produce electricity for the mill when water levels were low.

We can be reasonably sure that this revolutionary transition to ‘green’ electricity was not the result of a sudden awakening to the perils of climate change or of an urgent desire to be at the forefront of new-fangled technology. It may have been a simple economic choice, perhaps by a new owner of the business, to transform a slowly dying enterprise to a more cost-effective and competitive business model. But the investment involved would have been very substantial, so a more likely explanation is that the costs of maintenance and repair of the old waterwheel and associated machinery had become prohibitive and that they had come to the natural end of their working life. In those circumstances, if the business was to continue at all it would make sense to take advantage of the most modern and efficient technology available. Fortuitously a turbine would also cost less to purchase and install than a new wheel, and roller mills could produce flour substantially more cheaply and in greater volumes than traditional millstones.

Either way, Poston Mill was the first recorded example in the Ewyas Lacy area of a successful transition to hydro-electricity to power an entire business. Even so, the reprieve was only temporary as the effects of the Second World War and the large scale industrialisation of feed and flour milling destroyed what was left of the economic model for rural corn mills. Poston Mill ceased operation in 1947, although some sources suggest baking may have resumed there independently for a while thereafter.


Clodock Mill

The watermill at Clodock is, along with Michaelchurch Mill, one of three known original mills in the Norman Marcher Lordship of Ewyas Lacy and dates back at least eight centuries. Clodock Mill was a traditional corn and grist mill and as with many facets of life in Ewyas Lacy it was slow to react to the technological revolutions of the nineteenth century. Although cast iron spur wheel and crown wheel gears were installed relatively early on about 1810, it was not until 1868 that the upgrade was completed with a new eighteen foot breast-shot waterwheel made by the Miles Foundry in Leominster and a nine foot iron pit wheel which was probably installed at the same time. These now drove two sets of millstones instead of the earlier single pair; French Burr bed and runner stones were used for bread flour and a French Burr bed stone with a Peak stone runner for animal feed. This step-change increase in capacity and efficiency allowed the business to continue serenely until 1915 when, as at Poston Mill above, further economic and technological challenges seem to have come to a head.

The miller at Clodock however came up with a radically different solution to his problems from that of his counterpart at Poston. Faced with apparently similar issues of declining profitability and the need for substantial investment, he resisted the temptation to improve his income by diversifying into the bakery business, and as the photograph below shows also decided to stick with the tried and tested mechanical watermill formula by investing in what looks like a very major refurbishment of the existing mill wheel and machinery.


Photograph of Clodock Mill, by Alfred Watkins FRPS
Courtesy of Hereford City Library Ref LC 612.7


However, perhaps conscious that this approach would not solve the long-term viability issues his business faced, he did not entirely ignore the new hydroelectric technology Poston had adopted. In the decades before the electricity grid reached the Clodock area in the 1960s local farmers were increasingly using another then novel technology, lead-acid accumulators, to store electricity to power such things as radio sets and lights. The miller at Clodock noted that his customers regularly took their accumulators to be recharged in Abergavenny or Hereford at considerable expense, and he figured out a different way to diversify his business profitably. He modified the mill leat upstream of the waterwheel and installed a Francis turbine to generate electricity that he could sell by recharging accumulators. This local service was more convenient for many people than a journey into town. The miller could also price it attractively cheaper than his town-based competitors because after the investment in the hardware the electricity cost him nothing but the time to open the valve to send water to the turbine and the price of a few drops of oil on the bearings every now and then.


The Francis turbine and generator drive pulley at Clodock Mill

Courtesy of Chris Allen at https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2413740


Perhaps the clinching argument in favour of this innovation was that it in no way interfered with the traditional work of the mill. When there was corn to grind the turbine would be off and the water directed to the mill wheel, while outside the miller’s chosen working hours or when the mill had no work he would close the sluice to the wheel and send the water through the turbine instead. As a bonus, he also had his own free electricity supply to the mill and his adjacent cottage for lighting and so on, although unlike the roller mills at Poston there is no evidence that it was used as a substitute for any of the mechanical equipment in the mill itself. Nevertheless, despite its limited applications the income from hydroelectric power was perhaps a key reason that Clodock Mill survived to be the last working watermill in Ewyas Lacy when it finally closed in 1954.


Michaelchurch Mill

The corn and grist mill at Michaelchurch Escley provides a third case study of the ways in which watermills in the area responded to economic and technological change in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Like Clodock, Michaelchurch was one of the original Norman mill sites in Ewyas Lacy, but unlike Clodock and Poston it had remained firmly in the ownership and control of the Lord of the Manor and the Michaelchurch Court Estate, which meant that operating and commercial decisions were made on a somewhat different basis. But the existence of a ‘captive’ customer base of the Estate’s tenant farmers could not insulate Michaelchurch Mill for long from the wider economic trends driving change in the other Ewyas Lacy mills. By 1835 the mill was racking up substantial losses in the estate accounts and it became clear that a new approach was needed.

Until that time the mill had generally been operated on a fairly casual basis by estate servants or temporary journeyman millers, none of whom had any deep commitment to make the enterprise a commercial success and sometimes also lacked the skill to do so. Perhaps for this reason an economic crisis came somewhat earlier to Michaelchurch than to Clodock or Poston. But one advantage of being part of the Michaelchurch Court Estate was access to the Lord of the Manor’s wealth and estate resources for investment. When a decision was made to take action, there were no half measures.

Estate accounts reveal that in 1835 Michaelchurch Mill was given a fundamental overhaul. The wooden wheel and mechanisms were replaced with cast iron machinery including a spur wheel, crown wheel and a new iron waterwheel of advanced design from the foundry of Thomas Bray in Hereford. These now drove two pairs of top quality four-foot diameter French Burr millstones in place of the earlier single pair, one set finely dressed for bread flour and the other more coarsely chiselled for animal feed. This transformation of the mill’s capacity and earning potential was completed considerably earlier than the equivalent upgrade at Clodock Mill, which would later follow a similar pattern.

However, at Michaelchurch the changes didn’t stop there. A decision was made that a full-time professional tenant miller was required. Across the road from the mill a house was therefore built to accommodate a miller and his family, and an experienced man from Cheshire was recruited. The new management quickly got to grips with improving the economics of the business, and diversification started considerably earlier than at Poston or Clodock. The new mill house soon opened up as a general village stores and a post office, and this together with a new professionalism in operating the upgraded mill proved to be a winning formula, at least for a while.

By the beginning of the twentieth century Michaelchurch again found itself, like other local mills, in need of new sources of income and followed the Poston example by adding a bakery to the stores and Post Office business. There is also evidence that Michaelchurch followed Clodock and installed a hydroelectric turbine as an additional source of revenue. Upstream of the millpond the leat was lined with concrete, a sluice gate was installed, and an elaborate stone spillway constructed in an arrangement reminiscent of that at Clodock, which would have allowed water to be directed at the miller’s discretion either to the waterwheel or down a penstock to a turbine. The date when this work was done is not documented, but we may surmise that the potential for hydroelectricity generation would have been explored for the same reasons and at about the same time as at Poston and Clodock.


Surviving site works for a hydro-electric turbine at Michaelchurch Mill


There is no evidence that serious consideration was given at Michaelchurch to the ‘Poston model’ of entirely replacing the waterwheel with a turbine and using electric powered roller mills. The nature of the work done to the leat and spillway upstream of the mill does however indicate that a Clodock style turbine was prepared for and could have been installed as an adjunct to the business. This would certainly have been in keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit of the tenant millers there at the time. Sadly, unlike Clodock few clues about any original hydroelectric equipment survived the closure of Michaelchurch Mill in 1942.

In a final twist of the tale, Michaelchurch Mill re-opened after the Second World War, but not as a corn mill. Much of the old water-powered equipment was stripped out and the premises were operated as a bakery using yet another new-fangled technology - steam ovens - which replaced the old wood-fired brick ovens at the original Mill Stores bakery across the road. The bakery business continued in Michaelchurch until the 1950s and there is a certain irony in the fact that a supplementary activity started to help save a watermill from the ravages of technological change ended up outliving its parent by exploiting new technology of its own.




At a time when planners, politicians and activists are pushing renewable energy at any cost as the panacea for every modern woe it is perhaps surprising to suggest that Ewyas Lacy has already earned its place amongst the pioneers of generating green electricity. Nevertheless the historical evidence is clear that local watermills generated significant amounts of hydroelectricity from water turbines in their day. There are over a hundred and fifty known historic mill sites in the catchment area of the Monnow and its tributaries alone that could potentially do so again from a reliable and entirely renewable local resource. As we contemplate littering our hills with giant white windmills and burying our green fields under acres of black solar panels in pursuit of saving the planet, we should pause and spare a thought as our forebears did for the power of water. After all, the hydroelectricity potentially gifted to us by our rivers and streams can not only be exploited at relatively low cost and in environmentally friendly ways that do not offend the eye, but could also be relied on to deliver power even when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.



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