The tiny River Avill drove a surprising number of mills in the Middle Ages. Dunster was a market for corn and the mills also served the wider area. By the early 18th century records show eleven mills working on the Avill and rivalry over the water led to regular litigation. By the 1780’s the Avill ran six grist mills, an oil mill and two fulling mills.
A watermill has been in existence at Cowbridge, in one form or another since, at least, the days of Edward III in the early 14th century, when it was named in a deed concerning some land belonging to Dunster Priory. The earliest document we have discovered referring to ” Cogbrigge Mill” dates from 1346. The rent at that time was £1.6s 8d – a sum which sounds quite small today but which must have been of great value in the 14th century.
In 1567 the Cowbridge mill was recorded as a flour mill forming part of the Knowle Estate.
In 1728 Cowbridge Mills (plural) were leased for 99 years by Paul Orchard of Stoke, Devon, to John Mudon. The Mudon family was a relatively wealthy family who owned several properties in the area and combined farming with other trades.The original lease is held by the Somerset Records Office. The lease is for “Dwelling house, Outhouses , Greist Mill, Fulling Mill and one Meadow called Bridge Mead containing three acres or thereabouts with the water and water courses that runneth or course from Timberford unto Cowbridge”. The yearly payment was still £1.6s 8d. The document states that the premises had previously been in the possession of Mary Portman (widow, dowager).
In 1768 John Mudon died. A letter from a Mr Baker to a Mr Cox, held at Somerset Records Office, indicates that a Mr Blakes applied to take over Cowbridge Mills. Avis, the miller, was running a flour mill on the site and Mr Blakes wished to rebuild the tucking mill alongside.
A ” To be Let” notice for Cowbridge Mills in 1809 records “… a never failing stream of water, by which are working two pairs of Stones for the grinding of Flour and one pair for the shelling of Oats……distant from the market of Dunster two miles, and four miles from the sea port of Minehead, whence an extensive malt and flour trade to Wales may be carried on, and the export of corn to Bristol advantageously conducted. There is a convenient malt-house under the same roof with the mills, and the best samples of wheat, barley and oats are produced in the neighbourhood”
The 1843 tithe map shows an additional building in the courtyard which was probably a grain drying kiln. The map also shows that the building now known as “The Dell” was part of the Mill compex. Cowbridge Mills was leased from Knowle by John Matthews who also owned or leased several other meadows and orchards in the area.
The last corn millers at Cowbridge appear to have been the Morgans. George Morgan is shown in the 1861 Kelly’s Directory as miller at Cowbridge Mills (plural). He remained there until his death in 1897 when the mill was taken over by his daughter Clara (miller) who later married James Brewer. James was a carpenter and they lived at Laurel Cottage, Cowbridge. The Morgans also ran the Timberscombe Village Mill.
Kelly’s Directory 1889, which is based on the 1881 census, shows Cowbridge Mills were also occupied at that time by James Phillips and Son, miller (water). The Phillips family originated from Bridgtown, Dulverton. Three brothers and their father were were originally carpenters and wheelwrights. They also went on to occupy Bridgetown Mill. The Phillips family occupied the Cowbridge Mills for about 40 years.
Around 1904 part of the mill was changed to a house and a sawmill. In 1909 the sawmill at Knowle was closed and the machinery was transferred to Cowbridge.
In the 1909 Kelly’s Directory Mr Thomas Phillips, a wheelwright and carpenter, is recorded as working at the Mill with his son Henry (see Exmoor Industrial Archaeology). The Phillips’ family business covered much of West Somerset with James Phillips and Sons working from Higher Hopcott, Minehead Town Mill, The Manor Mills Dunster and Bridgtown. Charles Phillips founded the Exe Valley Wheel Works where he advertised as ” Millwright, Machinist, Wheelwright, Carpenter and agent to all kinds of agricultural implements” He made sawbenches, harrows and a “very serviceable” combined seed and corn drill and light in-barn threshers. Charles ran his business from Dulverton and in 1909 he moved his business to Cowbridge Mills. In 1910 the business Phillips C and Son was also listed as ” Carriage Builders” in Parks Lane, Minehead.
The 1911 census shows Cowbridge as a hive of activity with carpenters, wheelwrights, hauliers, blacksmiths, labourers, a thatcher and a fishmonger living at Cowbridge. The Mills at that time had a manager, Joseph Scott, living at the Mill House.
The Kelly’s Directory 1919 shows Charles Phillips and Sons, agricultural engineers, working from Cowbridge. James by this time had centred his business in Minehead and Taunton. He developed his business towards auctioneering, corn and seed selling and as a house agency. He also became mayor of Minehead. His son Albert ran the Minehead Mill business.
Charles’ son Henry, had been apprenticed to Rustons of Lincoln (a major agricultural engineering firm) and also ran premises in Friday Street, Minehead. Following the death of the owner of Knowle, Worsley Battersby JP, in the late 1800s and then his two sons in the 1st World War, the Knowle Estate was broken up and sold at auction. Henry Phillips purchased Cowbrdige Mill from the Knowle Estate in June 1916 for a price of £460. At about the same time the water wheel and launder were renovated, possibly changing from a wooden wheel to a cast iron one but retaining the wooden shaft. The sale literature shows that the Workshop at that time was a three storey building, having a Loft over and “Roomy Stores” beneath.
Henry, meanwhile, established a reputation as an engineer specialising in waterwheels. He was making and installing waterwheels and in-barn threshers on farms as late as the 1930. He died suddenly at Christmas 1936, his father surviving him for several years.
In 1911 Mr Sam Grabham, a blacksmith (pictured left), came to work here, originally for the Phillips family. In 1969 his son, Kenneth, took over and developed the successful fencing and gate manufacturing side of the business.
In the 1920s a petrol garage was built on the roadside, adjacent to and the same height as a two storey thatched building situated where the tin garages now stand. Sam built the original forge in 1933 and the blacksmithing operations moved here from the village centre. The forge has now been demolished and replaced by a new forge and workshop.
Pictured right Sam Grabham blacksmith at Cowbridge 1911 to 1969.
In 1937 the ownership of the Mill passed from Mrs Phillips (widow of Henry) to Eva Huxtable (wife of Frank, a carpenter). She took out a mortgage for £850. The tenant miller was Mr Ken Grabham (pictured right). In 1959 Eve, by then a widow, passed the ownership to her son Dudley Huxtable, who was the garage proprietor.
Pictured below the Mill Wheel
Our progress so far
My wife and I purchased the site at auction in May 1995 as we wanted to live in this beautiful part of Somerset. We also wanted to restore the mill to a working mill (not a commercial mill).
We started renovating the house before my retirement in 2002. The majority of work was done prior to moving in, in November 2004. Since then we have finished the house, renovated the former village petrol garage, constructed a new garden and leat walls, installed drainage and access ramps, built the porch, the new forge and workshop.
Our first task in the mill was to remove the 30 to 40 cubic metres of compacted sawdust from the basement, which enabled us to access the area. We have reroofed the mill and inserted new beams. With much valued help from friends from High Wycombe, we have removed all the collapsed floors and rebuilt them at the original levels using the old beams as vertical supports.
We were able to obtain a fallen oak tree and with the help of many volunteers create a new shaft for the water wheel. An old bearing, found in Devon, was installed in the frame of the wheel and on 29th April 2007 the new water wheel turned for the first time.The new curved buckets, inner sole plates and new wooden launder were then fitted so that the wheel now operates by water power once again. A large celebration followed!
There is a collection of heavy, cast iron, belt driven machinery which is gradually being restored and connected to the wheel to create a working mill for all to enjoy.
During 2010/11 the forge building was demolished and rebuilt to form the new forge, workshop and loft area. This building is used to house the many artefacts which for many years were squashed into the outbuilding and mill. Local blacksmith, Mr Jim Horrobin, is now producing his goods from the Cowbridge Forge and passing on his craft for others to follow.
Our dream for the future.
This is not a commercial project for personal profit. Indeed our life savings have been ploughed into this project. Our hope is:
- To restore the Sawmill to full working order.
- To renovate more of the historic machinery and by installing shafts, pulleys and levers display the machinery in action.
- To display a collection of historically interesting industrial and agricultural artefacts which can be viewed by all free of charge.