The History of Cowbridge Mill

The tiny River Avill drove a surprising number of mills in the Middle Ages. Dunster was a market for corn and cloth 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.[1]

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. In 1341 Cowbridge was named in a deed concerning some land belonging to Dunster Priory. [2] In 1346 the Dunster Priory deeds refer to “Cogbrigge Mill.” [3] 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.

Following the dissolution of the Priory in 1539, the Mill passed to the owners of Old Knowle. Documents held at the National Archives indicate that a second Mill was built at Cowbridge sometime before 1546.[4] A Fulling Mill and Grain Mill are recorded as forming part of Old Knowle.[5]  From the medieval period, the fulling of cloth often was undertaken in a water mill. In these the cloth was beaten with wooden hammers, known as fulling stocks or fulling hammers. This process thickened cloth by matting the fibres together to give it strength and increased waterproofing in the form of felting.

In 1561 the Mill was leased by John Trevelyan, of Nettlecombe, to Margaret Stoccomb, her daughter Beatrice and William Pounds for the yearly rent of 30 shillings paid quarterly, plus an initial payment of 37 pounds. The indenture listed     “ ….one tenement with appurtenances called Cobridge and two mills the one a grist mill and the other a tucking mill and garden and house appertaining to the same with all into unto the said grist mill of this county within the manor of Old Knoll together with all water and watercourses from Tymberds ford to the said mills called Cobridge within the parish of Tymbcomb without any let or disturbance……[6]

In1567 the “Cobridge” Mill was recorded as a flour mill forming part of the Knowle Estate. The Estate comprised of many farms and cottages, a total of 2,100 acres.

In 1728 Cowbridge Mills (plural) were leased for 99 years by Paul Orchard of Stoke, Devon to John Mudon.[7] The rent seems to have dropped back to a “ …..yearly rent or sum of twenty-six shillings and eight pence of lawful money of Great Britain at the four most usual feasts…..” . 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 indenture 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 Richard Cox, held at Somerset Records Office, indicates that a Mr Blake, the elder, applied to take over Cowbridge Mills. John Avis, the miller, was running a flour mill on the site and Mr Blake wished to rebuild the tucking mill alongside.[8]

A “To be Let” notice for Cowbridge Mills in 1809 records “…. a never failing stream of water, by which are working two pair 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”. [9] The article also records that, “In 1809 Cowbridge mills at Timberscombe could provide locally produced quality flour and malt for shipment to South Wales to serve the growing mining communities with bread and beer.”

The 1822 and 1824 record of births for Timberscombe show the miller at that time was Isaac Escott. Isaac Escott was a wealthy trader who is listed on the Dunster records under bakery, grocer’s shop, draper shop and stocking manufacturer. He was part owner, with William Hole, of at least two ships which he used to transport his goods to and from South Wales. [10]

The 1843 Tithe map shows an additional building in the courtyard, which may have been a grain drying kiln. The statute measure for the house, gardens and Mill is recorded as 2 Roods and 14 Poles and together with the Mill orchard (28 Poles) was liable to pay the local vicar a tithe of 1/10 of its annual agricultural produce. This amounted to 1 shilling and 2 pennies per year. Cowbridge Mills was owned by James Hole and leased by John Matthews, who also owned or leased several other meadows and orchards in the area. [11] The building currently known as “The Dell” also formed part of the Mill complex and it seems likely that this was originally the tucking mill, although we know that it was later used to house workers. The Dell passed over the Mill Leat for a length of 22 feet and an access hole permits water to be lifted into the house from the Leat. This is a common feature in tucking mills where water is required as part of the tucking process.

George Morgan is shown in the Kelly’s 1861 Directory as miller at Cowbridge Mills[12]. 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.[13] The Morgans also ran the Timberscombe Village Mill.

Some when after 1843 (Tithe map) and prior to 1890 (Official OR map) the tail race of the Mill Leat was altered. Instead of returning directly to the River Avill on the west of the road the tail race was extended so that the water could flow either towards “Dudding” or return to the River Avill on the eastern side of Cow Bridge. The 1890 map also shows that three new cottages had been built between the present Mill and the Dell, whilst the currently unidentified building next to the road was removed.

Kelly’s Directory 1889 shows Cowbridge Mills were also occupied, at the same time as the Morgans, by “James Phillips and Son, miller (water)”. [14]The Phillips family originated from Bridgtown, Dulverton. The Phillips brothers and their father were originally wheelwrights. They also went on to be millers at Bridgetown Mill and Town Mills, Minehead. The Phillips family worked out of Cowbridge Mills for around 40 years.[15]

Around 1904 part of the Mill was changed to a house and a sawmill and Tom Brewer lived in the Mill house and ran the mill.  In 1909 the Sawmill at Knowle closed and the machinery was transferred to Cowbridge.

In 1909 Mr Thomas Phillips is recorded as working at the Mill alongside Henry Phillips (known as Harry) . [16]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 Mill. 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, a “very serviceable” combined seed and corn drill and light in-barn Threshers. He ran his business from Dulverton and in 1909 moved it to Cowbridge Mills.

In 1910 the business Phillips C and Son was also listed as a “Carriage Builder” in Parks Lane, Minehead.[17] Charles’ son, Harry, has been apprenticed to Rustons of Lincoln (a major agricultural engineering firm) and also had his own premises in Friday Street, Minehead. He established a reputation as an engineer specialising in waterwheels. Harry Phillips also purchased the woods and sawmill at North Hawkwell from the Cutcombe Estate in the late 1920s. Harry was making and installing waterwheels and in-barn Threshers on farms as late as 1930. He died suddenly at Christmas 1936, his father surviving him for several years.

1. Bell ringers
The Bell Ringers Outing shows Charles and Harry Phillips C1930

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 this time had a manager, Joseph Scott, living at the Mill House.

Above: Postcard of Cowbridge from the early 1900s showing the toll house which was then situated on the opposite corner to the Mill.
Looking down on Cowbridge. Both of the above postcards provided by Tim Collins

Circa 1896 the owner of Knowle, Worsley Battersby JP, died. Two of his sons later died in the 1st World War and the Knowle Estate was then broken up and sold off.   Henry Phillips purchased the Cowbridge Mill from the Knowle Estate in June 1916 for a price of £470.[18] 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 Sawmill comprised of an “overshot wheel with constant and powerful supply of water working a modern travelling iron plate saw bench 20ft x 2ft 6ins with fixed 3ft 6ins circular saw, pulley wheels, pit wheels, and fixed shafting with pulleys”. The Carpenter’s Workshop at that time was a three- storey building, having a Loft over and “Roomy Stores” beneath. The Dwelling House was substantial, built of stone with good slate roof and contained an entrance hall, sitting room with hot grate and slate mantel, kitchen with range, a scullery, two cellars, three bedrooms and WC with flush.

The Kelly’s Directory 1919 shows Charles Phillips and Sons, Agricultural Engineers, working from Cowbridge. Their previous business at Bridgetown was shut down and they brought their machinery to Cowbridge. By this time James had also moved his successful auctioneering business from Bridgetown and 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 part of the business from the Town Mill, Minehead.

Cowbridge Mills was one of the first properties in the village to have electricity. In 1920 a lean to shed was built over the Mill tailrace to house a dynamo and batteries.[19] The shed was also used as a grinding shed. This was completed in conjunction with Duddings, The Dell and the neighbouring cottages to supply them with electricity. The work was completed by Frank Winsborough, of Minehead who installed a 120 volt plant. The houses were only allowed to have power downstairs.  Mr Phillips later installed a 110 volt DC plant in the cellar under the Mill house to power just his own machines. This was driven through the main Mill which meant that you needed to keep the main wheel running all the time you wanted light. This worked well but would only power one machine at a time. In the winter the wheel ran from 6.30am to 10.30pm resulting in a great strain on the wheel and its bearings, which were soon worn down.

In 1911 Mr Sam Grabham (pictured below) came to work here, originally for the Phillips family, before setting up his own business at the Mill and renting from the Phillips for 27s and 6d per week.

3. Sam

Sam was joined by his son Kenneth in 1938 (pictured below). During the war years they took on horse shoeing and wheelwright’s work from the neighbouring parishes. With the advent of the Ferguson tractor in the late 1940’s the use of horses on farms disappeared almost overnight and the Grabham family turned much of their business to converting horse implements to tractor use by taking off the shafts and fitting draw bars.


There was great demand for trailers, old car or lorry axles and gates, which had been neglected over the war years. At this point Sam bought a Ferguson Tractor himself and this was used to drive the Rack Saw Bench, as the water wheel was becoming difficult to maintain. Later they were able to get three phase electricity to power the smaller saws.

Sam handed over to his son in 1969 and Ken continued a successful business until his retirement. Ken made a tremendous number of gates for the Forestry Commission and bought thousands of pounds of timber from them. They also had a good trade in selling posts, rails and all types of fencing.

In the 1920s a petrol garage was built, by Mr Phillips, on the roadside, adjacent to and the same height as a two-storey thatched building situated where the new forge and workshop now stand.

One of the first pumps in the district was installed and after just a few years this was extended to 3 or 4 pumps. The garage replaced a cider house and stables.

Pictured Ken Graham (left) and Dudley Huxtable (right) outside the garage c1940 

The recently demolished forge building was constructed in 1933. At that time the blacksmithing operations were moved here from the village centre and Sam Grabham moved into the Mill house, whilst Harry Phillips moved into the family’s bungalow opposite.

In December 1936 Harry Phillips died suddenly and the property had to be sold. In 1937 the ownership of the property passed from Mrs Phillips (widow of Harry) to Eva Huxtable (wife of Frank, a carpenter and local undertaker), who took out a mortgage of £850. In 1959 Eva passed the ownership to her son Dudley, the garage proprietor.

 Our progress so far by Owen Rush

My wife and I purchased the Mill site at auction, from the estate of Dudley Huxtable, in May 1995, as we wanted to live in this beautiful part of Somerset. We also wanted to restore the Mill to a working museum (not a commercial mill). The Mill and house were in a very poor state of repair. We started renovating the house before my retirement in 2002. The majority of this work was done prior to us moving in, in November 2004.

6. house                7.newhouse

Above the Mill House in 1995                                          Above the Mill House today

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 old friends from High Wycombe, we removed all the collapsed floors and rebuilt them at the original levels, using the old beams as vertical supports.

    Below the Mill basement in 1995                                    Below the Mill basement today:

8.basement                  9.newbasement

            Below the floors in 1995:                             …and just some of the replaced beams:

10.floors                          11.newfloors

With the number of local volunteers growing, it was decided to form a Friends of Cowbridge group to coordinate the volunteers and organise Open Events.  Over the last 20 years well over 100 volunteers have helped at the Mill which has become a real community project. There’s a job for everyone at the Mill with cake makers and researchers’ contributions valued just as much as engineers and carpenters. Our volunteers have ranged from 13 to 90 years of age. Our Friends of Cowbridge charity now has over 200 members, all of whom receive a six-monthly newsletter free of charge. There is a collection of heavy, cast iron, belt driven machinery which is gradually being connected to the water wheel by the volunteers, creating a working Mill museum for all to enjoy. We run regular Open Days for the public and complete many tours for interested groups or individuals, all free of charge.

12.helpersSome of our team of helpers at an Open Day in 2012

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 shaft of the wheel and on 29th April 2007 the water wheel was turned again for the first time in many years. The new curved buckets, inner sole plates and wooden launder were then fitted enabling the wheel to operate by water power once again.

Below left the tree used to make the new shaft and right a new shaft being installed by volunteers in 2007:

13tree          14shaft

        Below the Mill Wheel in 1995:                                Below owner Owen Rush in 2014:

15oldwheel                             16newwheel

During 2010/11 the old corrugated forge building was demolished and rebuilt to form the new forge, workshop and loft area. This building now houses the many artefacts which, until now, had been squashed into the outbuildings and Mill.

 Below the old Forge in 1995:               ….and the new Forge/Workshop/Museum in 2012

17forge              18newbuild

Internationally renowned Master Blacksmith, Jim Horrobin, worked out of the new forge before his retirement, producing his goods and passing on his craft for others to follow. He is passionate about encouraging the next generation of blacksmiths and frequently involved other local blacksmiths in his work. Jim still returns to help out on Open days with demonstrations. We now have a new resident Blacksmith, Bella Cole (see the Cowbridge Forge page.)

Below Jim at work in Cowbridge Forge:                  Below One of Jim’s masterpieces:

19jim                            20jimswrk

Our skilled volunteers have spent many weeks working to restore the racksaw bench which is powered by the waterwheel.

Below our first tree trunk being cut in 2015:           ..and the first of many planks:

21racksaw                 22firstlog

The Mill Leat in 1995 was somewhat overgrown but had been kept running to flush the outside toilet which sat over the water. (wooden building centre of picture below) Many man hours have been spent by our volunteers clearing the vegetation and maintaining the Mill Leat.

Below the Mill Leat as it passed through our garden in taken in 199625oldgarden

The previous Miller, Mr Ken Grabham, left me the tools he used to use to desilt the Mill Leat from the riverbank. See below

Below by 2012 the toilet has now been removed and the approach to the wheel rebuilt in local stone


Below Volunteers clearing the leat.          … and sometimes you just have to get in the                                                                                                                       water and get dirty!

26leatclear             28leatclearmuddy

Many years have been spent restoring the machinery, which is now driven by the water wheel via a system of shafts and belts.

Below one of our machines before and after restoration

29oldmachine                    30newmachine

 We have a team of volunteer guides to take the public on guided tours and we regularly have over 200 visitors to an open weekend.

31guides  Above our guides getting a last briefing before we open the doors.

All visitors enter free of charge, although donations are always welcome! All funds go towards the restoration of the Mill.

32foodAbove visitors enjoying their tea and cakes made by our volunteers

As well as National Mills and National Heritage Open Days the Friends of Cowbridge group is now becoming involved in local initiatives such as the recent Exmoor National Park Woodland Days. We are also happy to conduct private tours for groups or interested individuals.

33shavehorse              34norman

Above Owen, with a steady..                                       and above Norman on the two
stream of children wanting                          man saw with one of the school pupils.
to try the shave horse.

 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 continue to renovate the historic machinery and by installing shafts, pulleys and levers to display more machinery at work.
  • To expand our display of historically interesting industrial and agricultural artefacts in a museum open to all free of charge.
  • To expand our community project to reach more and more interested people.

Article researched by Lesley Webb

References below:

[1] The Victorian Country House History

[3] SHC DD\L/P16/2 Top of Form   Bottom of Form
Dugdale’s Monasticicon Vol 4 P200-204

[4] TNA C/42/75/75

[5] SHC DD/WO 32/8

[6] SHC DD\WO/4/1/9

[7] SHC SHC DD\FR/15

[8] SHC DD\L/1/59/8/31 Top of Form Bottom of Form

[9] VCHH

[10] DD/RSH 3

[11] D\D/Rt/A/436 Top of FormBottom of Form

[12] Kelly’s 1861 Directory

[13] Census

[14] Kelly’s Directory 1889

[15] Various Kelly’s Directories

[16] Exmoor’s Industrial Archaeology

[17] Various Kelly’s Directories

[18] Mr Rush’s house records /DD\X\LRY/3

[19] The remaining history is taken from a document about Cowbridge written by Ken Grabham and papers belonging to Mr Owen Rush