top of page

Going with the Flow: A Historical Journey through Watermills in the UK

Throughout history, humanity has continuously sought innovative ways to harness the power of nature to drive technological advancements. One such ingenious invention, the watermill, has played a crucial role in shaping the landscape and economy of the UK. From its humble beginnings to its peak during the industrial revolution, the story of watermills in the UK is testament to human ingenuity and adaptability.

"...a mill at which the motive power is obtained from water acting on a waterwheel or turbine (SPAB, 2007)."

Development of Watermills

Watermills have been utilised throughout Britain since the Roman period. However, it wasn’t until the early medieval period that their use became widespread. The first recorded watermill in Britain was constructed in the 7th century, and by the time of the Domesday Book, there were over 5,000 watermills in Britain alone.

By the 16th and 17th centuries, the scale of industry in Britain had changed dramatically. Small scale cottage industry evolved rapidly to the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. Earlier patterns and traditions came to an end for the first time since the Roman and Medieval Periods, and were replaced by organised industrial processes on a larger scale. Although evidence of older processes was often destroyed, the physical fabric of existing mill buildings was regularly incorporated into later structures.

Throughout the Industrial Revolution, waterpower remained the most common form of energy, with watermills playing a significant role in powering machinery and production processes, particularly within the agricultural and textile industries. Some of the most famous historic mills in the UK include the vast expanse of textile mills throughout Lancashire. In addition to textiles mills, there were also a great variety of corn mills, sawmills and other mills used for grinding grains and processing materials. Many of these historic mills have been preserved and restored today, primarily as museums and tourist attractions, offering visitors a glimpse into the past, and a chance to learn about the technologies and techniques used in industrial manufacturing. Notable examples of preserved historic mills include Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire; Saltaire in West Yorkshire; and Cromford Mill in Derbyshire.

Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire

Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire

Saltaire, West Yorkshire

Saltaire, West Yorkshire

Cromford Mill, Derbyshire

Cromford Mill, Derbyshire

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, watermill technology continued to evolve, spurred on by innovation and competition. Engineers experimented with new designs and techniques to maximise efficiency and output. The construction of canals and reservoirs further expanded the reach of water-powered industries, allowing mills to operate in regions that were previously inaccessible due to geographical constraints.

Despite their vital role in the Industrial Revolution, watermills began to decline in the UK during the 20th century. The advent of steam power and later, electricity, rendered watermills obsolete in many industries. Additionally, changes in agricultural practices reduced the demand for milling grain locally, leading to the abandonment and deterioration of many mills. However, the legacy of watermills lives on in the landscape of the UK, with many historic mills preserved as museums or converted into residential properties.

Morphology and Function

Watermills can be classified both by their morphology and function. British watermills typically consist of several parts. These include, but are not limited to:

Mill Building:

The mill building houses the machinery and mechanisms powered by the waterwheel. It typically includes a milling chamber where grain or other materials are processed, as well as space for auxiliary equipment such as gears, pulleys, and shafts.

Mill Race, Wheel Race and Tail Race:

Most watermills were located on millstreams (artificial channels) or modified, natural watercourses. These watercourses directed water from a stream or river to the mill and comprised three parts: the mill race which ran above the mill, the wheel race which flowed past it, and the tailrace which ran below. Mill races varied in size and often flowed into a dedicated mill pond which was complete with a mill dam.

The Waterwheels:

The waterwheel is the primary component that harnesses the power of the water. Water flows over the wheel, causing it to turn and generate energy. There are several different types of waterwheels including horizontal wheels, which are small, or vertical wheels which are large and may be undershot, overshot or breast-shot. Vertical wheels are typically housed in wheel pits at the base of the mill structure.

Watermills were used for a variety of different functions. Most early watermills were utilised for corn grinding. In the case of horizontal mills, the wheel drove the millstone above it, whereas in vertical mills power was transferred through gears. In larger, more industrial settings, power was generated by a principal wheel and subsequently transferred by belts and shafts which drove other associated machinery. Some industrial process, such as fulling, stamping and forging also required vertical forces. In these cases, cams which projected from the axle of the waterwheel raised and released drop/tilt hammers. Mill machinery was typically stored in a mill house. By the 12th century, mills were used for a greater number of purposes, including to produce fulling cloth,

iron working and bark crushing (HE, 2018).

Example Mill Machinery

Example Mill Machinery

Protecting and Repairing Watermills

Despite being listed, the majority of historic watermills in the UK have been lost, altered irreparably by conversion for residential use or stripped of original fabric. Today, any enduring watermill, complete with machinery must be conserved where possible. Nevertheless, restoring a historic watermill is no mean feat, and generally speaking, the extent to which a mill can be repaired is relative to the skills and expertise of its owner, as well as their financial position.

A wide range of repairs are possible. At one end of the scale, there are 'holding repairs', examples of which include alterations to the roof. More often than none, these repairs are undertaken with the intent of stabilising the structure and, so long as the Local Planning Authority are informed, such works may be undertaken without the benefit of listed building consent. At the other end of the scale is full restoration, which comparatively does require listed building consent. There are four main factors that must be considered when restoring a mill, these are:

  1. Design

  2. Materials

  3. Craftsmanship

  4. Maintenance

Further detail relating to the these factors can be found under the 'Advice and Guidance' section of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Building's (SPAB) Mills Section website. The SPAB Mills Section works to protect traditional mills across the country, together with their associated structures. SPAB recognise that caring for traditional mills can bring about specific challenges beyond those that may affect other historic buildings and therefore have sought to establish a growing online resource packed with information on conserving, repairing and maintaining mill buildings - from water management, to machinery maintenance and risk assessment.

Before commencing any significant works, it is crucial to have the entire mill building thoroughly surveyed, usually by a suitably qualified millwright. A list of recommended millwrights can be found on the SPAB Millwrights Directory. All professionals listed are members of the Mills Section and abide by the principles of SPAB's Philosophy of Repair of Windmills and Watermills document. It is also important to appoint a heritage consultant, such as ourselves, to undertake research into the building, as this may bring to light things such as change of machinery, evidence for which could be lost during restoration. Written records, sketches, paintings, maps and photographs can all prove useful in unravelling the buildings history. On sites of a much larger scale, a heritage consultant is often appointed at a later stage, to assist in the production of a bespoke conservation management plan, a document which, in identifying the significance of historic buildings and heritage sites in detail, sets out a sustainable management strategy to ensure that any future use, alteration, conservation, and repair preserve that significance.

Watermill in Ambleside

Case Studies:

Conversion of watermills for use as residential dwellings has, and always will be a highly contentious topic, with the impacts of unsympathetic schemes readily recognisable within the historic built environment today. However, that is not to say that successful conversions cannot take place and indeed negative impacts minimised where there is a desire to maintain the mills working appearance, and resist temptation to alter the buildings layout and form where possible.

We're very excited to be have provided specialist heritage advice on the conversion of several historic mill sites throughout the UK in recent months. Although we can't share the results with you just yet, watch this space, as we will be bringing lots of exciting content your way shortly.


At Blue Willow Heritage, we provide expert advice on planning, the historic environment and conservation works to historic buildings. If you need support managing your restoration projects or heritage assets, then Blue Willow Heritage can help! If you would like to discuss your project or simply need some impartial, no-obligation advice, then please do not hesitate to get in touch.

10 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page