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the motion of cogs and wheels. This led him to investigate waterwheels and the ways in which the wide variety of water-powered systems evolved over a period of time.

Water power as such probably developed in Britain during the Roman period but in Devon – and with the passing of time – little or no evidence exists from that period. Many water course systems from later periods became compromised or dried up altogether, and any early remains have been lost, distorted or sanitised. However, in Devon, there is archaeological evidence of early water power in the form of remnant mill buildings (many completely rebuilt in the late C19), and leat systems, which would have powered the water wheels.

Early written records of mills in Devon are scarce, however in the 880’s a Will mentions ‘Millburn’ in the Royal Manor of Silverton. The site can probably be identified at a point at which the small River Burn meets the River Exe which topographically would seem to be right.

In England there was mention of around 6000 mills in The Domesday Survey, but none have been found archaeologically. About 95 mills were recorded in Devon at that time. Late medieval Water Mills were probably small rectangular structures with an open linhay on the down-slope side with the water wheel attached to an end wall. Early Post Mills were physically orientated to set the sails into the wind. There is no structural evidence of these in Devon except, perhaps as small mounds on the surface of the ground where the post mill once stood.

In Devon there was a wide distribution of mills, in the Exe and Otter valleys. This coincided with good accessibility to water supplies and rich farmland well suited to growing crops. There seem to be fewer recorded mills in the west of the county. The early mills are known to have been Corn Grinding Mills, although with the evolution of time, mills took on a wide range of functions, as for example Tucking Mills and many other types of mill related to farming and agriculture.

Later, a multitude of industrial milling processes took advantage of specifically designed water systems together with a combination of timber and iron machinery within the mill structures themselves. Tower Mills were often prominent along coastal areas from the C16 onwards, as for example at Empacombe and Fowey . Also, within tidal estuaries, a series of tide mills existed from the C8 onwards, especially within the deep estuaries of rivers such as the Tamar and Dart. Many of these big river systems were navigable by larger boats and the tide mills were important commercially both in terms of agriculture and industry, as for example a very important industrial complex at Totnes. There were, however, often problems of silting, and the working hours of the miller were always dependent on the varying tides.

Inland, mills needed a good head of water to operate efficiently, and weirs and leats were constructed to extract water from the river to power the water wheels. Today, a bank along the contour of a hill will be the only clue to an old mill leat. Depending on the fall of water, a water wheel was either over-shot or breast-shot. On low lying land an under-shot wheel with wide paddles would be used to make maximum use of the water flow.

Some larger mill buildings still remain in the landscape today but now very often have new uses. In Exeter, for instance, most mills had gone by about 1820, and the same might be reflected elsewhere in the county. This fascinating insight into the history of water mills in Devon was well received and gave the audience much food for thought.

Janet Cambridge


Martin Watts

1st October 2007

The first of the PDAS winter meeting lectures was delivered by Martin Watts, who described the historical impact of water mills and windmills in Devon.

Although Martin’s initial training was in art, his main interest lay in wood – especially moving wooden objects – including amongst other things,


Lecture Reports