400 years of Dipton Mill

Greg Finch considers the history of a mill which is now a local pub.

The Devil’s Water, and its main tributaries, beautiful and often dramatic streams which drain Hexhamshire, have played host to over a dozen different mills, around one for each mile of water. These provided motive power to grind corn, stamp and thicken the fibres of newly woven woollen cloth to make them waterproof (‘fulling’ or ‘waulking’) and for the crushing and smelting of lead ore. They remind us that Hexhamshire, now seen as a quiet pastoral landscape, had a busy and varied industrial past. It is a history well worth further exploration.

Greenwood's Map of 1828 showing Dipton mill

Greenwood’s Map of 1828 showing Dipton mill

The Dipton Mill will be familiar to some readers as a welcoming traditional pub just to the south of Hexham. It’s well worth a visit in its own right and also provides a good base from which to explore the valleys and lanes of the ‘Shire. It was listed as ‘newly built’ in the Royal survey of Hexham manor carried out in September 1608 (and this provided a good enough excuse for a birthday celebration barbecue at the pub last autumn)! Interestingly, the same survey mentioned other mills as having been built in recent decades, suggesting a greater level of prosperity in the area than is often thought. Perhaps the lawlessness of Northumberland before the Union of the Crowns has been overstated. Under the pressure of economic expansion during the later Tudor period the old manorial monopolies which insisted on farmers taking their grain to one or two mills only – Whitley Mill and Newbiggin in the case of Hexhamshire – were breaking down, leaving room in which newcomers could thrive.

The original mill at Dipton, a corn mill, was almost certainly on the site of the riding stables just upstream from the road bridge. It was fed from the stream which runs down behind the pub, the Nicholas Burn, via a leat taken from the burn higher up the valley. This flowed into a millpond to the left of the lane which leads up to Shield Green Nurseries, allowing the flow of water to the wheel to be regulated. By the 1670s there was also a fulling mill nearby, quite possibly the one slightly further up the West Dipton Burn and now almost completely ruinous in the woods. In 1699 the corn miller, George Douglas, was caught ‘with his hands in the till’. Millers were entitled to 1/18th part of the oats they ground. Perhaps George just couldn’t count properly, but he was charged with taking 1/10th or 1/12th instead. By the following year a new miller had been installed.

Apart from a couple of small fields just beyond the mill on the flattest part of the valley the mill sat in open moorland – Hexham Common came down to the far riverbank, and the hill that rises south up into the Shire was part of the large expanse known as Dotland Fell, which ran on up to the Hexhamshire and Allendale Commons. By 1760 this had changed dramatically with the enclosure of Hexham Common and Dotland Fell, creating pretty much the landscape we see today. Soon afterwards the buildings on the site of the pub appeared, as they did elsewhere along the newly enclosed roadsides. The mill itself underwent almost complete rebuilding in 1778-9, with flagged floors, stone walls and a steeply pitched roof thatched with ling (heather). With almost perfectly unfortunate timing it burned down just afterwards. Just a few years later the Napoleonic Wars started which drove the price of grain to records heights and created demand for much more milling capacity. It was therefore probably around this time that the windmill on the hilltop above was built – to fill the gap. This was probably the end of milling by the Dipton bridge, but the rebuilding of that bridge and road improvements in 1822 meant the newer roadside buildings became an attractive resting place for passing traffic.

In the 1820s Betty Forster was a ‘victualler’ on this site (when the pub was sometimes referred to as the ‘Fox and Lamb’), succeeded by her tenant, William Scott, ‘publican’. Other Forsters turn up in the Census returns as publicans at the Dipton Mill with a sideline job as lead miners until the 1870s. By the 1890s the pub was owned by the Tucker family, long established brewers in Gateshead, (one of whom had died some years before of “apoplexy due to excessive drinking”). They rebuilt part of the current pub from stone taken from the then derelict farmhouse of Nicholas Hall up the hill to the south opposite Newbiggin road end. Since the end of the 19th century there have been just nine licensees, a level of continuity all the more impressive for the fact that two of these were brothers, and another three members of the same family. But as for milling, both the windmill on the hill and the fulling mill in the woods were shown as disused on the 1860s Ordnance Survey map, victims of the rise of steam power in the industrial age.

From: Northumbrian Mills No 48, February 2009.

More information on Dipton Mill can be found as part of Eric Griffith’s research.

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