This information was originally produced in order to help achieve an upgrading in listing status from Grade 2 to Grade 2* in 1999. It was written by Duncan Hutt on behalf of the North East Mills Group. Photos from 2016 have been added.
Linnels Mill is a small rural, Northumberland, corn mill situated on the banks of the Devil’s Water. The mill is sited just upstream of Linnels Bridge at the start of a relatively narrow gorge of the river. The stone built mill building with stone flag roof is tucked onto the steep river bank with ‘Linnels’, a Victorian mansion standing above it.
The mill contains a full set of milling machinery and has, once milling ceased, been converted to produce electricity for the neighbouring house. The mill race leading from a weir some distance upstream of the mill has been adapted to provide a garden feature though it always brought water as far as the mill building.
The building is one of the oldest mills remaining in Northumberland and one of the best preserved. It contains machinery of considerable antiquity and a rare, complete example of an oat roasting kiln.
Linnels Mill is situated at the eastern corner of the Hexhamshire Low Quarter Township in the Parish of Hexham. The Tithe map from 1840 marks it and a number of other mills in the township, these being: Lambshield Fulling Mill, a short distance upstream of Linnels; Dipton Mill, Black Hall Corn Mill and Finechambers Mill.
The mill is adjacent to the historically important Linnels Bridge, an important crossing point of the Devil’s Water since its construction in 1581. The miller’s house was, for a time, also an inn going by the name of Linnolds Inn and under the management of Thomas Trotter. This inn disappeared under the present, large Victorian mansion.
The name Linnels may be derived from the work ‘Linn’ meaning a waterfall. There is a small fall next to the mill just before the Devil’s Water enters the gorge and flows under the bridge. Linnels has, like many other places, been spelt in a number of ways including Linnolds, and Linnell.
The history of a mill is notoriously difficult to piece together, there being little documentary evidence usually available for what was simply a tool of the community. Linnels Mill is no exception in appearing to have scanty historical records.
The first bridge at Linnels was erected in 1581 to replace a ford some distance upstream. It seems, however, that the mill predates this bridge and dates back to the 14th century. The bridge was replaced in 1698. The original bridge was built on behalf of Wilfred Errington, a family name that is associated with the mill on a number of subsequent occasions.
In the early 17th century Linnels mill appears to have been owned by the Thirlwall family. A family tree given in the Northumberland County History, Vol IV, 1897 (NCH IV) shows that Isabella, wife of Robert Thirlwall remarried, presumably after his death, George Errington “of the Linnels Mill” sometime before 1608. It seems likely that George Errington was the owner rather than the miller. Perhaps the marriage brought the mill into the Thirlwall family estate but there appears to be some confusion as there is still an association with the Erringtons by the end of the century.
Linnels Mill and Newbiggin appear to have been confused for a while, particularly difficult as there was also a small mill at Newbiggin a short distance upstream. In 1623 Richard Thirlwall surrendered ‘Newbiggin alias Linnels Mill’ to Francis Ratcliffe (NCH IV).
In 1698 Linnels Mill appears to be in the ownership, or perhaps tenancy, of Benedict Errington who was accused, along with John Heron of Todburn (Steel), of not keeping the bridge in a good state of repair.
Things become clearer when in 1724 the mill was registered to Eleanor Thirlwall (daughter of William) who later married Matthew Swinburn of Capheaton. The mill, along with their other Northumbrian properties, was sold in 1752 to Joseph Lambert of Gateshead, the mill bringing in £350. In 1762 the Militia Lists give the first indication of the miller of Linnels with Christopher Simpson named alongside Robert White, Washer & Bleacher, presumably of Lambshield walk mill a short distance upstream,
From the Lamberts the mill was passed on to their heirs, the Charltons of Redesmouth. In 1843 an advert in the Newcastle papers advertised to be sold in July “the Lamb Shield and Fulling Mill the Linnels Bridge and corn mill….estates of Edward Charlton deceased. The mill and presumably Lamb Shield was bought by the Haggerstons but by 1897 Sir John had sold off the walk mill, the Linnels Mill and a few acres of land (NCH IV). Here the timing appears to go a little awry as the Tithe map, drawn up in 1840 lists Linnels Mill as belonging to “late Edward Charlton, now Edward Haggerston Esquire”. The property was tenanted by Thomas Trotter and is described as Linnel Corn Mill and Farm. Joseph Saint was by then at Lambshield Fulling Mill.
The Charltons bought the mill in 1891 and still own it. Alongside the mill was the miller’s house and an inn at what had become an important crossing point of the Devils Water. Shortly after purchasing the mill and land the Charltons built the large Victorian mansion which still towers over the diminutive mill.
The local directories give some indication of the mill’s continuing survival in the listing of millers. The last entry is in 1886 when John Trotter is still at Linnels Mill though is listed as a farmer rather than miller (he is still listed as miller in 1879). The census returns for 1881 list John Trotter, then aged 70, as being the miller and farmer. He is unmarried and living at the mill with his two unmarried sisters Mary (59) and Margaret (56). In 1891 the same list of inhabitants is listed but John Trotter is given as being “Retired Miller and Farmer”. Interestingly the Trotters seem to come from a milling family: John was born at, the relatively nearby, Healey Mill while his younger sisters were born at Humshaugh Mill on the North Tyne.
The Millers of Linnels Mill
1762 Christopher Simpson
1827 George Lisle
1841 Thomas Trotter
1855 – 1891 John Trotter (perhaps not milling from the early-mid 1880s)
The mill is a single storey rough sandstone built mill with stone flag roof. The core of the mill is the oldest part of the building with evidence of three extensions; one for a wheelhouse, a second to house the roasting kiln and, on the river side, the third for a pearl barley machine. The wheelpit and wall behind the wheel is made of ashlar stonework and is far more substantial than any other part of the mill. This ashlar work around the wheel was common in corn mills, the money being put onto the most important wall of the mill, but is perhaps a little unusual in a mill of this size and age.
The mill is entered through a stable type door and down three steps. The windows are generally small paned and mostly present. Inside the mill has a stone flag floor containing some sections of old millstones. The kiln room is up a short flight of stone steps but the remainder of the building is on one level. There is a rough, vertical ladder by the entrance doorway leading to the loft space which is part boarded.
The water mill was driven by a mid-high breastshot waterwheel. The extant wheel is of classical hybrid construction with wooden buckets, sole boards and arms and iron rims and hubs. The wheel is on a substantial cast iron shaft which also holds, inside the mill proper, a cast iron pit wheel. This pit wheel engages onto a cast iron wallower on the wooden, main upright shaft. The waterwheel could be controlled using a lever behind the millstones which was held in position by a peg board and would have opened or shut a bypass hatch behind the wheel. It is difficult to age machinery but the extensive use of cast iron probably dates this section at mid nineteenth century.
The mill contains two pairs of millstones on a half floor about 1m above the ground floor level. The drive for the stones was from a conventional great spur-wheel arrangement with stone nuts below each pair of stones meshing with this large gear. The Great spur-wheel is a very substantial wooden gear with large wooden cogs. The gear is attached to the main shaft in a clasp-arm arrangement. The stone-nuts are largely solid wood with a cast iron hub onto the iron stone spindle. The cogs of the stone nuts are pinned from above and the whole cog-wheel is bolted through for strength. The almost entirely wooden gears are almost certainly much older than the waterwheel and previous gearing. These gears could be as old as eighteenth century to a pattern that is perhaps even older.
The two pairs of stones are each within a circular wooden tun with a complete set of horse, hopper and shoe above. The stones are both gritstone with the runner stone of the left-hand pair made up of two worn stones bolted one on top of the other with an iron rim around. This and one standing outside the door are both made in this fashion indicating perhaps a less than wealthy mill or perhaps simply a thrifty miller.
The upright shaft continues through the millstone stage to an iron crown gear with wooden teeth. This gear drove two sets of machinery. Through a series of cog-wheels to a flour dresser and more directly to provide power to the roasting kiln. The dresser is still in place and complete with screens and internal brushes. Milled flour would be lifted to the loft space using a hand powered sack hoist of a simple windlass design. The milled flour could then be tipped into the hopper for the dresser. The upper machinery may be contemporary with the waterwheel though could be a third, intermediate era,
A third drive from the great spur-wheel took power through the wall to a pearl barley machine with a chain driven outer casing. Each of the two stone nuts and the nut for the pearl barley machine were disengaged from the spur-wheel by a simple lifting lever arrangement. The pearl barley machine has an interesting chain drive to the drum, attached using V shaped iron forks protruding from the drum and a pulley type wheel on the drive shaft.
The extension to the right of the stones is up a set of four stone steps to the same level as the millstone staging. This room contains a complete oat roasting kiln with a stirring paddle driven from a layshaft running from the crown gear.
The machinery is particularly interesting in having not just the large items present but nearly all the small ones too. Each chute is in place and most still have the hooks to hold the sacks, the small wooden board to prevent oats escaping from the roasting kiln is in place as are pulley blocks, probably used for lifting the millstones.
The Electric Era
Once the mill went out of use as a corn mill its useful life was not over. The Charlton Family were from a Newcastle Engineering background and were contemporary with Lord Armstrong. Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that the existing water power was put to use to provide electrical power to the house. Linnels was one of the first houses in the world to benefit from electric light and almost certainly the first in the Hexhamshire district.
To provide electrical power a small turbine was installed with a long tail pipe. In order to install this arrangement two holes were cut out of the wooden soleboards and buckets of the waterwheel. The turbine powered a dynamo by a simple belt drive. The generator and switching gear are mostly still in place.
The odd arrangement, with turbine at the top, was probably an innovation by the installer of the equipment, Robert Blackett Charlton. He had lost a leg in an accident at the age of 17 and thus clambering into the wheelpit would have been difficult. The machinery as it was set up meant that most of the maintenance and operation could be done from a point where access was easy.
The Importance of Linnels Mill
An early mill
The building at Linnels provides a valuable insight into the design and construction of early mills. The building is not unlike that proposed for the first stage in the development of Holburn Mill (Traditional Architecture Group, 1999).
Complete set of machinery
It is unlikely that Linnels contained machinery that is not now in place. The machinery that exists is complete down to some of the finest details, details that have almost always been lost elsewhere. The machinery that does remain is, for the most part, in reasonable condition.
Linnels like most other mills shows signs of alterations and change during its lifetime but these changes appear to be relatively minor compared to complete overhauls that seem to have happened at other mills. The relative stability of the design of the mill has left it containing some of the oldest machinery in the North-east, all of which is said by Atkinson (1974) to be older than 1850.
The oat-roasting kiln was once a common sight in many mills of the North-east of England. Even in almost complete mills this feature seems to have been lost. It is thought that Linnels might contain the last surviving, in situ, roasting kiln in the region [Though there may also be one in Thrum Mill at Rothbury].
A more modern change
Linnels was one of the first houses to be electrically lit, the equipment to provide this power is still in place in the mill including the turbine and dynamo.
Links with the bridge
The mill is within sight of the historic bridge at Linnels and its existence may actually owe itself to the construction of this important route across the Devil’s Water.
Linnels Mill was listed in 1952 when many other water corn mills still existed, in good condition, in Northumberland. While Linnels has remained virtually unchanged many of its local counterparts have been lost to house conversion or simply through neglect. Few mills remain that contain any machinery and only a tiny proportion of over 400 waterpower sites in the county retain the majority of their machinery. Nearly all of Northumberland’s mills that are relatively intact are much later in design and construction than Linnels.
While the mill is not thought to be in any immediate danger, the greatest risk is simply from neglect. The mill has no economic value yet the upkeep on such an old building is potentially very high. The machinery is showing the signs of age though actual decay is remarkably limited except on the pearl barley machine. One internal wall is currently in need of repair.
Atkinson, F. 1974. Industrial Archaeology of North East England, Vol 2 (the sites). P244. David & Charles.
Griffith, E.P. 1974. A History of Northumberland Watermills. Unpublished.
Hutt, D (Ed). 1998. Mills Old, New & Reused. North East Mills Group. pp36.
Kelly, J. 1999. Historic mill once had the power to impress. Hexham Courant, January 22nd, 1999, p17.
The Northumberland County History Committee. 1897. A History of Northumberland. Vol IV.
Pevsner, N. & Richard, I. 1992. The Buildings of England, Northumberland. 2nd Edition, Penguin Books. p377.
Traditional Architecture Group, 1999. Holburn Mill, Northumberland, NU 039 357. Northumberland Building Studies, 3, p1-18.
Thanks are due to Mr R Charlton for allowing access to the mill and to the tenants of Linnels, Mr & Mrs Dowie for putting up with a number of visits which involved crossing their garden. Advice on compiling this report was received from Peter Rogers of Northumberland County Council. Thanks to Stafford Lindsley for allowing us to use copies of the building plans and elevations. Roger Barnes assisted in recording up to date information during a visit to the site and members of SPAB Mills Section encouraged further work during a visit in September 1998.