Local Historical Stories


Early in 1996 Alastair Robertson - one of our local historians was asked if he would write a couple of historical articles for the Alston Moor Newsletter. He thought he could manage three or four but in the event, over 20 years later, they were still going. Once, and only once, he received an unsolicited article from an outside source, this was the reminiscence of a school for wartime evacuees at Nent Hall that came from Mr. Michael Dickinson and it was gratefully included in the series.

They’re a real mixed bag, too random to put into a book, but they’re still worth keeping in a more permanent form, so the Historical Society website seemed the perfect place to have them.

Material for the articles came largely from local sources, from the Alston Moor Historical Society Archives, St. Augustine’s Church Records, Alston Library, the Cumbria County Records Office in Carlisle and the County Records Office Northumberland.

There has been editing in some cases that will be noted at the beginning of each item, otherwise the articles have been left as they were written, complete with occasional references to such things as cement lorries, the millennium, and foot and mouth disease, which are themselves now things of the past (?).
Read on …

Story No 50: The High Mill

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First published - Issue No.’s 89 & 90, Summer & Autumn 2014

Part One, Issue No. 89 - Summer 2014

The High Mill in Alston has been empty since Bonds Precision Products moved out some years ago. The complex of buildings was bought recently by someone with the interests of Alston Moor at heart. But the question, what should the mill be used for? To help raise awareness, here’s an article in two parts about the mill’s history.

The earliest record of a corn mill on Alston Moor is from 1315 when a mill was listed in the inquisito post mortem (a legal inquiry as to the entitlement of the deceased to his estate) of Nicholas de Veteripont, lately deceased lord of the manor. The earliest reference to an individual mill is to Blackburn Mill at Leadgate in 1590, when it was demised with other land and property to Thomas Vepound, which makes me wonder if that was the original lord’s mill. In 1699 the lord’s mill was rented to John Stephenson of Crosslands, with ½-yearly payments to be made at Michaelmas and Pentecost.

In the nineteenth century the High Mill was one of five corn mills on Alston Moor, the others were Low Mill on Station Road in Alston, Bridge End Mill at the Dooker just outside the town, Blackburn Mill at Leadgate and Beldy Mill at Garrigill. They all milled grain that had to be imported to the Moor because the climate here has always been against growing corn.

With regard to the High Mill in particular, an entry in St. Augustine’s church registers shows that John Lattimer was the miller at ‘Alston Mill’ in the 1730’s, which was the High Mill, since the Low Mill wasn’t built until the 1770’s. Apart from that, the earliest reference I’ve come across is a design for the mill by the first man in the world to call himself a civil engineer, John Smeaton, who designed the successful version of the Eddystone Lighthouse.

John Smeaton’s expertise with water power made him the obvious choice when the lords of the manor, the Greenwich Hospital, looked for an engineer to rebuild the corn mill.
Folios 125 to 129 in the catalogue of Smeaton’s designs at the Royal Society are his plans of the building and the machinery for the High Mill at Alston. The drawings include a plan and elevations of the building, a plan and elevation of the ‘hurst’(?), an elevation of the machinery, an elevation showing the water wheel and its mechanism, and a design for the “bridges & brayers”.
As designed by Smeaton in 1767, the original wheel was 30 feet in diameter with a width of 10 inches and a unique backward curved scoop feed. One authority commented that the scoop feed for the water was an unusual feature and the whole arrangement probably indicated the lack of a strong water supply.
The wheel was a ‘pitch-back’ type, with water falling onto the buckets high up and turning it towards the water source, so that the buckets emptied to the rear of the wheel pit and water flowed beneath the wheel to the outlet on the other side, in this case the Mill Race.

The mill was finished and available for rent by 1775, when it was let by the Greenwich Hospital to Adam Wilkinson & Co. at £30 per annum. The High Mill was a manorial mill with a guaranteed clientele. Then in 1800 it was let to William Todd at £42 per annum for 21 years, due to expire in 1821.
In 1805 a visitation to Alston Moor by Greenwich Hospital inspectors reported on John Smeaton’s wheel that, “The water wheel is of large dimension, and was planned many years ago by Mr. Smeaton. There are two pairs of stones with the usual machinery. The mill is capable of doing much business, and although old, appears to be in a tolerable state of repair, except the water wheel and troughs conveying the water from the reservoir lying at a distance, which are nearly worn out.”
Nothing appears to have been done until 1817 when another report on the High Mill noted that it was still in need of repair. The report also noted that “The building consists of a large old wheat and flour mill, three storeys, with two pairs of stones, a drewwing(?) machine and a stable under the same roof.” At another time the mill had “three sets of stones, with proper machinery for shelling of Oats, and Oat Mill and drying kiln.”
On this occasion, 1817, something was done. The original overhead wooden troughs, or launders, that brought water to the wheel were replaced by underground cast iron pipes with a large standpipe to feed the wheel, which is still in existence. A new water wheel of 21ft diameter was installed, still of pitch-back design, with a greater width of 26”. You can still see a stone bracket high up on the corner of the building that supported the former wooden launder that brought water to Smeaton’s wheel.
In his book ‘Watermills of Cumbria’, Michael Davies Shiel wrote of the High Mill that, “The hipped roof is the sure sign of a work building as it gives that structure width and solidarity. In normally stable structures, the gabled roof is rigid enough, but when walls vibrate (as they do in all types of mill), a more solid, four square cap is essential.” He rated High Mill as amongst twelve “fine examples” of this sort of mill which was common in the lowlands but not so common in limestone regions.

The lease changed hands quite frequently. In 1817 the lessee changed from William Todd to William Greenwell & Co., perhaps this was after the wheel, etc., had been replaced. By 1829 Hetherington and Peart were the millers. In 1841 the Hetherington and Peart in question were Thomas Hetherington, aged 40, and Catherine Peart, also aged 40. By 1847 Robert Nattrass was the miller who, in 1851, employed four men including John Lancaster, aged 24, an incomer from Greystoke who lived in Thirlwall’s Lane.
Now you’ll have to wait with bated breath for three months to find out what happened next.


Part Two, Issue No. 90 - Autumn 2014

The High Mill in Alston has been empty since Bonds Precision Products moved out some years ago. The complex of buildings was bought recently by someone with the interests of Alston Moor at heart. But the question, what should the mill be used for? To help raise awareness, here’s an article in two parts about the mill’s history. This is the second part, and we’ve reached the middle of the nineteenth century.

Some records survive to show the issues involved in keeping a mill up-to-date and operational. During the late 1850’s the High Mill machinery underwent a radical change. Steam power was the latest craze and a steam engine had been installed perhaps to replace, or at least to supplement, water power. However this seems not to have worked and discussions took place for its removal.
High Mill was let to Utrick Vipond, the lessee of the Low Mill not far away on Station Road, who sub-let it to Robert Nattrass. In December 1858 Mr. Vipond was behind with the rent and the Greenwich Hospital agent, John Grey of Dilston Hall near Corbridge, was becoming rather frustrated. He wrote to Joseph Paull, the Moormaster responsible for the daily business on Alston Moor, “I have had a good deal of backward & forward with Vipond about the Mill but have now obtained an undertaking from two sureties for the payment of rent and shall get an agreement for the lease of the Mill executed with a break at the end of two years … Till that time I have given him permission to let it to Nattrass seeing that he does not now occupy it himself.”
Then a few months later, in April 1859, Mr. Grey’s correspondence referred to the payment for “the engine at the High Mill”.
Repairs and other works were being carried out at the mill and were obviously a cause for concern. On the 11th May the High Mill was examined by two millwrights from Hexham who reported to Mr. Grey on its condition. Utrick Vipond had undertaken to repair High Mill for a specified sum, to which Mr. Grey had agreed. That month’s correspondence from Mr. Grey referred to the matter and contained certain instructions and recommendations about it.
In June the repairs and alterations at the High Mill were still ongoing and Mr. Vipond begged for financial assistance to make an additional water race to the south of the town, from Craig Greens to Nattrass Gill, to improve the water supply. Mr. Grey’s reaction was, “I think that if we clean out the mill dam (on the Fair Hill) and lay the additional pipes for water under the street he is well entitled to go the half cost in cleaning and covering the water course from Nattrass gill to the fair ground, seeing that his mill (Low Mill) will be equally benefited by it as the Hospital. I fear he forgets that the Hospital might refuse to take the acknowledgement of 2s.6d. per yard and deprive his mill of that portion of water”.
Robert Nattrass, the sub-lessee of High Mill, was also in trouble. He declined to sign a pro-note for the rent and what was due from him to the Hospital. Mr. Grey in a letter dated 16th June wrote, “If the note is not sent to me at once I will enter proceedings against him for the whole and try to get quit of him from the estate”.
The July correspondence from Mr. Grey referred to instructions to the removal of the steam engine and the other repair works to be executed at the High Mill but we have no details. However, the repairs were progressing favourably and he sanctioned the removal of the oatmeal kilns (for drying the grain prior to grinding) to the place where the engine had been.
By December 1859 it appears that all the internal alterations had been completed to everyone’s satisfaction. Mr. Grey’s correspondence for the month referred principally to the repairs at the High Mill and in a letter dated 23rd December he said, “If the masonry required in removing & replacing the kilns as specified in the 11th Clause of Mr. Vipond’s letter regarding the terms of his offer or proposal has been done & the general repair of the walls & roof also I conclude all is done that was stipulated for”.
On 7th April 1860 Joseph Paull the Moormaster sent a statement of Utrick Vipond’s mill accounts to Mr. Grey and then on 8th July work commenced to lay new water pipes to the High Mill. Under the new system the water was controlled from a point somewhere probably in Back o’ the Burn and the Mill Race could be diverted from the Mill Burn when necessary by turning a valve.

In 1861, Robert Nattrass was working the mill with John Lancaster, his former employee, but by 1869, John Lancaster was miller in his own right. He was succeeded by his son Joseph in the late 1870’s. In 1881 Joseph was 32 and was also a bacon curer, helped by his younger brother John, aged 21, and one employee. The bacon could be hung and cured while the grain was being heated to dry before grinding. Joseph continued for many years, to be succeeded about 1910 by his son John, who, by 1925, had diversified from milling and bacon curing into becoming a coal merchant as well. In 1929 John Lancaster still appeared in the trades directories as a corn miller and bacon curer but not long afterwards he must have retired, for an elderly resident of Alston remembered the last miller, who was Joseph’s son Herbert Lancaster, who went bankrupt before Second World War. This left Low Mill as the last working mill on Alston Moor, which closed, I believe, in the 1950’s.

North Pennines Heritage Trust no longer exists, so please don't contact Barhaugh Hall with queries.
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Alston Moor Historical Society was founded in 1973 and, due to the nature of Alston Moor, it is a member of both the Northumberland Association of Local History Societies and the Cumbria Federation of Local History Societies.
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