Page updated 31st January 2016
It is thought that Exwick was the first site on the river Exe, and perhaps in Devon, to exploit water to drive a water wheel. The 1½ mile long leat that runs from opposite Duryard Weir, was cut through solid rock in places, and in other places 'dry stone ditching' was used to support the banks. Domesday, of 1086 mentions a mill at Exwick "There is a mill rendering 10s.," In 1325, the manor of Exwick was part of the Cowick Barton Priory and their records listed a mill in the settlement. It is known that Exwick Mill was the site of the priories mill of St Andrew's.
Up until the Reformation (1536 to 1541), the mill remained in the hands of St Andrews. The confiscation of property and break up of the monasteries saw Henry VIIIs favoured supporters suddenly gain huge tracts of land and property. Exwick, along with the mill, came into the ownership of John Russell, the Duke of Bedford. It remained in his family until 1639 when the grist and fulling mills were purchased by William Gould of Hayes for £4132 16s. Through marriage, the mills, and much of the manor of Exwick would eventually pass down to the Bullers of Downs.
Exwick Mill had as many as three working wheels, sometimes referred to as Lower, Middle and Higher (Old Manor) Mills. Flour was milled in 1325 and there were three grist mills in 1600. The mill was fortified by Fairfax in January 1646, during his siege of Exeter in the Civil War, so they must have been substantial buildings. The position of the Higher Mill on the road, and its alternative name of Old Manor Mill suggests that it is the earliest of the three mills, and is most probably, the site of the original mill mentioned in Domesday.
The Higher or Old Mill was let by James Buller of Downes to Antony Gibbs, as a fulling mill in 1785. The fields on the opposite side of the road are marked as rack fields in the 1839 tithe map. The fulling mill would supply the newly constructed woollen factory of Gibbs, Banfill and Granger situated below the paper mill. The Higher or Old Mill continued fulling until 1819 when Banfill and Shute was bankrupted. The mill remained empty until 1821, when the lease was transferred from Banfill and Shute to J and W Tucker, who would attempt to turn it and the Lower Mill on the opposite bank of the leat into a business of two mills and a bakery in Fore Street. The Higher Mill was returned to milling flour by the Tucker's, and along with the Lower Mill (see below) was part of what must have been a substantial business. However, the records indicate that they were probably short of capital and the enterprise had failed by 1834.
In 1834, the Higher Mill was for lease and taken by Mr Charles Tuckett, who remained until 1836. By 1843, the next miller, Mr Joseph Blackmore was moving on, and the mill was for let again. The life of a miller could be very transient, as the price of wheat and flour fluctuated, causing boom and bust on a regular basis. 1847 proved to be a bad year for agriculture; the Irish potato famine had increased pressure on the supply of wheat, increasing the price of bread. In the May, Queen Victoria let it be known that she consumed brown bread in order to save flour. Some farmers tried to take advantage by holding back their wheat so that when it was previously 10s a bushel, the price would rise to 15s or even 21s. The shortage caused real distress for the poor and civil unrest was inevitable. On the 17 May, an angry mob, of mostly women and children, assaulted a baker in Fore Street before proceeding to the corn market where a Mr Shore of Exwick was showing samples of corn. The Times ran a report stating that "Mr Shore, the miller, of Exwick was exceedingly ill-used by the mob in the corn market. He is reported to be very much injured we regret to say.'
Shore had been a miller in Totnes, and when his father died had relocated to Higher Mill, Exwick. He was an innovative man and in 1850 had a patent application for an improved method of dressing flour. He was also involved in breeding horses, and in the 1850s, regularly placed adverts in the Flying Post for the services of his young cart horse Temptation, as a sire, for which he charged 20s. By 1861, Thomas Shore was employing thirteen men and from May of the same year, commenced advertising his Turkish Bath in Exwick. Events caught up with Shore and in 1863 he suspended payments, for he was in effect, bankrupt.
Shore also opened a Turkish bath in an outhouse adjacent to his house, at his mill. Curiously, the first advertisement on 12th June 1861, was for a 'turkish baths for horses'. A week later an advert and editorial appeared for the baths for people. Twenty adverts were run in the Flying Post, with the last on the 5 February 1862. The facility was open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday between the hours of 9am to 6pm, and cost 2s 6d per bath. Its proximity to St David's Station was promoted in the advert. The Flying Post alludes to the rather basic facilities, which perhaps confirms a quick conversion to bathing.
Disaster struck on 30 January 1863 when a serious fire broke out in the baths. Local villagers rallied to put out the fire before the engines of several insurance companies arrived. It was reported that some wood work had ignited, but a cause could not be ascertained. The Western Times reported the damage at £40 and that Shore had no insurance. The Flying Post ran in the same week, an advert for a rival Turkish Baths at St David's Hill, the competition from which may have added to the demise of the baths.
Thomas Shore also seemed to have a sideline as a horse breeder, for from 1857, he advertised his young cart horse, known as Temptation, as a sire. In case you wondered, he charged 20s for the horse's services to the mare, although it is not clear what is meant by "... and Half-a-Crown the Groom".
The Flying Post reported in September 1863 that Thomas Shore of Exwick had suspended all payments as he had liabilities of between £5,000 and £6,000. In February 1864 a to let notice appeared for a flour and grist mill, vacated by Shore, at Exwick. It would appear that Mr Shore's venture had failed with a vengeance.
The next miller, James Kemp was bankrupt by 1869, with the milling trade going through a difficult time. By 1850 imports of corn accounted for 69% of consumption, and a subsequent drop in the number of country mills. By the late 1860s, the small miller was struggling. After Kemp, the Higher Mill appears to have ceased working until Mallett rebuilt the whole complex in 1886.
The Middle Mill was between the Lower and Higher Mill, on the opposite site of the leat from the Higher Mill. The earliest mention I have found that can be reliably said to refer to this mill is in 1756 when Hannah Gosford ran it as a dye mill. By 1765, the owner John Tuckfield leased it to Zacharius Woodman as a dye mill, along with the Lower Mill as a grist mill.
It is known that John Woodman, who was probably the son of Zacharius Woodman, ran the mill from 1810 as a dye mill. Woodman sold the mill to Mersey Williams in 1833. Three years later, the Williams brothers are shown on the tithe map as running it as a manganese mill. One source suggests that Paul and James Williams also worked a mine at Newton St Cyres, but they gave up their exploitation rights as the price of manganese fell, and reserves dropped, in 1849.
A mill with a couple of stones, very similar to a grist mill would have been used to grind the manganese. The manganese from deposits known as 'Black Pit', found near Sand Down Lane, Newton St Cyres, was used to purify glass and as a bleach; at its peak, in the early 19th Century, Exeter exported as much as 3,000 tons a year or consumed by the glasshouse between Topsham and Countess Wear. The last reference to the Middle Mill was in 1859 when William Rice Mallett purchased the machinery from the Buller's when he took over the Lower Mill. The mill then fell into disuse before Mallett rebuilt the three mills in 1886.
The wheel for this mill was supplied from a sluice, tapped off the leat or millrace that supplied the Higher and Middle Mill wheels. The Lower Mill had been a grist mill for most of the years from 1600 and from 1765 it had been worked first by Zacharius Woodman and then his son, John Woodman, as a grist mill, although it was a fulling mill for a brief period at the beginning of the 19th Century. In 1815, John Woodman leased the mill to the Tucker brothers. In 1822 the Tucker's assigned the insurance policy for the two mills to John Parnell, probably to obtain more capital. Up until 1832, they assigned the mill and other assets to third parties on three occasions, rebuilding the Lower Mill in the process. The Tuckers also ran Tucker's Bakehouse and shop, in Fore Street, which was a ready outlet for a proportion of the output from their two mills. The Tuckers rebuilt both mills in their attempt to gain a sizeable foothold for corn milling and bread production in Exeter, but their over optimistic attempt to establish themselves probably foundered on a lack of capital and debt, for in 1833, it was announced in the London Gazette that J and W Tucker were bankrupt.
By 1834, Lower Mill, was up for sale by auction. The mill had three pairs of millstones and could produce between 800 and 1,000 bushels of flour, weekly. A bushel is just over 35 litres in volume. The mill had been assigned to Mrs Jane Oldridge by the Tuckers in 1824, although various changes of lease with other parties took place up until 1834. To clear up the mess left by the Tuckers, the mill was surrendered, in 1834, by Mrs Oldridge to the owner of the mill James Buller, and immediately leased back to Mrs Oldridge.
The mill is listed in the 1839 tithe map with Mrs Oldridge. In 1842, the Flying Post noted that the property of Mr French, of Exwick Lower Mill, was to be sold as he was leaving Devonshire. He had probably been leasing the mill from Mrs Oldridge for several years. By the next year Thomas Hawker was in residence. The Lower Mill was offered for sale in January 1843 as 'Close to the terminus, at Exeter, of the Great Western Railway'. An established miller from Crediton, Mr Oliver Carthew was mentioned as the Exwick miller in a notice of sale, during 1847, of his Crediton bakehouse. Carthew seems to have worked the mill for only a short time, for the mill was advertised for sale in 1849 and by the 1851 census, John Manley was the master miller, employing four men. In February 1858, John Manley was found guilty of adultering his flour with alum and fined £20. The publicity harmed his business and the next year he sold the mill and all his furniture; by 1861 Manley was living in Lancashire.
Way back in 1805, a maltster named John Mallett decided to change career and go into milling. He leased Thorverton Mill and embarked on what would be an unbroken 50 years of Mallett's milling in the Exe Valley village. Mallett's son, William Rice Mallett, born in 1819, followed his father into the mill as a teenager, and quickly established himself as a miller. John Mallett died in 1859, leaving his son to run the business. Obviously an ambitious man, William Rice Mallett sold the lease for the Manor Mills and took on the lease of the Lower Mill at Exwick Mills from the Buller's in the December; the 99 year lease, ran until 1933. The mill had been vacated by John Manley the previous February on his bankruptcy.
By 1861, Mallett was employing eight men, while Thomas Shore in the Higher Mill, opposite, employed thirteen. Including Shore and Mallett, that was twenty three employed from Exwick and area. By 1881, Mallett was employing six men and the Higher Mill had been silent since 1869. Competition from larger mills on the coast that could take Canadian wheat directly, and the invention of the highly efficient roller mill were closing down small, inefficient country mills.
This was a turning point for William Rice Mallett, and the family's involvement in the milling industry. His son William Richard Mallett had joined him in the mill, age 16 in 1873, and something needed to be done if the family business was to survive. Mallett leased the whole of Exwick Mill, including the old manganese mill that occupied the Middle Mill, that is the wheel opposite the Higher Mill wheel. He, and his son, then proceeded to rebuild, in 1886, over the three mills, a modern brick building, constructed by Brock and Ash. It was five storeys high, and would take the more efficient roller mill equipment, manufactured by Henry Simon of Manchester. In 1887, they installed the largest poncelet wheel in the country, built by Taylor and Bodley in Commercial Road, Exeter. Although by 1886, the poncelet wheel was considered old fashioned, it was still the most efficient, undershot wheel available at the time. The paddles are curved blades that are able to extract most of the energy from the water, before it emerges in the leat beneath the wheel. It could work with as little as a 6 foot head of water, and was the closest mill wheel to a turbine, before turbines were produced. On the south wall of the mill, facing Exwick, can be found a plaque that states "Exwick Mill, re-built by W. R. Mallett AD 1886 on the site of mills worked by the Benedictine monks of the priory at Cowick AD 1325. Alfred Bodley engineer, Brock and Ash builders."
William Richard Mallett took over the running of the mill from his father in 1891, and started to gain a high reputation with other millers and presented several papers at the Guildhall, related to milling and corn production; there is a commemorative stained glass window in the Guildhall to Mallett. He was keen to see Exeter utilise its natural energy resource from the river Exe, and in 1892 he read a paper entitled 'Water Power of the Exe Valley' which analysed the energy available from the leats between Cowley and Countess Wear. He estimated that 400 horse power worth £3,000 per year could be extracted from the leats, and that steps should be taken to take advantage of this energy. He also presented 'The Future of English Wheat Growing' in 1893, a paper on the history and present state of corn production in the country. It discussed how imports of wheat grew from 11% in 1841 to 69% in 1850, and the decline of the country mill. Mallett's influence grew as he became chairman of the Exeter and District Chamber of Commerce, and gave evidence to the Parliamentary Committee discussing the wheat stores of Great Britain. In 1898 he offered a prize for art students at the Technical College. One contemporary wrote "His policy is for the best of everything in materials, machinery, and men, and he is generally successful in all his undertakings."
In 1897, his father died, leaving him in charge of the mill. William Richard Mallett lived with his family at Hamlyns House, which he built in 1903. The house which is about 100 metres towards Exwick, on the opposite side of the road, has part of the balustrade from the old Exe Bridge, demolished in 1904, on each side of the entrance gate.
New innovations were introduced into the mill, including steam lorries. These posed a problem as they were too heavy to cross Exwick Bridge to St David's Station, and in 1905, Mallett entered into a correspondence with Sir Redvers Buller and the City Council to have the bridge strengthened to allow weights of greater than 5 tons; in 1974 the limit was still 5 tons, when the bridge was swept away in a flood. In 1911, the poncelet wheel was replaced by water turbines and later, electric motors. The success of Mallett's milling operations in Exwick, during the Edwardian period, was such that he was an Alderman of Exeter, between 1900 and 1904, and Sheriff of the City and County of Exeter in 1902. Mallett was appointed President of the National Association of British and Irish Millers between 1907 and 1908.
In the First War, the mill worked around the clock to produce flour, often with a reduced workforce, as the men went to the front – "With hearty co-operation of all concerned the Exwick Roller Mills were kept running night and day at their full production, although from time to time nearly half of the staff volunteered, or were called to the Forces." (A H Rousham, Exwick schoolmaster)
The First War was the turning point for many of the landed families, and after the Armistice, they commenced divesting themselves of much of their properties, as a way of life was ending. The Buller family put most of their Exwick property up for sale in June 1922; the estate was divided into 28 lots, of which, Exwick Mills and 4½ acres was sold to Mallett.
In 1929, the Millers' Mutual Association introduced a quota system to flour mills, to stabilise the price of flour and match output to demand. The quota system was abandoned in 1956. In 1935, there were 2,600 independent millers in the country, although 39% of production came from three large producers. Times were changing, and in the same year William Richard Mallett died, and the mill passed to his daughter and her husband. In the 1950's the main output was stone ground whole meal flour, and self raising flour for the bakery trade, but the large producers with efficient industrial plants, left Exwick Mills behind. Sacks of grain weighing 280 lbs (127 kilos) were still manhandled in the 1950s, when the large mills had vacuum pumps and silos. The final closure, and the end of flour milling in Exwick occurred in December 1958, when 30 employees were made redundant.
The mill was sold to French's Mills who were based in Cowick Street, during 1960. The machinery was sold and removed by Frank Stacey, who sent some of it to a mill in the Middle East. Through the 1960s, French's applied to the City Council to change the use of the building to a store and offices, but were repeatedly turned down. A Government inspector was summoned to adjudicate, and he ordered the Council to buy the building. The Mill House was leased between 1962 and 1972 by A Tonkin & Son, a potato merchant run by E F Winder-Corbett.
In 1982, the old mill was sold for the sum of £53,000 to Dick Pennell, who started to restore the buildings and rent out space for rock bands to rehearse and for a charity that recycled tools for Africa. At the present time, the use of the mill is uncertain.
Sources: Jenkin's Civil and Ecclesiastical History of the City of Exeter, mallettfamilyhistory.org, Water Mills and other Water Powered Sites in Devon by Martin Bodman, leases and maps from the Devon Record Office, the Times, the Flying Post, The London Gazette, Mallett's published papers at the WCSL and from Richard Holladay, Murray French for notes on the mill after 1960, The History of the Suburbs of Exeter by Charles Worthy and A Thousand Years of a Family in England by Alan Hamilton.
Mill workers, probably circa 1905. The photo may hace been taken in the grounds of Hamlyn House, the home of William R Mallett.
Mill workers photographed, ready to go on an outing. The cart suggests it was pre First War. Photo Georgina Connor.
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