Cowbridge Mill

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The History of Cowbridge Mill

The tiny River Avill drove a surprising number of mills in the Middle Ages. Dunster was a market for corn and cloth and the mills also served the wider area. By the early 18th century records show eleven mills working on the Avill and rivalry over the water led to regular litigation. By the 1780’s the Avill ran six grist mills, an oil mill and two fulling mills.[1]

A watermill has been in existence at Cowbridge, in one form or another since, at least, the days of Edward III in the early 14th century. In 1341 Cowbridge was named in a deed concerning some land belonging to Dunster Priory. [2] In 1346 the Dunster Priory deeds refer to “Cogbrigge Mill.” [3] The rent at that time was £1.6s 8d – a sum which sounds quite small today but which must have been of great value in the 14th century.

Following the dissolution of the Priory in 1539, the Mill passed to the owners of Old Knowle. Documents held at the national Archives indicate that a second Mill was built at Cowbridge sometime before 1546.[4] A Fulling Mill and Grain Mill are recorded as forming part of Old Knowle.[5]  From the medieval period, the fulling of cloth often was undertaken in a water mill. In these the cloth was beaten with wooden hammers, known as fulling stocks or fulling hammers. This process thickened cloth by matting the fibres together to give it strength and increased waterproofing in the form of felting.

In 1561 the Mill was leased by John Trevelyan, of Nettlecombe, to Margaret Stoccomb, her daughter Beatrice and William Pounds for the yearly rent of 30 shillings paid quarterly, plus an initial payment of 37 pounds. The indenture listed “ ….one tenement with appurtenances called Cobridge and two mills the one a grist mill and the other a tucking mill and garden and house appertaining to the same with all into unto the said grist mill of this county within the manor of Old Knoll together with all water and watercourses from Tymberds ford to the said mills called Cobridge within the parish of Tymbcomb without any let or disturbance……[6]

In1567 the “Cobridge” Mill was recorded as a flour mill forming part of the Knowle Estate. The Estate comprised of many farms and cottages, a total of 2,100 acres.

In 1728 Cowbridge Mills (plural) were leased for 99 years by Paul Orchard of Stoke, Devon to John Mudon.[7] The rent seems to have dropped back to a “ …..yearly rent or sum of twenty-six shillings and eight pence of lawful money of Great Britain at the four most usual feasts…..” . The Mudon family was a relatively wealthy family who owned several properties in the area and combined farming with other trades. The original lease is held by the Somerset Records Office. The lease is for “dwelling house, Outhouses, Greist Mill, Fulling Mill and one Meadow called Bridge Mead containing three acres or thereabouts with the water and water courses that runneth or course from Timberford unto Cowbridge”. The indenture states that the premises had previously been in the possession of Mary Portman (widow, dowager).

In 1768 John Mudon died. A letter from a Mr Baker to a Mr Richard Cox, held at Somerset Records Office, indicates that a Mr Blake, the elder, applied to take over Cowbridge Mills. John Avis, the miller, was running a flour mill on the site and Mr Blake wished to rebuild the tucking mill alongside.[8]

A “To be Let” notice for Cowbridge Mills in 1809 records “…. a never failing stream of water, by which are working two pair of Stones for the grinding of Flour and one pair for the shelling of Oats… distant from the market of Dunster two miles, and four miles from the sea port of Minehead, whence an extensive malt and flour trade to Wales may be carried on, and the export of corn to Bristol advantageously conducted, There is a convenient malt-house under the same roof with the mills, and the best samples of wheat, barley and oats are produced in the neighbourhood”. [9] The article also records that, “In 1809 Cowbridge mills at Timberscombe could provide locally produced quality flour and malt for shipment to South Wales to serve the growing mining communities with bread and beer.”

The 1822 and 1824 record of births for Timberscombe show the miller at that time was Isaac Escott. Isaac Escott was a wealthy trader who is listed on the Dunster records under bakery, grocer’s shop, draper shop and stocking manufacturer. He was part owner, with William Hole, of at least two ships which he used to transport his goods to and from South Wales. [10]

The 1843 Tithe map shows an additional building in the courtyard, which may have been a grain drying kiln. The statute measure for the house, gardens and mill is recorded as 2 Roods and 14 Poles and together with the mill orchard (28 Poles) was liable to pay the local vicar a tithe of 1/10 of its annual agricultural produce. This amounted to 1 shilling and 2 pennies per year. Cowbridge Mills was owned by James Hole and leased by John Matthews, who also owned or leased several other meadows and orchards in the area. [11] The building currently known as “The Dell” also formed part of the Mill complex and it seems likely that this was originally the tucking mill, although we know that it was later used to house workers. The Dell passed over the Mill Leat for a length of 22 feet and an access hole permits water to be lifted into the house from the Leat. This is a common feature in tucking mills where water is required as part of the tucking process.

George Morgan is shown in the Kelly’s 1861 Directory as miller at Cowbridge Mills[12]. He remained there until his death in 1897, when the mill was taken over by his daughter Clara (miller) who later married James Brewer. James was a carpenter and they lived at Laurel Cottage, Cowbridge.[13] The Morgans also ran the Timberscombe Village Mill.

Somewhen after 1843 (Tithe map) and prior to 1890 (Official OR map) the tail race of the Mill Leat was altered. Instead of returning directly to the River Avill on the west of the road the tail race was extended so that the water could flow either towards “Dudding” or return to the River Avill on the eastern side of Cow Bridge. The 1890 map also shows that three new cottages had been built between the present Mill and the Dell, whilst the currently unidentified building next to the road was removed.

Kelly’s Directory 1889 shows Cowbridge Mills were also occupied, at the same time as the Morgans, by “James Phillips and Son, miller (water)”. [14]The Phillips family originated from Bridgtown, Dulverton. The three Phillips brothers and their father were originally carpenters and wheelwrights. They also went on to be millers at Bridgetown Mill. The Phillips family worked out of Cowbridge Mills for around 40 years.[15]

Around 1904 part of the Mill was changed to a house and a sawmill and Tom Brewer lived in the Mill house.  In 1909 the Sawmill at Knowle closed and the machinery was transferred to Cowbridge.

In 1909 Mr Thomas Phillips is recorded as working at the Mill with his grandson Henry (known as Harry) . [16]The Phillips’ family business covered much of West Somerset with James Phillips and Sons working from Higher Hopcott, Minehead Town Mill, The Manor Mills, Dunster and Bridgtown Mill. Charles Phillips founded the Exe Valley Wheel Works where he advertised as “Millwright, machinist, wheelwright, carpenter and agent to all kinds of agricultural implements”. He made sawbenches, harrows, a “very serviceable” combined seed and corn drill and light in-barn Threshers. He ran his business from Dulverton and in 1909 moved it to Cowbridge Mills.

In 1910 the business Phillips C and Son was also listed as a “Carriage Builder” in Parks Lane, Minehead.[17] Charles’ son, Harry, has been apprenticed to Rustons of Lincoln (a major agricultural engineering firm) and also had his own premises in Friday Street, Minehead. He established a reputation as an engineer specialising in waterwheels. Harry Phillips also purchased the woods and sawmill at North Hawkwell from the Cutcombe Estate in the late 1920s. Harry was making and installing waterwheels and in-barn Threshers on farms as late as 1930. He died suddenly at Christmas 1936, his father surviving him for several years.

1. Bell ringers
The Bell Ringers Outing shows Charles and Harry Phillips C1930

The 1911 census shows Cowbridge as a hive of activity with carpenters, wheelwrights, hauliers, blacksmiths, labourers, a thatcher and a fishmonger living at Cowbridge. The Mills at this time had a manager, Joseph Scott, living at the Mill House.

Above: Postcard of Cowbridge from the early 1900s showing the toll house which was then situated on the opposite corner to the Mill.
Looking down on Cowbridge. Both of the above photos provided by Tim Collins

Circa 1896 the owner of Knowle, Worsley Battersby JP, died. Two of his sons later died in the war and the Knowle estate was then broken up and sold off.   Henry Phillips purchased the Cowbridge Mill from the Knowle Estate in June 1916 for a price of £470.[18] At about the same time the water wheel and launder were renovated, possibly changing from a wooden wheel to a cast iron one but retaining the wooden shaft. The sale literature shows that the Sawmill comprised of an “overshot wheel with constant and powerful supply of water working a modern travelling iron plate saw bench 20ft x 2ft 6ins with fixed 3ft 6ins circular saw, pulley wheels, pit wheels, and fixed shafting with pulleys”. The Carpenter’s Workshop at that time was a three- storey building, having a Loft over and “Roomy Stores” beneath. The Dwelling House was substantial, built of stone with good slate roof and contained an entrance hall, sitting room with hot grate and slate mantel, kitchen with range, a scullery, two cellars, three bedrooms and WC with flush.

The Kelly’s Directory 1919 shows Charles Phillips and Sons, Agricultural Engineers, working from Cowbridge. Their previous business at Bridgetown was shut down and they brought their machinery to Cowbridge. By this time James had also moved his successful auctioneering business from Bridgetown and had centred his business in Minehead and Taunton. He developed his business towards auctioneering, corn and seed selling and as a house agency. He also became mayor of Minehead. His son Albert ran part of the business from the Town Mill, Minehead.

Cowbridge Mills was one of the first properties in the village to have electricity. In 1920 a lean to shed was built over the Mill tailrace to house a dynamo and batteries.[19] The shed was also used as a grinding shed. This was completed in conjunction with Duddings, The Dell and the neighbouring cottages to supply them with electricity. The work was completed by Frank Winsborough, of Minehead who installed a 120volt plant. The houses were only allowed to have power downstairs.  Mr Phillips later installed a 110 volt DC plant in the cellar under the Mill house to power just his own machines. This was driven through the main Mill which meant that you needed to keep the main wheel running all the time you wanted light. This worked well but would only power one machine at a time. In the winter the wheel ran from 6.30am to 10.30pm resulting in a great strain on the wheel and its bearings, which were soon worn down.

3. Sam In 1911 Mr Sam Grabham (pictured left) came to work here, originally for the Phillips family, before setting up his own business at the Mill and renting from the Phillips for 27s and 6d per week.
Sam was joined by his son Kenneth in 1938 (pictured right). During the war years they took on horse shoeing and wheelwright’s work from the neighbouring parishes. With the advent of the Ferguson tractor in the late 1940’s the use of horses on farms disappeared almost overnight and the Grabham family turned much of their business to converting horse implements to tractor use by taking off the shafts and fitting draw bars. 4.Ken

There was great demand for trailers, old car or lorry axles and gates, which had been neglected over the war years. At this point Sam bought a Ferguson Tractor himself and this was used to drive the Rack Saw Bench, as the water wheel was becoming difficult to maintain. Later they were able to get three phase electricity to power the smaller saws.

Sam handed over to his son in 1969 and Ken continued a successful business until his retirement. Ken made a tremendous number of gates for the Forestry Commission and bought thousands of pounds of timber from them. They also had a good trade in selling posts, rails and all types of fencing.

In the 1920s a petrol garage was built, by Mr Phillips, on the roadside, adjacent to and the same height as a two-storey thatched building situated where the new forge and workshop now stand.

 5.garage One of the first pumps in the district was installed and after just a few years this was extended to 3 or 4 pumps. The garage replaced a cider house and stables.

Pictured Ken Graham (left) and Dudley Huxtable (right) outside the garage c1940

The recently demolished forge building was constructed in 1933. At that time the blacksmithing operations were moved here from the village centre and Sam Grabham moved into the Mill house, whilst Harry Phillips moved into the family’s bungalow opposite.

In December 1936 Henry Phillips died suddenly and the property had to be sold. In 1937 the ownership of the property passed from Mrs Phillips (widow of Henry) to Eva Huxtable (wife of Frank, a carpenter and local undertaker), who took out a mortgage of £850. In 1959 Eva, by then a widow, passed the ownership to her son Dudley who was the garage proprietor

In May 1995 the Mill and house was purchased by Mr and Mrs Owen Rush at auction, from the estate of Dudley Huxtable. Mr and Mrs Rush wanted to live in this beautiful part of Somerset but they also wanted to restore the Mill to a working museum (not a commercial mill). The Mill and house were in a very poor state of repair. To read about the progress of the Mill restoration visit our site at

References below:

[1] The Victorian Country House History

[2] Dugdale’s Monasticicon Vol 4 P200-204

[3] SHC DD\L/P16/2 Top of Form   Bottom of Form

[4] TNA C/42/75/75

[5] SHC DD/WO 32/8

[6] SHC DD\WO/4/1/9

[7] SHC SHC DD\FR/15

[8] SHC DD\L/1/59/8/31 Top of Form Bottom of Form

[9] VCHH

[10] DD/RSH 3

[11] D\D/Rt/A/436 Top of Form Bottom of Form

[12] Kelly’s 1861 Directory

[13] Census

[14] Kelly’s Directory 1889

[15] Various Kelly’s Directories

[16] Exmoor’s Industrial Archaeology

[17] Various Kelly’s Directories

[18] Mr Rush’s house records /DD\X\LRY/3

[19] The remaining history is taken from a document about Cowbridge written by Ken Grabham and papers belonging to Mr Owen Rush