The ancient borough: Mills

Pages 395-398

A History of the County of Leicester: Volume 4, the City of Leicester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1958.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


In this section


The Castle Mill.

There was a mill at Leicester by 1086, when the Countess Judith was entitled to half of its profits. At the same date the Bishop of Lincoln possessed a mill, and a half right in a second one. (fn. 1) It may be conjectured that the bishop was the owner of the remaining half of the mill of which the countess was part owner, so that between them the bishop and the countess held two mills. One of these may have been that later known as the Castle Mill. The first definite reference to the Castle Mill occurs in 1301, when it presumably belonged to the Earl of Lancaster as owner of the castle. (fn. 2) A second mill, known as the new mill, was built about 1300 (fn. 3) and for some years afterwards both were farmed, together with the castle ovens and at times with the horse-mill in the present High Street. (fn. 4) At some date after 1330 and before his death in 1345, Henry, Earl of Lancaster gave the new mill to Newarke College, (fn. 5) and it later became known as Newarke Mill. (fn. 6) Only one mill, valued at £5, belonged to the castle in 1361, when the Duke of Lancaster's property in Leicester was surveyed. (fn. 7) Another new mill was built in 1377–8, probably very close to the old one. It cost £6 10s. 9½d. and was a timber structure with stone foundations and a thatched roof. Although the gear was made on the spot, the stones had to be bought. (fn. 8) In 1399 the farm of the mills belonging to the Duchy of Lancaster at Leicester was valued at £8. (fn. 9) In 1593 the two Castle Mills were being farmed by John Chippingdale, the Bishop of Lincoln's commissary, who came into conflict with the borough authorities about his right to compel the town's inhabitants to have their corn ground at the Castle Mills. Chippingdale assented to an agreement with the town to submit the matter to arbitration, but neglected to do so and continued to sue burgesses who ground their corn elsewhere. The town appealed to the Earl of Huntingdon to help them, but no decision is recorded in this dispute. (fn. 10)

In 1605 the mills were leased by Sir Edward Hastings, who reopened this vexed question by suing one Wyatt Fowler for not grinding his corn at the Castle Mill. A law-suit followed which seems to have resulted in a decision that the inhabitants of the borough need only grind at the Castle Mill when it was convenient for them to do so. (fn. 11) By 1624 Lord Grey was the duchy's tenant of the Castle Mill and the corporation leased it from him for £8 yearly, provided that he paid the king's rent and handed the property over in good condition. (fn. 12) After negotiations which lasted for three years, the corporation arranged to purchase the mill from the Duchy of Lancaster, and by 1638 £600 had been paid for it. (fn. 13) In 1632 besides the two watermills there was also a windmill attached to the Castle Mill, but whether as an independent structure or as an alternative source of power is not clear. In 1640 alterations were made to the 'wash at the Castle Mills', (fn. 14) and in 1644–5 the malt mill was demolished (fn. 15) and the rent of the mill diminished by 40s. as a result. (fn. 16) A proposal in 1656 to erect an engine at the mill together with a new wheel in connexion with the piping of water to the High Cross does not seem to have been carried out. (fn. 17) In 1660 the town surrendered to the king a fee-farm rent of £17 from the Castle Mills acquired during the Civil War, together with a present of £300. (fn. 18) At this time the mill was rented by a John Turville, (fn. 19) who complained to the corporation that the mill dam was so choked with mud from certain new trenches that 'the water comes not cleare to the mills and soe they are become of lesse yearly profitt'. He alleged that the corporation only charged him a high rent (£38) because of the very high price which it had paid to the duchy for the mill. (fn. 20)

The Castle Mills were sold in 1685 to Lawrence Carter, later M.P. for the town, together with fishing rights in the Soar from Morehead to the West Bridge, upon the condition that Carter should be responsible for the fee-farm rent. (fn. 21) The price paid was only £130, so the corporation made a considerable loss. In 1718 the miller was ordered to lower his weir, which had been raised to the prejudice of the miller at the Newarke Mill. (fn. 22) In 1748 Thomas Carter bequeathed the Castle Mill, together with the Castle Mill shop in the Saturday Market, to Jane Flower. (fn. 23) The function of this shop is not clear. It may have been used for the sale of flour, and probably was also an office where arrangements for grinding corn could be made. The Flower family held the mill as late as 1843, (fn. 24) but it had changed hands by 1846 when Joseph Pywell was the miller. (fn. 25) In 1849, when the mill was offered for sale, it drove four pairs of stones. (fn. 26) By 1871 it was in use for spinning. (fn. 27) In 1872 the corporation purchased the mill in connexion with the flood prevention scheme, (fn. 28) but it was still in use in 1875, when it had attached to it a stall in the Corn Exchange. (fn. 29) The mill ceased to function as a mill about 1876, (fn. 30) when the weir and lock had been removed and the river deepened. (fn. 31) In 1877 the weir was reconstructed and the island near the mill was removed. After these alterations and the subsequent canalization of the river had put an end to its activities as a mill, the Castle Mill was leased by the corporation until 1893 as a hosiery trimming factory. (fn. 32)

The Newarke Mill (Swan's Mill).

The mill known throughout the later Middle Ages and during the 16th century as the Newarke Mill was originally the new mill of the castle, which was built about 1300 up-river from the main Castle Mill near the West Bridge. Mill Lane, which led up to the new mill, formed the southerly limit of the enclosed site of the Newarke Hospital and College, to which between 1330 and 1345 Earl Henry of Lancaster gave his new mill. The grant was confirmed to the college in 1360, in a general charter of confirmation of their property, (fn. 33) and the mill remained the property of the college until it passed to the Crown on the dissolution of the college in 1548. The mill was not mentioned in the grant made to John Beaumont of the site of the college in 1548, (fn. 34) and presumably it remained in Crown hands. In 1554, three men, who may have been the farmers of the Newarke Mill, brought in an injunction to the mayor's court about the grinding of corn at their mill. It is not at all clear what the terms of this injunction were. In any case the borough authorities objected, as it was held that to use any other mill than the Castle Mill would be detrimental to the king and queen, and the three men agreed that the injunction should be considered void. (fn. 35) In the reign of Elizabeth I the mill was leased, apparently in two halves, each attached to a portion of the Newarke Grange in the South Field. In 1576 half was leased by the queen to Robert Temple and William Worship, both of Leicester, and three years later Temple and his son Thomas leased it to Henry Newbold, the miller, for sixteen years. (fn. 36) The other half of the mill was apparently leased to Francis Hastings with his part of the grange. (fn. 37) The corporation bought Hastings's lease, and the Newarke Mill was included in the purchase of the grange by the corporation in 1613. (fn. 38) The Newarke Mill remained in the possession of the corporation until the 19th century. In 1626 the mill was leased to William Palmer, with an attached windmill, and Palmer was licensed later in the year to sub-let it to Thomas Swan. (fn. 39) From this time the old name seems to have disappeared completely, and the mill was known as Swan's Mill until the last century. In 1741 the tenant of the mill, which then consisted of a water corn-mill, a windmill, and a mill shop, probably in the Market Place, paid a yearly rent of £25. (fn. 40) This was raised in 1770, when a new lease was made, to £30 with an additional £1 for tithes. (fn. 41) In 1837 the corporation was involved in a dispute about the ownership of the mill, and several declarations were made to the effect that the mayor and corporation were in fact the sole owners. (fn. 42) It was at this time that the mill was sold to Isaac Abell, (fn. 43) whose family were parchment-makers and who also owned considerable property in Frog Island and Mill Lane. (fn. 44) The mill remained in use until it was repurchased in 1880 with an adjoining dye-works and water rights by the corporation in connexion with the flood prevention scheme. (fn. 45) The canalization of the River Soar meant the end of the mill's useful life; the building survived until 1893, after which it was demolished and replaced by the Leicester Corporation destructor. (fn. 46) The mill remained a flour-mill until its demolition.

North Mill.

The mill at the North Bridge apparently formed part of the endowment of the college of St. Mary de Castro and was therefore probably in existence at the beginning of the 12th century. It was given to Leicester Abbey upon its foundation in 1143. (fn. 47) A mill called St. Leonard's Mill is mentioned in the borough records about 1292. It then stood in the part of Frog Island which was in the parish of St. Margaret (fn. 48) and may have been the same as the North Mill. The North Mill was definitely referred to in 1301, when the miller was convicted before the king's marshal of taking false tolls and was fined. (fn. 49) Nothing is known of the North Mill for the rest of the Middle Ages. It presumably passed to the Crown at the dissolution of Leicester Abbey, and seems to have remained in royal hands until 1589, when it was almost certainly one of the mills granted to the borough by Elizabeth's charter of that year. (fn. 50) It had been leased to Stephen Harvey and George Tatam by the queen in 1587 (fn. 51) and the borough seems to have continued the lease, at least to Tatam, on a mortgage basis to raise money for the payment of the fee-farm. (fn. 52) The mill was ordered to be redeemed in 1594, the town to raise £100 for this purpose and afterwards to rebuild the mill. (fn. 53) In 1602 the North Mill was one of the corporation properties which it was not allowed to sell. (fn. 54) When Edward Hastings tried to gain a monopoly for the Castle Mill at the same time, the North Mill was one of those which he suggested should not be used except with his special permission. (fn. 55) In 1605–6 the mill was leased for 21 years at a yearly rent of £10. (fn. 56) The buildings of the North Mill seem to have resembled those of the other Leicester mills; in 1611 the mill consisted of two watermills and a malt-mill. (fn. 57) The corporation remained the owners of the North Mill until it was closed in the 19th century. In the 18th century the rent paid by Edmund Johnson was 30 guineas yearly. (fn. 58) Proposals to drive the mill with steam in 1801 (fn. 59) and to rebuild it in 1819 (fn. 60) were not carried out. The corporation decided in 1821 to rebuild none of the watermills (fn. 61) and contented itself with building a new mill-house at the North Mill for the lessee in 1824; the attached windmill was afterwards repaired. (fn. 62) Further repairs were carried out in 1832–3. (fn. 63) For a great part of the 19th century the milling family of Hitchcock were the corporation's tenants (fn. 64) and it was from them that the corporation acquired the mill's rights in 1876 in connexion with the flood prevention scheme. (fn. 65) After the completion of the scheme, water-power could no longer be used for the North Mill, but steam was installed by 1888 and was used in the mill until about 1905. (fn. 66) The mill was then closed as a corn-mill, but the name of North Mill is perpetuated by a firm of worsted spinners.

St. Mary's Mill.

There is very good reason to suppose that the mill mentioned in the account of the manor of Bromkinsthorpe in Domesday Book is the one which afterwards became known as St. Mary's Mill, and which stood on the Soar just on the border between Aylestone parish and the South Field of the borough, about half-way between the present Narborough and Aylestone roads. (fn. 67) In 1086 the mill was rendering 20s. yearly. In 1200 Amaury Danet had a mill on the site, (fn. 68) and a mill there remained the property of the Danet family for centuries. In 1428 a dispute arose between Richard Danet and the Dean and canons of the Newarke College about a right of way to the mill which Danet claimed for his tenants through the meadow called Marymeadow, which belonged to the college. The mill was then being used both for grinding corn and for fulling. (fn. 69) Little else is known about the history of the mill under the later members of the Danet family and their successors the Rudings (fn. 70) until comparatively modern times. The mill was rebuilt in 1799, and it was probably then that it became a hosiery mill. (fn. 71) It was apparently still driven by water power, as the mill wheel was stated to be in bad condition. In the same year the mill was leased by Walter Ruding to John Rawson, a Leicester hosier, and other manufacturers, including turners and a worsted maker, for 50 guineas yearly rent. (fn. 72) An inventory of the contents of the mill in 1811, when it passed from Rawson and his son to a millwright and machine-maker named John Pearson, lists five spinning frames, machine-driven, valued at £375, and the gear to drive them, valued at £27 10s. These frames were probably still driven by water power; the mill wheel is mentioned in the inventory and was then fenced in for safety. The mill employed at least ten girls, who seem to have lived at the mill, and the list of movable property included a Bible. (fn. 73) The mill, which had reverted to being a corn mill driven by water, was advertised for sale in 1826. (fn. 74) In 1846 it was occupied by a Henry Johnson. (fn. 75) By 1877 it had passed into the hands of William Henry Bates, the elastic-web manufacturer. (fn. 76) Elastic manufacture is still carried on there, and the firm is now part of the Dunlop organization. (fn. 77)


As well as those windmills which were part of the Castle, Newarke, and North mills, there were also a number of free-standing windmills, mostly in the open country around the town. Of the Leicester windmills, only one, or rather one site, seems to have had a continuously traceable existence. This was in the South Fields at the top of Knighton Hill, where the present cemetery is, and a mill probably stood there as early as 1316, when John Peke granted half an acre in the South Fields to Thomas Marrow. This strip was said to run 'from the Rawdykes across Peatlingway (the present Welford Road) to the furlong which leads to the windmills'. (fn. 78) This windmill perhaps belonged to the castle, and may be the one which figures in the inquisition post mortem of Henry, Duke of Lancaster in 1361, when it was valued at nothing beyond reprises. (fn. 79) The South Field windmill is mentioned several times during the 15th century. (fn. 80) In 1576 it was leased by William and Thomas Astill of Wigston to Henry Newbold, a Leicester miller, for 21 years. (fn. 81) About 1594 the borough purchased the windmill from a Mr. Wightman for £20, perhaps as part of the larger purchase about that time of property in the South Fields. (fn. 82) If the windmill had belonged to the Duchy of Lancaster in the 14th century it had evidently been alienated by the 16th. From 1594 it was leased from the corporation by various members of the Nurse family at a yearly rent of 33s. 4d., (fn. 83) and in 1607–8 it was called for the first time Nurse's windmill. (fn. 84) There continued to be a windmill on this site until the 19th century, probably until the land upon which it stood became part of the municipal cemetery. (fn. 85)

A map of the watermills made at the end of the 16th or early in the 17th century shows a windmill of the post type, then newly built and belonging to Sir Henry Hastings, not far from the river, between the Castle and the Newarke mills. (fn. 86) In 1720 the mayor was ordered to treat with Josiah Wall, miller, about his mill in the South Field. (fn. 87) There was a windmill in St. Margaret's parish in 1585, when John Coats transferred it to William Pole and his wife Thomasina. (fn. 88) This was probably the forerunner of one of the group of mills which stood near the top of London Road by the old toll bar, near the present Victoria Park gates. John Prior's map of 1779 shows three mills at this place, as well as the mill already mentioned on the cemetery site and two others, further down the London Road, near the present London Road railway station. Another windmill stood on the west side of the town, between the river and the Narborough road. Miss Watts, in her Walk through Leicester, written in 1804, advises the traveller, if he wishes to obtain 'a full view of a fine prospect', from the top of London Road, to 'turn aside from the road, and mount the steps of one of the neighbouring mills'. (fn. 89) On Greenwood's map of 1826 the mills are not named, but all may be identified with those named on Ellis's map of two years later, with the exception of Mount Pleasant Mill, which was perhaps then not built. (fn. 90) Ellis's map shows five mills, together with that on the cemetery site: Tower Mill, at the far end of the present Conduit Street, Marston's Mill in Saxby Street, Whetstone's Mill in Highfield Street, Holmes's Mill between Mill Hill Lane and Evington Road, and Mount Pleasant Mill, close by between Evington Footpath and Evington Road. It seems clear enough that the mills had disappeared from the Leicester sky-line before 1850. Two millers in London Road are mentioned in the directory of 1835, (fn. 91) but it is not clear whether they lived there or were using two of these mills. One was a John Kirk Holmes, who may have owned Holmes's mill. He is mentioned again in 1846, but this time it is clearly stated that his house was in London Road, and the mills had probably become disused before that time. (fn. 92)


A horse-mill, in the present High Street, then the Swinesmarket, was in existence by 1314, when it was farmed together with Castle Mill by John Caleys. (fn. 93) It remained the property of the Duchy of Lancaster until the 15th century. If the horse-mill mentioned in deeds in 1482 and 1492 is to be identified with it, it seems to have been alienated by then. (fn. 94) The horse-mill is mentioned in 1452 (fn. 95) and again in 1517–18, when the corporation was renting a tenement next to it. (fn. 96) By 1589 the queen again had possession of it and granted it in that year to the corporation, although she had previously leased it in 1580 to a William Spencer for 21 years. (fn. 97) The corporation leased it out in 1589, with two messuages, presumably standing adjacent. (fn. 98) The horse-mill still existed, as a malt-mill, in 1645–6, (fn. 99) when it had the two tenements attached, and its fee-farm rent was granted to the Trinity Hospital in 1650. (fn. 100)


  • 1. V.C.H. Leics. i. 306, 309.
  • 2. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1103–1327, 238.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. See below, p. 398.
  • 5. A. Hamilton Thompson, Hist. of Hosp. and New Coll. of St. Mary in the Newarke, 33.
  • 6. For its later history, see below.
  • 7. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1327–1509, 125.
  • 8. T.L.A.S. xxii. 148, n. 69.
  • 9. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1327–1509, 273.
  • 10. Ibid. 1509–1603, p. liii.
  • 11. Ibid. 1603–88, 37, 51, 57, 70.
  • 12. Ibid. 209.
  • 13. Ibid. 250, 290, 296; Leic. City Mun. Room, Misc. IX/3.
  • 14. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1603–88, 302.
  • 15. Ibid. 342–3.
  • 16. Ibid. 492.
  • 17. Ibid. 430.
  • 18. Ibid. 466, 467–8; Bodl. Libr., MS. Carte 78, f. 84.
  • 19. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1603–88, 492. John Turville was perhaps the goldsmith who was paid for altering the plate on various occasions and who made a new mace in 1649: Leic. Boro. Rec. 1603–88, 377, 398, 406, 469, 473, 494. He was chamberlain in 1652–3 and coroner 1661–2: ibid. 601, 603.
  • 20. Leic. City Mun. Room, Chamberlains' Accts. 1660– 5, p. 6; Leic. Boro. Rec. 1603–88, 492.
  • 21. J. Throsby, Hist. of Leic. 142–3.
  • 22. Leic. City Mun. Room, Hall Bk. 14 May 1718.
  • 23. Ibid. 1D32/326.
  • 24. T. Cook, Guide to Leic. (1843), 112.
  • 25. White, Dir. Leics. (1846), 179.
  • 26. Leic. Jnl. 8 Jan. 1849.
  • 27. Leic. Chron. and Leic. Mercury, 4 Feb. 1871.
  • 28. J. Storey, Hist. Sketch of Boro. of Leic. 76.
  • 29. Leic. Trade Protection Soc. Dir. Leic. (1875), 177.
  • 30. Cf. ibid. and White, Dir. Leics. (1877), 479.
  • 31. For the alterations see Storey, Boro. of Leic. 77, 78.
  • 32. Abstract of Accts. of Boro. of Leic. (1889–90), 204; (1892–3), 206.
  • 33. See above, p. 17, and Hamilton Thompson, Hist. of Hosp. and New Coll. of St. Mary in the Newarke, 33.
  • 34. It was valued at £8 6s. 7d. in 1545: Assoc. Archit. Soc., Rep. & Papers, xxx. 516–17; Cal. Pat. 1547–8, 300–1.
  • 35. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1509–1603, 81. Miss Bateson (ibid., p. liii) suggested that this injunction was perhaps one compelling the burgesses to grind their corn at the Newarke Mill. This seems very doubtful, as there is no record that the Newarke Mill ever enjoyed any such method of monopoly.
  • 36. Leic. City Mun. Room, 20D52/25/563.
  • 37. Ibid. 20D52/26/570.
  • 38. See pp. 63–64.
  • 39. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1603–88, 231–2.
  • 40. Leic. City Mun. Room, 3D42/43/1.
  • 41. Ibid. 3D42/43/3.
  • 42. Ibid. 3D42/43/4, 6.
  • 43. S. Stone, Rep. on Town Estate (1856), 6.
  • 44. Leic. City Mun. Room, 3D42/2/174–207.
  • 45. Storey, Boro. of Leic. 80.
  • 46. Abstract of Accts. of Boro. of Leic. (1892–3), 220.
  • 47. Nichols, Leics. i, App. 54.
  • 48. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1103–1327, 392.
  • 49. Ibid. 238.
  • 50. Ibid. 1509–1603, 251.
  • 51. Ibid.
  • 52. Ibid. 277. Immediately after the charter was granted Tatam leased half the mill from the corporation: Leic. City Mun. Room, 20D52/27/632.
  • 53. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1509–1603, 297.
  • 54. Ibid. 447.
  • 55. Ibid. 1603–88, 37.
  • 56. Ibid. 56.
  • 57. Leic. City Mun. Room, Press 24/IX/14.
  • 58. Ibid. Hall Bk. 12 Feb. 1724/5.
  • 59. Ibid. 14 Sept. 1801.
  • 60. Ibid. 28 Aug. 1819.
  • 61. Ibid. 11 Feb. 1821.
  • 62. Ibid. 17 Sept. 1827.
  • 63. Ibid. Chamberlains' Accts. 1832–3.
  • 64. Pigot & Co.'s Dir. Leics. (1828), 487, has the earliest ref. to this family at the North Mill; White, Dir. Leics. (1877), 450.
  • 65. Storey, Boro. of Leic. 79.
  • 66. Kelly's Dir. Leics. and Rut. (1888), 583. The last ref. to the mill is in Wright's Dir. Leic. (1904), 51.
  • 67. V.C.H. Leics. i. 315. For the position of the mill see T. and G. Ellis, Map. of Leic. (1828).
  • 68. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1103–1327, 5.
  • 69. Ibid. 1327–1509, 234.
  • 70. See above, pp. 381, 382.
  • 71. Leic. City Mun. Room, 3D42/10/2.
  • 72. Ibid. 3D42/10/1.
  • 73. Ibid. 3D42/2/651.
  • 74. Leic. Jnl. 19 May 1826.
  • 75. White, Dir. Leics. (1846), 179. The mill is not identifiable in any dir. before 1846 or between 1846 and 1877.
  • 76. White, Dir. Leics. (1877), 421.
  • 77. See above, p. 327.
  • 78. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1103–1327, 398.
  • 79. Ibid. 1327–1509, 126.
  • 80. e.g. ibid. 442.
  • 81. Leic. City Mun. Room, 20D52/25/553.
  • 82. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1509–1603, 298, 307; 1603–88, 9; see above, p. 371.
  • 83. Ibid. 1509–1603, 307.
  • 84. Ibid. 1603–88, 67.
  • 85. See above, pp. 266–7.
  • 86. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1509–1603, facing p. xvii.
  • 87. Leic. City Mun. Room, Hall Bk. 23 Aug. 1720.
  • 88. C.P. 25(2)/2648/2.
  • 89. [S. Watts], Walk through Leic. 127; J. Prior, Map of Leics. (1779).
  • 90. T. and G. Ellis, Map of Leic. (1828); C. and J. Greenwood, Map of Leics. (1826).
  • 91. Pigot, Dir. Leics. (1835), 133.
  • 92. White, Dir. Leics. (1846), 143; cf. I. C. Ellis, Rec. of 19th Cent. Leic. 214, 216.
  • 93. See above, p. 395.
  • 94. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1509–1603, 435, 440.
  • 95. Ibid. 259.
  • 96. Ibid. 1609–1603, 7.
  • 97. Ibid. 250.
  • 98. Leic. City Mun. Room, 20D52/30/690.
  • 99. Leic. Boro. Rec. 1603–88, 353.
  • 100. Nichols, Leics. i. 345.