Witney borough: Economic history, ancient mills

Pages 108-111

A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 14, Bampton Hundred (Part Two). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2004.

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In 1086 Witney manor included two water mills together rendering 32s. 6d. a year. Probably they stood near the sites of Waleys or Farm Mill near the 12th-century manorial precinct, and of Woodford or Witney Mill at the town's northern end, at what may both have been early crossings of the river Windrush. (fn. 1)

Outlying mills at Hailey (near modern New Mill) and at Crawley were added probably in the late 12th or early 13th century, when the bishop invested in several new or expanded mills both for corn-milling and for fulling; an unspecified new mill at Witney was mentioned in 1208–9, and by 1210–11 the manorial mills were let for a total of £16 13s. 4d., rising by 1213 to £18. (fn. 2) The number of mills varied with the fortunes of the local cloth industry, (fn. 3) but all four sites were associated with cloth manufacture at various times, and from the early 19th century became increasingly mechanized. The following account summarises the history and ownership of Woodford and Farm Mills; Crawley Mill and New Mill are treated below, and the industrial development of the sites from the 19th century is discussed above. (fn. 4)

Witney or Woodford Mill

Medieval Mills Though individual mills were not usually recorded by name until the mid 13th century, a rent increase of 13s. 4d. by 1218 was specifically for Woodford Mill. The following year the combined mill-rent of £18 13s. 4d. was for three mills, though whether they were each on separate sites is not clear. (fn. 5) By the 1230s there were six mills on Witney manor, of which three were probably at Woodford: three tenants there paid rent of £12 a year, (fn. 6) the same rent which by mid century was owed for two corn mills and a fulling mill at Woodford. (fn. 7) Many 13th-century tenants of Woodford Mills also held Waleys or Farm Mill, (fn. 8) and included several leading burgesses. (fn. 9)

The Woodford fulling mill, of which half was let separately in 1301–2 and 1305 for only 10s., (fn. 10) may have been abandoned soon afterwards, reflecting apparent contraction in Witney's developing cloth industry. In the early 14th century Woodford and Waleys Mills were let together for a reduced rent of £13 6s. 8d., increased by the 1330s and until the Black Death to £14 13s. 4d. after Waleys fulling mill had been rebuilt; there was no mention of Woodford fulling mill, and a lease of 1347 granting the mills to two men for the bishop's lifetime again included only two corn mills at Woodford. (fn. 11) After the Black Death the two life tenants were unwilling to continue in their lease and their £100 bond was returned. In the 1350s all the manorial mills were let with difficulty for around £8, (fn. 12) and by 1362–3 they were again unlet. (fn. 13) In the later 14th century the two Woodford corn mills, no longer let with Waleys Mills, yielded rents ranging from £8 to £13 6s. 8d., but by 1398 and throughout the earlier 15th century only £7 6s. 8d. The tenant in 1398 held a 12-year lease, but by 1409 his tenancy was for life. (fn. 14)

In 1458–9 a new fulling mill was built on the Woodford site, possibly, as later, on the north bank of the mill stream. All three mills at Woodford, with 6 a. of demesne arable besides the usual mill meadows, were let for 20 years to Richard and Thomas Cobwell at £8 13s. 4d. a year. (fn. 15) In 1476 the lease was renewed at the same rent for 16 years to William Wady the elder, lessee also of Crawley corn mill, followed by 20-year leases to William Wady the younger (ending c. 1499), and to Richard Hill (ending c. 1524). (fn. 16) In 1524 the two Woodford corn mills were separately let for 21 years to an Oxford miller, (fn. 17) but before 1527 William Bishop took over the long lease of the corn mills at £9 a year, while the fulling mill was let on a yearly basis to his father Richard for 26s. 8d. (fn. 18) In 1538, after Richard's death, William fined for the fulling mill, (fn. 19) which seems to have been treated thereafter as a copyhold, distinct from the leasehold corn mills until the site was reunited in the 1880s.

The 16th to Early 19th Century The Bishop family (later sometimes called Bishop alias Martin) held Woodford Mills throughout the 16th century. (fn. 20) In 1590 John and Richard Bishop fined for the fulling mill on the death of their father Thomas, and in 1596 they were licensed to let it. (fn. 21) In the early 17th century the fulling mill copyhold became divided between female heirs of Richard Bishop, (fn. 22) and it descended in two parts until the 19th century. In 1646 Thomas King, whose family held the main lease of Woodford for much of the 17th century, was paying £9 rent for the two corn mills and the land, while Henry White and Thomas Jordan each paid 13s. 4d. for their share of the fulling mill. (fn. 23) The Jordans still held a share in 1665, but in 1678 William White, clerk, whose family had acquired its half of the fulling mill from Joan Bishop in 1626, died in possession of both parts. (fn. 24) In the 1680s White's daughter Elizabeth Pusey and her husband Richard surrendered half to Henry Ashfield (apparently mortgager since 1657) and the other to Anthony Barfoot, clothier; (fn. 25) the Barfoot share passed in 1703 to the Witney clothier John Collier, who in 1705 agreed a complex partition of the fulling mill property with Hannah Ashfield, which gave him the east end of the main building, the east side of a north wing, the mill wheel and two stocks, and the three northern bays of a separate work-house. The Ashfield and Collier families retained their interests in the fulling mill into the 19th century. (fn. 26)

In 1649, when Witney manor was sold by the Parliamentary commissioners, it was said to include three water corn mills at Woodford, together with 9 a. of arable and various meadow pieces; no fulling mill was mentioned, presumably in error. (fn. 27) The Kings employed millers, and the name Granger's mill at the Woodford site on a map of 1662 may refer to a subtenant, though the mill was still sometimes called King's Mill in the 1690s. (fn. 28) By then the lessee seems to have been Nicholas Beale, whose family also worked Crawley Mill. (fn. 29)

In 1739, when Lord Cornbury granted James Tasker a 21-year lease of Woodford Mills for £86 a year, they comprised water grist-mills and a fulling mill, the latter evidently distinct from the copyhold fulling mill shared by the Ashfield and Collier families; (fn. 30) land attached to Tasker's mills totalled some 25 acres. (fn. 31) In 1767 the duke of Marlborough renewed Tasker's lease for 21 years at £105 a year, (fn. 32) and in the late 18th century and early 19th Thomas Tasker was paying £125 a year for the mills, which were still described as fulling and grist mills in 1814. (fn. 33) Before 1818 Tasker had been succeeded as lessee by William Long, described in 1817 as a miller and of Curbridge; (fn. 34) he was, however, principally a farmer and timber dealer, and may have sublet the mills. Long was succeeded in the main lease, perhaps in the 1820s, by the blanket manufacturer John Early, presumably John Early (d. 1862). When the corn mills were converted to blanket making is not certain, but by 1830 John Early and Co. were established both at New Mill and at Witney Mill, the name by then applied to the leasehold part of the Woodford site. (fn. 35) A lease of the mills to Early, made on behalf of the duke of Marlborough before 1834, expired in 1838; in an agreement for its renewal made in 1837, the premises were described as a factory, fulling mill, dwelling house, and land, and it was noted that the mills had been burnt down in 1834 and rebuilt over the next year. (fn. 36) In 1841 Early's lease from the duke of Marlborough was of the mill house, the buildings which spanned the mill stream, and a total of 32 a. of meadows and closes. (fn. 37)

The Collier share of the copyhold fulling mill was let by the mid 18th century to the Collins family, local blanket weavers, (fn. 38) and in 1808 John Collier of Hatton Garden (Mdx.), son of Joshua Collier of Witney (d. 1735), re-let his share to Thomas Collins senior and junior for 14 years. By 1812, however, Collier's tenant was William Long, and in 1823 Collier's grandson J. P. Collier renewed the 14-year lease to Long and to Charles Leake. John Early was sub-tenant by 1828. In 1831 J. P. Collier sold his share in the mill to William Long, who had agreed a sub-sale, perhaps a mortgage, with the banker J. W. Clinch. (fn. 39) The Ashfield portion of the fulling mill was mortgaged from 1739 to the Palmer family, and the copyhold seems to have passed before 1757 to Joseph Palmer (d. 1768) of Witney, fellmonger, who bequeathed the reversion of his interest to various Ashfield relatives. (fn. 40) The Ashfields retained a share of the mill until 1811 when Richard Ashfield sold to John and J. W. Clinch; in 1829 J. W. Clinch was admitted to the copyhold. (fn. 41) Part of 'late Palmer's mill', however, seems to have been acquired by the Marriott family before 1786, when land tax on it was shared by an Ashfield and a Marriott, and Marriotts continued to pay tax on the mill into the 1830s. In the early 19th century the Ashfields' share of the tax was paid by John Collier, suggesting that he was sub-lessee before the eventual sale to the Clinches in 1811. (fn. 42)

In 1841 most of the copyhold part of the Woodford site was held by J. W. Clinch, but the fulling mill itself, sited on the north bank of the mill stream, was jointly owned by Clinch and Thomas Marriott; the tenant was the blanket maker Richard Early (d. 1856). Clinch also owned a corn mill, sited just east of the fulling mill and held by John Early's brother-in-law Paul Harris. (fn. 43) It is not known when that corn mill was built, but it was apparently not there in 1757, nor in 1814; (fn. 44) possibly it was built after John Early converted the main mills for blanket manufacture, perhaps in the 1820s.

The Mid 19th Century and Later Though the Earlys occupied much of the site from possibly the 1820s or 1830s, it remained divided until bought by Charles Early & Co. in the 1880s. In 1882 the firm renewed the lease of Witney Mills from the duke of Marlborough for 16 years at £178 a year, and in 1886 bought the freehold for £3,750; (fn. 45) two years later it bought from William Clinch the former copyhold fulling mill property, still known as Woodford Mill, which it may already have been renting. New industrial buildings were being added by the 1860s, and the corn mill was demolished in 1888, to be replaced by a two-storeyed stock house; the sites's subsequent expansion is detailed above. (fn. 46) The old mill straddling the mill stream, called the 'front mill', was extended in 1896 but burnt in 1905, and only partly rebuilt. The old fulling mill on the north bank of the mill stream, perhaps (like Farm Mill) rebuilt in the 1830s, continued in use as a stock house in the later 20th century. (fn. 47) The expanded site remained the Earlys' principal factory until the firm's closure in 2002.

Waleys (later Farm) Mill

A forerunner of Farm Mill was named Walens or Waleys Mill by the 1220s, probably from an earlier miller. (fn. 48) By the 1220s it contributed £3 6s. 8d. to the total manorial mill rent of £18 13s. 4d.; by 1235 its rent had increased to £5 6s. 8d. (fn. 49) In 1248–9 that rent was for two corn mills, but by 1251–2 Waleys Mills comprised a corn mill and a fulling mill, held by the two men who held Woodford Mills. (fn. 50)

The rent was unchanged in the later 13th century, when Waleys and Woodford Mills were let together, usually to three or four tenants. (fn. 51) In 1301–2 the mills were briefly in hand, repairs including re-roofing at Waleys. (fn. 52) By 1306 the Waleys and Woodford mills were let at a reduced rent of £13 6s. 8d., perhaps because there was no longer a fulling mill at Woodford. (fn. 53) In 1328 major works at Waleys included rebuilding the fulling mill, apparently extending it onto adjacent meadow; (fn. 54) the combined rent for Waleys and Woodford Mills was then increased to £14 13s. 4d., which remained unchanged until the Black Death. (fn. 55)

In the 1350s Waleys and Woodford Mills were let together at a much reduced rent, (fn. 56) but were frequently in hand in the later 14th century. (fn. 57) The corn mill at Waleys seems to have ceased, and by the early 15th century the fulling mill was let for terms of years at an annual rent of £2 13s. 4d. (fn. 58) A 20-year lease granted to two men at £2 a year about 1440 was renewed to Robert Box and Thomas Nobys in 1460, and in 1496 William Box took on a new lease of two fulling mills at Waleys at the same rent. Box was still lessee in the 1520s, (fn. 59) but from the 1530s the mill was let for £2 a year to successive members of the Brice family, lessees of the bishop's manor house and demesne farm. (fn. 60) By will proved 1548 Thomas Brice left to his brother Richard reversion of Waleys fulling mill, which had been sublet to his uncle, the prominent clothier Leonard Yate, for a term still unexpired at Yate's death in 1554. (fn. 61) In the later 16th century Stephen Brice's £32 -rent for the demesne included £2 for Waleys Mill, which was still held on identical terms by Thomas Brice in 1630. (fn. 62) Though still called 'Wallis Mill' in 1646, and shown (unnamed) on a map of 1662, by 1695 it was recorded as Farm Mill; it was said still to belong to the demesne or Witney Farm, but no subtenants were noted. (fn. 63)

Farm Mill remained a fulling mill in the 18th century, and from 1736 was let by Lord Cornbury for 7 years to the Witney mercer and woolstapler Edward Witts at £35 a year. Witts, who evidently sublet, was succeeded in the lease before 1756 by his son Edward, who was lessee at the end of the century. (fn. 64) By 1813 Messrs Hankins and Co. were lessees at £52 10s. a year, increased before 1818 to £63; by then the mill was let with some 6 a. of land. (fn. 65)

The blanket manufacturer Edward Early (d. 1874) acquired the lease of Farm Mill before 1841 (fn. 66) and probably much earlier: possibly he was responsible for building the surviving mill after it was destroyed by fire in 1837. (fn. 67) Early remained lessee in 1863, paying £125 a year. (fn. 68) In 1841 the mill house was occupied by a wool carder, and in 1861 the mill was a woollen-mop factory, with a resident foreman. (fn. 69) In the early 1870s the mill was converted by the firm of J. W. Gardner for manufacture of agricultural manure from bonemeal; (fn. 70) that venture was short-lived, and in 1881 the mill was vacant. It was taken over before 1887 by A. L. Leigh, a corn dealer at No. 34 Market Place, who until at least 1903 operated Farm Mill as a flour mill, powered by water and steam. (fn. 71) Before 1907 Leigh was succeeded in both shop and mill by Walker & Atkinson Ltd., who continued there until around 1930. (fn. 72) In 1952 the freehold was sold by the duke of Marlborough, and when re-sold in 1955 the mill still contained an undershot wheel and other machinery. (fn. 73) In 1966 it was bought by Oxfordshire County Council for use a record store, but was sold in 1998. (fn. 74)


  • 1. VCH Oxon. i. 401; above, intro. (communications; origin and devpt).
  • 2. Winch. PR 1208–9, ed. Hall, 18; Winch. PR 1210–11, ed. Holt, 63; Hants RO, 11M59/B1/4.
  • 3. Above (medieval cloth ind.).
  • 4. Above, intro. (bldgs: blanket ind.); below, Crawley, econ. hist.; Hailey, econ. hist. The following accounts are by A. Crossley.
  • 5. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/4, 7–8.
  • 6. Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', 30–2, 245.
  • 7. e.g. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/22.
  • 8. e.g. Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', 245; Hants RO, 11M59/B1/37, 39, 44, 52, 57.
  • 9. Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', App. V; cf. Bampton Hund. R. 91 sqq.
  • 10. Winch. PR 1301–2, ed. Page, 133; Hants RO, 11M59/B1/61.
  • 11. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/61 sqq; Reg. Edington, ii (Hants Rec. Ser. 8), p. 74. The list of early 14th-century mill rents in Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', 309–15 mistakenly assigns the fulling mill to Woodford.
  • 12. Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', 170, 309–15.
  • 13. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/115.
  • 14. Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', 309–15; Winch. PR 1301–2, ed. Page, 88–9.
  • 15. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/193.
  • 16. Ibid. 11M59/B1/205–6, 215–17, 234.
  • 17. ORO, B1/D/1: modern translation, location of original not stated.
  • 18. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/235 sqq; ibid. 11M59/E1/73/5.
  • 19. Ibid. 11M59/B1/247.
  • 20. For the fam., Witney Ct. Bks., refs at p. 217.
  • 21. ORO, Misc. Je. I/1, ff. 25v., 62.
  • 22. Blenheim Mun., B/M/144, f. 45v.; B/M/145, pp. 37, 208, 262.
  • 23. ORO, SL 9/18/E/1.
  • 24. Blenheim Mun., B/M/145, p. 208; B/M/148, pp. 180–2, 300, 513–15.
  • 25. Ibid. B/M/147, p. 243; B/M/148, pp. 620, 687; Witney Mills deeds (1678, 1687), in possession of J. B. Crawford.
  • 26. Below.
  • 27. PRO, C54/3418, mm. 39–41.
  • 28. ORO, MS Wills Oxon. 298/4/25; Bodl. MS Top. Oxon. d 212, ff. 10–12; PRO, E 134/7 Wm. III/Mich. 12.
  • 29. PRO, E 134/7 Wm. III/Mich. 12; below, Crawley, econ. hist. (mill). For Beale, ORO MS Wills Oxon. 116/2/44.
  • 30. Blenheim Mun., box 156, lease of 1739; cf. ibid. B/M/154, pp. 151, 201; B/M/186, pp. 30, 75.
  • 31. Blenheim Mun., shelf A2, bdle. 22, 'Oxon. Partics. 1759'.
  • 32. Ibid. box 156, lease of 1767.
  • 33. e.g. Blenheim Mun., Shelf A 6, box 2, land tax redemption pps. 1799; Hants RO, 11M59/E2/248950, no. 6, rental of 1813. For Tasker's mill property in 1814–16, Blenheim Mun. E/P/31 and Godson, Witney Map.
  • 34. Hants RO, 11M59/E2/248950, no. 6, rental of 1818; ORO, Cal. QS, ii, p. 238.
  • 35. Pigot's Lond. & Prov. Dir. (1830); for Early's tenure of the copyhold fulling mill, below.
  • 36. Notes by J. B. Crawford on agreement of 1837, formerly in possession of C. Early & Co.
  • 37. ORO, Curbridge tithe award and map.
  • 38. Notes by J. B. Crawford on Witney Mill dispute (1757), from unlocated MS in Blenheim Mun.
  • 39. Cf. Witney Mills deeds (1808, 1825, 1830–1); ORO, QSD L.98, s.a. 1785–1831.
  • 40. Blenheim Mun., B/M/154, p. 201; B/M/186, p. 75; ORO, MS Wills Oxon. 97, ff. 130v.–132.
  • 41. Witney Mills deeds (1781, 1811, 1829).
  • 42. ORO, QSD L.98, s.a. 1785–1831.
  • 43. ORO, tithe award and map.
  • 44. Notes by J. B. Crawford on Witney mill dispute (1757); Godson, Witney Map (1814–16).
  • 45. Sale Cat. 24 June 1886, lot 18: copies in ORO, Dr. V/i/1; notes by J. B. Crawford from MSS formerly in possession of C. Early & Co.
  • 46. Above, intro. (bldgs: blanket ind.); Fig. 26.
  • 47. Ibid.; West Oxon. Standard, 27 June 1969.
  • 48. For medieval millers and mill rents, Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', pp. 309–15 (App. V).
  • 49. Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', App. V.
  • 50. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/22–3.
  • 51. Ibid. 11M59/B1/24–57.
  • 52. Winch. PR 1301–2, ed. Page, 133–42.
  • 53. Above.
  • 54. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/82.
  • 55. Ibid. B1/83 sqq; Reg. Edington, ii (Hants Rec. Ser. viii), p. 74.
  • 56. Above.
  • 57. e.g. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/139.
  • 58. Winch. PR 1409–10, ed. Page, 88–9.
  • 59. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/181–240; 11M59/E1/73/5.
  • 60. Ibid. 11M59/B1/240–8; Witney Ct. Bks. pp. xlvii, lxxx–lxxxi.
  • 61. Cf. ORO, MSS Wills Oxon. 179, f. 265; 180, f. 201v.
  • 62. e.g. Hants RO, 11M59/B1/281–90; Hyde, 'Winchester Manors', p. 319.
  • 63. ORO, SL 9/18/E/1; Bodl. MS Top. Oxon. d 212, ff. 10–11; PRO, E 134/7 Wm. III/Mich. 12.
  • 64. Blenheim Mun., box 156, leases of 1736 and 1756, rental of 1750–1; ibid. shelf F2, box of misc. deeds, lease of 1747; ibid. shelf A 6, box 2, land tax redemption pps.
  • 65. Hants RO, 11M59/E2/248950, rentals of 1813, 1818.
  • 66. ORO, Curbridge tithe award and map.
  • 67. Oxf. Chron. 28 Oct. 1837. It was not at that date a corn mill, as implied in Witney Gaz. 11 Dec. 1964.
  • 68. Blenheim Mun. E/P/58.
  • 69. PRO, HO 107/872; ibid. RG 9/906.
  • 70. Ibid. RG 10/1452; Harrod's Dir. Oxon. (1876); Kelly's Dir. Oxon. (1877).
  • 71. PRO, RG 11/1515; Kelly's Dir. Oxon. (1887 and later edns); Witney Express, 28 Aug. 1879.
  • 72. Kelly's Dir. Oxon. (1907 and later edns); ORO, DV VIII/335 (map) and DV X/93 (schedule).
  • 73. Blenheim Mun., shelf G5, sale of 1952; Sale Cat. Farm Mill (1955): copy in COS.
  • 74. ORO, CCE 1507. For the building, COS, PRN 846; above, intro. (bldgs of blanket ind.).