Dee Mills

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While the weir at Chester is very familiar, many people do not realise that its original purpose was to power the Dee Mills which used the River Dee to generate the power to grind corn and carry out other industrial processes. The Mills are largely overlooked by historians apart from a few references and an excellent book by local historian Roy Wilding. Today the most obvious relics of the mills is the disused hydro-electric plant opposite the Bridgegate and the restored (but non-operational) water wheel at the head of the salmon steps on the Handbridge side. For a almost nine centuries the mills were a significant source of income for those that controlled them, and are a major landmark in many old depictions of Chester. The mills were also the source of much dispute concerning the monopoly which the operator of the mill had on grinding corn in Chester.

A panorama showing the view along the Old Dee Bridge, and how narrow it is - traffic can old cross in one direction at a time. This is high tide in a rainy week, so the weir is almost completely submerged. The modern flats across the river used to be painted a lurid pink and were known as the "Ugly Pink Flats" - and thought by some to have a good view (because you could not see the "Ugly Pink Flats"). The building to the left of the bridge on the near bank houses a hydroelectric power plant and stands on the site of the Dee Mills. The Old Dee Bridge has railings on one side and a stone parapet on the other because it was widened in 1826 by Thomas Harrison to provide a footway.

The weir was built in sandstone in 1093 for Hugh of Avranches. It was designed to provide a head of water for mills on the River Dee. and to improve navigation above the weir. Hugh granted a tithe on the mills for the benefit of the Benedictine Abbey of St Werburgh (now Chester Cathedral), which he had founded in 1092. Throughout the centuries the weir has been used to power corn, fulling, needle-making, snuff and flint mills, and at times to pump water uphill to the city and generate electricity. The weir is at the normal tidal limit of the River Dee, although spring and neap tides will often flood over it. One consequence of this is that the mills could not be operated continuously but had to stop working at high-water, when there was insuffient downstream flow to operate the wheels. This meant that for centuries the mills would be worked at times which varied with the tides.

The Dee Mills just before demolition.

Roman Mills

Since prehistoric times, the goal of milling has been the separation of outer bran and germ from the inner, more digestible, endosperm of the wheat berry. The teeth of people from excavated villages dating back to 6,700 BC show no signs of wear that would indicate they chewed wheat. Apparently those early people already knew the use of stones for milling wheat. Pairs of stones, one for pounding or rubbing against another, are found at sites of ancient settlements in almost all parts of the world. The Romans are believed to have been the first to use waterpower for milling flour, about 100 B.C.

The Romans are known to have had a tile-works upriver at Holt and a Roman quay was found at Heronbridge during excavations by Chester Archaeological Society in 2001 where the natural watercourse met the ancient river cliff. This is thought to date from around AD130. It has been suggested that the River Dee was originally not navigable between Chester and Heronbridge and therefore that the Romans landed down-river cargo at Heronbridge and brought it overland to Chester. Old records also suggest that the course of the river was modified by the Normans:

  • "The river of Dee was drawn unto the said cittie with great charge by the said Earle or some of his predecessors before the Conquest, from the anciente course it held before, a myle or two distant from the cittie, and a passage cut out of the rock under the walls of the said cittie"

This could be a reference to work on the River Dee upstream of the present weir to improve navigation, particularly during prolonged dry spells, although it is unlikely that the river was altered as much as this quote suggests. The weir would certainly help by holding back water and maintaining depth. The survival of millstones of appropriate size suggests that there may have been Roman power mills at Chester, but there is no evidence from archaeology of a Roman mill at Chester itself. There may have been a mill at Heronbridge as excavation reports mention:

  • "traces of workshops involving bronze- and iron-working, a dock flanked by quay sides, corn drying on a large scale and a stream bed artificially deepened and revetted".

With all of this activity, in addition to domestic premises, it is not surprising that a millstone fragment was claimed to have been found in 1933, although this is barely and confusingly reported without any detailed context as:

  • "Charcoal, coal, window and bottle-glass, slag and lava of mill-stone were found".

Possible symptoms of a Roman mill yes, but still no positive identification of an actual watermill.

The Roman granaries were located near the Roman harbour gate, suggesting that the bulk of the grain arrived by river. Nowadays this is a site found between Watergate Street and Commonhall Street, bounded to the west by Weaver Street and to the east by Old Hall Place (this includes the former site of the offices of the Chester Chronicle). Bulk shipments of food, especially grain, had to be shipped by water wherever possible, given that the cost of overland transport, (at least according to the transport tariffs cited in Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices) would quickly become unsustainable for such large quantities of cargo. The payload capacity of most Roman freighter-ships of the period was in the range of 10,000–20,000 modii (70–140 tons).

Typically, a Roman garrison would store some six months worth of grain, and analysis of sewage from latrines indicates the legionary diet was mainly grain-based. Indeed grain, provided as part of a soldier’s government-issued rations, is the only component of the military diet for which an amount is specifically cited, and based on this it seems that a soldier’s grain ration (about 1.5kg) composed approximately 60-75% of his daily food supply (although a Roman soldier’s daily meat ration contained almost twice the calories-per-gram of his grain ration), and baking bread would have possibly been a daily task for the members of the garrison at Chester. In fact, part of a roman soldier’s equipment was a small skillet to bake bread.

Miller of Dee (Roy Wilding, 1997) is a very comprehensive history of the mills.

Norman Mills

Watermills were simpler to construct than windmills and were developed at an earlier date. By the time of the Domesday Book (1086), which records over 5,000 watermills (some clearly long-established), almost all communities had easy access to one. Nothing is known of the location of the mills in Chester prior to the Normans, when the Mills of the River Dee were first mentioned in 1093. Earl Richard of Avranches, gave little to Chester's Benedictine abbey during his short earldom; apart from the grant of a mill on Flookersbrook at Bache, which might suggest that a mill existed there before the Norman Conquest.

The Norman corn mills were located at the Chester end of the weir or causeway just west of the Old Dee Bridge, a site now occupied by a former hydroelectric generating station. It appears that there was a bridge here before the Normans came as Domesday refers to some locations with reference to the bridge. Although almost certainly the mills were always controlled by the secular authorities, Earls Hugh I and Richard pussibly intended that they should include a mill for Chester abbey. Under the Earls of Chester (Northgate Street excepted) the custom of "Soke Rights" required all citzens (excepting the occupants of the Abbey and other religious houses) to take their corn to the Earl's mills to be ground. Under these "Soke Rights" all grain grown on the lord’s estate had to be ground at the lord’s corn mill and owning querns and hand mills was forbidden. Although the "Right of Soke" was never written in law, it was commonly practised in Britain – and throughout Europe – until the 16th century, even after the country had moved away from feudalism. In Chester, attempts would be made to enforce the monopoly into the 17th Century.

Historians are divided as to whether the grant to the Abbey associated with Dee Mills was originally the grant of a right for the Abbey to build a mill as a source of revenue or a grant of a right to the Abbey to use the mill with a dispensation from tolls and charges. Some have suggested that Hugh of Avranches gave the Abbey a site for a mill but that this soon passed out of their hands, others that the monks had practically nothing to do with the Dee Mills during their entire history. Matters may not be helped by monks having a tendency to forge (or misrepresent) charters and create allusions to rights which they never actually possessed.

From earliest times the mills were exceptionally valuable. In 1237 (when there were six mills) they were leased (by the Earl) for the then enormous sum of £100, half the Earl's revenue from the entire city and over twenty times that for most other mills of the period. That the figure nevertheless reflected genuine income is suggested by the large sums which the king received when the mills were administered directly after 1237. Some historians have suggested that the Earl's rights bore heavily on the inhabitants, the basis being that at Earl John Canmore's death in 1237 the mills were destroyed by the citizens, despite the fact that they were themselves lessees of one mill for an uncharcteristic low annual rent of two tuns of wine. There may be an alternative explanation as to why the mills were burned, as after the death of John Canmore the Earldom reverted to the Crown and the death was not without associated suspicous facts:

  • Matthew Paris (who is not always to be believed) suggests that the Earl was poisoned by his wife (Elen ferch Llywelyn), and;
  • while John is generally accepted to have died on June 6th/7th 1237 (dates vary), the patent rolls record that king Henry III was already sending his condolences on June 6th 1237, something which indicates that the news of his death had travelled with remarkable speed.

The actual circumstances which led to the mills being burnt in 1237 upon the death of the Earl therefore still remain a mystery.

Bennett and Elton (volume 4) has a large and detailed section on the Dee Mills.

Although the king (Henry III) rented out the mills in the first year after the annexation of the earldom (formally only in 1246), thereafter they were at times returned to royal hands, perhaps because damage sustained in the unrest of 1237 had reduced their profitability. Certainly the revenues in 1238–9 were well below the earlier annual rental value. In 1241, however, the mills were repaired out of the revenues of the county, and thereafter profits probably increased. By 1245 they were again leased, to Roger of Mold (de Montalt), steward of Chester. Roger de Montalt was deemed one of the greatest feudal barons in the realm during the reign of Henry III, and accompanied Prince Edward (later Edward I) on crusade. Roger was constantly employed against the Welsh, and in the 44th year of Henry III, he was commanded to "repair to the borders, with the other Baron-Marchers, and there to reside for the defence of the country". The mills were presumably a reward or an incentive for his relocation. He died in 1260.

The value of the mills far exceeds what could be expected given the size of Chester and it is likely that grain was shipped in, possibly even from Ireland, and converted into flour which was then exported far and wide. Thus, while not a true "tidal mill" the Mills were located where the benefits of proximity to the sea and the port of Chester could be exploited.

Richard the Engineer

In the early 1270s the mills were leased to Richard the Engineer. Richard the Engineer first appears as the superintendent of works on the outer bailey of Chester Castle in 1265. When he renewed the lease for five years in 1275 Richard was charged £140 a year, and in addition was to maintain the mills and causeway at his own cost. In 1277 when he was put in charge of 1850 men (including 970 diggers, 330 carpenters, 320 woodmen, 200 masons, 12 smiths and 10 charcoal burners) at Flint to begin work on Flint castle for Edward I. It seems likely that Richard was granted control of the mills both due to his engineering knowledge and because of his close ties to the "king's works" in North Wales.

By 1279 Richard was evidently £100 in arrears, and the king considered granting the mills to his new monastic foundation of Vale Royal. One possible reason for this could have been the great fire of Chester of 15th May 1278, which seriously impacted the economy of the city. There was also local resistance to his explotation of his rights. At time Richard attempted to enforce the monopoly by seizing corn and malt which was sent for grinding outside Chester, and even by confiscating bread baked elsewhere. In 1289 a William Fox purchased bread at Warwick, brought it to Chester for sale and Richard had him slung into jail at the Castle. Fox brought an action and lost.

In 1281, Richard had received a fresh three-year grant of the mills together with the Dee fishery for the very large annual sum of £200. The mills' importance in the late 13th century is illustrated by the scale of that reconstruction thst Richard conducted and by the quantities of wheat (1,752 qr.) ground for the king's use over seven months in 1282 and 1283, something which shows the importance of Chester as a supply base for Edward's conquests in North Wales. The grant was renewed in 1284 for twelve years. In 1290 the king remitted £100 of the annual rent to enable Richard to construct two additional mills on the site, and for the remainder of the lease fixed the sum at £200. By 1298 substantial works were begun upon all of the then five mills next to the Dee Bridge - housed under two roofs in groups of two and three, they were moved to an adjacent site and completely rebuilt.

By 1300 Richard had been made lessee of the Dee Mills, fishery, and bridge (where he could collect tolls) for life. Richard was by all accounts rather successful: he was elected Mayor of Chester in 1305. He built a house, which appears to have been fortified, in Lower Bridge Street next to St Olave. He also (before 1309) built a house at Belgrave, after beginning to acquire land in Eccleston in 1284. Little of the Belgrave house remains other than the moat, and nothing survives of the property in Bridge Street. Richard the Engineer was lessee of the mills and fishery until his death in 1315.

The Millers of Dee would eventually produce tobacco.

Millers of Dee

Under the Earls of Chester (Northgate Street excepted) the custom of "Soke Rights" required all citzens (excepting the occupants of the Abbey and other religious houses) to take their corn to the Earl's mills to be ground. In addition to this monopoly, the Dee millers were known to take a quantity of grain from each sack, usually one sixteenth part (6.25%). This portion was sold to generate the profit for the operatator and wages for the Miller and his workers. The millers were often accused of taking more than their legal due and for centuries after, to call someone a 'Miller of Dee' was considered a serious insult, implying dishonest trading practices. At times there were calls for the measures used to be inspected. As the rent was fixed the objective was to make as much money as possible so that the rent was covered. The owner of the mills (King or Earl) was guaranteed the rental income. The value of the mills entered folklore in the form of a Cheshire proverb:

  • "If thou hadst the rent of Dee Mills thou would'st spend it"

Following the death of Richard the Engineer, the lease to the mills passed to Robert of Glasham (of the manor of Thurstanston), who was "engineer to the earl of Chester" 1315-20 (the Earl would have been the later Edward III), receiving a shilling a day and otherwise known as "the king's carpenter". Presumably he would have been involved both in works at Chester Castle and possibly in the deputation sent to Ireland in the Great Famine of 1316 to buy corn and other victuals for king Edward II.

Later still the lease passed to the abbot of Chester, who in 1335 claimed that he had been forced to rent the mills against his will. The ensuing inquiry established that the arrangements disclaimed by Abbot William Bebington had begun under his predecessor Thomas Birchills. The abbot was discharged from his responsiblity for the mills, which were leased instead to two leading citizens, Richard of Capenhurst and Thomas of Strangeways. By 1339, however, they were in the keepership of the chamberlain of Chester, a leading official of the palatine earldom, and they remained directly managed until 1341 when they were once more leased, These changes may indicate that the rent being charged for the mills was seen as excessive to those who could have rented it.

The older Bridgegate as rebuilt after the Civil War showing the octagonal "water tower".

The importance of the mills as a regional industry is also demonstrated by the fines collected for breaches of the rules and customs which surrounded them. The lessee of the mills was entitled to bring breaches before a special court which was under the control of the Justice of Chester. The fines levied went into the accounts of the whole Palatinate and in 1355 they were the third most valuable item in the revenue accounts. Anyone renting/leasing the mills would not get any compensation but they would have their competition closed down. The considerable quantities of millstones acquired, often from Anglesey (where some milstone grit is found near Red Wharf Bay), in the later 1350s and 1360s also imply either that the weir then powered many corn mills, or that heavy use required frequent replacements. Despite the apparent high throughput, the lessees of the mills appear to have claimed to make only small profits, and frequently a loss. It is probable that some of this was due to corruption as regards the accounts. In 1394 they were permanently resumed by the king (Richard II - who had a close connection with Chester, see Royal Treasure). They remained in the hands of royal keepers, who usually exercised their office through deputies, for the rest of the Middle Ages.

Pumping Water

As well as water-mills the technology existed to operate both horse-mills and wind-mills, but the water mill was the primary source of "industrial" energy for a range of purposes. In the year 1600 the Mayor and Citizens, granted to one John Tyrer the right to raise water from the Dee at the Bridge Gate, erect a tower upon the Gate, install a cistern, engines or other instruments for raising water and to open streets and lay pipes. The power for all this pumping was supplied by one of the mill wheels. Somehow this waterworks was eventually to pass into the hands of the Gamuls, with all sorts of accusations that this had been done illegally. During the English Civil War, when Chester was besieged by Parliamentary forces in 1645, King Charles I entered the City via the old Bridgegate and stayed the night at the house of the then Mayor, Francis Gamul on Lower Bridge Street.

Pennant describes the gate thus:

  • Above the gate is a lofty octagonal tower begun in 1600 by permission of the corporation by John Tyrer of this city containing the works which for a long time raised water out of the Dee to a cistern in the top whence it was conveyed in pipes to almost all parts of the city Possibly these did not answer their purpose effectually for in 1622 Tyrer had a new grant of a tower erected for a water work and a well place ten feet square near Spittle Boughton with full powers for the conveyance of the water to the cistern or conduit near the high cross This work which was first begun by the Blackfriars in the time of Edward I fell to decay In 1692 the works undertaken by Tyrer being found to be ruinous and useless John Hopkins and John Hadley by the encouragement of the corporation began new works for supplying the city with water from the river Dee for this purpose they purchased the grant made to Tyrer and also one of the corn mills for the conveniency of placing their engine The city confirmed to them all the powers formerly vested in Tyrer and particularly that of setting up a cistern opposite to the abby court as a constant receptacle for fresh water.

Pennant does not appear to be completely accurate here, as the first "water-tower" ("Tyrer's Tower") was apparently square, as illustrated by Randle Holme. This first tower was a tempting artillery target in the Civil War and, as a consequence, was destroyed during the siege of Chester. The later octagonal tower is also known as "Hopkin's Tower".

Unfortunately, little information survives about the actual mechanisms and machinery used to raise water to the cistern at the top of either the square or the octagonal tower. Apparently a "hydraulic engine" in the river fed two pipes leading to the tall turret above the Bridgegate, which provided a head for the long pipe running up Bridge Street to a cistern at the High Cross. Householders paid the city rent for domestic supplies. Tyrer's son, also John, was granted land at Boughton in 1621 to improve the supply to the cistern, and built a further water tower outside the Bars (of which no trace remains). In 1622 the corporation leased his father's waterworks back to him. In 1632 Tyrer sold his interest to a consortium headed by Sir Randle Mainwaring, but a dispute with Francis Gamul, who by then controlled the Dee Mills and causeway, led to Gamul's cutting off the supply - Tyrer had leased the site of his waterworks from the Gamul family, who owned the source of his motive power and an arrangement was devised by which no premises could have water unless they purchased all their flour from the Dee Mills. The privy council decided that Gamul must allow the supply to continue, but soon afterwards it was interrupted when the causeway was damaged and the water tower destroyed during the siege of Chester. In 1653, the Chester Assembly noted:

A print from Simpson's "The Walls of Chester", based on a drawing by Randle Holme (now in the British Museaum). This shows the earlier version of the water-tower on the gate, which was destroyed in the Civil war. The large gate to the left of the bridge is the Shipgate.
  • Owing to the decay of the water-works formerly operated by John Tyrer, deceased, water was no longer conveyed in pipes to the inhabitants' houses. It was ordered that the gentlemen who claimed the water-works under John Tyrer should, by the following 1st of May, answer whether or not they would rebuild the Water Tower and provide water as formerly. National Archives (original held at Cheshire Archives and Local Studies) (ZA/B/2/102v) 19th December 1653.

Although the tower was rebuilt after the Civil War, it is not certain when the water supply was resumed. The Assembly leased the works in 1673, but they may not have been restored to full working order, for in 1681 a reservoir elsewhere was under consideration, and in 1690–1 they were apparently not operational. The conduit from Boughton to the Cross was also no longer working. The conduit house at the High Cross was turned into a shop as early as 1652, and the lead was ordered to be taken up in 1671, though the building itself, or a successor built on its footings, remained standing on the corner of Bridge Street and Eastgate Street until the 1880s. In 1692 two water engineers, John Hadley of Worcester and John Hopkins of Birmingham, were given permission to repair the waterworks, and immediately began buying up shares in the Bridgegate water tower, from where they pumped water into a large cistern, built in 1694 on pillars above the shambles in Northgate Street, close to the highest point within the City Walls. This was later to be the location at or near where the Fire Station was later built: a place from where almost everywhere in Chester was downhill either for the flow of water or the rapid movement of the fire brigade.

The Gamuls

The Dee Mills passed through many hands, the most notorious being the Gamuls (of Gamul House) in the 17th century - the same Gamuls who required those supplied with water to purchase flour at their mills. In 1588 alderman Edmund Gamull, later mayor, paid £600 in advance (according to some accounts) to renew the lease on the corm mills at the reduced rent of £100, but the family got off to a bad start: the weir is known to have collapsed at least once in 1601, as recorded in a:

  • Copie of a Letter from Hugh Glaseour Mayor & the Aldermen of Chester to the Lords of the Privy Councill dated 29 December 1602 advertising that a Breach above 20 yards broad & 18 foot deep had been made in the middle of the Cawsey the last yeare by the Violence of the Waters whereby the going of Dee Milnes was stopped and all whose living depended on them in a fair way to be ruined And that Mr Edmund Gamull Fermor of the Corn Milles there had out of his own purse expended above £500 in repairing the said Cawsey but that it would require above £400 more to finish the same

The collapse of the weir was only the first of Gamul's problems. In 1607 some of the citizens, abetted by neighbouring gentry, proposed to demolish the weir to improve the tidal scour of the river, thereby ruining the corn and fulling mills and the waterworks. Another concern was that the weir caused water in the River Dee to back-up causing flooding upstream, but it is not clear whether this had been a problem long before the weir was constructed. Gamul was among those instrumental in ensuring that the Privy Council quashed the orders that a breach be made in the causeway. Commissioners who sat, originally decreed that one-third "of the said Weyre be pulled down and the river there made open" but this order was not carried out because an appeal to the Council decided the Commissioners:

  • "had no power to pull it down but only to abate it, if it had been enhanced"

The mills were not the only monopoly that the Gamul's were involved in: as part of a small consortium they also purchased the right to collect "prisage" which was effectively a tax on imported wine. By paying a fixed sum to the king they could collect one tun of wine (about 1,150 liters or eight "barrels") from any ship importing from ten to twenty tuns. The dependence of the Gamuls on the favor of the king to maintain their monopoly position would be one factor in their support, particularly that of Francis Gamul, for the Crown in the Civil War of the 1640's. Gamul was on the losing side in the Civil War and his eventual fate is unclear. Some sources state that he died at the age of 48 after an abortive uprising of 1654 for the future Charles II. If this was the case it would appear to have been a poorly documented English equivalent of Glencairn's 1654 Uprising in Scotland, and a precursor of the Penruddock uprising (1655). His son-in-law stated that he was executed at Exeter. The Parish Register of St Mary on the Hill in Chester states that he was buried there on 27 November 1654, and indeed the elaborate family tombs (the most prominent of which is that of Francis' father, Thomas Gamull, d.1613) can be seen there to this day.

By the 1650s the millers' monopoly had been broken and their income was correspondingly reduced; in 1654, although the leaseholders paid £179 in rent, the profits were allegedly only £44. By then Gamul was dead and the mills were vested in his five coheiresses. The husband of one having purchased two other shares.

The weir looking upstream from the Old Dee Bridge in 2014. The Suspension Bridge can be seen in the distance. The gate in the weir is at the base of the post in the foreground.

George Skene a Scottish soldier and politician (and also an alcoholic and member of the anti-Tory Whig party), visited Chester in 1729 and wrote as follows:

  • Septr. 20th, 1729. Rot. Walker having forgot my book of the Road with my Grand-Unkle Will's picture done by himself in litho, we stay'd this day at Chester, this being the chief port & Leverpool only an under branch, tho' more trade, the Collector of Leverpool will be worth 300 Libs. Sterl. a year, no vessel of any burthen can come up now tho' of old they did to the brige, and there is a tower call'd the water tower from thence, now the channel is so fill'd up, that they come in 8 miles down & the goods brought in carts & smallel vessels. There was a Dutch man offer'd to clean it & make it navigable for ships of any burthen only to give him the land he shou'd winn off the River, this was rejected most foolishly because said they the Dutch wou'd build on that betwixt us & the sea, what then they must be English subjocts, they have been at a vast work to straighten the channel thinking thereby to make it deeper & have off a large meadow where they keep a horse race, tho Spring tide which come up here above brige and keep'd off by a bank rais'd which makes a pretty walk & the whole banks of the River lin'd by five or six rows of oaken stakes driven in. Just above tho bridge is a dam which squints up to the other side a great way and the water coming over it makes a fall like that of London Bridge at low water, this dam makes nine corn mills go on this side and the paper mills on the other, each wheel makes two corn mills to go, but not both at once, when the hopper is empty they have a weak thin iron spring in the bottom with a pack threed fastened to tho end which goes thro' and is fastened to little boll which is hung near a stick with a pin in it, which stick & pin turns with the stone, when the corn is in, it presses the spring so as make the pack threed pull the boll to a side, when it is empty the spring comes to its place and lets the boll fall even which then is struck by the pin of the stick that turns round with the stone, and so rings, untill they put in there corn, which weight pushes down the spring and the boll out of the way of the stick, a very fine device to cause tell when the hopper's empty. This being mercate day at Chester the wheat sold at 4 1/2 shills, sterl. per measure or bushell which all summer had been nine and ten shillings. Here they are all Torys.

Steam Mill Street

Eventually the enterprising Mr Edward Ommaney Wrench, owned the mills (by then including a "Snuff and Tobacco Mill"). In 1790 he petitioned to extend the mills further out along the bridge but after a serious fire in 1819, decided to move their business to a disused cotton mill in Boughton by the newly built canal - "The Steam Mill" - where they used the newly discovered steam-engine for milling. In fact, it appears that Canalside at Chester was the location of the world's first steam-driven commercial flour mill using Boulton and Watt’s rotative engine in 1786 and predates the often-quoted Albion Flour Mills in London by three months - while work at the Albion Mill had started earlier, the Chester engine was the first to be completed and operated. The Albion Mill became more famous as the blackened shell of the building was the inspiration for William Blake's "dark satanic mills". This was not the first industrial use of the engine, as they had been in use for some time for boring cannon and pumping out mines and the barrels for the engines were first made by John "Iron Mad" Wilkinson at the Bersham Ironworks near Wrexham.

The fire which brought about the move was not the first fire at the Mills, Fletcher records:

  • 1789: This year the Dee mills were burnt down. Whether the fire happened from accident or design is not known tho many suppose the latter. On the lite of these mills the present extensive ones were erected said to be inferior to none in the kingdom. These valuable mills are the property of Edward Ommaney Wrench Esq and are now leased by Mr Whittle of this city, brewer.

Wrench prospered in Steam Mill Street, and expanded the mills until they became one of the largest milling firms in the country. The Wrench family were the last owners of the Dee Mills and held them until 1895. Other steam mills were also built along Canalside with the Albion Mills being constructed in 1868. The old water-powered mills were increasingly undermined by these developments but lingered on for a few more decades. In April 1895, the Dee Mills, were purchased by Chester Corporation, only to sustain serious damage a month later in the last of a long series of fires, after which they were closed. The buildings were used for storage until they were demolished in 1910.

A Dee Mills Gallery


The City end of the Old Dee Bridge was developed into a hydro-power station in 1913. The suggestion was apparently put forward on 1911 by Sidney Ernest Britton who had been appointed the City Electrical Engineer in 1903. The City Council referred the matter to A. C. Hurtzig as consultant engineer and the original design was revised to be more in keeping with its surroundings after comments from the Chester and North Wales Architectural Society. Although Worcester had an earlier hydro-electric station, Chester was the first place to have a "tidal" station and the design influenced a later scheme at York.

The completed station was equipped with three turbines, which by 1948 were generating up to 40% of Chester’s power, but ceased operation around 1950, after which it was used as a water-pumping station. The plant stands on the site of the Dee Mills. The simple front has unpierced stone face to generator hall inscribed in raised letters on a long stone panel "CITY OF CHESTER HYDRO-ELECTRIC POWER STATION : A.D. MCMXIII". A small ashlar entrance tower, right, has oak 3-leaf folding doors of 3 fielded panels in a Tudor-arched opening and a stone parapet. The west side to the river has a leaded lancet in tower, 3 buttressed bays with a pointed-arched spillway in the first and recessed pointed-arched panels of stone in the second and third; a weathered string; 2 pairs of leaded lancets to each bay and a shorter blank end-bay. The east side is similarly expressed, but with steel eel-traps to inlets and steel walkway.

Various schemes have been proposed to get the plant re-started, but as of 2020 none have got off the ground.

The Dee Mills from the Lavaux Map of Chester.

Handbridge Side

The "fulling mills" were located in Handbridge at the eastern end of the causeway. There appear to have been mills on the site by the mid 12th century, since the tithes of a mill "beyond the bridge" were bestowed on Chester abbey in a grant attributed to Richard of Avranches (1101–20) but more probably issuing from Ranulf de Meschines (1129–53). Fulling is a process in woolen clothmaking which eliminates natural oils in the wool (lanolins) and thickens the cloth. In effect it is a controlled version of what happens when a woolen garment shrinks in the wash.

One of the first industrial processes to be mechanised, from the medieval period, the fulling of cloth often was undertaken in a water mill, known as a fulling mill, a walk mill, or a tuck mill, and in Wales, a "pandy". In these, the cloth was beaten with wooden hammers, known as fulling stocks or fulling hammers. Fulling stocks were of two kinds, falling stocks (operating vertically) that were used only for scouring, and driving or hanging stocks. In both cases the machinery was operated by cams on the shaft of a waterwheel or on a tappet wheel, which lifted the hammer. Driving stocks were pivoted so that the foot (the head of the hammer) struck the cloth almost horizontally. The stock had a tub holding the liquor and cloth. This was somewhat rounded on the side away from the hammer, so that the cloth gradually turned, ensuring that all parts of it were milled evenly. However, the cloth was taken out about every two hours to undo plaits and wrinkles. The 'foot' was approximately triangular in shape, with notches to assist the turning of the cloth. Celia Fiennes, who visted Chester in 1698, described a fulling mill in Exeter:

  • " ..its a pretty diversion to see it, a sort of huge notched timbers like great teeth, one would think it should injure the serges but it does not, the mills draws in with such a great violence that if one stands near it, and it catch a bit of your garments it would be ready to draw in the person even in a trice; when they are thus scoured they dry them in racks strained out, which are as thick set one by anotheras will permit the dresser to pass between, and huge large fields occupied this way.."
A fulling mill from Georg Andreas Böckler's Theatrum Machinarum Novum, 1661.

In Roman times, fulling was conducted by slaves working the cloth with their feet while ankle deep in tubs of human urine. By the medieval period, Fuller's earth had been introduced for use in the process. This is a soft clay-like material occurring naturally as an impure hydrous aluminium silicate. It was used in conjunction with the traditional urine "wash". More recently, soap has been used as one of the functions of the earth is to remove oils and fats from the fibres. The second function of fulling was to thicken cloth by matting the fibres together to give it strength and increase waterproofing (felting). This was vital in the case of woollens, made from carding wool, but not for worsted materials made from combing wool. After this stage, water was used to rinse out the foul-smelling liquor used during cleansing. Felting of wool occurs upon hammering or other mechanical agitation because the microscopic barbs on the surface of wool fibres hook together in the absence of natural lubricants such as lanolin. Fulling was the first part of the cloth-making process to become mechanised, long before "cloth mills" contained mechanised looms.

Following the fulling process, the cloth was attached is to a tentering frame in order to stretch it to the required size by setting the weave to a consistent dimension and tension, and it also acted as a way of evenly drying and bleaching the cloth in the sunlight. The tentering frame was a wooden framework, similar to a fence, consisting of a number of upright posts or rails set at intervals in a line, fixed to which, one above the other, were two long horizontal bars stretching from one end of the row to the other. Whilst the top bar was set, the lower one, set parallel to the upper one, was adjustable to suit the required width of the fulled cloth. Fixed all along the bars every three or four inches were tenterhooks, L-shaped iron hooks, pointed at both ends. The tenterhooks on the top bar were set so they pointed upwards, while those on the lower adjustable bar pointed downwards, this meant that after fixing the edge of the fulled cloth to the tenterhooks, the frames were adjustable to cope with the differing widths of broadcloths and narrow cloths.

Burned down in the siege of Chester, the Handbridge-side mills were restored at the instance of the Clothworkers company, whose trade depended upon them. They continued in the company's possession until 1725, when two were sold to George Scott, a paper maker. In some ways paper making is similar to felting in that a wet mass of fibres are mechanically treated so as to mat together into a structure when dried. The mills could probably be used for both processes. Scott's father had leased the "Mill By It's Self" from around 1709 and the sone was eventually to buy both that mill and the "Higher Mill". The third mill was owned by the London stationer Edward Wrench. The two appear to have come to an agreement that Scott would not convert to corn milling and Wrench would not make paper. Records suggest that the majority of the paper manufactured was of the unbleached "brown paper" (kraft) variety used for packaging.

Mike Malley has written a useful article on "The Paper Mills of Chester" ("Cheshire History" (54)). He suggests that a paper mill may have been established here at the end of the 17th Century and describes how the raw materials for the manufacture of paper were rags, old ropes and fabric mill waste. He also explains how the Dee Bridge paper mills went out of business when advanced machinery was installed at the Roodee paper mill around 1824. Here, newly intoduced steam power was used not only to operate a foundry which converted pig-iron to cast, but also to produce pulp.

Paper, Logwood, Flint, Needles and Snuff

Scott, who had been based at the site since c. 1705, was also lessee of the third mill, which had been sold to the waterworks company. By 1745 he was operating two paper mills and a mill for grinding logwood (a dye), tobacco, and snuff. It is possible that the mills were also onvolved in the grinding of bark for the Tanning trade, another major industry in medieval Chester and one which was also located along the banks of the Dee near the Old Dee Bridge.

The Tobacco Works, before it was demolished and replaced by the "ugly pink flats" on the Handbridge side of the weir.

By 1757 one of the mills had been acquired by Edward Wrench to grind snuff, while the two in Scott's ownership ground snuff and logwood. The transatlantic tobacco trade to Chester is discussed under Portpool. The mid 18th century saw the failed attempt to set up a pottery in Handbridge and one of the mills was used to grind flint which can be used as a component in the manufacture of ceramics. The pottery business did not prosper and the mill switched-over to powering equipment for needle making. The mechanisation of the manufacture of pins and needles was seized upon by Adam Smith as the opening of his "Wealth of Nations". His account is perhaps the most famous description of an industrial process in the history of economic thought.

When the needle makers eventually went bankrupt (1933) the mills were sold to Thomas Nicholls and remained in use for the manufacture of various tobacco products until 1954, when it closed after a fire and the site was acquired first by Imperial Tobacco and then by the city. The buildings were demolished in the mid 1960s and replaced by housing, but the mill leat survived and a waterwheel was restored by Chester Civic Trust in 1988–9. The Nicholls were involved in the tobacco business for a couple of generations, at times in partnership with Edward Jones. Harriet and Thomas Nicholls had three sons, William Arthur Miller, Thomas, and George. William Arthur Miller took over, succeeded by his son William Norman, and after the fire partly destroyed the mill, he sold out to Imperial. Thomas moved to Rangoon, where he continued in the snuff business, but the family were interned by the Japanese and lost the business (and Thomas died in an Japanese camp).

The "fish pass" at the weir is sometimes said to be Norman but is not. It had been proposed since 1869 but was only built in 1913/14 by agreement between Chester corporation, the River Dee Fishing Board, and the owners of the weir. It comprised a 'ladder' of four broad pools, constructed parallel with the weir at the Handbridge end. The Dee Fishing Board activities covered the years 1866-1949 and its existence as a separate body attests to how much fishery activity occured around the weir. Its powers were transferred to the Rivers Dee and Clwyd Fishery Board in 1949 under an order of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. In 1950, it became the Dee and Clwyd River Board, under the River Boards Act, 1948. A residual flow of at least 364 Ml/d is maintained over Chester Weir, in all but the most testing of droughts. This safeguards migratory fish and limits the amount of saline water over Chester Weir during high tides. The weir is popular with canoeists and is reputed to have once carried a sign bearing a message which read: "Canoeing allowed Wednesday evenings, Sundays and at other times".

Despite it's importance as a milling center and the involvement of many of those associated with the early Industrial Revolution, the advent of steam power co-incided with a decline in the traditional industries of Chester. Chester had no easy access to coal, few other local mineral resources and the large scale production of flour was hampered to the poor state of the River Dee. By 1900 the mills that had once been a byword for enormous industrial wealth were all but dead.

"Miller of Dee"

"There Was a Jolly Miller Once" is a traditional folk song (Roud #503) from the Chester area. The song was used by Isaac Bickerstaffe's in the ballad opera Love in a Village (1762) composed and arranged by the prolific Thomas Arne. Arne is better known for his patriotic song "Rule, Britannia!" and the song "A-Hunting We Will Go". The opera is a pastiche and contains 42 musical numbers of which only five were newly composed works by Arne. The English libretto, by Isaac Bickerstaffe, is based on Charles Johnson’s 1729 ballad opera The Village Opera. The opera premiered at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden in London on 8 December 1762. Subsequently, other versions of Bickerstaffe's original song were made by various other poets. In 1857 it was found written on a fly-leaf of a copy of Dryden’s Miscellany (1716). Dryden himself died in 1700, so he didn't write it on the flyleaf.

Traditional setting of "Miller of Dee", featuring Henry VIII. There is no historic basis for the tale.

The setting of the song differs from that of the Dee Mills, as the miller is portrayed as the operator of a traditional country water-mill rather than a large industrial concern after the manner of the Dee Mills. The associated traditional folk-tale features a conversation between the miller and "old King Hal" (Henry VIII) in which the miller explains his simple and carefree life and the king concludes "Thy mealy cup (possibly "cap") is worth my crown".

In reality, Henry VIII actually owned the Dee Mills right up to his death, as they appear only to have been transferred outright on June 24th 1553 under Edward VI to Sir Richard Cotton, in exchange for some estates in Leicestershire. The disposal created a legal mess as regards the "soke rights", as the Gamuls, who would later on purchase the mills from the Cottons, wanted to enforce these. The Gamuls put forward a complex legal argument that they were effectively some kind of permanent leaseholder and therefore that they should enjoy the benefits of these ancient rights by being able to prevent others from operating mills in competition. The opponent in the relevant case was Elizabeth Bavand a wealthy widow who controlled the Bache Mill which had once been the property of the Abbey. As late as 1613 the lessee of the Bache Mill was still trying to enforce his monopoly on the inhabitants of Northgate Street with the Gamuls now arguing that the rights were all spent.

The "Miller of Dee" was never the contented and jovial character of the folk-tale and the song. The various operators of the mills over much of their time were in it for the money and very keen to extract as much revenue as possible from the mills, even to the point of enforcing their monopolistic rights to ensure that even small scale domestic grinding of corn was banned.

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