Saturday, 29 September 2012

New Mills: should it stay or go?


Here’s a first draft for my entry for this strange old building built across the Wensum. Famous these days for being the head of navigation for the river, the site oozes history. But what should happen now?

(Incidentally in plain English the head of navigation means the highest point on a river that boats can safely sail/motor to.)

Here goes:       

“The building on the New Mills site today is neither new, nor a mill, nor even plural come to think of it. But over the centuries, mills new and old have harnessed the power of the Wensum here and they’ve played a surprisingly pivotal role in Norwich’s history. Their very existence prompted a major uprising in the 15th century, while high bread prices provoked a good old-fashioned food riot in the 18th century.

The date of the first mill is lost in antiquity. One could well have existed before the Norman Conquest. We think the “New” refers to mills built in about 1430 when they were used to grind corn. These buildings were at the centre of a major row between the city fathers and the church authorities: the church (then - as now - a major landowner) claiming that the mill affected the flow of the river upstream at Heigham.

Relations between church and city were troublesome throughout this period, but it’s still surprising to learn that mill buildings could provoke what historians call “Gladman’s Insurrection” in 1443. As many as 3,000 people effectively besieged Norwich’s cathedral close, threatening to burn the priory and kill the monks. A noble called Gladman was alleged to have imitated the king, prompting accusations of treason. Ultimately the real king had to get involved and it was four years before the city was finally forgiven.

By the 16th century New Mills was also being used as a source of drinking water, with supplies being pumped towards the city centre. Private houses could now pay to have water on tap – even if the quality would still be seriously questionable for centuries. By the 17th century more formal “waterworks” are mentioned while it was clear that the power of the water was still being used to help fullers to clean cloth and millers to grind corn.

Then in 1766 the New Mills was besieged by a mob wanting fairer prices for bread. This food riot was one of a number to erupt across the country at this time. The mill itself seems to have survived but a large malthouse was set on fire.


The 19th century saw increasing concern over the quality of the water entering the works. With untold factories and privvies upstream, the New Mills were fighting an unequal battle and it was no surprise when a new waterworks was built at Heigham – a good mile upstream where the water was considerably cleaner. The last miller left a few years later and the mill buildings were finally pulled down in 1893. What we see there now is a Victorian pneumatic ejection sewage pump put out of its misery in 1973, together with some still-useful sluices.

So what should we do it now? True, the only other such sewage pump is to be found at the Houses of Parliament (insert your own metaphor here). But in reality New Mills is a modest building on an unattractive bridge without a hope of finding a useful purpose in life. So, future museum to Victorian engineering or blot on the landscape? I have to confess, I can’t quite decide.”

1 comment:

  1. It's a good question.
    I do have a bit of a soft spot for this silly old building, but at the same time it is pointless.
    The later-added extention over 1 of the 2 sets of City Station rails (still there on the bridge) makes it look off-balance and a bit awkward.