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New Mill

On the River Windrush half way between Witney and Crawley. New Mill spans the river and the north-eastern half is in Hailey parish, while the south-western half is in Crawley parish.

Physical structure

New Mill, view from the south showing the range of buildings spanning the River Windrush.
New Mill, view from the south showing the range of buildings spanning the River Windrush.
New Mill consists of a long range of stone-built buildings spanning the river at right angles, with extensions either side of the mill pond. A surveyors report from 1809 records that 'the mill and buildings are of stone and slate, old and in many parts much out of repair' [1].

An important factor that shaped the development of New Mill was a series of damaging fires taking place here in 1783, 1809, 1818 and 1883. The walls were built of stone but the floors, roof supports and much of the machinery was made of wood, creating an ever-present fire hazard while the mills relied on candles for their lighting needs [2]. The premises were rebuilt after each disaster with parts of the earlier structures being incorporated into new and larger mills. In 1830 the building was two and a half stories high with a continuous dormer window in the roof, a feature unknown in other local mills. This provided light for the hand-powered spinning mules located on the top floor [3]. By the 1880s New Mill consisted of a large three-storey block at right angles to the river containing carding and willeying equipment together with two breast-shot water wheels. Two extensions on either side of the headrace contained fulling stocks and further carding and spinning machinery [4].

New Mill, the mill race looking downstream.
New Mill, the mill race looking downstream.
The fire of 1883 was described in the Witney Gazette of the time as 'one of the most calamitous conflagrations that has ever taken place in this district' and many spectators gathered to see the fire and the resulting devastation. William Cantwell, a local builder was employed to rebuild New Mill after the fire [5], although the height of the building was reduced to two stories. The two water wheels here were kept on in use after the rebuilding as they continued to provide a free source of energy compared to the use of steam power, which required fuel [6].

The surviving building is built from rubble stone with brick arches to the window and door heads and contains some of the earlier masonry [7]. In addition to the main mill buildings there was a foreman's house and eight workers' stone cottages on the site [8].

Despite its name New Mill is actually one of the oldest mill sites in Witney. A document of 1661 (part of a lease) refers to a fulling mill 'commonly called New Mill in the Tything of Hayley' although a mill was present on this site for a long time before this; one is recorded as existing here in the Domesday Book of 1086.

This site had a long association with the Early family who either owned or occupied part, or all of it over several centuries. During the early 1800s New Mill was leased by a partnership of Edward Early, John Early and Paul Harris who carried out spinning operations here [9].

New Mill, the north-eastern end of the range spanning the River Windrush.
New Mill, the north-eastern end of the range spanning the River Windrush.
For much of the 19th century it seems that New Mill was effectively two mills: the north-east part was in Hailey parish and on the south-west side, a fulling mill, in Crawley parish. At one point the latter was leased to Messrs Leake and Long who washed, shrunk and tentered other people's goods on a commission basis, while in the northern half there was spinning machinery operated by John Early. Both businesses each had a waterwheel side by side, each using half the mill pond [10].

Charles Early (1824 - 1912) acquired an interest in the southwest part in 1866 while the other part passed to three of Edward Early's children in 1874. One of these was Walter Early, who with his brother Thomas, carried out a spinning concern in part of the mill. Both of them unfortunately came to tragic ends: Walter was found drowned in a water butt and 'Mad' Tom took his own life with a shotgun. After the fire of 1883 Charles Early was able to acquire most of the mill lands on either side of the river including the river bed and became sole owner by 1894 after the death of Walter Early [11].

The mill was then run by Edward Early and Sons, a subsidiary of Charles Early and Co., until it was formally absorbed into the larger firm in 1921. It remained in use by Early's until the 1950s when the spinning operations here were transferred to a new department in Witney Mill. It fell into disuse after this and the site was sold off in the 1960s [12]. New Mill is now occupied by a variety of small businesses.

What was the site used for?
A fulling mill near to the site of New Mill is recorded from the early 13th century [13]. It seems likely that cloth fulling was carried out here during the following centuries and then gradually extended to take in additional stages of cloth production. Certainly by 1818 New Mill was adapted (or rebuilt) to cater for spinning operations [14].

Edmund Wright introduced powered spinning to New Mill around the beginning of the 19th century. Unfortunately for him, he fell in the millpond and was crushed by his own waterwheel, much to the delight of the local hand spinners [15, 16]. His ghost was said locally to have reappeared soon afterwards, and indeed New Mill still has the reputation of being haunted.

Charles Early had the first Knowles and Houghton self-acting power spinning mule installed at New Mill in 1853. This was an improvement on earlier power-driven mules as they had required adjusting by hand before they would wind the spun yarn onto spindles [17].

A plan published by the Witney Gazette on the day after the 1883 fire revealed that at the time of its destruction there were around 24 different rooms or departments including mule rooms, willey shops, carding rooms, spinning rooms, tucking shops, water wheels and an engine house [18], so it is clear that by this stage it was catering for most stages of blanket production except weaving.

After the 1883 fire New Mill was re-equipped chiefly as a carding and spinning plant but also had machines called 'doublers' (for producing mop yarn) and produced yarn for wadmill tilts. Dyed or dirty wool was also blended at New Mill, well away from the white wool blending that was carried out at different sites [19]. It remained in full use until the 1950s, when spinning operations transferred to Witney Mill.

Clare Sumner