In the days before the railways, most rural communities would have had a local mill where the farmers could take their grain to be ground into flour, and the miller would have been a figure of some importance within the community.
The onset of the Industrial Revolution, however, and the coming of the railways during the 19th Century saw the closure of nearly all these local mills. Although some have survived as either house conversions or outbuildings, many have disappeared from the landscape altogether.
The small village of Poynings, situated at the foot of the Downs north of Brighton once had two mills, powered by the water that emerges in the form of springs at the foot of the northern scarp of the Downs, where the porous chalk meets the impermeable clay of the Weald.
This is the story of one of them, known variously as Manor Mill or Poynings Mill, which had a particularly interesting and unusual history.
Today, only the mill house, where the miller and his family would have lived, survives, but there must have been a mill on the site since Saxon times as the Domesday Survey of 1086 recorded that as well as a church the village also held two mills valued at 12 shillings.
During the Norman years the manor of Poynings was held by William son of Rainald de Poynings. The Poynings were an important family during the Middle Ages, and when Thomas de Poynings died in 1339, amongst his properties was “a water mill in the manor of Poynings, worth yearly 20 shillings and not more because of the scarcity of water in summer time.”
Over the next two centuries the manor passed through the hands of the Earls of Northumberland until in 1537 it was conveyed to trustees for the use of King Henry VIII, who granted it to his standard bearer, Sir Anthony Browne, the owner of Cowdray House near Midhurst and Battle Abbey.
The condition was that it would remain within the Browne family as long as there was a male heir to inherit. Should the male line die out, then it would return to the Crown.
In 1554 Sir Anthony Browne became the 1st Viscount Montague. Thus the manor and the mill remained within the ownership of the Montagues for nearly 250 years.
However, in 1793 tragedy struck the family when the 8th Viscount was drowned whilst travelling in Europe. His servant returned to England to tell of the dreadful news, but when he arrived back at the family seat at Cowdray, he found it in ruins following a fire caused by workmen working in the south wing. Consequently, Poynings and its mill then reverted back to the Crown, and the Tithe Apportionment of 1843 gives the name of owner of the mill as “Queen Victoria.” Over the ensuing years the Crown sold off most of its holdings in Poynings, although the mill house remained in Crown ownership until the 1960s.
Whilst the affairs of state were going on around it, the mill saw a number of millers come and go over the centuries.
The Burial Records show that Thomas Payne, miller, was buried in 1606. By the early 1700s it was in the hands of the Souch family. James Souch seems to have been a man of some considerable means, as the inventory taken at the time of his death in November 1737 valued his goods and chattels at £507 2s. 2d, which included the tools of his trade such as “Sacks - numbers uncertain £2 5s. 0d.” and “1 Bushell, ½ Bushell and other small measures – 10 shillings”.
His will shows that in addition to the mill at Poynings he also had a windmill near Lewes which he left to his wife, Susannah, and he also owned a barn and lands at Speldhurst in Kent.
The Cowdray Estate records show that a James Souch was still in occupation in 1780 and paying £10 a year in rent. From the early 1800s a number of millers seem to have come and gone. In 1804, at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the Defence Schedule drawn up by the local militia noted that the miller of the time, Robert Loase, claimed that he could produce 30 sacks of wheat every 24 hours, although this may have been something of an exaggeration!
By 1815 the mill was in the hands of James Graimes, whose family would operate the mill for the next half century and would witness the changing face of the countryside as industrialisation began to make its impact.
James Graimes was still working the mill in 1861 when the Census shows him to be aged 83, and 10 years later it was being worked by his son, Timothy. Between 1881 and 1891 it was worked by Joseph Cockerton, and the last miller to have worked it commercially was a William Sayer, whose name appears on the Land Tax records for 1896.
On the 1901 Census no one was living at the mill and it was noted “Not up to occupation.”
There is some evidence to suggest that it continued to operate for a few more years as a mill producing cattle feed for nearby Manor Farm.
In May 1939 it was visited by Sydney Simmons (1901– 1973) who spent most of his life visiting and recording old mills.
He noted on his visit “Undoubtedly a very ancient building and probably one of the oldest watermills in Sussex. It is now in a very bad state of repair, and was already in a weakened condition when its working days were brought to a close in 1919.”
In February 1946 Simmons returned once more but this time he noted, “Poynings Mill has just been pulled down. The brick foundations are still very obvious. Some shafting remains on the ground nearby.”
And so after nearly a thousand years Poynings Mill vanished into history. It had seen kings and princes come and go, it had provided a livelihood for generations of millers and their families, but it no longer served any useful purpose, and its time had come.
This story was contributed by Richard Howell - an independent historic buildings consultant, researcher and historian