The Water Mills of St Keverne
Anthony Unwin

From The Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall (1977).

In 1930, Charles Henderson wrote of St. Keverne ,"There have been at one time and another twelve corn mills in the parish, viz. Pengarrick, Tregarne and Mill Mehal on the Porthallow stream; Trenoweth and Tregoning on the Porthoustock stream: Godrevy, Polcoverack, Downas, Tregidden, Polkernogo, Trelease and Trelanvean, the last four being on the Durra stream. Only the Pengarrick mill is still working".

This account, albeit a little inaccurate, could well reflect the demise of water-power in Cornwall as a whole, and the awakening need to record such relics of local history and craftsmanship before they were completely lost. For, until changing circumstances encouraged their gradual disappearance, the splashing of mill-wheels, the rumble of mill-stones, and the creaking of the millers cart were a common enough part of village life in most localities. But today, only a fraction of these mills remain intact, and some have vanished without trace. Accordingly, the author has attempted to complete, as far as possible, the picture in St. Keverne parish outlined by Charles Henderson almost half a century ago, and has compiled a short gazetteer to complement his survey. It is dedicated to the late Mr. R. Richards of Chenale Farm, Rosenithon, St. Keverne. who both inspired and guided his researches.

The parish of St. Keverne is the largest, and one of the most important historically, in Western Cornwall, lying within the district known as "Meneage", from the Cornish Meneghek meaning "monastic". It extends over some 10,300 acres, and by virtue of its great size, was from an early date divided into four distinct areas or "Turns" viz. Turn Bean ("little"), to the north-east; Turn Traboe, the north-west; Turn Trelan, to the south west: and Turn Tregarn, the east. All four met at the Church Town, or "Lankeverne", which formed a separate district in its own right. Thus, from the St. Keverne Rate Book for the years 1721-1747, which lists those tenements extant throughout the parish, the following can be extracted:-

Turn Traboe-Trelease Mill.
Tregiden Mill.
Mehale Mill.
Turn Trelan- Coverock Mill.
Turn Tregarn-Tregarn Mill.
Trenoweth Mill.
the Church Town included Tregonon Mill.

These were the oldest and principal centres of grist-milling in the parish, whose origins can be traced back to the Middle Ages, and which continued in operation until comparatively recent times.

They were first conceived to serve the lords and tenants of the various manorial estates established locally sometime after the Norman Conquest, although there must have been more primitive methods in use before this time. The effects of feudalism were only gradually felt in such a remote part of the realm: but by the 13th century the new laws and customs, which obliged tenants to have their corn ground at the lord's mill in the best interests of all concerned, had encouraged the spread of a number of small tenements on each of the main streams serving this part of Meneage. Principal among these streams is the Durra which rises amongst the gorse and heather of Goonhilly Downs, and finally feeds Gillan Creek at Penpol ("Creek-head"). On its way it formerly supplied water over the centuries to no less than eleven mills, of which six were in St. Keverne parish.

As early as 1260 therefore, we find Reginald le Potier releasing to Sir Richard de Reskymmer the mill in his "demesne" of Treles, and another mill further down the (Durra) stream in his "fee" of Polcronogou. With these he granted the "mulcture" (custom) of his tenants in Treles, Lanharth, Trebyan, and Polcronogou, as well as power of "distraint" (seizure of horse and impounding of grain or flour carried thereby) in default of mulcture on his land of Menedlaed and in the fee of Treles. He also undertook not to erect any other mill in the fee of Treles on the said water to the injury of Richard de Reskymmer (to avoid wasteful competition and price-cutting!). Trelease mill remained one of the mills on the manor of Reskymer Meneage until the eighteenth century, when it passed to Lanarth, but the mill below Polkanoggo disappeared. In 1808 the former was described as "all those 3 well-accustomed Grist Mills called Trelease Mills - now in the possession of Richard Pentecost", but by 1845 it had become " . . . a Double Grist Mill only. It was, however, still "well supplied with water", and then part of Trelease Vean, together with "suitable outhouses, two cottages, an Orchard, Garden, and several meadows of rich land . . . ". It apparently continued work at least until the 1890s, and as a dwelling it survives today, although the long mill race, which began below Trenithen Waste, has been partially filled in and destroyed.

As previously mentioned, the Meneage area was from earliest times closely associated with monastic activity, and one of its most important manors in the Middle Ages, that of Traboe, was no exception. This large estate, which also extended into the adjoining parish of St. Martin, was granted to the monks of St. Michael's Mount by Robert, Earl of Mortain, about 1087, and belonged to them until the fifteenth century. It was their main endowment, and the manor mill, which took its name from the parent priory, lay in the valley below Lesneague, at Mill Mehal (formerly "Melyn Myhall" meaning "St. Michael's Mill"). In 1258 an agreement was reached between the prior and John of Trembrase, in which John granted to the prior and monks the water which flowed between his land and that of the priory, for an annual rent of sixpence. Permission was also given for a leat and sluice to be built for the priory mill on the same land, for which the prior gave John two shillings. Nine years later. Thomas of Polgwidnan granted to the prior, Ralph de Cartaret, his right in the moor, land, and waters near the leprosary of Nansclegy, in return for a recognition of Thomas' right to his vineyard opposite St. Michael's Mill, and part of the road from there towards St. Keverne. Thomas gave the prior and monks liberty to divert the water flowing in the moor, and right of way to their mill for horses and packs.

The fortunes of the priory mill followed those of the manor: about 1420 it passed to Sion Abbey, and in 1538 to the Crown. Not long before, in 1481 a Reeve's Roll reports that the mill yielded 26s. 10d. from one Rado Boteler.
After the dissolution, the manor came into the hands of the Earl of Salisbury, from whom the estate was acquired by the Gregor family of Trewarthenick.
By the 18th century. the yearly value of the mill had increased somewhat to £30 when Mr. Anthony Hosken was tenant. It was not until 1909 that the Trewarthenick estates came up for sale, at which time Lot No. 10 a "Messuage or Dwelling House, Mill and tenement called Mellin Mehall Mill Tenement", was stated to be let to Barnett Tripconey deceased!.

mehal mill
Mehall Mill

The present building, now a private house, lies on the side of the Porthallow stream opposite to Trembrase, within the estate of Lanarth.
Rectangular in plan and of two storeys, it has the more favoured hipped slate roof, which does not catch the wind like a gable-end, and withstands well the vibrations caused by the motions of the gearing. In this case the machinery was nicely set low down, near ground-floor level, in a shallow cog-pit. Grinding continued there intermittently until the adjacent dwelling caught fire some twenty-five years ago. Unfortunately, the water-wheel, axle, and most of the ironwork which combined with wooden gears to drive two pairs of granite stones, are now missing. The hillside slopes steeply all around the mill, and the land, which is built up to first floor level at one end to facilitate loading and unloading, is almost always waterlogged. Most of the leat, which passed through a meadow to the rear of the mill, from a small pond, has now disappeared.

Another site with early monastic associations lies in the valley below St. Keverne parish church. The barton of "Tregonan" was the chief tenement on the monastic manor of Lankeverne (Church Town), with a small cell of Cistercian monks from the Abbey of Beaulieu in Hampshire. In a list of their possessions made at the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, "Tregonan (firma. molend) is given a rental value of £1-2-6. Tregoning was then probably a large farm with a mill, and perhaps a chapel and burying ground attached. By 1840, the ruins of the monastic dwellings had almost disappeared but the mill tenement which remained consisted of Dwelling House, field, two water-mills, and garden, while water was supplied via a leat and three ponds from the Porthoustock stream below the Priory. The small upper mill building still stands, constructed of stone and cob with a slated roof hipped at one end, and gabled at the other where the 14 foot diameter wooden overshot wheel was formerly positioned. The last farmer to grind corn there about 1916 was named Pearce, but this mill is now a shell, and used for other purposes.

A similar fate has befallen Tregarne Mill, situated in the valley between Tregarne and Tredinnick and behind the Mill House which was rebuilt about 90 years ago after being burnt down. This must surely be the oldest mill building left in the parish, of cob upon solid rock, with a rounded exterior wall nearest the house. It is of one storey only, while the stable doors are very small and low, and the modern roof replaced thatch. Tregarne was freely held under the great Manor of Rosuic Lucy's and in 1404 it was itself esteemed a Manor. A Reeve's Roll of that year mentions the Manor Mill as being rebuilt. By 1659 there were four holdings in Tregarne, and Tregarne Mill tenanted by Fabian, wife of William Cullen, with their two children Leonard and Margaret under the Manor of Tregarne Condorow. They were followed by James Sandys. and then William Jennines who in 1767 was paying an annual rent of £20 for the Mills and Ground. By 1808 when his son, also William took over the lease, this sum had increased to £50-l0s.. in consideration of an additional water-mill, but its life was short-lived and in 1871 the rent reverted to £43. The one pair of granite stones was last used by William Harris, miller and farmer there from 1871 onwards.

The original machinery in such manorial mills was entirely wooden, with one or two small water-wheels normally over-driven by wooden launder from an artificial leat or race and mill-pond. Most of the leats for the St. Keverne mills are traceable today, even when the mill-buildings have entirely disappeared, as at Porthallow and Trenoweth Mill. Sometimes the mill-pond has been filled in: behind Tregidden grist mill, on the very edge of the parish, a bungalow now occupies the site of a large pond. which was formerly surrounded by a grove of stately elms. Occasionally, there was no pond at all, as at Trelease Mill; while below Trevenwith Farm, near Kennack Sands, a circular pond was reinstated for trout-fishing purposes long after the mill had finished work. Polcoverack Mill stands at such a height above the Coverack valley that it was necessary to channel water from several sources to collection points, before feeding it along a beautifully finished race of cut stone to the wheel. Like most of the water-wheels in St. Keverne parish, this was overshot and of "hybrid" construction (wooden spokes and buckets, cast-iron frames). Others varied in size from a small twelve-foot wheel at Porthallow to a fine twenty-foot example at Tregidden both by the St. Just-inPenwith Ironfounders Nicholas Holman and Sons Ltd., while the large wheel at Trevenwith was of less than eighteen inches "breast", unusually narrow. Several instances of "tandem" mills or wheels are recorded, indicating that sufficient power could not be generated by the smaller all-wooden wheel up to about fourteen feet in diameter, which could not be constructed on a larger scale with any degree of efficiency.

Internally, the drive would originally be direct to each pair of millstones through intermediate gearing, until the introduction of cast-ironwork in the 18th century encouraged the building of much larger water-wheels, with added strength and stability, which could drive two pairs of mill-stones at once if necessary. This was achieved locally by installing either horizontal lay" shafts from the internal "pit-wheel" to the upright "stone-spindle". in the earlier and smaller two-storey buildings. or a single vertical shaft which passed up through a three-storey mill and also drove a "sack-hoist". The grist-mill at Treeidden, near Newrown-in-St. Martin, alone retains a complete set of horizontal gearing for its two pairs of stones, together with a magnificent wooden "axle-tree" and bearing for its water-wheel. As usual, the all-wooden pit-wheel has end-on staves to drive shafts that are parallel with the axle instead of at right angles, while the machinery combines wooden gears with cast-iron to ensure more efficient running and less vibration. (A similar arrangement occurred at Mehal Mill except that one set of shaft-gearing, at right angles to the pit-wheel, was almost entirely wooden). "Tregudyn and the mill" are first mentioned about l250, when Odo fitz Hewin granted them to his son Michael. They were held under the great Manor of Rosuic Lucy's by the Reskvmers, who retained one of the mills of their sub-manor of Meneage here for several centuries, and by 1506 were worth some 25s. per annum. The present rectangular two-storey building continued in use until well after the Second World War. It is unusually designed with corner-stones, window, and door surrounds of granite, and contrasting arches of red-brick.

Another site where working days finished relatively recently lies behind the sheltered cove at Porthallow. In 1560 John Tretherif and his wife granted leave to John Reskvmer to make a "hedwere" on their land of Tregamynyon in "Keveran", and a water-course to his mill called Pengarrek Mill in the said parish, for an annual rent of sixpence. Presumably the leat mentioned is that which begins below Pengarrock Farm. and runs parallel to the stream in a straight line, with no pond, before turning sharp right to the rear of the Mill House. The old mill was replaced in the 19th century by a more modern 3-storey building of blue elvan, whose foundations are said to have rested on faggots because of the marshy terrain. It latterly ran two pairs of composition mill-stones, underdriven by overshot wheel, with a further pair driven by oil-engine. They were complemented by a substantial roller-mill, while the sack-hoist, housed in a domed extension in the roof, was also driven from the upright shaft and cast-iron machinery. It was one of the sweetest-running mills in the county, and the last miller, Mr. R. A. E. Sobey, still lives in part of the Mill House. By 1958 the wheel had gone, but much of the machinery remained, unfortunately the whole building has now disappeared, with modern dwellings substituted nearby.

Like most sites with manorial origins. Porthallow Mill served customers from far and wide in later times, as feudal customs died out, and the miller became an independent tradesman. Mills were then let on a system of lives, as the following advertisement demonstrates:-

July 28th. 1810. Mills for sale. On Friday the tenth day of August next, at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, a survey will be held at the house of John Stevens, Innkeeper, in the parish of St. Keverne, for selling, for the remainder of a term of 99 years, determinable on the deaths of 3 lives, aged 57, 14 and 12. All those well-watered Grist Mills, sit in the village of Porthoustock in the parish of St. Keverne, now in the occupation of Joseph Tripconey as tenant-at-will.

The above mills, being in good repair, and situated in a very populous and fertile parish.

Some mills however, like that at Polcoverack. were built independently of manorial jurisdiction, grinding farm provender to meet local demand, whereas others formed only part of their owners business. The village of Coverack at one time boasted three mills in a line, all worked from the same mill-race. This was fed by water from three ponds, two of which lay further up the valley behind the village, and one between the upper and middle mills. The last to grind grain was that of Richard Roberts, who was in addition a corn, flour, and coal merchant, and also a farmer, using the lower mill-building for storage purposes. The sad remains of his premises still stand, although hardly recognisable as such, where a small ten-foot overshot wheel can be seen, constructed by F. Bartle & Sons. Ironfounders of Cam Brea. This is not the original, which was a fine eighteen-foot hybrid example driving two pairs of granite stones, but was removed in 1931 from Poltesco Farm, near Ruan Minor, and installed here to drive a dynamo.

Some sites seem particularly strangely located today. The scant remnants of Godrevv Mill which stood near the sea-shore below Rosenithon, the manor which it served, can only be reached by a winding footpath following the course of the leat ("bedo molendini" worth 12d. rent in 1318) while those of Trelan Vean Mill which lie on the side of the valley opposite to Roscrowgey are now almost inaccessible. Both are 13th century in origin. Perhaps the smallest mill in the whole parish is also very difficult to find, lying in the secluded Downas valley midway between Coverack and Kennack Sands. At the foot of a long, steep, and overgrown cart-track which descends to the stream below from Pednavounder, and passes the remains of the dwelling-house above, are the ruins of a small rectangular stone building no more than twelve feet by ten feet, close by the east bank of the stream. Like Trevenwith Mill nearby, also very difficult of access, it ran but one pair of granite stones, powered by a large hybrid wheel on cast-iron axle. A small fireplace in one corner is an interesting feature of this remote tenement. originally known as "Wheal Downas Mill" from an old copper mine nearby which was active in the earls part of the 19th century.

Two other sites, which have so far eluded discovery, are those of the "tucking" mills which apparently stood near Mehal and Tregidden, where homespun cloth was cleaned, dipped and dressed with machinery driven by water-wheels. The latter is recorded as early as 1506, when Thomas Tregudvn returned in rent. "pro molendino fultonis". 7s. or thereabouts, and by 1621 it had become "Treguden Tuckingemille". In 1840. a field which lies a little further up the valley behind the corn mill, below Trewoon, was still called "Park Trutcher" or "Fuller's Close". Although parcel of the manor of Reskymer Meneage. it was a more independent operation, on a small scale, and was not manorial in the same sense as the corn mills.

In conclusion, one can say that about a century ago at least nine grist mills could have been working regularly in St. Keverne parish, producing both flour and provender for the needs of those in the immediate locality.
By 1914. several remained in use. but the First War was a kind of Indian Summer of the Country Flour Mill, and shortly after, the flour trade declined considerably. Soon, farmers were able to obtain their own small power-mills and, as a result. only three survivors continued grinding corn until relatively recent years. Porthallow mill, which was latterly run by the Collins family who also managed Gweek and Carne Mills, was the first to close in 1946. About three years later, the old farm-house of Mr. W. H. Eustice at Mehal Mill caught fire and burned down, forcing him to vacate the property, then in good order. This left Tregidden Grist Mill alone to work on until the unfortunate death of Mr. Harry Tripconey, the last miller, in 1954. However. the intervening years of decay, and the demand for scrap metal, have taken a heavy toll of even these mills, so that, of the twenty-one sites so far recorded, only the last-mentioned retains its fine overshot wheel, albeit in a sad state, together with machinery and mill-stones intact. Mehal Mill has suffered badly from neglect and destruction so that it is now quite derelict - it probably possessed the nicest layout of all its fellows. A few other buildings remain as shells, or converted to alternative uses, the rest are in ruins or have entirely disappeared. And so have passed the water-mills of St. Keverne. where today the streams pursue their course towards the sea uninterrupted by ponds, races and leats. Now, only a romantic remembrance of splashing wheel and tranquil riverside scene remains.