Very early maps of Gosport show a windmill at Haslar and another where St. George Barracks now stand. Both these mills have long since disappeared but some old people referred to the houses at the top end of North Street as Windmill Row.
By 1800 two windmills remained in Gosport, one near Haslar Bridge on Tragedy Bank opposite Fort Blockhouse, and the other at Anns Hill off Brockhurst Road in Windmill Road. Just outside the present Gosport boundary there was a windmill on Peel Common which was not pulled down until early this century and which was used for a time as a beerhouse, and another stood near Crofton Church. Both Fareham and Portsmouth also had a number of mills.
The early windmills had been constructed facing the prevailing wind, but they were soon superseded by the Post Mill which revolved on a central vertical pivot enabling the whole structure to be trundled around as the direction of the wind changed. In later years most mills were built with a revolving top by which the sails were kept square into the wind automatically by a fantail at the rear. Some of these had sails up to 80 feet long, but even these giants were unable to operate in a dead calm. Well might the old time miller grumble that the wind only seemed to blow on Sundays and holidays.
Martin Snape’s drawing of the mill at Anns Hill shows it to have been of a fantail windmill. Barges filled with grain were towed up Forton Creek, which then ran through the present Forton Recreation Ground as far as the mill, and returned with flour for the Royal Navy. It was still working in the middle of last century as it is recorded that a lad of 16, George Deacon, fell from the mill while attending to the sails and was seriously injured. He was buried in St. John’s Churchyard in Grave No. 1 in the Church Register which states he died on June 20th 1854 “after eight months of painful suffering which he bore with Christian fortitude“.
Also on Forton Creek situated at the bottom of Mill Lane at Forton was one of the last watermills in Gosport. Watermills were even older than windmills and date back to before the 11th Century, but by their very nature their sites were restricted. Where there were no rivers of any size, as in Gosport, they were operated by the incoming tide. Basically the tide coming up a creek would turn a paddle wheel which worked the mill stones. On the tide running out again the wheel would work in reverse. A water-colour painted about 1850 by Alfred Snape indicates that the Forton Mill was of this simple design – a picturesque three storey building with a central arch where the water-wheel was fixed and through which the tide flowed. Forton Barracks can be seen in the background.
Another watermill stood close to where the swimming baths now stand. It belonged to the firm of Paul and Marsh, who also owned the windmill on Tragedy Bank. Maps of the period show that the present Model Yacht Lake, formerly known as the Cockle Pond, was used as the original mill pond. Where a mill pond existed water would be stored up by the incoming high tide and released as required by the miller to work his mill.
In 1804, however, the Government were so alarmed at the possibility of invasion by the French that the Board of Ordnance were allowed to purchase the firm of Paul and Marsh for £3,150 and both mills were destroyed to permit the ramparts and the fortifications to be improved and extended. Evidently it was felt there were sufficient stocks of flour to cope with an emergency.
By far the most important mill in Gosport was in Clarence Yard at the bakery which produced ship’s biscuits for the Navy. In 1756 it is referred to as a horsemill in which the mill stones were turned by horses harnessed to them. In 1781 so great was the faith still in water power that a Mr. Smeaton, called upon to design a new mill for Clarence Yard, expressed no faith in the new-fangled “fire-engines”. They were, he said, liable to break down and leave the mill clogged with flour. Their function should be restricted to working a pump to hoist up water to a height of 34 feet at a rate of 460 cube feet a minute into a reservoir. The miller would then have proper control over a mill worked by water-power capable of grinding 400 quarters of wheat in the course of a week.
In the early 19th Century Mr. Thomas Grant, the Superintendent of Clarence Yard, introduced a far more efficient system worked by steam power by which the corn was ground by ten pairs of stones, and the coarser bran extracted, before the flour was delivered by a continuous process into dough machines. The dough was then passed through rollers to produce hexagonal biscuits about 8 of an inch thick and 5 inches across. A battery of nine ovens would bake a ton of bread or 10,000 biscuits a hour. The biscuits were baked stony hard to prevent them from going mouldy, but after months at sea it was usually necessary to tap them on the table to get rid of the maggots before eating them. The building which housed the old granary and bakery can still be seen at Clarence Yard, now converted to modern apartments.
Wheat was the most favoured cereal, but rye, barley and oats were all used to make a low quality bread for poorer people. Many of the farms and larger houses still ground their own crops in querns or millstones worked by hand to make a coarse meal for the domestic staff. Indeed, much of the bread eaten was mace at home. Pure white wheaten loaves made from wheat flour passed through fine sieves and sold by the professional baker were reserved for the gentry. To have white bread on the table was a kind of status symbol indicating wealth and substance.
The Gosport millers were lucky in that a higher proportion of wheat was grown in Hampshire than in any other County, probably owing to climatic conditions. Cobbett speaks of the whole of the southern slopes of the Portsdown Hills covered in golden grain as one of the fairest sights in all England.
When the wars ended the poorer classes began to demand whiter bread. The miller, given freedom from restrictions, was able to improve his technique by separating the offal for animal husbandry. By the middle of the 19th Century white bread for the first time became cheaper than brown.
In 1870 the introduction of roller milling and hard American Winter wheat revolutionized the industry. In less than 50 years the whole concept of grinding corn between stones disappeared almost completely. By 1920 only a few old mills were left, kept alive by the requirements of the 1914 war. Today few survive, mostly converted for other uses. One survives as a working mill at Burseldon, Hampshire.
In Gosport nothing remains apart from the buildings that adjoined the old Peel Common windmill at Cherque. We still have echoes of the past in ‘Mill Lane’ where the Forton Tide Mill stood and ‘Mill Road’, formerly Windmill Road, where the Ann’s Hill Windmill stood.
The Brockhurst Millers and The Hermitage.
The Master Miller at Brockhurst was William Vigar. He lived in The Hermitage at Middlecroft. William left The Hermitage to his wife Mary Vigar in 1818. Their son John became Miller at Brockhurst Mill. John Vigar was made ‘Hayward’ of Alverstoke from 1835 to 1850 by the Alverstoke Leet. He owned the Brockhurst Mill with its bakehouse, piggeries and stables and the Vigar’s cottages on the corner of Mill Road and Forton Road. Corn millers continued to live at The Hermitage until the 1870s. Mary Vigar died in 1854. She left her properties to her daughter Maria and then after her to her son. George who was the Miller at Brockhurst.
John Vigar died shortly after his mother Mary in 1854 aged 62. John O’Halleran Webb, Master Miller, lived in The Hermitage at Middlecroft according to the 1871 and 1881 census. He took over from George Vigar as miller. A deed from the 1880s speaks of Middlecroft Lane formerly known as Vigar’s Lane.
Forton Tide Mill
Forton Mill occupied land which extended down both sides of Forton Creek and across the Fareham Road to Ann’s Hill. The earliest record of a Mill on the site dates back as far as 1284. When Priddy’s Hard Armaments Depot expanded the owner of the Mill, Matthew Carter, who also owned much of the land around the creek, sold a parcel of land to the Board of Ordnance for the construction of a new military hospital. However, by 1800 the new Royal Hospital at Haslar adequately met the needs of the area’s military sick and it was decided that Forton would be better used as a barracks. As a result the design of the proposed hospital buildings had to be altered and an elegant complex was completed in 1807 along with a parade ground, which at one time was believed to be the largest in the country. At the time the site was described as having ‘four very lofty pavilions, connected by arcades of great extent with a parade ground of some acres. On the opposite square is the entrance gate with the apartments for officers.’
The mill and millpond were purchased by the Admiralty in 1858. The millpond was filled in as it was believed, probably correctly, that the high incidence of fatal diseases amongst the Marines was due to the poor state of the foreshore at low tide. M. Carter was declared bankrupt April 1822. The boundary of the millpond stretched as far as the Ann’s Hill Windmill and when the Admiralty purchased it they marked the extent with Admiralty boundary marker stones. Some have survived and can still be seen, if you look carefully. The land was used to create allotments west of The Crossways, with more used to create Forton Park.
In August and September 1858 Forton Mill, Mill Dam and Pond were bought by the Admiralty for £7457.17s.6d the owner of the mill being Mr Bylerley.
Corn Mills of Gosport by H.T. Rogers
The details of Ann’s Hill Mill and Forton Mill were derived from various local newspapers.
All photographs and plans were taken from the archive of the webmaster.