Bridgham had two watermills working at the time of Domesday and in 1251, the Bishop of Ely's survey also recorded two watermills - Town Mill and West_ Mill.
MEDIEVAL MILLERS c.1250
The link of Bridgham_windmill to various Ruddocks and, by association, to Mill House takes us back to 1558. It is only possible to go back further into the milling history of Bridgham by researching the water mills as nothing more is known of the windmill. Whether any of the water-mill millers ever lived on the site of Mill House isn’t known either, but it is worth giving a brief description of medieval milling in Bridgham, as it is ‘all grist to the mill’.
From 1007, the lords of the manor of Bridgham were the successive abbots/bishops of Ely. In 1251, Bishop Hugh, in the twenty-first year of his 'reign', ordered a thorough survey of all his manors, giving a more detailed glimpse of life in Bridgham than even a modern census is able to do.
This was very much feudal England. From the survey we can picture how the people lived and worked in Bridgham over 750 years ago. We know their names, their status in the social hierarchy, the amount of land they held, how much they paid for it every year, and the nature of the work and services they owed the lord. Reading the survey, we get an impression of an oppressive social organization, but should remember that what is written are the rules and not necessarily the practice. The formal terms of the contract between lord and tenant are not always, indeed rarely, exacted in full. How much was exacted varied from year to year according to the personalities and ambitions of the lord himself or of his managers. As today, owners and managers could be good or bad, benevolent, greedy or indifferent.
The lord of the manor personally held land to fulfil his own domestic needs. This included a fishery in the River Thet. The bishop’s fishery was between his two watermills, Town Mill and West_Mill, which were half a mile (or league?) apart. Everyone was obliged to take his or her corn for grinding to Town Mill, and pay for the privilege. This was a reasonable requirement. Building a mill was a costly investment and the lord, the only one with enough money to finance it, wanted to see a worthwhile return on his money. Meanwhile, Richard the son of Ralph rented West_Mill from the lord for £1 per year, which was then a farm with two acres of meadow nearby.
Toft holders were tenants holding smaller amounts of land. One of the nine toft holders was John the Miller. As he was not at West_Mill, one may assume he was at Town Mill which is likely to be the closer one to Mill House. He held a toft (i.e. homestead) and one acre of land at an annual rent of one shilling, two hens and five eggs. Work service was light. He had to find one man for each of the autumn boon works at which the lord supplied a meal. He made hay for one day and with three others provided haulage service every Advent, with the lord again responsible for their meal. It seems extraordinary that we can know so much about the working life of and entire village in remote, rural Norfolk over 700 years ago.
Alexander the Fenman typified the customary tenants holding one virgate of land. He was required to perform two services every week except for the 12 days of Christmas when this was somewhat reduced. Time off was not allowed for any other feast, nor incidentally was he excused work service for sickness. When he was sick, he had to find somebody else to perform his work services, perhaps a son or a friend. The list of work services owed was prodigious, covering most jobs on a farm though, of course, one man was expected to perform only part of each task. This extended to performing as the manager or undertaking any one of the other administrative jobs that organized the day-to-day running of the community.
The monks of Ely held many manors. Produce and resources were carted back and forth between them. Each virgate holder was expected to perform carrying services ‘within the bounds of his neighbourhood as much for short journeys as for long’. Alexander and his fellows also travelled to Kings Lynn, Norwich, Thetford or elsewhere to fetch millstones for Bridgham’s watermills.
The actual wording in the survey of the various mill-related excerpts are (translated from the Latin):
The payments above were licences or fines/fees: tallage (straight tax), gersuma (marraiage of a son or daughter), childwite (bastardy), heriot (death duty), and cupani (probably cow penny, for failing to have cattle in lord’s field over night - manure was valuable!).
As to Thomas Ruddock’s windmill, it was about this time that windmills began to appear across England. It is possible that his windmill was two hundred years old when he occupied it. We don’t know for how long one of the water mills had been burnt out (as is recorded in the Lovell terrier of 1558). ‘The abbuttalles in Shackettyme beginneth at Burnt Mill and soe leadeth North towards Bridgham furres and the Mill Field towards the West and the Tonn …(unreadable) on the east’. Given that we know the mills 300 years before 1558 were called west and town, ‘mills’ is probably the missing word. Furres = boundary
These water mills have been well past their ‘sell by date’ by Tudor times and may even have been ‘best before’ 1250 as the survey implies that West_Mill may not be in use. It seems extraordinary, but we can go back another two centuries and still find out about the state of milling in Bridgham.
BRIDGHAM WATER-MILLS & DOMESDAY BOOK
The Bishop’s survey had a national precursor in the Domesday Book of 1086. This, of course, listed the land, people, animal stock and, most importantly, the value of William the Conqueror’s England. Everything belonged to the king in this feudal age. There isn’t the detail we find in the 1251 survey. Nevertheless, there is some information that helps paint a picture of life in Bridgham after the Norman Conquest including the water-mill provision.
Bridgham consisted of four carucates of land [480 acres]. This is a far smaller acreage than the modern parish, equating only to the arable land that might generate income. A carucate was reckoned to be as much land as could be tilled in a year with the great plough drawn by eight oxen. The manor was a league long and three furlongs wide, another under representation.
There is only one named freeman in the village. Below the freeman on the social ladder were the villagers [or villeins]. Bridgham had 12, though this is taken to mean 12 heads of household and not 12 individuals. After the villeins, came the smallholders. Domesday Book compares situations in 1086, with those in the time of King Edward the Confessor. (William the Conqueror ignored Harold’s reign if he could!) So, before 1066, Bridgham had 10 smallholders, but later on, 17. These cottars or bordars, as they were known, were even less free and had more onerous service to the lord than the villagers.
In addition, Bridgham had four slaves in 1086. It is thought that this is the actual number of individuals, rather than the number of households. Slaves did not usually hold land and were the chattels of their lord, though he had to house and feed them. They were not entirely without rights and in their free time they could work for pay, sometimes saving enough money to buy land and freedom.
Domesday Book contains a few details about the agricultural structure of Bridgham. In 1086, there were four acres of meadow in Bridgham, presumably bordering the River Thet. Meadow was a more valuable resource than pasture, as it provided hay for vital winter feed, as well as grazing. The manor had three plough teams belonging to the lord and another three to the men of the village. A plough team was usually eight oxen. The iron-shared wooden plough had a mould board that cut the soil and turned the slice over in a continuous furrow.
The main crops were wheat, oats barley and rye. When the ground was prepared, the seeds were scattered from a basket slung over the shoulder and the soil harrowed to cover it. At harvest time, the wheat, barley and rye were cut with a sickle. Corn was bound into sheaves, which were stood up to dry before being carted off to be stored in barns. Threshing went on through the winter, with the grains of corn threshed out of the ears with a flail. Finally it was winnowed and taken off to the lord’s water mill to be made into flour. This sort of system required co-operative effort, and the sharing equipment such as ploughs and teams of oxen.
The most valuable building on a manor was the water mill. Bridgham had two mills. They were probably the West_Mill and Town Mill mentioned nearly 200 years later in the Bishop’s survey. In 1086 as in 1251, the lord of the manor would have had them built to grind his corn, but also (for a charge), that of his villagers. The miller, to whom the mill was hired out, might have paid some of his rent in eels caught in the weir-pool that served the mill.
Given all the evidence it is likely that from before 1066 to 1875 there was at least one functioning mill in Bridgham, a miller to work it and a Mill House in which he could live. A Mill House still stands, at least 950 years after the first mills were constructed. There have probably only been four mills in all that time, though rebuilt when the need arose, and it is 1,000 years since the first known ‘lord’ of the manor, one lady Aelfwaru, gave Bridgham to Ely:
"Bridgham, with everything pertaining to that village, within the village and without, in lands and waters, wood and field."
So, for many hundreds of years the owner of the mill and the mill house was not the miller but the lord. Even in more recent times, the ‘owner’ was a copyhold tenant who had to attend a manorial court to sell or inherit the property. Sometimes, this proprietor was not a miller nor the occupier and the miller lived elsewhere and the house let out to other families. It seems a fitting ending to list all the known lords, millers, copyhold tenants, free-holders, occupiers and, finally, owner-occupiers over the last thousand years of the land on which Mill House stands.
Domesday survey 1087: Two watermills
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Copyright © Jonathan Neville 2004