Historically harnessing tidal power15 December 2023
For over 900 years millers have been harnessing the power of the tides in Eling Creek to grind wheat into flour at Eling Tide Mill in England. Here miller Pete Ramm gives an insight to the historical project which is currently in need of refurbishment
Eling Tide Mill sits between the New Forest and Southampton Water, in Hampshire, England. It is built at one end of an artificial causeway that crosses the Bartley Water at Eling Creek, while gates at the other end control the flow of water into the pond. On an incoming tide the gates are lowered to allow the hinge panels in the gates to let the tide in. As the tide turns this, the panels shut, trapping the tide in the pond, ready for use in milling.
For over 900 years millers have been harnessing the power of the tides in Eling Creek to grind wheat into flour. Historically tidal mills were popular in the UK, and along Southampton Water and the Solent there were in the region of eight mills, but now Eling is one of only two working tidal water mills left in the UK – the other one is at Woodbridge in Suffolk.
Looking back, Eling Tide Mill has stood at the centre of life in Eling for centuries. There is evidence of a fifth century horizontal mill underneath the current mill, which would indicate Romano British construction on a site believed to have been used as a port. The Grade II listed tide mill standing today was built around 1785 and replaced an earlier mill that had been washed away by storms which damaged the causeway. This seems to be the way with tide mills at Eling as historical records indicate that two previous ones were also washed away.
The mill is a two-wheel mill that would have driven four sets of stones. The Doomsday Book, compiled around 1086, refers to ‘established mills’ at Eling, and a mill was often marked by its wheel, so a twin wheeled mill would be in the plural.
Under Royal ownership until the 13th century, the mill went through a number of owners until 1385 when the Bishop of Winchester, William of Wykeham, granted the manor to Winchester College to help finance the school.
Around 1895 it underwent a major refit with the latest Poncelet wheels and angled sluice gates being installed. This system, based on the geometry between the angle of the sluice gate and the paddle to maximise the energy of the water jet produced, gave a greatly improved efficiency. The machinery was manufactured by the local firm of Armfield from Ringwood and would have put the mill at the forefront of waterwheel technology.
However, the invention of steam power along with cheaper imported grain arriving in the mid-1800s, resulted in steam-powered roller mills in docks across the country to mill grain from Canada and elsewhere. Small mills using millstones (whether tidal, wind or river-powered) found it very difficult to compete and Eling, like many others, struggled on by producing animal feed. By 1936 the machinery was broken, and the last miller was using a diesel engine to power the machinery. Ten years later production came to a stop and although the mill was no longer used, it remained a local landmark.
In 1975 Eling Tide Mill was acquired by New Forest District Council who worked with dedicated volunteers and professionals to begin its restoration as a site of industrial archaeological importance. Eling Tide Mill Trust was established to oversee the final phase of the restoration and ran the mill as a working museum once it opened in 1980. It was later shut in 2014 to undergo further refurbishment and reopened in 2018 as The Eling Tide Mill Experience. A new visitor centre boasted a learning centre and café, with improved access to the outdoor areas of Goatee Beach and Bartley Water.
The mill originally had two waterwheels, which each drove two sets of millstones. One waterwheel has been restored, along with one set of millstones. Over the last few years however, the mill has reduced the amount of flour it produces, due to problems with distribution and sales, which has meant it has had to fall back on both New Forest District Council, (owners), and Totton and Eling Council, (operators), for funding. Recently in April 2023, mill production was paused on safety grounds, but it is the intension of the current miller to push production back up to in excess of 40 tonnes a year once the repairs are completed.
Leaking pond wall
Throughout the last 20 years, Eling has had a problem with a leaking pond wall which had deteriorated to such an extent that an engineering solution was sought in 2022. The plan is for resin to be injected into the wall to seal the cavity and prevent further movement of the wall but this option has been referred to Historic England for approval.
The leak from the wall has also adversely affected the beams supporting the machinery. These are made of green oak, were installed at the end of the 1970s and have suffered from erosion caused by the leak through the pond wall, to such an extent that structural engineers have advised their replacement. Inspections over the last year have seen a significant deterioration of the beams and the potential damage that would be caused by their failure in operation, has led the miller to cease milling operations and to seek rectification.
The leak through the wall has also led, indirectly, to damage to the toe board on the sluice gate. This is designed to slide over the seal, and shut off the water flow. Around ten years ago, due to a leak under the gate, a repair was undertaken that moved the gate forward as it closed and installed an angle iron stop. This has stopped the Poncelet system working correctly, by producing a ‘rolling wave’ instead of the correct jet. It has also given a less positive feel to the shutting of the gate.
For more information visit www.elingexperience.co.uk
Pete Ramm, Eling Tide Mill Miller
Eling Mill floods a few times each year -usually a combination of high tide, full moon, heavy rain, low atmospheric pressure and the wind from the Northeast will see us flood. By that, I mean, that the tide will come over the boards on the lower floor, which we call the Hurst floor. This often happens in the spring or autumn. This year we have come close to flooding and have flooded through the summer months. Data I have from 40 years ago give a tidal range of 1.98 m on Neap tides to 4.08m on spring tides. As I write, I have been keeping an eye on a 5.1m tide and for the next few days we have 4.9m and 4.8 forecast. Flooding occurs around 5.2m, so the surge, due to the weather conditions, are all important.