The uses of water power – a quick overview

From earliest times water power was by far the most important source of non-human motive power, and water power remained important in parts of this region until the later 19th century.

The earliest water mills were used for grinding corn, an alternative to using a hand quern which was a slow and laborious process. With a water powered mill, fine flour could be ground in large quantities. Corn mills were very important for many centuries, but from the middle of the 19th century the repeal of the Corn Laws had a significant effect on millers. Large rolling mills were established at ports to grind imported duty free grain, and this made it hard for inland millers to compete. Many corn mills closed or were adapted to other purposes, but there were still some working into the 20th century. 

The second main use of the water mill was to provide motive power for the textile industry. From the 12th century onward mills were built or adapted for the fulling of woollen cloth. Fulling was part of the finishing process by which woollen cloth was thickened through beating. (See glossary below). A water-powered fulling mill involved a wheel with projecting cams fitted to the same shaft as the waterwheel. As the wheel turned, the cams struck the heavy wooden fulling hammers and raised them, and then as the cam moved clear, the hammer fell into a trough containing the cloth with water and a cleansing agent. The next cam lifted another hammer – they were often in pairs- and the operation was repeated.

This technology continued to be used into the 19th century. A good example of a fulling mill can be seen at Upper Mill, Helmshore, Lancashire, which was originally an 18th fulling mill.

Mill machinery

Later mills and water wheels were also adapted to power bellows and hammers in the iron industry, to make paper, to prepare fibres for spinning, first cotton and then other fibres such as worsted and silk, and to turn wood working lathes to make bobbins etc. Sometimes a mill was used for several purposes at the same time, such as fulling and grinding corn under one roof.

Next section: Early English water mills

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