History of Combe Mill

Overview

There is a lot to seen at Combe Mill.  The Mill Building itself has many interesting features and close examination of its structure and markings tell us a lot about how this industrial building was used during its long history.

The original timber sawmill is at right angles to the museum building and is now office accommodation.  Power to turn the sawmill machinery was delivered from under the workshop floor by means of pulleys and belts long ago removed from the undercroft.  However, quite a lot still remains in the museum building and visitors may still see the line shafting and belts in operation and driving exhibits.

Power for the Mill was usually taken from the water wheel unless the River Evenlode was running too low to power the wheel.  When this happened the steam engine was used until 1912 as the source of power.

Remember that this site was the workshop for Blenheim Palace Estate and not just a timber mill.  Upstairs in the Mill building was the pattern shop.  Here skilled craftsmen made the patterns and moulds from which to cast the various iron objects needed by the estate.  Visitors can see several such patterns for window frames and gear wheels, for example.

Carpenters, wood turners and wheelwrights also worked in the building and some of their machinery and tools can be seen.

During the First World War

We continue to explore the part that Combe Mill played during the First World War and how the war affected the lives of the workers and their families.

The Mill was commandeered by the War Office for the manufacture of pit props and duck boards for use in the front line trenches.

Because the beam engine has failed in 1912, power to drive the woodworking machinery was derived from portable steam engines that was parked in the yard and connected to the line shafting.

Students of Oxford Brooks University have researched the lives of some of the Mill workers 

Brief Timeline

1086 Recorded in Domesday Book

1611 Flour mill owned by Johnson family

1766 Sold to 4th Duke of Marlborough

1850s Mill rebuilt to make workshops, sawmill and forge for the estate

1886 Front extended and new steam beam engine and Cornish boiler installed

1912 Beam Engine stopped working

1950s Electricity arrived and water power was redundant

1969 Beam engine ‘re-discovered’ and volunteers restore it to working order over next years

1975 First public steaming of beam engine : Head race had been filled in by now. Combe Mill Society formed

2000 Working sawmill closes

2003 Mill listed Grade II* by English Heritage to protect contents

2010 Mill leased from Blenheim by Combe Mill Society

2012 Mill re-opens as a working industrial museum after Heritage Lottery funded conservation and improvement project.

History of the Mill

Combe Mill is a sawmill belonging to the Blenheim Estate of the Duke of Marlborough.  There has been a mill on this site since Saxon times; the Domesday survey of 1086 refers to a mill at ‘Cube’, which is known to be Combe, and it is reasonable to assume that the mill had existed for some time before that. In those days the village of Combe was also in the valley, east of the mill, but it was deserted in the fourteenth century, possibly as a result of the Black Death, and now stands at the top of the hill about a mile from the mill, around the fourteenth century church. The present sawmill dates from the mid-nineteenth century and was originally powered by a water wheel and a beam engine, both of which survive, both having been restored to working order.

The beam engine bears the date 1852, but it has been suggested that blocked windows on the east side of the building indicate avoidance of window tax, thus dating the building prior to 1851. At the same time as the engine was installed a new breast shot water wheel was fitted at the opposite end on the existing wooden spindle remaining from an earlier wheel.  The mill machinery, including the forge blower and the whetstone on the ground floor and a band saw and lathes in the upper workshop, was driven via flat belts from pulleys on the line shafting, which could now be turned by either water or the mill machinery. The two sources of power allowed work to continue regardless of the state of the river, and the increased reliability meant that other processes could be carried out here also.

Heritage Status

In 2003 English Heritage recommended that Combe Mill be raised from GRADE II Listing to GRADE II*. The Secretary of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport authorized this.  See the statement on the next page.

EXTERIOR: Front gable has keyed segmental arch over C20 first-floor door, stone lintel over C20 window to left and C20 door below. To right, a large round chimney adjoins bell cupola set in octagonal pyramidal-roofed stair-turret. Long 8-window range to rear, with timber lintels over 2 plank doors, loft door, and mid/late-C19 casements to right side wall. Keyed segmental arches over openings on left side wall.

INTERIOR: The internal machinery is complete and includes a rare surviving example of 1852 A-frame steam engine with Cornish boiler and fuel store connected by line shafting to the rear room where there are bellows and a mid-C19 forge and grinding wheel, and upstairs to the mid-C19 wood lathe. Dual-drive water wheel to rear with 1926 breast fed 'Poncelet' water wheel.

Listed at Grade II* for its complete and working set of machinery including the 1852 beam engine and boiler, line shafting and gearing, forge and lathe, which altogether is a rare survival of importance in a national context, and of interest as an originally dual-powered mill whereby water or steam power could be used depending on the water supply. It is also architecturally distinguished externally and has historical and group value within the Blenheim estate."