Over 1,000 Years of Milling at Thoralby
Early History of Thoralby Mill
Until the late 19th century one of the most important places in the village would have been the corn mill because people would have needed to grind oatmeal and flour to make the oatcakes and bread that formed a major part of their diet. There is some evidence to suggest that the earliest corn mill was somewhere on Heaning Gill.
The Ordnance Survey map below, published in 1856, shows Heaning Gill, to the north-east of Thoralby. I have highlighted the stream in blue and underlined the bridge crossing the gill on Eastfield Lane, which was, and still is, named Millbeck Bridge, providing evidence that there was once a mill on Heaning Gill, which was previously known as Mill Beck. The tithe apportionment and map of Thoralby produced in 1840 named the field upstream of Millbeck Bridge on the north side of the beck as 'Mill Beck', which reinforces the probability that in earlier, probably medieval, times there was at least one mill on this beck.
The Dales saw a large influx of Norse farmers (Danes from the 9th century and Irish-Norse from the 10th century), it is likely that simple Norse mills like the one shown below were common in the Dales during the Middle Ages. No confirmed Norse Mill sites have been found locally, but evidence suggests that a mill operating on Heaning Gill during the 13th and 14th centuries and another at Newbiggin may have been Norse Mills.
The above diagrams of a typical Norse mill show a simple horizontal water wheel (tirl), that didn't need a great force of water to turn it. A shaft from the tirl through a hole in the lower millstone, called the bedstone, was embedded in the upper millstone, known as the runner stone because it turned while the bedstone did not. There was no gearing in this simple system, so the runner stone turned at the same speed as the tirl. Grain from a hopper was fed between the stones through a hole in the centre of the runner stone, where it was not crushed but cut repeatedly by a scissoring motion between the grooves cut in the two stones and then expelled as meal from the periphery of the stones. A stone of about 30 inches (76 cm) diameter would turn at about 50 rpm, generating just under 1 horsepower and having an average output of 40-50lb (18-23 kg) of meal per hour.
The first documentary reference to a corn mill at Thoralby occurred in 1270, when the “partition of the lands and tenements of Ralph fitz Ranulf” following his death included “two parts of corn-mills of Thoroldeby, Arkesgard [Aysgarth] and Thorneton [Rust]”, which were bequeathed to Robert de Neville of Middleham Castle, the husband of Ralph's daughter, Mary. Following Robert de Neville’s death in 1271, his property in Thoralby and elsewhere remained in the possession of his widow, Mary.
A further reference to Thoralby corn mill occurred in a valuation dated 1298 of the lands and property left by Robert de Tateshale at his death to his wife Joan, also a daughter of Ralph fitz Ranulph. As Lord of Thoralby, Robert de Tateshale owned a third part of the corn mill, the other two-thirds being owned by his widowed sister-in-law, Mary de Neville. The water corn mill, which was probably on Heaning Gill, had a rental value of 120 shillings (£6) per year and a fulling mill, used for finishing woollen cloth, was probably on Bishopdale Beck and paid 26s 8d. (£1.33) per year in rent. There was also a corn mill at Newbiggin in Bishopdale paying a rent of 26s. 8d. per year, (see below.) Robert de Tateshale bequeathed his share in Thoralby corn mill to his widow Joan and this appears to have passed to her sister, Mary de Neville following Joan's death in 1310, because a grant dated 1312 refers to Mary as the sole owner of the mill.
1298: Valuation of the Property of Robert de Tateshale, Lord of Thoralby.
The 1301 Lay Subsidy (a tax on land and property) shows that in Thoralby 'Ricardo Molendinario' (the corn miller) paid 7s. 3d. (£0.36) in tax. The fulling mill used water-driven hammers to beat woven cloth in water, which had the effect of shrinking it and increasing the density of the material by causing the fibres to bind together. Fuller’s earth and human urine were added to the wash to remove the oil with which the wool had been impregnated for spinning. Originally, fulling was done by hand with clubs or by trampling the cloth underfoot, but using water power was more efficient. The cloth was then washed in the beck to remove the fuller's earth and urine.
The main reason for believing that the fulling mill was probably alongside Bishopdale Beck can be found in the field name, Tenter Garth. Tentering involved stretching out the cloth to dry on a frame of tenterhooks after the fulling process was complete. The field that is still called Tenter Garth would have been where this took place and it would have been alongside the fulling mill. The Tithe map from 1840, below shows the location of Tenter Garth field in relation to Bishopdale Beck.
The fulling mill was still in operation in the first half of the 15th century, when the annual rental was 30s (£1.50), but it had ceased production permanently by 1465.
A change from a wetter to a drier climate in the late Middle Ages meant that the supply of water from Heaning Gill became too unreliable to operate a water corn mill, which led to the mill moving onto Bishopdale Beck. The next documentary reference to a corn mill at Thoralby occurred in 1485, when Geoffrey Frank and Michael Wharton, both of whom were officials of the Lordship of Middleham, paid a rent of £4 per year for Thoralby mill. This may have been after the corn mill had been moved to a site alongside Bishopdale Beck.
[Details of this are in the next section: Thoralby Water Corn Mill - Present Site - Under Construction]