Thoralby Water Corn Mill 

It is not known when Thoralby mill moved to an unidentified site alongside Bishopdale Beck, but it was probably in the late Middle Ages, when climate change reduced the water in Heaning Beck to a level insufficient to power a mill. The new mill on Bishopdale Beck will have been powered by an undershot waterwheel (see image opposite), which was not very efficient because it relied on the power of the water hitting the paddles at the bottom of the waterwheel to turn it. In times of drought when the water level in Bishopdale Beck was low, the mill would not have been able to operate. 

A Survey of the Lordship of Middleham was undertaken for King James I, who owned the Lordship. The Survey was dated 1605, although much of the material it contains dates from 1618. It listed three ‘corne mills’ in that part of the Lordship of Middleham known as ‘Bishops dale Chace’, which comprised the townships of West Burton, Walden, Thoralby, Bishopdale, Newbiggin and Aysgarth. The corn mills were at West Burton, Thoralby and Aysgarth, of which the most valuable was Thoralby Mill, where George Dodsworth was the tenant. It had an annual value of £10 and paid £4 per year to the Crown in rent. West Burton Mill, tenanted by Henry Hodgson, had an annual value of £8. 10s. 0d, (£8.50), which was not much lower than the value of Thoralby Mill, but for some unexplained reason Henry Hodgson only paid £1. 6s. 8d. (£1.33) per year in rent. Aysgarth Mill, tenanted by Robert Dixson, was a much smaller affair with an annual value of £1. 10s. 0d (£1.50) and paying only 3s. 4d. (17p) in rent each year.

An addendum to the survey in 1618 states: “The greatest part of these two Lordships [Middleham and Richmond] consists of Meadow and Pasture, & Out Commons, with a small quantity of arable land, it being not able to bear corn for the coldness of the soil and the length of winter there…" Since grain could not be grown locally, it would have been purchased at markets such as Richmond and Skipton, either by the miller or by local residents who took it to the mill to be ground.

Below are several extracts from the Survey (courtesy of the DCM, Hawes).

Although the Survey did not include every inhabitant of Bishopdale Chase, it did include all who held sufficient property to be liable to taxation, so a broad comparison can be made between the mills and the communities they served. While there will have been exceptions, Thoralby Mill will have ground grain for most of the 65 taxpayers in Thoralby, the 34 in Bishopdale and the 27 in Newbiggin. West Burton Mill served the 27 taxpayers in West Burton and the 21 in Walden, while Aysgarth Mill only served the inhabitants of Aysgarth, where there were 12 taxpayers. The local importance of Thoralby Mill is demonstrated not only by its value and the rent it paid, but also by the fact that it was serving a much larger community of taxpayers – 126 compared with 48 in West Burton Mill’s catchment area and only 12 in Aysgarth’s. It is possible that this may not reflect the true size of Aysgarth, part of which may have belonged to another landowner who may have had his own mill.

Not only was Thoralby Mill more significant than its neighbours, but its miller also had a higher standing in the community. In addition to being the miller at Thoralby, George Dodsworth had two other houses, 63 acres of meadowland and 89 pasture gates on the open grazing land surrounding the village. By comparison, Henry Hodgson at West Burton Mill and Robert Dixon at Aysgarth Mill were not recorded as having any property other than their mills. Only one mill in the Lordship of Middleham in 1605 was more prosperous than the one at Thoralby: Bainbridge Mill was recorded as worth £16 per year and paying £7. 13s. 4d (£7.67) a year in rent.

In 1628 the Crown sold the Lordship of Middleham to the aldermen and council of the City of London, who sold it in parcels to various purchasers between 1652 and 1663. One of the first parcels to be sold was Thoralby Manor, which may have been purchased by Malges Norton who was described as having been lord of the manor in or about 1663. By 1677 the manor was in the hands of Christopher Norton of Temple Dowscar, now known as Temple Bank, near Swinithwaite. It is not clear whether Thoralby Mill was included in the property purchased by Malges Norton or whether it was sold separately.

Sometime before or during the early 18th century, the mill moved again, this time onto its present site. A weir was built a third of a mile upstream at Dam Stakes to dam up the water and divert it into a long leat or mill race that was constructed to bring the water to the top side of the mill. This was done so that the new mill could have a more powerful overshot or backshot waterwheel (see diagrams below) whereby the weight of the water falling into buckets on the waterwheel powered the mill machinery.

The will of William Sadler (????-????) of Hallgarth, written in 1726, provides evidence that he lived at Hallgarth, close to the new site of the mill, and that he owned a part share in the mill.  His son John Sadler (1700 - 1745) was executor (see the transcript and image below referring to the mill).


"I give to my son John Sadler all my Messuages Lands Grounds Cattle gates & my part of ye Water Corn Mill  & premises with all ye Rights privileges and appurtenances whatsoever theireunto belonging Standing Lying & being within the Townshipp & Libertie of Thoralbie afforesaid" (Copy of the will courtesy of Ian Spensley.)

William Sadler - Will, 1726
William Sadler, signature

In 1745 John Sadler (1700 -1745) of Hallgarth, Thoralby, left his share of the Water Corn Mill at Thoralby to his eldest son, William Sadler (1736-1747). 

"I give and devise unto my oldest Son William Sadler all my Messuages Lands & Tenements Closes Inclosures pasture gates and Premisses whatsoever with all my share or moiety in the Water Cornd Milne situate in the Townshipp of Thoralby with the Barnes Buildings Kilnes Grannaries and other out Buildings to the said Messuages Lands Milne & Premisses belonging To Have & To Hold the same with their and  every  of their appurtances unto my said son William his Heirs & Assigns for ever." (Copy of will courtesy of Adrian Sadler, descendant of John and William Sadler.)

John Sadler share of mill 1745
John Sadler - signature 1745

The will shows that the corn mill complex now included, kilns, granaries and other buildings, suggesting it had increased in size and importance. The mention of a kiln for drying the grain and various granaries, barns and outbuildings is clear evidence that by 1745 the mill was on its final site, because the remains of some of these buildings still exist, whereas there is no trace of any buildings closer to the river. Sadly, William Sadler died before he was of an age to inherit his share in the mill and it went instead to his brother James Sadler (1723-1787), who must have sold his share of the mill, because at his death in 1787, there was no mention of the mill in his estate.

The Ordnance Survey map from 1856 shows the final position of the mill and the proximity to it of Hallgarth, where the Sadlers lived, and Tenter Garth, the probable site of the earlier fulling mill.

Thoralby Mill O.S. 1856 - Annotated - Hallgarth

In 1807 a poster advertised for sale various farms, land and property in Thoralby, including "LOT 9.  Half share of the Corn Mill at Thoralby in full work and good repair.” Text near the bottom of the poster names the people who were then occupying the various properties, including George Calvert, who was the miller at that time. He was referred to as a 'corn factor' in the register of electors for 1807.

Poster advertising an Auction of Property, 7 November 1807. Courtesy of DCM, Hawes.

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 havercakes and bread that formed a major part of their diet. The illustration below from George Walker’s The Costume of Yorkshire, published in 1814, shows a woman making havercakes, sometimes called haverbread, which were a type of unleavened oatbread rather like a thick pancake. Havercakes were the staple diet of most dales folk until the late 19th century.

A Daleswoman Making Havercakes in her Home from George Walker’s The Costume of Yorkshire, pub., 1814.

Courtesy of the Macfie-Calvert Collection, Hawes.

This image shows what the inside of a Bishopdale house might have looked like in the early 19th century. The woman is showing her children how to make havercakes, while one is cooking on the backstone behind her. Others are cooling on the overturned chair in front of her before being hung to dry on the rack or 'fleeok' hung just below the ceiling.


In his General View of the Agriculture of the North Riding of Yorkshire, published in 1800, John Tuke described the homes of ordinary dales labouring folk as “generally small and low, consisting only of one room, and very rarely of two, both of which are level with the ground. This situation renders them damp, and frequently very unwholesome, and contributes with the smallness of the apartments, to injure the health both of parents and children.” The houses were heated with peat fires and the inhabitants of Thoralby and other local villages had the right of turbary, which was the right, free of charge, to cut, dry and carry home peat for their fires from the communal peat grounds.

George Calvert (born in 1773), who was mentioned earlier as the miller at Thoralby in 1807, continued in that role until his death in 1840. He was mentioned as such in the trade directories published by Baines in 1823 and White in 1840, both of which refer to him as the licensee of the George Inn and the village corn miller. His father John Calvert had been the landlord of the Street Head Inn at Newbiggin from c.1769 to c.1784, when the family moved to the George Inn at Thoralby, where John died two years later. The Calverts would have had a connection with the mill before George became the miller because the mill would have ground the barley the Calverts used to brew their beer.

The 1840 tithe award for Thoralby, shows that the Sadlers, who had previously been part-owners of the mill, now only owned the mill dam and race, and that the mill itself was owned by George Calvert.


George Calvert died in 1840 and was buried in Aysgarth churchyard. His will shows that the mill was left in equal shares ​"to my Brothers Thomas Calvert and William Calvert and my Niece Ellen Dinsdale the Wife of Bryan Dinsdale of Hawes I give and devise All that my Water Corn Mill Drying Kiln pieces of Land adjoining and all the Weirs Dams rights Members and appurtenances thereto belonging Also all the Gear and Machinery therein situate at Thoralby aforesaid". (See below.)

Copy of will courtesy of Ian Spensley.

George Calvert Will, 1840
George Calvert, - his mark 1840

George Calvert was unable to sign his name on his will, but this was probably due to ill health when his will was made. It is very unlikely that he was illiterate, especially in the light of the evidence of his younger brother William's high level of literacy, which is attested by the survival of a hand-written tunebook produced by William. The will shows that the corn mill included a drying kiln, a weir and dam, appurtenances, gearing and machinery. 


Of the three relatives of George  Calvert who inherited Thoralby Mill from him in 1840, his brother Thomas died the following year, leaving his third share in the mill to his wife Ann, and after her death in 1847 to his son Thomas. George's brother William died in 1847 and left his third to Edmund Favell and Francis Walker, both of Bellerby, and Henry Thomas Robinson of Leyburn. During this period, the running of the mill was undertaken by several different millers including John Rider, Charles Airey and John Sarginson. The third owner, Ellen Dinsdale, lived until 1881 and may still have owned her third of the mill when it was advertised for sale by auction in The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer on 2nd March, 1867 (see below).

[Joseph Lambert, the landlord of The George Inn, and John Sarginson, the corn miller in 1867, can be found in the 1861 census for Thoralby]. 

John Sayer (1814-1901), aged 53 of Newbiggin, bought the mill in 1867, and he and his family ran the business until its closure in 1919.


In 1876 John Sayer was recorded as a corn miller in Slater's Directory. He took his sons John junior (1853-1936), George (1855-1934) and Francis (1857-1933) into partnership with him in running the mill, but this partnership was dissolved in January 1881, because George had moved to Newton-le-Willows near Patrick Brompton, where he was also working as a corn miller.


The 1881 census, taken three months after the partnership was dissolved, recorded that John Sayer senior was a corn miller and farmer of 40 acres, his sons Francis and Thomas were corn millers, and John junior was a 'farmer's son', so he may also have been involved in running the mill. The 1891 census also shows Francis and Thomas as corn millers, by which time their father had retired, John junior was farming at Newbiggin and George was farm labouring in Lancashire. 


By 1901, Francis Sayer was farming, whilst Thomas was running the mill with another brother George Sayer (1855-1934), aged 45, living at Newbiggin. The notification of the ending of the Sayer partnership in January 1881 (see below), is somewhat misleading, as George and Francis were still involved.

Kelly's trade directory of 1905, lists Thomas Sayer on his own as the miller and this was the case until the mill's closure. 

The Sayer family continued to sell flour. Thomas Sayer retired as a corn miller, aged 58 in 1919. His son, John Redmayne Sayer (1889-1965), aged 30 continued to supply customers on a factoring basis using the warehouse now Viking House] until 1935, then aged 46.

​Below is a copy of an Invoice from Thoralby Mill, dated October 14 1897. From F. & T. Sayer to: Mr. A. Horner, courtesy of Ian Spensley. The invoice covers the time period November 1892- April 1896.

Transcription of the above invoices: 

As well all the prices for goods sold by the mill, the invoice also shows that by 1897 Francis Sayer (1857-1933), aged 40 had left the family business and was farming at Myres Garth, Bishopdale, where he remained until his death in 1933, aged 76.   

Prices: Flour: ?s. per stone, Oat meal: ?s. per pack, India Meal: ?s. per stone, Wheat Meal:  ?s. per stone and Sharps:  ?s. per stone. The flour would be used in the kitchen for making bread and pasties etc., the Oat Meal would be used for making porridge and oat cakes. India meal, Wheat Meal and Sharps would be used for ?

The image below of a horse and cart passing the Reading Room, at Thoralby is most likely transporting a sack of flour or animal grain from Thoralby Mill. The sack would most likely have a label on it, see example below from Thoralby Mill, when Thomas Sayer was miller.

The last carter’s to lead for Sayer’s business were Thomas Dinsdale (1878-1960), and Jack Sayer. Meal was bought from Rank in Liverpool and brought to Aysgarth Station by rail. They gave up when everything became motorised.


From about 1882, until the mills closure in 1919, Stephen Dinsdale (1866-1942), who lived at Low Green Farm and later at Hallgarth Cottage, was the miller's clerk. The above invoice is most likely written by him. When the mill closed in 1919, Stephen Dinsdale, aged 53 became the miller's clerk at Yore Mills, Aysgarth and although very lame, he then walked to Yore Mills, Aysgarth each day until his retirement, in the 1930s.

​The Sayer family owned a number of houses in the village, including Hallgarth Farm, Holmeside Farm, Thoral Cottage and Low Green House, which John Sayer (1814-1901) had built for him to live in. 

Low Green House, built for John Sayer, Thoralby mill owner.

Pupils at Cross Lanes School at Cross remember their teacher Miss Haw, in the early 1900s, on being informed of the impending visit of the doctor, sending all the children down to the mill to be weighed by Tommy Sayer. 

Ann Hartley, then of Thoral Cottage, Thoralby visited and interviewed Annie Leybourne (1916-2001), granddaughter of Tommy Sayer. She recalled that her grandfather bought wheat to grind into flour and oats to make oatmeal. Annie remembers going to the mill ... and getting chaff in her eye. 

​Below is a photograph of a sack label for Thoralby Mill, when Thomas Sayer (1861-1934) was the sole Miller (1897-1919). Courtesy of Neil & Heather Sutcliffe.