As part of the mill tour we start the mill into action for you. Water from the mill leat is let into the Victorian turbine, and you hear the rumble as the shafts, belts and wheels start to turn. Feel the barley meal coming warm out of the grindstones.
Water also powers a brand new turbine, generating enough electricity to power about ten homes.
John le Gaunt, who owned the mill in 1290, would be surprised to know the mill still bears his name.
The mill's history dates back to the Domesday survey of 1068, which listed in Pitcombe near Bruton two watermills, worth 20 shillings. One of these was almost certainly the site of Gants Mill.
THE OLD DOCUMENTS
For a millennium the watermill has been modified, renovated and extended to suit whichever industry or process realised most profit from the harnessing of the water-power. With such a building, details of the changes and the people involved are often sadly lost in the passage of time.
Fortunately, due to luck and the foresight of an eighteenth century heiress, this is decidedly not the case with Gants Mill. Details of four centuries ownership by local landowners, the Westons, were saved by the last of the family, Betty Weston. She was also reputedly the model for Sophia Western, the heroine of Henry Fielding's novel "Tom Jones". This portrait shows her, holding a bird, with her elder sisters. On her marriage, Betty Weston took with her hundreds of parchment documents, mostly written in Latin and now in the Somerset Record office. They give details of leases and rights to use of the water, as well as responsibility for upkeep of the mill and its machinery.
JOHN LE GAUNT OF GANTS MILL
The earliest document tells us of a John le Gaunt, after whom the mill is still named. In 1290 the Lord of Castle Cary granted him the right to build a fulling mill here. Locally woven cloth was brought to the fulling-mill to be washed and pummelled by huge wooden hammers driven by the water-wheel. The cloth was then stretched across 'tenterhooks' to dry in nearby Rack Close.
For 400 years, while owned by the Weston family, the fulling-mill at Gants Mill was a centre for the prosperous local woollen industry. It was leased by merchant clothiers to process the cloth before export. One merchant, Thomas Tanner, was the most prominent citizen of Wells during the 1390s. He exported cloth to Portugal through Bristol, the cloth being traded for wines and winter fruits such as figs, raisins and dates.
WOOL FOR STOCKINGS
Later the centre of the woollen industry moved north, and eventually to Yorkshire. However Daniel Defoe still described Bruton as being famous for stockings when, in 1740, Lord Berkeley of Bruton rebuilt the present mill building as a woollen factory.
THE SHORT BOOM IN SILK
The boom industry of silk came to Gants Mill in 1810 when Theophilus Percival, a Frenchman, built the present west wing (on the left as you face the front of the mill). Two hundred local women and girls tended the silk throwing machines driven by the water-power to spin the raw silk thread prior to weaving. By 1840 silk throwing at Gants Mill had ended, as it had at most of the other silk mills in the district.
CORN FOR ANIMAL FEED
The coming of the railway to Bruton in 1856 led to the next prosperous development of Gants Mill by the Lockyer family. There was a demand for milk, cheese and bacon for the growing populations in the cities, and a corn mill was needed to grind feeds for the animals on local farms. There was even a steam engine to supply extra power when the water was low. The chimney can be seen in the black and white picture. The main machinery of four pairs of grindstones installed in 1888 is still worked daily to produce animal feedstuffs.
By the 1990s it was becoming clear that the mill building was starting to deteriorate badly. In particular the roof had started to sag and leak. After long discussions with builders, architects, local planners and conservation advisers, restoration work was put in hand. The repair philosophy was to retain wherever possible the elements of a building that had seen many changes over its history. For many months the mill was scaffolded and covered over against the weather, while work was done on the roof timbers, tiles and stonework.
THEN AND NOW
As one climbs the stairs within the mill, initials carved in the woodwork remind one of the many people who have worked within its walls. Grain from the upper bins still trickles down past hopper, damsel, runner stone and chute to be collected warm in waiting sacks. The turn of a handle releases a surge of water turning the stones to produce barley meal. Go to the Hydropower page for the new enterprise of generating electricity.
THE PAST ON DISPLAY
Reminders of the silk industry that fell between the floorboards in the 1820s are now on exhibition in the Silk Room, together with many panels depicting the machinery and people that are an integral part of the mill's history. Other displays feature local flooding and photographs taken during restoration work. The guided tour includes demonstrations of millstone dressing and of grinding and generating using the water-power.
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Bruton, Somerset BA10 0DB
"Thank you for providing such a stunning backdrop and seamless event management for our big day! We really did have an incredible time. So many of our guests commented on the beautiful garden and I hear a fair few enjoyed the mill tour. Many thanks for patiently responding to my endless questions and ensuring everything ran smoothly on the day." Ellen & Don