Early mills on this site
Present mill built 1812
Dover's mills in the Napoleonic Wars
The Mannering family of millers in Dover
End of commercial milling at Crabble 1893
Early mills on the site
A mill has stood on this site for 750 years - the first mill was
built by the monks of St.Radigund's Abbey in the 13th century. The
ruins of the Abbey can still be seen up on the hills to the west of
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In 1812, John Pilcher owned a small country mill at Crabble. He built a huge new mill beside it, so he could get profitable government contracts to mill flour for the troops guarding Dover against Napoleon's threat of invasion.
This sketch shows the new 6-storey mill behind the old one, which was kept working for about 30 years. The new mill had "state-of-the-art" technology, based on ideas from millwrights in the U.S.A. There they had developed the "automatic mill" - where once the grain was unloaded into the grain bins, it was untouched by human hand until it was bagged up into flour at the other end.
The material was carried from one machine to the next by means of conveyors, elevators and chutes.
Seven of these were flour mills like Crabble; processing the wheat grain from local farms all over the North Downs. Of the others, five made paper, and one crushed oilseed.
There were 4 mills upstream of Crabble, which meant that the flow of water in the river was greatly affected by what the other millers were doing - each mill passed its water down to the next one downstream.
When the wars against Napoleon finished in 1815, the Pilcher family took advantage of the slump in trade to buy up several other mills in Dover. There is documentary evidence that they bought a steam engine from Boulton & Watt, and opened Dover's first steam-powered mills down by the harbour.
But by the 1840's they ran into difficulties: their bankers were pressing for loans to be repaid, and all their mills were sold.
Crabble Mill was bought by Willsher Mannering, a young miller who already had two other watermills in Dover. He made major improvements, demolishing the old mill and addng 2 extra pairs of millstones to the new one, making five in total.
He built up a good trade shipping flour by sea up to London, which was then growing fast. Dover too was growing more prosperous - after major harbour improvements in the 1850s, the town's cross-Channel trade was booming. This was helped by the opening of the London to Dover railway in 1844.
In the last quarter of the 19th century several changes combined to drive the old watermills like Crabble out of business:
By 1893 the Mannerings deciuded to close Crabble Corn Mill, and concentrate all their flour production in another mill downstream - which they had recently re-equipped with rollers and a steam engine. Crabble's millstones and waterwheel had become out-dated.
Fortunately, the Mill was not dismantled - none of its machinery was sold for scrap. In fact, the Mannerings kept it well-maintained until their flour business went bankrupt in 1957.
After that, ruin set in. Twenty years ago, Crabble was on the verge of collapse. Local enthusiasts set up a charitable trust to save this unique mill, which is possibly the last of its kind in Europe.
It was a minor miracle that the mill survived intact. After restoration costing over £500,000, we can again see the millers at work.
The collection of unique automatic flour making machines give an
insight into the ingenuity required to feed our great-great
grandparents in the days of the industrial revolution.
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Copyright © 1996-9 Ian Killbery. This update: 2nd October 1999
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