Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: February 14, 2019
Webpage updated: February 14, 2019




Just below the Drake's Place Mill on the Plymouth Leat came the Old Town Mill, which was also known as the Higher Grist Mill.  This was situated on the site now occupied by the Sherwell United Reformed Chapel.

Like the one at Drake's Place, it was constructed by Sir Francis Drake in 1591 under the terms of his 67-year lease of the leat from Plymouth Corporation, part of the profits supporting the Orphan's Aid.

At one point, in 1806, the Corporation sent in the sergeants to recover back rent of 114 5s from the miller, Mr John Kingwell.  Two years later they had to repeat the action in order to recover 77 10s.  His son, also John, had to sell a house left to him by his grandfather in order to pay the debt on the mill.   It was he who, in 1809, joined with Mr William Chowne to take over his father's lease of the Mill.  He took 150 off Mr Chowne but refused to allow him have any further involvement, even threatening to kill him of chop off his legs.

It was held on a 7-year lease commencing at Midsummer 1852 by Messrs Hurrell and Crossing.

The Mill was destroyed by fire on Tuesday February 16th 1859.  At about 5am a milkman passing up Tavistock Road on his way to his morning's milking, noticed a very bright light on the top floor of the mills.  When he arrived at the Drake's Place Reservoir he called this to the attention of some police officers who were there and while discussing what might be the cause of this light, the flames that were raging inside the building burst through one of the windows.  The alarm was immediately raised.

Some passers-by knocked on the door at the lower end of the Mills and were answered by a man called Slade, who had just lit up the gas ready for the arrival of the other mill workers.  He was totally unaware of what was happening overhead and he promptly set about removing sacks of flour and grain from the building.   One of the tenants, Mr Hurrell, the arrived and removed the accounts books from the office.

At around 5.30am the West of England Fire Engine arrived, in the charge of Mr William Marshall, to be shortly followed by the Town's own engine, from the new cattle market, and engines from the Garrison, the Marine Barracks, the men-of-war moored in the Hamoaze, and finally the County Fire engine, under the superintendence of Mr Carkeet.  Unfortunately, there was no convenient fire-plug nearer than Bedford Terrace and none of the engines had long enough hoses to stretch there.  However, by allowing the water to flow into the gutter, the engines pumped it from there, while the West of England crew used water from the Plymouth leat, at the rear of the Mills.

Also in attendance were the Borough Police, under Superintendent Codd, and detachments of the Royal Marine Light Infantry, Artillery, the 17th Regiment of Foot, under Colonel Crofton, the 2nd Warwick Militia, under Colonel Granville, and seamen from ships in the Hamoaze.

Part of the roof of the buildings had fallen before the engines were able to be put into use and the premises were gutted beyond the shell of the walls.  The Mills were said to contain about 200 sacks of flour and over 200 quarters of grain, of which only 13 sacks of flour were saved.

It transpired that about two years previous, the waterwheel had become strained and the tenants, Messrs Hurrell and Crossing, had asked the Corporation for financial assistance in repairing it.  The Corporation, as owners, had refused to assist on the grounds that the lease was about to expire at Midsummer and the tenants were under contract to return the Mills in good working order.

Furthermore, the right of water to the Providence Mill having also been purchased by the Corporation, the supply of water to the Higher Grist Mills had become uncertain.  As there was very little prospect of a new lease being granted, Messrs Hurrell and Crossing had just recently purchased a grist mill at Buckfastleigh.

As the fire had thus caused little loss to the tenants, who received insurance money amounting to about 1,400 for the building and machinery, and the Corporation still had land they could sell or develop, it was decided not to rebuild the Mills. 

Sherwell Congregational Chapel was later built on the site.

The next mill on the way to the centre of Plymouth was the King's Mill or Lower Grist Mill.