The cotton mills on the Leen

Water powered mills were used along the River Leen from at least 1232 and probably earlier. A perambulation of Sherwood Forest carried out on 16th July 1232 refered to, “by the middle of the town of Lindeby to the mill of the same town, which is on the water of the Leen.” However, this mill should not be confused with the present Linby (or Castle) Mill or with the ancient ‘Walke Mylne’ found on the Leen south of Bestwood Park! It stood on what is now Papplewick Lane. The name ‘Walk Mill’ probably arises from the use of the word ‘walk’ to describe an area of forest patrolled by a forester or walker.

By 1615, iron refining was underway at Bulwell Forge, otherwise known as Forge Mill, which once stood in Papplewick parish. This mill consumed vast quantities of local timber that were turned into charcoal. There is evidence of timber being taken for use at Bulwell Forge from Kirkby, Mansfield Woodhouse and Edwinstowe. Samson Wood in the adjacent parish of Calverton was felled of its timber for Bulwell Forge between 1676 and 1708. It seems that Bulwell Forge accounted for much of the destruction of Sherwood Forest during the 17th and 18th centuries. Iron continued to be worked here until at least 1773.

George Robinson moved into the area from NE Scotland. He and David Melvin began bleaching and cleaning cotton at their yard in Bulwell during March 1742. On the income derived, George Robinson founded an empire and the family carried it forward for a century. In 1776, Cornelius Wildbore moved out of Walk Mill and the Robinson family were able to enter into leases with the Right Honourable Frederick Montagu of Papplewick for the right to erect other mills for the processing of cotton. George and two of his several sons, James and John, entered into a 56 year lease with Frederick Montagu on 25th April 1778 that allowed them to build mills at Grange Farm. Four years earlier, Frederick Montagu had helped to create the economic climate for the processing of cotton by jointly taking a Bill before Parliament to reduce the duties payable on cotton goods.

George, James and John Robinson set about building cotton mills or converting existing corn mills on the River Leen at Castle Mill, Grange Farm, Middle Mill (in what is today Bestwood) and Forge Mill. Interestingly, and contrary to popular belief, Walk Mill was never used to refine cotton. Not only did the Robinsons construct the mill buildings, but they spent in excess of £40,000, in improving the water supply to the mills – including the creation of Papplewick Dam, Moor Pond and a network of connecting channels that fed water all the way south to Bestwood. The Robinsons employed around 800 people along the Leen Valley and also had warehouses in St. Mary’s Gate and Maypole Yard, Nottingham.

This map was produced by Sanderson in 1835 (after the mills had closed). From north to south we can see Papplewick Dam to the west of the village.  Top Mill is now called Castle Mill, and still stands. South of Linby Lane, water flows through two leats (channels) into Wauk Mill (now Walk Mill) pond and Moor Pond. Water from Moor Pond crossed Papplewick Lane and created a smaller pond north of Grange Cottages, before passing to the Old Mill at Papplewick Grange.

Unfortunately, the Robinsons were severely hampered in their trade by their neighbour, William, the fifth Lord Byron. He demanded royalty payments (from the Robinsons for using the River Leen) amounting to a £10,000 down-payment and £6,000 per year thereafter. To force the Robinsons into paying up, he started damming up Lower Lake at Newstead on 4th April 1785, refused to allow the Robinsons to regulate the river’s flow. He also threatened to release the water, causing a “sudden violent eruption of water…” The Robinsons took Byron to court, but the matter was passed back and forth between courts in Nottingham and London for several years. Only in the 1790s did they finally obtain judgement in their favour but were unable to recover damages, with Byron pleading poverty.

In this atmosphere of litigation and water shortage, the Robinsons had to seek alternative means of powering their mills. James set about purchasing a steam engine from Messrs. Boulton and Watt of Birmingham in 1785 that would supplement the existing water-wheel. They installed it in the mill at Bestwood (in Papplewick Parish at the time) and it became the first rotative steam engine in use in a cotton mill anywhere in the world.  The engine failed to live up to expectations, but even so in 1791 another steam engine was installed, this time at the New Mill at Papplewick Grange.

Apprentice boys were brought from the St. Marylebone Workhouse in London to work at the cotton mills in Papplewick. Numerous tales have been told of the hardships they endured, including pathetic nourishment, brutal treatment and excessive toil. There is a legend that hundreds are buried in unmarked graves in Papplewick and Linby churchyards. In actual fact, nothing could be further from the truth! Evidence produced at a Parliamentary Select Committee details the education they received (out of 244 children under the age of 18 employed, only 17 could not read or write), the medical facilities they were afforded and outside observers told of their work being “neither laborious nor sedentary.” There are 44 entries in the parish registers relating to the burial of ‘London’ boys (but only one in the Papplewick registers). Some of the ‘boys’ continued to live in the neighbourhood long after the mills were closed down. Some girls were also brought from Birmingham workhouse.

On 16th September 1817, James Robinson died and was buried in Papplewick Churchyard alongside his wife, Ann. The mills passed into the hands of his sons and in 1821, they were assigned to a partnership headed by Richard Hopper. By 1828, cotton spinning had come to a halt due irreconcilable differences between the three partners, a dispute that dragged through the courts until 1830.

Thereafter, the buildings lay empty and largely deserted.  Most were dismantled in the 1850’s and the materials used to construct new farm buildings, examples of which remain at West View and Forest Farms. The system of ponds and leats was progressively drained and planted with hardwood trees. Forge Mill was used to grind bones between 1866 and 1920. A small Methodist New Connection Chapel was built at the site of Walk Mill, to provide for the small community who continued to live in the buildings. The Robinsons had built the mansion known as Papplewick Grange. It continued as a residence, but was demolished in 1932 when a buyer could not be found for it at auction.  Castle Mill continued to be used to grind corn. It was purchased by the Hucknall Torkard Industrial Provident Society in 1919.  They sold it on in 1952.  Papplewick Dam was drained of its water in 1946 and today both the Dam and Moor Pond Wood are accessible to the public.
[Historic details taken from Womble, C. (2002), ‘A Place Like Papplewick’ Vols. 4 & 5]

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