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A Miller's Tale

The Freeman family occupied the mill over 3 generations. This is an imaginary reminiscence by one of the Freemans.

My name is Patrick Freeman - though everyone knows me as Paddy - and I'd like to tell you what I can remember of the times when my family worked as millers at the Heaton Corn Mill (1). My family first became involved with the mill through my father, also called Paddy. He had learned all about milling from my grandfather, Archibald Freeman, who had farmed and milled at Windmill Hills (2), Gateshead. In 1795 my father completed his apprenticeship and moved to Heaton, near Newcastle (3), to take over the tenancy of High Heaton farm and of the nearby mill on the Ouseburn just below the farm.

It would have been difficult to make a good living from the mill on its own. It was a small mill, the work was very seasonal and the farm was probably the main source of income for the family. Fortunately, with the support of my grandfather he was able to afford the tenancy of this quite large farm of more than 270 acres (4).

In 1802 he married my mother Ann Watson and I was born in 1815. This was during the period of the Napoleonic Wars with France - the Battle of Trafalgar had been fought in 1805 and the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The uncertainty of the period meant that grain prices were kept quite high for a number of years and with both the farm and the mill, my family were quite prosperous.

As a young boy I would help my father, especially at harvest time when it was very busy. I would go with him to collect the corn for milling from the nearby farms using our own horse-drawn cart. We would take the corn to the mill, where my father would check it was dry enough to mill - the corn had to be quite dry or else it would not produce good quality flour. After milling we would deliver the flour back to the farmers who would pay us after they had sold it to the bakers in the nearby city of Newcastle. In those days, Newcastle was much smaller, and Jesmond and Heaton were separate villages outside the city boundary.

When I was about 11 or 12 years old I became an apprentice to my father, to learn how to work and maintain the mill. Besides milling corn to flour, I had to know how to look after the mill - its water supply and machinery.

We needed a millrace to provide a good water supply to drive the waterwheel because the water in the Ouseburn rose and fell over the seasons, depending on the rainfall. The millrace was quite a big structure - it ran for about 550 yards upstream (5), using clay-lined earth embankments or wooden flumes to contain the water. Once our mill had used the water, it passed from our tail-race into a weir below the mill. From here, it was collected by the millrace for use by the next mill downstream at Heaton Cottage (6).

I also had to learn how to carry out some of the repairs to the mill machinery - such as replacing any wooden teeth on the machine cogs if they become worn or broken. Of course, if something really complicated needed repairs, then it was a very expensive job since we had to send for a skilled millwright. Luckily this did not happen too often.

I met and married my wife Ann Crawford in 1842 and our son, whom we also called Patrick, was born in 1845. I had always expected that he would follow me in learning the trade of the miller, but steam engines were now being used to power large city-based mills - like the huge one built at Willington Quay (7). The competition from these industrial sized mills made it much more difficult to run small rural mills like ours profitably. So instead of encouraging him into milling, we concentrated more on our farm.

We gave up the mill altogether by 1856, when it was taken over by Mr. Pigg who used it to produce animal feed. He was there for a few years before John Charlton took it over and converted it to grind flint, which was carted down the Ouseburn Valley for use as glaze at the potteries. I suppose this made it more economic to run since there would now be work for it all year round. But even this was not sufficient to keep it profitable and by 1862 Mr. Charlton gave up mill after the land around it was purchased by Lord Armstrong. The city of Newcastle was also expanding and beginning to take land from our farm so not long after that we gave up farming in the Heaton area and moved to Cambois Farm near Bedlington. That was the end of our association with the mill - although you may know that the area where we had our farm later became known as Paddy Freeman's Park !

I suppose you may also be interested to know something more about the rest of the Ouseburn area and the mills that were our neighbours. Although the Ouseburn is quite a small stream, only about 10 miles from its source up at Callerton (to the west of the city of Newcastle) to where it flows into the River Tyne, it must have had about 15-20 watermills operating at the peak of its activity. Just near to us, there were Haddrick's Mill (our neighbours upstream), Heaton Cottage Mill (our nearest neighbours downstream), then Busy Cottage Mill (8). Just a little further downstream in Jesmond Vale there was yet another. This mill was to become famous later in its life for having one of the first standing steam engines, built by George Stephenson, located there. But from this peak in the period of the early 1800's, the competition from steam rapidly put watermills out of business and by 1900, there were very few watermills left operating anywhere in the whole of England.

Although it was a very rural area it was also occupied by many industrial enterprises - several coalmines, quarries and near the mouth of the Ouseburn was a well known pottery and glass-making area.


(1) Heaton Corn Mill is now known as The Old Mill.

(2) Windmill Hills : This was an area in Gateshead just opposite the High Level Bridge in the Bensham area. It was an ideal site for windmills and at its peak there were more than 10 working mills in the area.

(3) Newcastle was much smaller in area at that time. Jesmond and Heaton were small villages quite separate from the city.

(4) Today we measure land area in hectares. 270 acres was approximately 109 hectares.

(5) Today we measure length in metres - 550 yards is approximately 500 metres.

(6) Heaton Cottage Mill is now The Fisherman's Lodge Restaurant.

(7) Willington Mill is still there today a huge building in comparison with Heaton Corn Mill, it was one of the first steam powered flour mills in England.

(8) Busy Cottage Mill was a mill with a forge for metal working. Before the mill was built, it was a thriving iron works. Nowadays, it is the site of Millfield House and Pets Corner.