From traditional mill to luxury hotel

The Priest House on the Trent: A History

In ancient times, the great river moved slowly on its journey to the sea. Shallow and wide, it was bordered by willows and dotted with reed beds and islands. Like a lethargic snake, it coiled and meandered its way through the millennia, changing its course to take in first this land, then that, so that it was called ‘the trespasser’: the ‘Trent.’

The meeting of the waters

At the confluence of the three rivers, Trent, Derwent and Soar, the flood plain was vast. In the Neolithic age, from the constriction where Kings Mills now stands, our forebears would have looked out upon a great expanse of open water, swamps, and a group of narrow lakes. Here was the meeting place for travellers from the Upper Trent, and its Tame and Dove tributaries, and those who journeyed further inland from the Derwent, Soar and Humber, or even from the North Sea. The site was effectively the junction between lowland and highland Britain, and this regional significance may explain the concentration of ritual and sepulchral monuments in the area: the Aston cursus, the Shardlow multiple ring ditch, the numerous barrows.

Our ancestors were engineers, with the vision and skill to manipulate the landscape. They used the islands, reaching or connecting them by causeways of double rows of posts packed with brushwood and stones; replacing and adapting them as, periodically, floods washed them away and altered the configuration of the islets and the banks. The lateral migration of the river deposited thick layers of sand, gravel and alluvial silt whose anaerobic conditions have preserved the evidence from this and later periods. 

Of particular interest is the log boat found at Shardlow, which was dated to 1300BC. At 14metres long, almost twice the size of most known log boats of the period, it was probably a ritual offering, suggesting the importance of this area in the Bronze Age. 60% of the Neolithic and nearly 70% of all the Bronze Age sites in the country are to be found in the region of the Trent.

The later Iron Age, and the Romano-Celtic period, had a geomantic respect for the sacred places of the ancient tribes, for aerial archaeology shows that their field boundaries do not encroach upon them. The crossing place upon the Trent continued to be of great importance, as the early dams and bridges recently discovered demonstrate.

The Burleigh Archaeological Fieldwork Group has maintained a watching brief over the gravel works in the area since permission was granted for gravel extraction at Hemington Fields in 1984, and much has been learnt about the use of the river and its margins. There is evidence of Neolithic channels in the stable meander course of the river; the eighth and ninth century pale channels yielded evidence in the form of displaced timber base plates for bridges, wooden wheel paddles, Roman worked stone, Saxon cross fragments, and organic deposits. Timber wheel breastings and axle covers indicate very early milling industry. Nearly fifty Saxon and mediaeval post alignments, indicating fish weirs, and over a hundred grooved anchor stones, used for weighting nets and baskets, showed that there was also a thriving fishing industry here.

‘The pleasant’st angling is to see the fish
Cut with her golden oars the silver stream,
And greedily devour the treacherous bait.’
Much Ado About Nothing

The fishery at King’s Mills was owned by the Crown, perhaps even in Saxon times.  A large submerged weir was constructed from parallel lines of oak piles lined with wattle and in filled with stone. At the riverward end was a V-shaped arrangement of posts with some plank revetting and horizontal timbers jointed to upright piles. At this point the river bed was artificially raised with layers of wattle panels and gravel, capped with large stone blocks and oak base plates.

At the apex a large wicker fish trap was positioned. This was a cone-shaped basket over two metres long, with two internal funnels acting as non-return valves. One of these fish traps was found entire at the site, another lay in fragments on top of the weir.

Triangular jetties – double lines of oak piles and plank revetments encasing sandstone blocks and brushwood- extended from the river bank to divert the flow of the river away from eroding banks and to deepen the channel to make it navigable. The Trent was an important ‘highway’, for travel by the ancient track ways was slow enough for those unencumbered by a load: goods and materials were far more easily transported by water.

The Domesday survey recorded ‘a mill value 10 shillings and 1 penny’ at what we may presume is now Kings Mills, but the first mill dam revealed by the quarrying of 1985 was not Saxon, but Norman, dating to c.1120. Further work in 1993 discovered the timber and masonry foundations for two brick piers, and when the excavations were extended, two more bridges were discovered, to the great excitement of the archaeologists.

Dendrochronological dating gave a felling date for the timbers of the oldest of the three bridges of 1097, so this bridge was constructed at the end of the eleventh century – the only surviving example of its kind. It must have served its purpose for over a hundred years, for the other two bridges were dated to the early and mid thirteenth century. The sites provided a rare opportunity to study the developments in woodworking technology in the period of transition from Saxo-Norman to high mediaeval techniques – and demonstrated the sophisticated skills of these early craftsmen.

‘Where the Trent runneth..’

A meeting place, a crossing place, a fishery, a mill complex – ‘King’s Mills’ was a hive of activity at the beginning of the second millennium, and continued thus for the next eight hundred years. The motte and bailey fortress from which Castle Donington takes its name was first built by Eustace, Baron Haulton, in 1135 to command the Trent crossing, for much trade arrived at the mills by way of the river.

Even the farmers of the local manor, who were obliged by law to use the mills of their own manor lord, would have taken their corn there by boat, for the descent to the mills was extremely steep – impossible for a laden cart. The ‘Milnecliffe’ is referred to in the Calendar of Close Rolls in an entry of 1331, which speaks of a ‘Waterfal’ there – and a stream plunging down the steep cliff must have made a spectacular sight.

The castle and the mills had several different lords in those early days as the politics and loyalties of the times shifted and changed. ‘Where the Trent runneth, hard by is Dunnington, an ancient castle built by the first Earles of Leicester, which afterwards came to John Lacy Earle of Lincolne, who procured unto it from King Edward the First the priviledge of keeping a Mercat and Faire.

But wheras in that great proscription of the Barons under King Edward the Second the heraditaments of Thomas Earle of Lancaster and Alice Lacy his wife were seised into the Kinges hands and alienated in divers sorts, the King enforced her to release this Manour unto Hugh le Despenser the younger… So Campden summarises the tortuous process by which Donington. came into the hands of Edward II’s ruthless favourite.

‘They be incontinent..’

An Inquisition Post mortem on the possessions of Henry Lacy, Earl of Lincoln in 1310, the fourth year of Edward’s troubled reign, shows that he held two watermills at Kings Mills, valued at £10 a year, their tithes being awarded to the Hospital of St. John of Donington.

This was not the only religious foundation associated with Castle Donington: there was also the Priory of St. Mary at Norton. This Augustinian priory was founded by William Fitzneal, constable of Chester and Baron of Halton, in 1115. He endowed it with tithes from various manors and mills, among them Fitzneal’s mills at Castle Donington.

The priory had a chequered history – accusations of murder, fornication, rape, abduction and even cattle rustling would be levied against various of its abbots and canons before its eventual dissolution in 1536, by which time its annual value was £343 13s. 7d. Cromwell’s inspectors reported that the priory servants were forging coin, and that sexual irregularities were rife – two of the community were ‘sodomites’ and two (presumably not the same individuals) were ‘incontinent’ – one with no fewer than five women. Even allowing for exaggeration, it is obvious that monastic life was not always conducted in strict accordance with the Rules of the Order!

Perhaps one or both of these connections with religious houses gave rise to the present name of the ‘Priest House’ at Kings Mills – at this distance in time it is impossible to do anything other than speculate. There may also have been several mills, as two different religious foundations were each in receipt of tithes from two mills, and a new name appears in the records of 1352 as holding mills: John, Earl of Kent.

This young man had only ‘received livery of all his lands on coming of age’ in April 1351, and by December 1352 he was dead. Given the family history, the bald facts generate suspicion. His father, Edmund of Woodstock, was the son of the great Edward I and had supported his deposed brother, Edward II, in his last futile attempt to regain his throne.

Isabella and Mortimer ordered Edmund’s execution, and the Earldom was forfeited. It was restored to his eldest son, also Edmund, in December 1330, but Edmund died - one could be forgiven for wondering how -  within the year, and John, who was barely toddling at the time, succeeded to the title. Was it coincidence or treachery that John, too, died within a year of receiving his estates? 

According to the Inquisition post Mortem, two mills at Castle Donington, worth 100shillings, were part of those estates. If these were the same mills as those valued forty years before, their value had decreased sharply, and the terrible visitation of plague known as the Black Death might well have been the reason. The bubonic plague which swept through Europe in the fourteenth century killed almost a third of the population, and greatly reduced the value of land and property while increasing the value of labour.

And labouring at the mills in 1377, so the Poll Tax Roll tells us, were five millers: Robert del Milne and wife; Ashes del Mylnes; Richard del Mylne and wife; Robert Milner and wife; Geoffrey Milner and wife, all defined by, and named for, their trade.

Many common English surnames have this derivation: bakers, fletchers, woodwards, smiths…all can trace their history back to the times when their family trade was an essential component of mediaeval life. These families were productive, for the value of the mills and fishery in the Duchy of Lancaster * accounts for 1399 had risen to £12 4s. 4d., almost an eighth of the total income from the whole manor of Castle Donington.

* John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was at this time the holder of the Halton honour, and supported the Prior of Norton’s petition to Pope Boniface IX for abbatial status for the priory at Donington.

The mills would have ground the corn, malt and fuller’s earth for every family which ‘owed suit’ to the Manor. That their relative isolation was inconvenient is shown by the next entry in the records. The ‘View of Frankpledge’ of 1457 in the Duchy of Lancaster Court Rolls gives the names of those who were fined for ‘withdrawing their suit’ from the mills – so it is possible that a windmill had been erected on the higher ground, or even that some families had provided themselves with hand querns and were grinding their flour on their own premises.

Certainly the freeholders created by Edward IV in 1482 had the right to ‘keep Quarnes and grind theire mault therein for their own accounts’ while the  ‘coppyhoulders…grind theire corne at the Kings Millnes’.

‘Milne Thorpe’

By the late fifteenth century there were a dozen or more cottages at the mills. The little community was regarded as a separate small village, ‘Milne Thorpe’, and is referred to as early as 1462, in an extensive Rental which also gives entries for ‘Mylnehill’ and ‘le Rydinges’, the latter known to lie in what is now Donington Park.

Another survey, made in 1507 at the end of Henry VII’s reign, mentions the mills, the fishery, and a pasture called ‘Milne Holme’ which gave its name to both the mill fleame and the island in the river – a name which was still in common usage right up to the late twentieth century.

At least one of the mills was horse-powered in the sixteenth century, for a Duchy of Lancaster Rental of 1514 attests that one Robert Hazelrigg (Hesilrige) was holding ‘the horse mylne and pays 20s 8d’. The Hazelriggs, of Noseley in Leicestershire, were an important family, descended from Simon de Hesilrige, ‘valectus’ to Edward I.

An earlier Robert had held the ‘parkership’ of Donington in the fifteenth century, and Thomas Hesilrige was Sheriff of Leicester in 1501, and would become Esquire to Henry VIII in 1520. A later descendant, Arthur, Second Baronet, was one of the five Members whom Charles I, breaking all precedent and sealing his fate in the process, entered the House of Commons to arrest.

In 1518, Robert Hazelrigg was granted a forty year lease of everything at Kings Mills: two corn mills, two fulling mills, the fishing assets and the flood gates. This is the first mention of flood gates, and indicates that there was by now considerable control over the flow and levels of the waters. It is probable that there was a ferry, too, serving what was in effect an industrial complex.

This is supported by the evidence of the 1539 Muster Roll, which gives the occupation of one Thomas Watson, Castle Donington, serving as a byrlman*, as ‘Ferryman’.

* Communities would devise their own ‘local laws’ and system of fines and punishments, and elect one of their number, the ‘byrlman’ or ‘burlaw man’, to enforce them. There are echoes of this system in our present-day ‘local by-laws.’

Gray’s Lodge

Hazelrigg was deprived of his lease seven years before its due expiry date when the young King Edward VI granted the mills to Thomas Grey* for 41 years at a rent of £13 1s 7d per annum, also granting a horse mill at Langley and a watermill at Tonge.

Although the documents refer to Grey as a ‘farmer’, this term at the time was applied to anyone taking a property at rent, and it is just possible that this ‘Thomas Grey’ was the same Thomas who, as a trusted intimate of the king, was one of the witnesses to Edward’s will, in which Thomas’s niece, Lady Jane Grey, was named as heir to the throne. If so, he came to a sorry end, executed by Mary Tudor for his participation in the Wyatt rebellion of 1554.

* In the sixteenth century, the ‘Grey’ and ‘Gray’ spellings were interchangeable. In this work, they have been used to distinguish between the possible ‘contenders’ for the sixteenth century leases.

There is a more local – and much more probable - candidate for the lease of the mills: Thomas Gray, Gentleman Usher to the last of Henry VIII’s six wives, Catherine Parr, and descendant, through Henry le Gray, Lord of Codnor, from the twelfth century Henry de Gray of Thurrock. Thomas had residences at Castle Donington and at Langley, and died in the early 1560s. He was succeeded by his son, another Thomas Gray. The name remained associated with Kings Mills for many years, the Priest House being for some time known as ‘Gray’s Lodge’.

The mills were now the ‘Queen’s Mills’, and continued thus throughout the reigns of first Mary, then the great Elizabeth. In the sixth year of her reign, she set up a Special Commission to examine and report upon the Castle in Donington and its mills. The commissioners took almost a year over their task, finally reporting on 16th January 1565:

‘…we have repaired to the Queen’s Mylnes of Donyington and they appear to us to be in a reasonable good state and reparacions and ought to be at the farmer’s charges repaired and maintained during his time, having from time to time timber, piles, stone and trowse only at the Queen’s charge, as by Lease thereof made unto the said Gray farmer of the said mills, and by us seen, it doth and may the more plainly appear. All which the premises specially the timber for piles, crabtrees for cornmills, maple for the malt mylne and sallow for the park pales have been felled had and taken of the said Gray within his manor of Langley  these three years past...’

The ‘malt mylne’ may have been sited within the township, but it is clear from the report that the mills at Kings (Queen’s) Mills were still grinding corn at this time, as they continued to do for the next two centuries. Elizabeth re-granted the lease to the second Thomas Gray in 1581 and reconfirmed the grant in 1586, but just one year later Gray leased the mills to Thomas Kyme, of the Chauntry House, Castle Donington. 

A chauntry, or ‘chantry’, house was originally where masses were sung and prayers said for the repose of the soul of the nobleman who had endowed it.  Kyme, who may have been a descendant of the Thomas Kyme who married Cecilia Plantagenet, daughter of Edward IV, might well have been resident in the building which originally housed the chantry priest. It is tempting to conjecture that this was ‘The Priest House.’

In 1591 the lessee of the Mills was one Ralph Blackwell of Wendesley, husband of the heiress Anne Wendesley, who could trace his ancestry back to the time of Henry III. Although the family were extremely well-connected, being linked by marriage to Littons, Dovills, Blounts and Staffords, there is little extraordinary about their history beyond the strange and tragic fact of one Sir John Blackwell being smothered in the crush of spectators at the coronation of Edward II!

‘All the soil, ground, soke and suit of the same mills..’

Ralph sold his interest in the Mills in April 1594, and the property, whose annual rent was now £13 1s 7d, reverted to the Crown. These leases cannot have applied to all the mills in the complex, for a grant of the reversion of ‘Donington Mills with the fishery, pool and flood gates of the same mills and all the soil, ground, soke and suit of the same mills’ was made on 24th April 1581 by Queen Elizabeth to two other gentlemen: Edward Ferrers (Ferries) and Francis Phillips (Phelips).

Sir Francis Phelips of Kempton was the son of Sir Edward Phelips, builder of Montacute in Somerset, Speaker of the House of Commons at the time of the Gunpowder Plot, and the ‘noble Ephestion’ of the scurrilous Stuart libel known as ‘The Parliament Fart’. Francis was not interested in wit, philosophy and politics, but he was interested in money.

In partnership with men such as Richard Moore of London he used his position and his father’s influence with Robert Cecil and James I to amass grants to the land, tithes and rents in over 130 places in England, from York to the Isle of Wight, adding these to the considerable amount of property he had obtained during the last years of Elizabeth’s reign. Numerous documents of 1608-1610, ranging from mortgage indentures to leases, and including confirmation of the grant of Kings Mills in May 1609, attest to the size and scope of his business empire.

The one occasion on which he is recorded as acting politically shows him petitioning the King on behalf of his brother, Sir Robert Phelips, one of the several MPs imprisoned for seditious speeches made against James’s Scottish courtiers during the ‘Addled Parliament’ of 1614.  But no petition could restore the brothers’ father – Sir Edward, always a champion of free speech, never recovered from the disgrace into which the family had fallen, and died shortly after the dissolution of the Parliament.

Francis Phelip’s partner for the Kings Mills purchase was Edward Ferrers. It would be tempting to assume that this gentleman was a member of the great extended family of Ferrers which produced the Lords of Groby and Earls of Derby, and Edward III’s notorious mistress, Alice Ferrers. But the name, deriving as it does from ‘ferrier’ – farrier, or ‘worker in iron’ – was as common as were the village blacksmiths of the time, and Edward is described in the records as a mercer: a merchant specialising in the silks and brocades from which the sumptuous gowns of the nobility were made.

Francis is also recorded in partnership with a George Ferrers in the purchase of two Northamptonshire mills, so the likelihood is that, for these ‘deals’, he was combining his capital with that of two brothers. Land and property were safer than politics. Ferrers and Phelips made a great deal of money by offering landowners parcels of land which would expand and rationalise their estates. In the case of Kings Mills, this meant that they sold the Mills, in November 1609, to Walter Hastings of Kirby Muxloe, son of Francis Hastings, Earl of Huntingdon, and Catherine Pole.

The Hastings family had leased the Deer Park at Donington, first recorded in 1102, since 1482.  Sir George Hastings, 1st Earl of Huntingdon, bought Donington Park in 1595, using the handy stock of building material represented by Donington Castle to build his new mansion.  The stones of the castle were also used to enlarge Langley Priory for Thomas Gray, and by the time these two Elizabethans had finished, little was left of the castle's ‘two round towers, two square, and one part round, part square.’

Acquiring the mills, flood gates and fishery was a logical extension of the Hastings estate. Charles I confirmed the mills to the Hastings by patent in July 1626, while the manor of Castle Donington was conveyed to the Coke family of Melbourne in 1633. Nine years later, these close neighbours were to find themselves upon opposing sides in the Civil War, and Kings Mills were to become of strategic military importance.

A place exceeding troublesome...

The mills, weirs, flood gates and reservoirs made it possible to control the flow of the waters and affect transport on the river. The important crossing place of Swarkestone Bridge was just a couple of miles along the river, and the major route to Nottingham was by Castle Donington. A garrison at Kings Mills would be able to cause serious disruption to communication and travel, and Colonel Henry Hastings, second son of the Earl of Huntingdon, duly made it a strong point for the Royalists. His elder brother, Ferdinando, the then occupant of Donington Park, had Parliamentary sympathies, so relations between the two must have been particularly strained at this point – thus did the Civil War indeed ‘turn brother against brother.’

The local population, subject to the ‘alarums and excursions’ of the war, were additionally conscious of the conflict every time they brought  corn to the mills, for the Roundhead forces at Weston Hall were in full view of Kings Mills. Having to have an armed escort for such a domestic purpose must have been a most unsettling experience. The forces at Weston and Swarkestone Halls were commanded for Parliament by Sir John Gell, an individual whose politics and allegiances were somewhat pragmatic. He had been High Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1635, and had raised the infamous Ship Money, the tax which many  considered precipitated the conflict, with ruthless efficiency, confiscating assets by the process of ‘distraint’. Despite this, he was commissioned to secure Derbyshire for Parliament on the outbreak of war in 1642.

He soon acquired a reputation for ruthlessness, sending one prisoner, Lord Chesterfield, to London in chains, and parading the corpse of another, the Earl of Northampton, through the streets of Derby. The following year, Cromwell put him in command of the forces in Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire, and he worked closely with the precociously brilliant  Lord Grey of Groby. This young man was just 21 in 1644, but already a superb military tactician. Charles I was wont to refer to him as ‘the grinning dwarf’; his was the first signature upon the King’s death warrant after that of John Bradshaw, President of the Court. There is no evidence in the records to indicate that he was of the ‘Grey’ family associated with Kings Mills, although there was no love lost between Grey and the earlier lessees, the Hazelriggs. In 1644 an altercation within the House of Westminster was recorded in which ‘Lord Grey fell upon (Thomas Haselrigg) with reproachful language in a loud tone calling him a Base Fellow and a Rascal.’

Such was also the general opinion of Gell, for he made the most of his opportunities. His troops became notorious for violence and plunder, and he used his position, and Grey’s influence, to secure appointments for his friends and relatives. Yet his loyalties, such as they were, finally lay with the King. He refused an order to join Fairfax on the Naseby campaign in 1645; at the siege of Tutbury in 1646 he offered favourable terms to the Royalist defenders; and he offered financial assistance - £900 in gold- to Charles while he was imprisoned in Carisbrooke Castle. In 1650 he was found guilty of plotting against the Commonwealth, and imprisoned in the Tower. One does not usually think of the Tower of London as an ‘open prison’, but the House of Commons Journal for 7th August 1651 records that Gell was given ‘leave to go to the Bath for his health on condition he return’.  And return he did, for his release is recorded in 1652. He received the Royal Pardon when Charles II, the ‘Merry Monarch’, was restored to the throne in 1660, and remained at Court until his death in 1671.

Gell’s first engagement with Hastings was at Swarkestone *, early in 1643. The bridge, still the longest stone bridge in England, was the only bridge across the Trent between Burton and Nottingham. Gell exerted all his forces’ strength to take it, and the ‘Roundheads’ had the best of it. But Hastings had established strong positions at Kings Mills, and at Wilne Ferry, a mile downstream, and from these he was able to harry the Parliamentarians to considerable effect – although his nick-name ‘Rob-Carrier’ derives not from his military successes but from the personal profit to which he turned them - £97,000 in 1644 alone.

* A cairn at the bridge records that it was the southernmost point reached in 1745 by the Jacobite army.

The defenders of Kings Mills were almost certainly garrisoned in the Priest House, the only building at the mills large enough for the purpose. At one point, their commander ‘resolved to bring his forces against Sir John Gell at Derby’ and was dissuaded from doing so by a few of the ‘chief men in the town’ who ‘waited upon him at Kings Mill, made him the acceptable offer of a purse of gold and prevailed with him to lay aside his resolution. Thus both the faithful Royalists and rebels of the town were preserved from plunder with the sad consequence of it.’ This account was given by the grandson of one of the town dignatories, Rev. H. Cantrill, writing a hundred years later.

His grandfather may indeed have ‘been the happy instrument of preserving not only the effects but perhaps the lives of many ’, but the Kings Mills garrison did not avoid action for long. After the Battle of Marston Moor,  the tide turned, and Hastings’ men were routed from their position at Wilne Ferry. ‘The besiegers adopting the singular expedient of making their approaches under shelter of several wagons filled with hay, to which, after they had advanced within a short distance of the works, they set fire and commencing the assault while their enemies were half-blinded by the dense volumes of smoke, which drifting in that direction before the wind, speedily filled the entrenchments, compelled the commander of the garrison, Captain Robinson, to surrender at discretion, with the whole of his men.’

Kings Mills was now isolated, and vulnerable to attack from both sides on its own bank of the river. But the mills were well garrisoned, and, as Gell summarised it when he wrote to the Earl of Essex immediately after the assault on Tuesday 6th February 1644: ‘the situation of it (made) it almost impregnable, the River Trent running on the north side, being beside fortified with very good works and on the south side a steep hill called Donington Cliffs strong works being there made and the river filling the trenches’. It is clear that Kings Mills was considered of such importance that major fortifications had been dug, using the river to create a water barrier to add to the natural protection of the ‘milne cliff.’

General navigation in the Trent came to an end at Kings Mills, whence goods and materials were conveyed by boat to be transferred to carts for the next stage of their journey. A letter from Sir John Coke, dated 17th February 1641, details the arrangements for the carriage of 40 tons of arms from Nottingham to Kings Mills, and from thence to Uttoxeter and Westchester. The boats arriving at Kings Mills at that time could carry ten to twelve tons apiece. The transport of arms was of crucial importance: it was, therefore, imperative that Gell take this ‘place exceeding troublesome in these parts’. The ‘hay trick’ played at Wilne was unlikely to work again; there could be no element of surprise in an attack from the meadows: the only option was to make the assault from the cliff itself.

And so the Parliamentary captains ‘resolved to draw some few out of every troop and assault it violently which was admirably done’. Down they went, slipping and sliding by the seats of their breeches in the February mud. Despite the undignified approach, ‘that party..bravely assaulted the place with good success… As desperate a piece of service as any such… business hath been in the North’. The Roundheads ‘beat down the windows and stormed in and so forced them to cry quarter’. Forty of their men were wounded, and five slain, in the assault, which captured a captain, a lieutenant, and fifty two soldiers. The number of Royalist soldiers killed was not recorded, but the Church Register of Weston-on-Trent has a brief entry recording their internment: ‘1644: Some soldiers buried of ye garrison’. One poor soul must have died a lingering death from his wounds, for a full eighteen months later comes the entry: ‘August 1st 1645: Duck a soldier buried a little after’.

‘Taken at the Mills’ : ‘Salmon and sturgeon, lashing with their tails..’
Robert Frost

Important though this brief military engagement was, business at the Mills went on very much as usual throughout the Civil War, and the various industries flourished, including the fishery. Kings Mills were famous for their eels and salmon, and sturgeon were caught there, too. The 1644/5 Book of Provision for Ferdinando Hastings’ Donington Park, records two sturgeon taken in the space of three days in August. Sturgeon,  Acipenser sturio, were common in the larger English rivers until the mid nineteenth century, coming upstream, like salmon, to spawn. They could be as much as 11 feet long, weighing up to 700 pounds. These two specimens were seven and a half and nine feet long respectively, and both were ‘ the Mills’.

The enormous quantities of fish they provided were preserved: ‘Sent for the boiling of him 2 gallons of claret, 1 gallon and a half of wine vinegar and 8 gallons of ale of my lady’s own..’  Eels were trapped and salmon netted throughout succeeding centuries, and the river still provides good fishing, although many of today’s anglers must be unaware of the sheer scale of the ancient fishery, and the quantities of piscine protein which the river provided for our ancestors. The Mills themselves were leased out by the Hastings family: the taxation records for 1689 in the Donington Town Book showing that a Humphrey Hopkins had the Paper Milnes, while Thomas Deeming had the Kings Milnes. Both objected to the heavy demands – taxation at that time was levied in accordance with State needs as and when they arose, and could be onerous – and were permitted to pay in instalments. By now the mills were very much an industrial complex, corn being milled at the Castle Donington windmill, to which the first reference is found in the Town Book in 1672.

‘The determined entrepreneurial spirit’: Industry at Kings Mills

We are so accustomed to thinking of the nineteenth century developments in iron and steam as ‘The Industrial Revolution’ that it is easy to overlook the industries which throve in England in earlier times. Tin, lead, leather, ceramics, and above all, iron and cloth goods – all were produced by ‘the determined entrepreneurial spirit.’ The process of ‘fulling’ removed the oil and grease from woollen cloth, and was an essential part of England’s most important industry – even today the Lord Chancellor is officially seated upon ‘The Woolsack’. At first, the cloth was dumped into large wooden baths, and ‘fulled’ by man-power – bare human feet!  This monotonous task - though an improvement upon the Roman method of treading cloth in human urine - was replaced in the fourteenth century by simple mechanical contrivances, harnessing water power.

Two of the Kings Mills are known to have been fulling mills, grinding either fuller’s earth from Derbyshire, or gypsum from the Milne Cliffe, and treating the cloth, which was then laid out to dry on props and ropes in large areas called ‘tenters’ – hence the expression ‘on tenterhooks’. The cloth merchants would have taken the processed cloth to Nottingham, Leicester, or more probably to nearby Loughborough, where there was a large group of Merchants of the Staple. The Staple was where the customs duties were paid, where bills were assigned, and where mercantile, industrial and agricultural interests met - the origins of organised international trade and of banking systems.

Not all the cloth was sold on: in the Hastings MSS is an entry of 1673 recording the payment of 6s 6d to a John Taylor of Donington for 40 yards of ‘blanquetting’ – a loosely woven white woollen cloth of the type then used for a bed-covering, hence the modern ‘blanket.’ In the same MSS is a 1680 entry granting a lease of one of the Kings Mills to a ‘papermaker’.

In an early form of recycling, the method involved ‘fermenting’ chopped rags by soaking them in water, then pulping them by a succession of pounding processes powered by the water mill, using yet more water to cleanse the pulp. When this had reached a porridge-like consistency, it was lifted from its vat on a wire-mesh mould, and shaken to distribute it evenly and intertwine the fibres. If a water-mark was required, this was created by adding a wire shape to the sieve of the mould. The layer of what was now paper was inverted onto damp felt, and another felt layer placed on top. The process was repeated until a pile of sheets – usually 144, or 6 quires - had been made. A screw lever press squeezed out the bulk of the water, and the paper was then air dried before being treated in different ways, depending upon its eventual use. Writing paper, for example, was sized with gelatine and re-dried.

The drying stage of operations required considerable space, and by 1718 the paper mill extended to both banks of the river. The lease of that year includes ‘all that paper mill…situate at Kings Mills…and also all those three bays of buildings for the drying of paper on the other side of the river..’  By the early nineteenth century, the paper mill occupied no fewer than 16 acres on the Weston side of the river, and was rented for £54 per annum by a family named Drake, who also held paper mills in – appropriately - Devon.

Tradition has it that the specialised paper for banknotes was manufactured at Kings Mills. However, this would not have been for the Bank of England, but for Lloyds of Birmingham, as that firm leased another of the mills. In 1765, with button maker John Taylor, who may well have been descended from he who supplied the ‘blanquetting’ a century earlier, Sampson Samuel Lloyd II founded ‘Taylor’s and Lloyd’s’, which was to become Lloyds Bank. It may be no coincidence that a button factory is thought to have existed at Kings Mills, as evidenced by the bone buttons which were found in considerable numbers upon excavation, or even simple gardening, throughout the twentieth century. The Kings Mills paper mill was one of the first to install steam machinery, in 1830. It changed hands several times during the nineteenth century: from Drake to Dixon to Wood, finally becoming part of Hobson & Siddel of Derby. Operations ceased soon after a serious fire in 1864.

The mill leased by Lloyds, at a rent of £216 in 1810, had once ground flint for the Derby porcelain factory. In the eighteenth century, manufacturers were experimenting with the porcelain ‘mix’ in their attempts to emulate – some would sway surpass- ‘Chinese’ porcelain. The basic ingredients were kaolin, feldspar and flint. Kaolin, or ‘China clay’ provided plasticity, durability and whiteness; feldspar, a crystalline version of the same mineral, aluminium silicate, allowed vitrification; while the hard quartz from the ground flint stabilised the material and controlled expansion within the kiln during the firing process. The proportions of the three constituents were of crucial importance.  And thus the lumbering millwheels of Kings Mills contributed to the delicate shepherdesses, musicians and cherubs which adorned the drawing room mantels and dining tables in the houses of fashionable society.

They also contributed to the houses themselves, for the Mills ground dyewoods and plaster for the building trade. The mineral gypsum had been discovered in quantity at Aston Moor and Chellaston in the mid nineteenth century, and the old malt mill, which already had fire holes and flues in its brick core, was converted to grind plaster. It is astonishing that any profit could be made from this enterprise when one considers the complicated and cumbersome arrangements which had to be made in order to get the raw material to the mill. The gypsum made a multi-stage journey: horse-drawn by rail from the pits to be piled in huge heaps by the canal which had been created in the late eighteenth century; wheelbarrowed onto 40 ton wide-boats; horsedrawn again along the canal to Weston Cliff; wheelbarrowed off and piled onto a wharf by the Trent; barrowed onto a river wide-boat; horsedrawn to Kings Mills weir; propelled to the actual plaster mill by boatmen using long poles; and finally barrowed into the mill yard.

Once ground to powder, the gypsum was packed into sacks, and the whole process went into reverse, although this time the wheelbarrows were replaced by cranes. Its eventual destination was the works of Messrs. Pegg & Co. at Morledge, Derby. This firm bought up the plaster mill, for the use of which they had been paying £400 a year, in or around 1860. They restored the plaster mill after the 1864 fire, but ultimately the rigmarole of transportation proved too much, and the mill fell out of use.

Turning or still, the mill wheels and machinery are mute testament to one of the earliest of England’s industries: working in iron. It is not known whether a ‘fordge’ was established to service Kings Mills in their mediaeval incarnation, but in May 1592 one Christopher Croft was given a licence to erect an iron forge ‘on the River Trent above the Corn Mills’ at an annual rent of 30s. By James I’s reign, the Earl of Huntingdon held the forge, but the rental is the same in 1617, twenty five years on. A later lease refers to ‘all that parcel of ground at Kings Mills…whereupon a forge formerly stood’ and gives ‘free liberty to build a forge’. The date, 1653, suggests that the forge had been razed during the Civil War hostilities already described, a sensible precaution for Sir John Gell to have taken. The ‘planning permission’ for a new forge granted in the lease indicates that the forge may have been rebuilt, but there is no further documentary evidence. However, there was so much machinery in action at Kings Mills in the course of the next couple of centuries that it is highly likely that there was indeed an active forge servicing the Mills.

A blacksmith plies an ancient trade, but the last of the many activities at Kings Mills has a history which spans three millennia and more – basket making and willow weaving. When Gertrude, describing Ophelia’s last moments, reminds Hamlet that ‘there is a willow grows aslant the brook’, she conjures a scene to be found almost anywhere in England, for willows have always been plentiful beside our streams and rivers. The Bronze Age engineers who defended the banks of the Trent used woven willow and hazel, packed with stone; the Saxon fishermen designed ever-more sophisticated fish-traps and constructed them of willow; and the craft was so important to the early economy that  a Guild of Basket Makers was established, appearing in the records for 1469. Four centuries later, the Board of Guardians record for the Shardlow workhouse reveals that pauper children were instructed in the craft: brought into the workhouse was ‘a family with four children…of whom the eldest, George, fourteen, is learning basket making..’ Like his ancestors, George was being taught to weave containers of all shapes and sizes, to hold everything from eggs to shells – the explosive variety.

In fact, basket-making was of crucial importance during World War I, and was a reserved occupation in World War II. The craftsmen, some of whom served apprenticeships as long as seven years, turned from making containers for the railway, mail baskets for the Post Office and hampers for the Castle Donington fruit growers to weaving panniers for the all-important supply drops. They had to import some cane from Birmingham to keep up with demand, for the vast willow beds in which willow had been grown on an industrial scale to supply the 30 pre-war workshops soon became overgrown. Willow has to be harvested annually, for the thin, supple osiers are the product of a season’s growth: another year, and they are too thick and resistant to be pliable enough for weaving. The Great War disrupted the cycle; cutting was not kept up; and so eventually the willow beds fell into disuse and the craft began to die out. Even so, the last family of basket makers in Castle Donington, the Richards, did not cease operations until the 1970s, and the craft is currently being revived by Maggie Cooper, with her ‘World of Willow.’

The Castle Donington Museum (01332 812711) has some early photos of activity at Kings Mills; there is also a Frith photograph of Kings Mills c.1955, (Order Line: 0870 126 1389)

An Inland Port

Baskets and buttons, plaster and paper, china-flint and cloth – all this industrial enterprise meant that a substantial port came into being at Kings Mills. In the sixteenth century, it would have been mainly wool and cloth that were taken to and from the Mills; the seventeenth century reference to the transport of arms shows that Kings Mills was then at the furthest navigable point of the Trent for the larger boats, for it was there that transfer to one of the dozens of smaller boats, or to road transport, was made.

This interruption to the journey of goods or materials was both tedious and expensive. And so, in 1698, William, 7th Lord Paget, sponsored an Act of Parliament to make the Trent navigable as far as Burton-on-Trent, where he had estates and business interests. The Act gave him a monopoly on the building of wharves and warehouses, and the right to levy a toll of 3d a ton on all goods passing upon the 19 miles of river involved. So far, so good – but Lord Paget then leased his rights to George Hayne of Burton-on-Trent and Leonard Fosbrooke of Wilne Ferry, and these two exercised the monopoly to the full, enforcing their rights by various means, including the use of ‘hired muscle’. At one point, Fosbrooke barricaded the river with his own boats, and engaged 40 men to prevent the passage of the boats of certain Nottingham merchants. Only those who used Fosbrooke’s own boats were allowed access to the wharf – and no-one felt inclined to argue...

Hayne, who controlled the Kings Mills to Burton stretch, would refuse to release flushes of water from Kings Mills, thus preventing independent boats from passing through the shallows – only eight inches deep in places- and over the shoals. George Hayne died in 1723, and his lease passed to his brother, Henry. Power seems to have gone to Henry’s head somewhat. In 1749 he was in dispute with a company using the river – he had imposed a wharfage charge more than eight times the 3d toll, and they had objected. When their boats were all below the Mills, he loaded a vessel with stones and sank it in the Kings Mills lock, which had been installed to enable boats to pass the weir. The lock was now impassable, and everything going down river had to be unloaded at the lock and carried to vessels below it. This ridiculous state of affairs lasted for nearly nine years!

Sanity returned shortly after the Hayne lease ran out in 1760. A canal was being mooted, and ‘the father of civil engineering’, John Smeaton, designer of the third Eddystone Lighthouse, inspected this stretch of the river the following year. By 1770 the canal, cut from Wilden Ferry to Burton Bridge, was completed, and proved so effective that a connected system of eight further canals was built. By 1808, 60 narrow boats and 430 wide boats were working the system, carrying lime, cast iron, lead, stone, marble, corn, malt and coal. The inland port of Shardlow developed apace, and Kings Mills began to diminish in importance. No longer were the boatmen dependent on the release of water through the weir gates, and the vagaries of the English climate ceased to affect river transport.

In the 1660s, drought accompanied by the intense frost of the ‘Little Ice Age’ had often frozen the shallow river so that at Kings Mills and at Shardlow it was possible to pass ‘drie shod on foot’, no ‘dash’ of water was available to ‘raise ye waters at ye ferry’, and passage was impossible.Conversely, after prolonged periods of intense rain, the great weir might burst, as it did in 1900. The 45 yard breach was not repaired for ten years, by which time the river had scooped out a gully 16 feet deep. 500 tons of limestone, 1000 tons of gravel and 180 tons of cement were used in the repair. £3000 was spent on what was by then little more than a ‘logging post’ for the saw mill which supplied the timber for the Donington Park Estate.

‘Queen of the Methodists’  Horace Walpole

The Elizabethan mansion at Donington had been home to Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, second of the three daughters of Washington Shirley of Ettington. She managed the Hastings estates with a rare combination of efficiency and compassion, and would have been a familiar figure to the residents of Milne Thorpe and the workers at Kings Mills. A devout Christian, she was inspired by the evangelical preacher Benjamin Ingham, and became an important member of the ‘Society of Methodists’. Both John and Charles Wesley were to preach at Donington, and work at the Mills would have been suspended to hear the great men speak. Charles Wesley made several visits over a period of fifteen years: his diary for May 1743 records that he asked of his audience: ‘Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?’

The workforce at the Mills valued both religion and education. For some time the Priest House accommodated a ‘dame school’ where the children were taught a simple, practical curriculum. In the late eighteenth century, the teacher was the wife of William Lloyd, then the lessee of the Mills. Selina, who died in 1791, must have approved.

Strawberry Hill flavour

It is less certain whether she would have approved of what was to happen to the home she had loved. Both local timber and local stone were used in the rebuilding of Donington Hall, completed in 1793 by Francis Rawdon-Hastings, then Baron of Rawdon. As a young man, he distinguished himself in the War of American Independence, and would later become Governor General of India. It was he who sent Sir Stamford Raffles to Singapore – possibly the most significant of his actions, when considered in retrospect. In 1790 he was thirty six, unmarried, and eager to ‘improve’ his estate.

He engaged Humphrey Repton to landscape the Park, and Wilkins, architect of the National Gallery, to design the house in the ‘Strawberry Hill Gothic’ style made fashionable by Walpole. Local legend has it that the Priest House owes its ‘Gothic’ windows to a refurbishment carried out at the same time, so that visitors to the Hall arrived by ferry to a foretaste of the Hall’s architecture. But reports of mid-eighteenth century paintings indicate that the Priest House already had an ecclesiastical flavour, and a pre-1920s photograph shows that there was also a chapel nearby, so it is perfectly possible that the Hall emulated the Priest House rather than the reverse.

The Priest House and some of the cottages were the only buildings to survive intact the fire which destroyed the Mills in 1927. Messrs. Bass, Ratcliff and Gretton, the well-known brewers, were renting the mills at the time. They had omitted to make any arrangements with a local fire brigade, and were obliged to use their own brigade from their Burton-on-Trent brewery. But the fire began in the small hours of the morning, and by the time the firm’s fire-fighters arrived, it was too late to save the Mills. The locals watched them burn, the conflagration lighting up the waters surrounding the flames with a terrifying irony.

And thus two thousand years of industry came to an end. The phoenix which arose from the ashes was the Priest House in its new incarnation as an hotel.The peace and tranquillity of its setting belie its history: only the remnants of the mill wheels survive, a mute testimony to a busy past.

‘The wheel turns, and turning still
Is forever still.’


Mediaeval bridges at Hemington Quarry, Leicestershire  Leicestershire Archaeological Unit
John Langdon: Mills in the Mediaeval Economy
Provisions Book, Donington Park
Philip Kynder, ‘Historie of Derbyshire’ 1663, published in ‘The Reliquary’ 1883
Letters Patent  1609 Hull Univ. MSS
Castle Donington Town Book 1634 et seq.
Huntingdon-Hastings MSS as quoted in ‘Ancient Kings Mills’*
G. Green, ‘Historical account of the Ancient Kings Mills’
Pelham: Fulling Mills
Shorter: Paper makers in England 1494-1800
Nichols: History of Leicestershire
Hollings: Leicester during the Civil War
Wood: Trade and Transport On the Trent
Victoria County History: Leicestershire
Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological Society

* These MSS are held by the Henry E. Huntingdon Library, USA, and were not available as primary source material.



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