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The story of Willsbridge Mill
the old Mill

"An old scanned photograph of the mill in the late victorian era, showing the Mills family stood in front of Willsbridge Mill in 1899. The mill was then run by water-power. I have many childhood memories of Willsbridge Mill, helping my grandfather on school holidays. The mill back then, was a very noisy and dangerous place with unguarded machinery. Willsbridge Milling Company specialized in high quality pigeon feed for racing pigeons, and all manner of animal feed."

Paul Townsend

This is the story of Willsbridge Mill 1712 –2004 parish of Bitton Gloucestershire by Paul Townsend.

These mills were erected on the site of the ancient Manor House of Oldland on a stream called the Mill-Clack Brook. It is a continuation of the Siston brook and runs through the valley of Southern Wood also known as 'catscliffe'.

In 1800 to 1850, there was a stone quarry at Catscliffe, farther up the valley of Southernwood, and this was owned by a family named Caines. There are to this day flagstones which came out of this quarry, still to be found in some old houses in Longwell Green.

Pearsall family

On the other side of the road, opposite the mill and mill pond, is Willsbridge House commonly referred to as ‘The Castle’ by reason of the mock battlements which were added during 1848 by the then owner of the property Captain Stratton. The house had been built, by an ancestor of R.L.Pearsall, Robert Pearsall was celebrated for his musical ability. He was born at Clifton, but the family and his ancestors lived at Willsbridge for many years prior to his birth.

The madrigal writer, who had come to Willsbridge in the early eighteenth century. He lived for many years in an old thatched house by the brook (there is no trace of it now) and towards the end of his life had Willsbridge House built. Originally, it was quite small, being little more than a house extension to a cottage already standing there. The house was further enlarged and completed by his son, whilst his grandson, around 1802, added a coach house and stables.

It is thought that the son of the first John Pearsall constructed ‘The Limes’ an old house near the Mill, possibly once Oldland Manor or certainly built on the site of the manor, opposite Willsbridge House, and most of the cottages built in that area, but not those adjoining the Queen‘s Head, were constructed by the son of the first John Pearsall.

Here as early as 1712 Mr John Pearsall set up mills for rolling iron, especially for hoop iron. Also for making steel. The works were carried on by the family for many years and on the 30 December 1811, Mr Thomas Pearsall took out a patent for his invention of applying hoop iron instead of timber for the construction of roofs. However it proved a failure as one roof set up over London Docks collapsed and after this the work was discontinued.

One of the last places in our locality to have a hoop iron roof was Rose Cottage, near All Saints Church at Longwell Green.

Mr Pearsall retired to Bath where he died in 1825, the premises in the meanwhile having been sold, and in 1816 converted into a flour mill.

Mills family

The Mills family worked the flour mill from around 1840 and the three brothers and one ~sister were all born in Mill Cottage near the works alongside the-brook.

Flours were milled at these premises until 1931 when Edward Mills retired.

When the Mills family took over the mill it was powered by two water wheels, one on each side of the mill. There was always plenty of water to keep the machine moving and day and night large quantities of water were pumped from California pit and went into Mill-clack brook. To this day the waters still flow the same from the disused Kingswood coal field via the levels, an ingenious method of underground drainage.

The two large wheels were subsequently replaced by a much more powerful single wheel made and fixed by Torrance & Sons Ltd., engineers of Bitton. It was never idle and worked 24 hours a day, including Sundays.

The reason why there was always an adequate volume of water was due to the fact that when Mr Pearsall originally built his dam for the power needed by the mill he flooded a meadow and an orchard which was until that time known as Swan flats.

sunlight garden
the sunlight garden - Mike Dimery

Bull family

The Bull family lived in a large house on top of Willsbridge Hill named Albert Villa this is now the modern day veterinary surgery.

After the Mills family finished the premises had several owners, who during their various short stays, never really carried on as the previous owners· It was not until it was taken over by Alfred Bull in 1942 that it became once more successful under the name of the Willsbridge Milling Company Limited. This time it was not used as a flour mill but for milling animal feeds.

The old water wheel was still used until after the Second World War but by now it was getting beyond repair and was replaced by a turbine, which was supplied and fitted by a Belfast firm. At this time the only electricity used was for lighting purposes, so that cost of purchasing outside power must have been minimal.

The mill is tucked away out of sight and is unknown to many new residents of the area. As the mill worked quietly it was almost unnoticeable by sight or sound in this rural setting, and although its machinery was old, it was well suited for running by water power. A great deal of work was undertaken cutting wheat, polishing peas for pigeon food etc.

Originally the grinding was done on the old stones driven by a water wheel, but these stones were taken out when the new turbine was fitted.

Townsend family

After Mr Bull died in 1960 the milling was subsequently carried on by the Townsend family, who had been his employees.

In 1928 Walter Townsend had been employed by the Mills family - he remained at the mill when the Bull family took over - for many years Walter would cycle from his home in Frogmore Street in the centre of Bristol to the mill at Willsbridge - and back again the same day - a round trip of twelve miles.

Later in 1947 Sidney Townsend Walter's son (my uncle) also worked at the mill - In later years when his father retired Sidney ran the mill single handed for the Bull family.

After the disaster of the flood the mill machinery was taken out and Willsbridge Milling Company was sold off to a local farming family the Rennalds Brothers who ran a large farm at Hicks Gate Brislington.

The Great FLood of July 1968

During the great storm of 10/11 July 1968 which was probably the worst in living memory, had been lashing the West Country for most of Wednesday increased in intensity during the evening and deposited an incredible 6 ins of rain on Bristol in 24 hours.

The mill pond at Willsbridge became so flooded that the old dam beside the mill could not contain the pressure of water and during the early hours the dam burst., allowing teeming millions of gallons of water to devastate the lower lying areas of Willsbridge below the mill.

The village of Willsbridge was hit by a tidal wave of water from the mill so great was the pressure that it swept away everything in its path.

People were trapped in their homes - cars were swept down stream some never too be seen again.

Willsbridge Mill suffered a tremendous battering as the, by now unrecognisable, Warmley Brook roared through it. Several tons of animal feed disappeared when the store and outbuildings were wahed away.

A massive tree trunk was swept into the dam walls which were unable to withstand the force of the impact and gave way.

The resulting ‘tidal wave’ which descended into the valley below demolished the walls on both sides of the main road near the Queen’s Head and washed cars out of the car-park. The public house, adjacent cottages and houses and bungalows at The Tanyard opposite were all flooded to a depth of several feet.

The publican’s wife, of the local public house "The Queens Head" Mrs Gwen Tucker said that they had to stop serving drinks at about 8.00pm as water was pouring down the hill and entering the bar. The main flood following the mill dam bursting, happened in the early hours when they heard a series of loud bangs and the force of the water burst open their doors.

As the water receded during Thursday morning, it revealed the main road littered with cars, blocked by a tree trunk and covered in a thick layer of mud and rubble.

That night, seven people lost their lives, hundreds more suffered a terrifying ordeal of hardship and loss, bridges that had stood for centuries were washed away or severely damaged and countless houses, shops, factories and other properties were engulfed.

As night gave away to day and the full extent of the disaster was revealed it became obvious that for a great many people life would not return to normal for a number of days yet to come...for the mill it never did.

After the disaster of the flood the mill machinery was taken out and Willsbridge Milling Company was sold off to a local farming family the Rennalds Brothers who ran a large farm at Hicks Gate Brislington.

And the mill buildings at Willsbridge fell into disrepair.

the Mill
the Mill today

Avon Wildlife Trust

The Mill was later bought, together with the adjoining land by George Wimpey & Co Ltd., the civil engineers and builders.

In 1979 George Wimpey donated the mill and its pond to the Kingswood District Council who have now entered into an agreement with the Avon Wild Life Trust for the restoration of the premises.

Altogether there are twenty acres of steep-sided river valley of the Siston Brook with wood, scrub and meadow vegetation on its slopes and the Trust intends to malie the mill and the valley into the County’s first Wild Life and Countryside Centre.

The historic mill and adjoining barn are to be used as a public visitors centre and school field study centre where there will be displays of the local and natural history, slide and film shows, a library, laboratories and a trust shop.

The ‘topping outs ceremony was held on 5th May 1982 when repairs to the roof and the structure of the building were completed.

Tribute to Nellie

A Wheelchair- friendly path at the Willsbridge Valley nature reserve has been opened in the memory of a local woman.

Nellie Broome was born at Willsbridge Mill in 1906 and died last year leaving a generous legacy to the Wildlife Trust.

The path has been created as a tribute to Nellie who had fond memories of walking through the meadow and valley every day to the local village school in Oldland Common.


Find out more about the Willsbridge Mll nature reserve here