Alnwick Abbey was founded in 1147. Mills associated with the Abbey stood near to where Canongate Bridge now crosses the river. The abbey had two corn mills a little below the Abbey, and a fulling mill higher up the river. There was still a mill in operation here in the 1920’s. Today the mill has gone, but signs remain to show the location of both the first watermill and the last watermill to operate in Alnwick.
Most mills were either used to grind corn or to prepare cloth (fulling). The technology needed for a windmill was more complex than for a watermill. So windmills were rarely used in areas (like Alnwick) where there was a plentiful supply of suitable water power. Stoney Hills was once called Windmill Hill, but we have found no record of a windmill closer to Alnwick than than the one at Hauxley (south of Amble). Alnwick relied on water to power mills until the arrival of a mill powered by steam in 1855.
- Construction of a mill required significant capital. To provide a religious foundation with economic independence the lord would either allow them to construct their own mill, as at Alnwick Abbey (and later at Hulne Priory). Or he could donate the proceeds from a mill that he owned himself (as happened with Alnwick Town Mills, a little further down stream). After dissolution the ownership of these mills passed to the monarch, but the Earl of Northumberland eventually managed to regain possession of all the mills around Alnwick.
- The mills then operated on a commercial basis. In the case of the Town Mills, for example, the Earl owned them, and paid for any repairs. At least until the middle of the 17th century, the town Corporation leased the mills from the Earl, and sub-let to a miller. Farmers brought their grain to be milled, and the miller would retain a proportion as his payment (“Multure” was the grain or flour due to a miller in return for grinding corn). Tenants in different areas were obliged to use a specific mill, and they could be fined if they avoided this monopoly by grinding their own corn or taking it elsewhere. The last record of such a fine in Alnwick was in 1704.
- The earliest records reported by Tate only mention mills at Hulne Priory, Alnwick Abbey, and the Town Mills. Recent work on the fish pass near Denwick Bridge suggests that this could have been the location of another medieval mill. By the middle of the 18th century there are a number of maps and records suggesting that, by then, there may have been another four or five mills distributed along the banks of the Aln near Alnwick.
- The parkland around Alnwick castle was developed between 1750 and 1786. Mills on the Aln were badly damaged by a series of floods between 1744 and 1767. Landscaping and floods both resulted in mills being modified and rebuilt. By the 19th century the number of mills was smaller, but the mills were larger.
- The first steam mill in Alnwick was installed shortly after the railway arrived, in 1855, by Thomas Archbold. By 1882 this was being referred to as Bolam’s Mill. By the 1920’s Peter Eadington’s Mill was disused, and the Abbey mill was the only watermill in Alnwick that remained in operation.
A hydro electric system was installed here in 1889 by the 6th Duke, and Alnwick Castle became one of the first buildings in the North East to use electric power, only a few years after Armstrong installed hydro electric power at Cragside.
The system was decommissioned in 1948 when mains power was installed at the Castle, but it has recently been refurbished and a modern generator fitted. The electricity produced is used in the Estate’s workshops with surplus going back into the National Grid.