In 1999 the death of David Fowler forced the sale of Westford Mill, the last working mill in the Axe Valley. This article was written in 2000, shortly after the Mill came on to the market. It is now being renovated for use as a private residence.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution – in which the widespread use of evolving steam
power played a major part – the bulk of rural industrial plants were driven either
by wind or water. Thus in this area, the reliable annual flow of the Axe was used
at a number of places for milling and, in Thorncombe parish, even tributaries like
the Synderford and the humble Stonelake were exploited, in their cases by the cloth-
Known originally as Paul’s Mill, the property was brought by great grandfather
Fowler, a baker, for his son H T Fowler in 1879 and ended its days as Fowler Brothers
– run by great grandsons John (who died in 1999) and David. The mill was originally
a gristing mill for locally grown barley and wheat. In 1888 flour – stoneground by
waterpower – was added to the mill’s output. The history of the use of waterpower
in Westford is believed to date back to the 15th or 17th century with a butter wheel
at Westford Farm. When milling started, new premises were built on the present site
including a substantial dwelling house, the deeds for which date from 1721. By 1926
demand had increased sufficiently to require a gas engine to supplement water power
from the Axe. At this time up to 15 men were employed at the mill, where output had
increased steadily after 1918 and reached a peak of 140-
By 1950, village bakeries were closing, reducing the call for flour. In its place
the demand for feed for cattle increased and in the early 1960s electrical machinery
was introduced to cube and pellet cattle and other animal feeds. Apart from locally
produced cereals, these feeds required maize-
With the bulk of customers being either farms or families with livestock, house-
Early in the 1970s, the Fowler brothers decided to diversify and planted around 400 cobnut trees on part of the land that was originally Westford Farm. Part of the remaining plantation is pictured above. Hitherto cobnuts had been something of a Kentish speciality (as they still are today), the greensand in part of the Weald of Kent being particularly conducive to their culture. Perhaps due to the presence of greensand at Westford, the trees there also flourished and the plantation eventually grew to 1400 trees, the crop from which amounted to a tenth of the UK total. The nuts were gathered in September and the picking became an annual event for the local family parties who participated. The main outlet was Bristol Market whence the nuts disappeared into the green grocery and confectionary trades. In recent years the demand at Bristol has declined and this has coincided with difficulty in securing sufficient pickers at Westford.
As we are all aware, family farms of modest acreage that for years have been the mainstay of west country farming, are also experiencing viability problems. Whilst the outlook for small mills like Westford is thus not good, the death of John Fowler in 1999 forced the family to consider the closure of the business; continuation would have involved major expenditure on plant renewal and this factor together with the malaise in farming and the growing burden of bureaucratic paperwork brought about the decision to close. The whole complex including the nut orchard was subsequently offered for sale as an industrial site.
Warm thanks are due to Mr David Fowler without whose cooperation this article could not have been written.
First published in the TVT News, winter 2000. Reproduced by kind permission of Mrs Sheila Moreland.