History of the Mill Time Line

Dated Keystone over the Leat

Why Whitemill?

The short answer is that nobody knows. The "Whitemill" name goes back a very long way, with references in 1175 and again in 1326. What is, perhaps, significant is that other places appear to have taken their names from Whitemill (Whitemill Farm, Whitemill Bridge) rather than the mill taking its name from the village. In 1326 we find a deed: "John Chyke to Peter le Boyt - all his tenements at Wytemull... together with part of his mill" which hints that the mill may once have been "Wytemull Mill".

Wild speculation aside... It is possible that an earlier building on the site, presumably of timber framed construction, might have been limewashed (a frequent occurrence) - but on that basis almost every mill in the country has probably been a white mill at some time in its life. A more likely explanation ties in with the fact that we have a former chalk pit (now the car park) behind the mill, and that the west end of the building appears to stand on an artificial island made largely from chalk. So it wouldn't just have been the mill that was white, the whole area would have been white from all the chalk. We shall probably never know for sure.

Relatively Recent History

The mill as we see it today was rebuilt in 1776 (the same year as the American Declaration of Independence) on very much older foundations, on a site that is older still. Throughout this final incarnation, the tenancy of the mill was held by successive members of the Joyce family.

The present edition of the mill worked under water power until 1866 when a severe winter flood breached the diversionary works in the river so severely that they were deemed beyond economic repair. By this time the miller was also the local baker so, rather than simply closing the mill, he converted one half of it to run from a portable steam engine in order to keep his bakehouse supplied with flour. Commercial milling however appears to have ended with the flood.

With the retirement of the last miller, around the end of the Nineteenth century, the working life of the mill came to an end and the millstones came to rest. By this time the Joyce family were one of the oldest and most respected tenants of the Bankes' Kingston Lacy Estate.

In A Kingston Lacy Childhood Viola Bankes (the sister of Ralph Bankes who gave the Kingston Lacy estates to the National Trust in 1982) recalls "The oldest tenant farmer on the Bankes estate was Mr. Joyce who made the tenants' speech at the reception at Kingston Lacy when my farther brought my mother there as his bride. My grandfather later offered Mr. Joyce the freehold on his farm, 'White Mill', because of the long association of his family with the Bankes family, but the proud old man refused it, saying, 'Thank you, but a Joyce always pays for what he has'".

After the turn of the century, the tenancy changed hands a couple of times in quick succession and the building spent the next 85 years rotting away as little more than a farm shed. Whitemill, along with the rest of the Kingston Lacy estates, was bequeathed to the National Trust by Ralph Bankes in 1982, but it wasn't until 1994 that the Trust found the resources to begin the painstaking conservation of the property. The key word here is "conservation" rather than restoration - the mill today does not, and will never again, work at the task for which it was built. The mill cottage is now home to the custodian, one of only an handful of such "custodial tenancies" of National Trust properties.

Not so recent History

The manor of Shapwick, in which Whitemill stands, was purchased by Henry Bankes of Kingston Lacy house in the year 1773. His survey of the new estate showed that he had a mill, with resident miller by the name of John Joyce, but also that he was getting no rent for the property because the mill itself had decayed beyond use. Bankes and Joyce reached an agreement to the effect that Joyce would pay 20 per annum in rent if Bankes would rebuild and maintain the mill. The cost to the Bankes family of rebuilding the mill was approximately 370.00, a huge capital sum at that time. In so far as it is possible to equate money then with money now, the original cost of the building is remarkably similar to the 300,000 that the Trust spent on the conservation.

Medieval history

The body of the current mill is built of brick, but the Wheelchamber is of quality stone construction. This stonework dates, we are told, to sometime in the fourteenth century, around the period when the Duke of Lancaster held the manor as a grant from the King. It is clear that when it came to the 1776 re-build, the builders considered that the power-plant was good enough to retain even though the superstructure (probably timber framed) was ruined. This fourteenth century dating is reinforced by the discovery of timbers in the foundations, during the underpinning of the river end wall, which have been radio-carbon dated to the same era. It is probable that the current mill is simply the last in a long line of rebuilds on the same foundations.
Whitemill Bridge seen from the South East
Whilst we have no tangible remains from any earlier mill on this site we know, from documentary sources, that there must have been a mill here or hereabouts as far back as the twelfth century. We find references to the building of "A Bridge on the River Stour adjacent to the White Mill" in the year 1175. Although the bridge we see today is probably a sixteenth century structure (somewhat hacked around by the Victorians) we know, from an investigation of the foundations a few years ago, that it stands on timber pilings which have themselves been carbon dated to the twelfth century. This is alleged to be the oldest bridge site in Dorset and is well worth a closer look in its own right.

Prior to 1175 the history of the mill becomes a bit more uncertain. The Domesday Book is a bit of a let down since it doesn't list the local mills by name, merely recording a total of 8 mills in the manor:

WIMBORNE (Minster), SHAPWICK, (Moor) CRICHEL, WIMBORNE (St.Giles). King Edward held them in lordship. It is not known how many hides are there because they did not pay tax before 1066. Land for 45 ploughs. In lordship 5 ploughs; 15 slaves. 63 villagers, 68 smallholders and 7 cottagers have 22 ploughs. 8 mills which pay 110s; meadow, 150 acres; pasture 6 leagues long and 3 leagues wide; woodland 5 leagues long and 1 league wide. 3 cobs; 30 pigs; 250 sheep; 44 goats.

This extended manor covers a large part of East Dorset (perhaps as much as 45,000 acres), and presumably formed the core of the future Kingston Lacy Estate. However, within the region described, there are not enough other known mills to make it certain that Whitemill, or its predecessor, is not one of them.

Positively Ancient Speculation

We know that there was considerable Saxon activity in the area with a "Cyninges Tun", or King's Farm, from which Kingston Lacy is thought to take its name, in the present day woods behind Pamphill. The farm was almost certainly there to support the religious institution founded in 709AD by Cuthberga, sister to King Ine, at Wimborne. Although repeatedly rebuilt down the centuries, the site of her nunnery survives as the present day Wimborne Minster.

Before the Saxons, there was considerable Roman activity around Badbury Rings, a mile or so to the North of the mill, with the junction of several major roads. The Romans are thought to have built a town just outside the Rings which they called Vindocladia - The Place Of White Walls. Might this be an even older origin for the name Whitemill?

All these settlements would have needed the services of a mill, so why shouldn't it have been on the site of the present Whitemill?