Article first published in Winter 2021 edition of the Petworth Society Magazine

Interesting things are happening at Coultershaw. There are plans for the heritage site to become a centre of research and education for the length of the Rother valley, and while concentrating on the river itself it will also include associated industries and communities. Hazel Flack has joined the team as a lead research volunteer and has brought an impressive level of expertise and experience with her. In the first of a series of occasional updates Hazel reports on the current state of the research.

Researching the Power of the Rother
Hazel J Flack MA

The Coultershaw Heritage Site, which is located in the South Downs National Park on the A285, a mile and a half south of Petworth, comprises a waterwheel, an historic water pump, a-state-of-the-art 21st century water turbine, and historic buildings around a mill pond. See link at end of this article for more information and details of open days.
A small volunteer research team, based at Coultershaw, is planning to create permanent displays for a new exhibition space in the restored South Warehouse (currently a work in progress). The space will also provide room for temporary exhibitions and other activities. We would welcome more researchers to our team, see end of article for details.
One area of research will be focused on the power of the River Rother, and the way water has been used for centuries to power at least thirty sites including mills, furnaces and iron works. The team also hopes to research the development of transport in the Rother Valley from the 18th to 20th centuries, and how it shaped, and was shaped by, the landscape and local rural life. We have started looking first at the development and use of water power. The team will work closely with other heritage and local history societies, as well as the West Sussex Records Office, to investigate some of the engineering, social and built histories of these sites. Here is a preview of the some of the historical records yet to be researched in more detail:

Maps and Plans, Images
Historical maps or plans of some of the sites, such as Milland, Cocking and Iping Mills, are available from the mid-17th century or earlier, showing how the areas have changed over the years. Very few of the sites are in their original form, many have been converted to other uses, and several have little or no above-ground trace of the original buildings. It is hoped that these old maps and plans, alongside glass negatives and photographs from the last two centuries, will give us some fascinating detail about how the sites would have looked when they were operational.

Deeds, Sales Particulars, Inventories, Invoices
A wealth of documentation, some of it dating back two or three centuries, or even older, should give an insight into some of the early tenants, leaseholders and owners of the mills, the fixtures and fittings included on the sites, rents and so on. A notebook from 1889 has records of horses and vans at Stedham Mill, whilst details about a new bridge to be built at Midhurst North Mill in the 19th century are included in a surveyor’s report and other correspondence, alongside an invoice for repairs fifty years later.

Personal and social histories
Diaries and letters, as well as formally recorded oral histories, will provide much of the social history of the sites, in particular the people who lived or worked at the various mills. Horace Brightwell has left some written notes about Hurst Mill from 1941, Charles Russell worked at the Hurst, Terwick and Bex Mills and was interviewed in 1978; at the same time Mrs Catt and Mrs Gwillim also give their stories from their times living at Midhurst North Mill. Other personal histories are available from Iping and Terwick Mills, and from 1843 a letter relating to Midhurst North Mill refers to fears over an effect on trade due to the Canada Corn Bill.

Tragedy, Crime and Civil Disputes
Newspaper and journal articles provide further sources, including a dispute over fixtures and fittings between tenants; an allegation of a bankrupt absconding from Hurst Mill in 1877; a woman charged with stealing wheat flour from the same mill in 1811; destruction through fire at Iping Mill; and an allegation from 1929 regarding the owner of Fittleworth Mill including a public footpath within the enclosure of his property.
A father and son from Harting, on their way home from Petersfield Market, were crushed to death by the mill wheel at Hurst Mill, after stopping to help set it going. Both Hardham and Coultershaw Mills featured in murder cases, in May and October 1861 respectively, as in both instances the murderer was finally found close to one of the mills.

Several of the mills have been depicted by 19th and 20th Century artists. John Constable (1776-1837) produced a delicate and atmospheric pencil sketch of Fittleworth Mill in 1834, whilst Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979) produced two oil paintings in the figurative/abstract style of scenes around Terwick Mill (c.1945). Other views of Fittleworth Mill and the surrounding area were produced by George Cole (1810-1883) and Edward Wilkins Waite (1854-1924), and an engraving of Coster’s Mill was produced by William Rainey (1852-1936).
We would welcome more volunteers to help us with some of this research. If you’d like to find out more about getting involved, please contact Tony Sneller on 07860 186847 or [email protected]