Early historyCanal ManiaIndustrial revolutionWater pumpingDecline and reopening

Domesday record of Southcote in Berkshire, detailing that the settlement had a mill and a fishery

Domesday Survey entry for Southcote (CC BY-SA, Professor J.J.N. Palmer and George Slater)

Early history

Use of the Kennet in Southcote for industry dates back to the late Bronze Age. Analysis of the river channels south of Southcote Mill, at Anslow’s Cottages, was undertaken in the 20th century in anticipation of gravel extraction. These studies uncovered a structure described as either a revetment or a landing stage,[REF] the latter obviously suggesting the river channel was (at least to some degree) navigable. An archaological survey in the 1980s found evidence of a fishery on a sidewater; remains of an eel basket were found[REF] which have been dated to the 9th or 10th century.[REF]

The Domesday Survey of 1086 lists both a mill and fishery in Southcote. It is not certain where the mill was situated; the location of later mills in Southcote was chosen because of the difference in water levels offered when the Kennet was made navigable in 1723. It is possible this mill was located further north, on the Holy Brook. John BLAGRAVE‘s 1596 map shows a weir (or weare) on the Holy Brook, which may well have been used to create a head of water suitable for milling in earlier centuries.

Canal mania

The Kennet Navigation Act was passed in 1715, leading to plans to canalise the River Kennet between Reading and Newbury. John HORE (1680–c.1763) was appointed engineer, overseeing the works between 1718 and 1723, as well as rectifying some poor constructions hastily built in the preceding years.

In 1723 the Kennet Navigation opened, on which were a number of pound locks to overcome terrain and bypass weirs and mills. Hore built a brick lock at Southcote on a new 1,100-yard embanked cutting bypassing the meandering river. He wrote in July 1721 that the lock was largely complete so it was likely finished soon after. Some six decades later, a canal was proposed to link the Kennet at Newbury with the River Avon in Bath. John RENNIE was employed to engineer the waterway, and construction began in 1794. He surveyed the existing route near Reading, and in May 1800 visited Southcote and wrote of the facilities. His notebook entry for 28 May 1800 reads:

“Southcot wire mill is situated on the River Kennet. It works four pairs shears or tongs for drawing wire. Each forge makes 60 strokes a minute […] Their wheel when in work makes about 32 items per minute. There is a new mill building in addition to the above […] but it was not finished when I saw it.”

This is the earliest written documentation of a mill beside the canal at Southcote, and shows that water power was used to draw wire—it also implies that milling was established at Southcote before Rennie undertook his survey. In 1812, shortly after the full length of the canal opened, Rennie (or possibly his subordinate engineer John BLACKWELL) dug a 425-yard cut between Burghfield Bridge and Southcote Weir, necessitating the construction of another arch in Burghfield Bridge (hence the Rennie-esque Bath stone design).

An newspaper advert detailing an iron mill for let in 1822

The advert carried in the 23 March 1822 edition of The Cambrian

Industrial revolution

In the 1810s, the wire mill was operated by partnership between Charles POCOCK (1765–1833), Thomas GOLDEN and Charles Montagu POCOCK (1792–1870). The Pocock family owned Sowley Ironworks in the New Forest; it is assumed that this is where iron for Southcote was sourced. The company was semi-dissolved in 1818 when Pocock Sr. retired, and fully dissolved in 1820 when Golden and Pocock Jr. ceased trading. The mills were advertised nationally, and a partnership between metalworkers Christopher FORSTER and William Tate HISLOP took over the mills. They dissolved their company in 1836.[REF]

By the 1851 census, the mills at Southcote had changed purpose. Millers Charles DEATH, Joseph POVEY and Thomas BRUNSDEN (1814–1880) were flour millers. The following year, Southcote Water Works—now the private residence known as Southcote Mill—opened, pumping water to the Bath Road Reservoir in Reading. The pumping station used the canal as a source of power, and initially as its source of water. This chosen site for the pumping station was important—it was accessible by both road and canal, and it was at the confluence of the canal and river (giving a 5-foot head of water). Most importantly, it was upstream of the town—i.e. before pollutants and sewage had entered the water.

Water pumping

At some point after 1868 (when the Local Board Waterworks Act was passed) the Reading Waterworks Company—who by then owned the pumping station—purchased the wire/flour mill building in order to secure sole water abstraction rights in the area. The Ordnance Survey map surveyed in the 1870s showed the mill building disused. By 1894, the flour mill had closed and pumping had ceased, owing to the superior works a mile downstream beside Fobney Lock.

In 1896, the upper storey(s) of the old mill were removed and used to extend the ground floor. The westernmost section of the Bath stone building is the older, and it was extended to the east. This larger building was linked to the pumping station by conduits beneath the canal, and began operating as a filter house. The pumping station reopened, and provided Reading with its first supply of filtered water in June 1899. Tests on the water showed it was “chemically quite satisfactory”!

A sepia-toned photograph of a small Victorian cottage beside a canal

The waterworks cottage, before its demolition, viewed from the south bank of the canal

Decline and reopening

In 1920, a 54′ borehole was sunk to either supplement or replace the water supply to the pumping station. This was followed by a 60′ borehole four years later, and then a third borehole—reaching a depth of 153′ 2″—in 1930.[REFS] This final borehole is so deep that if Nelson’s Column was sunk into it, only Nelson from the waist up would be visible.

Photos of the old mill building held by the Berkshire Record Office seem to show it in use for filtering until at least 1948; at this point it had a distinct barrel roof. The pumping station was in operation until 1982, and was converted into a private dwelling thereafter. The waterworks cottage, a small symmetrical two-up two-down dwelling beside the pumping station, was demolished; only its cellar floor and chimney breast remain.

Plans have been submitted to Reading Borough Council for permission to convert the dilapidated mill building into a café and community space, which will ensure the building’s heritage—and that of the local canal—is not lost.

Know something not mentioned here? Have a memory or photograph of Southcote Mill you want to share? Please get in touch!