There were over 90 watermills in Birmingham. The earliest were built in the Middle Ages. New mills were constructed in later centuries while others were modified and rebuilt, often to serve other uses, and some mills were still in use in the 20th century.
Water power was harnessed for a variety of purposes:
- grinding corn
- fulling cloth
- paper making
- sharpening blades and metalworking
In order to create a head of water to turn the water wheel, channels (head races) were constructed to carry water from higher up a stream or river, and streams were dammed to make mill pools. Tail races carried water back into the river or stream.
Only two of Birmingham watermills remain in working order - Sarehole Mill and New Hall Mill - but there are remains of buildings at Northfield Mill, mill pools in Sutton Park and head and tail races alongside the River Cole.
Edgbaston Mill on the River Rea existed by 1231, and it continued to operate as a corn mill until the 19th century. By the 18th century it was one of the largest corn mills in Birmingham, with at least two water wheels. The mill itself was finally demolished about 1920, but the miller house remained until 1993.
Archaeological excavation in 2004 prior to development of the site revealed the base of a brick mill building dating to the 18th century, with a wheel pit at each end. The iron blades of the water wheel remained in place in the northern wheel pit. The headrace along which water was led to the southern water wheel was lined with a sandstone wall.
Pottery in packing behind the wall shows that it was built in the 17th or 18th centuries. Other sandstone remains on the site might be part of older mill buildings. There was a cobbled surface around the mill, and the remains of the miller house which was built in the 19th century. The remains of the mill building will be preserved under the new development.
The excavation showed how, although nothing was visible above ground, substantial and well-preserved remains survived below ground. Excavations at Wychall Mill in Kings Norton showed similarly good survival, and here too the mill remains have been preserved within a new development.
Last Updated : 3rd September 2013