Water powered mills existed along the River Leen in the parishes of Bulwell, Papplewick and Linby since at least the thirteenth century and probably earlier. A perambulation of Sherwood Forest carried out on 16th July 1232 refers to, “by the middle of the town of Lindeby to the mill of the same town, which is on the water of the Leen.” However, this mill should not be confused with the existing Castle Mill and probably stood on the site of Walk Mill (Papplewick Lane) ! The name ‘Walk Mill’ probably arises from the use of the word ‘walk’ to describe an area of forest patrolled by a forester or walker. By 1615, iron refining was being carried out at Bulwell Forge, (the site later called Forge Mill), which was in Papplewick parish. The ironworks consumed vast quantities of local timber that were turned into charcoal. There is evidence of timber being taken for use at Bu!well Forge from Kirkby, Mansfield Woodhouse and Edwinstowe. Samson Wood in the adjacent parish of Calverton was felled to supply timber for Bulwell Forge between 1676 and 1708. Iron continued to be worked here until 1773.
Additional mills were built along the Leen after 1776 when Cornelius Wildbore moved out of Linby Walk Mill. The Robinson family were granted leases by the Right Honourable Frederick Montagu of Papplewick, allowing them to erect other mills for processing cotton. George Robinson and David Melvin had started bleaching and cleaning cotton at their yard in Bulwell during March 1742. On the income derived, George Robinson founded a family empire which was carried forward for more almost a century. George and two of his several sons, James and John, entered into a 56 year lease with Frederick Montagu on 25th April 1778 that allowed them to build a mill at Grange Farm. Four years earlier, Frederick Montagu had helped to create the economic climate for the processing of cotton by jointly taking a Bill before Parliament to reduce the duties payable on cotton goods.
Thereafter, George, James and John Robinson built cotton spinning mills or converting existing corn mills on the Leen at Castle Mill (1782), Grange Farm (1790), Lower Mill (in what is today Bestwood) in 1784, Forge Mill (1785) and Forest mill at Bulwell (1795). Not only were the mill buildings constructed, but water power was harnessed in the unpromising environment of Papplewick, costing large sums of capital expenditure [in excess of £40,000]. The work included the creation of Upper Pond (often known as Papplewick Dam), Moor Pond and a network of connecting channels that fed water all the way south to Lower Mill. (at Bestwood). The Robinsons employed around 800 people along the Leen Valley and also had warehouses in St. Mary’s Gate and Maypole Yard and a canalside wharf and storage, in Nottingham. Interestingly, and contrary to popular belief, Walk Mill was never used to refine cotton.
Several of the sites can be seen on the map produced by Sanderson in 1835 (after the mills had closed). From north to south we can see Papplewick Dam to the west of the village.
The Robinsons were severely hampered in their work by their neighbour, William, the fifth Lord Byron. He demanded royalty payments for using the River Leen, amounting to a £10,000 levy. He started damming up Lower Lake at Newstead on 4th April 1785, refused to allow the Robinsons to regulate the river’s flow, and threatened to release the water causing a “sudden violent eruption of water…”. The Robinsons took Byron to court, but the matter was passed back and forth between courts in Nottingham and London for several years. Only in 1795 did they finally obtain judgement in their favour but were unable to recover damages, with Byron pleading poverty.
In this atmosphere of litigation and water shortage, the Robinsons had to seek alternative means of powering their mills. They embarked on a scheme to enlarge the water storage on the site. In 1785, James set about purchasing a steam engine from Messrs. Boulton and Watt of Birmingham that would supplement the existing water-wheel. They installed it in Lower Mill (close to what is today known as Bestwood Mill Lakes County Park). This was the first rotative steam engine used to power a cotton mill anywhere in the world. The engine failed to live up to expectations, but nevertheless in 1791 a second steam engine was installed at the Grange Mills.
Children were brought from the St. Marylebone Workhouse in London and Birmingham Workhouse, to work at the cotton mills. Numerous tales have been told of the hardships they endured, alleging poor nourishment, brutal treatment and excessive toil. Legend has it that hundreds are buried in unmarked graves in Papplewick and Linby churchyards. In actual fact, nothing could be further from the truth! Evidence produced at a Parliamentary Select Committee (1815) details the education they received (out of 244 children under the age of 18 employed, only 17 could not read or write), the medical facilities they were afforded and outside observers told of their work being “neither laborious nor sedentary.” There are 44 entries in Linby and Papplewick burial registers relating to the burial of ‘London boys’. However, although they were referred to as ‘boys’ in the registers, many of them were young adults – the oldest was 23 when he died. Some of the apprentices continued to live in the neighbourhood long after the mills were closed down.
In September 1817, James Robinson died and was buried in Papplewick Churchyard alongside his wife, Ann. The mills passed into the hands of his sons, James and George, but in September 1821, the works were sold to the partnership of Hopper & Glover. By July 1828, cotton spinning finished, owing to irreconcilable differences between the three partners. A dispute dragged through the courts until 1830.
Thereafter, the mills lay empty and largely deserted. All but Castle Mill, Forge Mill and Forest Mill were dismantled in the 1850’s. The materials were probably salvaged and used to construct new farm buildings, examples of which remain at West View and Forest Farms. Forge Mill was used to grind bones between 1820 and 1920. A small Methodist New Connection Chapel occupied the ‘joiners shop’ at Walk Mill after 1835. A new brick chapel was built on the site in 1900, but closed around 1960. Papplewick Grange (James Robinson’s home) was demolished in 1932 when a buyer could not be found for it at auction. Castle Mill was used to grind corn after 1851, and it was eventually purchased by the Hucknall Torkard Industrial Provident Society. They sold it in 1952 and it was converted to residential property. Papplewick Dam reservoir was drained in 1946. Moor Pond had been drained and forested before 1881. Today both Papplewick Dam and Moor Pond Wood are accessible to the public.
Womble, Colin (1998), ‘A Place Like Papplewick’ (unpublished manuscript) available at the Nottinghamshire Archives
Walker, Stephen (2017), ‘The Early Industrial Revolution in the Leen Valley, Nottinghamshire.’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, Nottingham University)