There was a watermill on or near this site in pre-Reformation times, when it was making an annual payment to Maxstoke Priory. One finds many instances of mills or income therefrom being made over to religious bodies in those days. However there seems to have been a rebuilding or substitution on another site nearby in 1542, when John Bedell of Beoley covenanted to build a corn mill on land belonging to Daniel Benford. Presumably it was Bedell whose name was attached to the mill in Tudor times and later, when it was known as Biddle's Mill.
In 1721 the mill belonged to Robert Eaves of Sarehole (Sarehole Hall?) and to his brother Richard from 1746. The tenant millers included in 1750-2 one Judd Karding, a sword cutler: did he use Sarehole’s water-power for his trade, as presumably he had formerly done at the Moat mill on the Rea? Richard Eaves went bankrupt in 1754. His two sons were both to be concerned with the development of water power. John joined with Edward Ruston, a relation, to purchase land on the Hockley Brook for the construction of a large pool and watermill: Ruston's Pool was made, and in 1762 Matthew Boulton II leased the estate for the building of his Soho Works. The Eaves family fortunes were restored by John Baskerville the printer, who intended to make John his successor (but he died in 1763) and married the widowed mother. Richard Eaves II was prosperous enough - or had promises enough- to rebuild both Sarehole and Greet Mills: but as he went bankrupt too, after the rebuilding of Greet, he seems to have over-reached himself in what must then have seemed a sound financial venture when the Birmingham mills were proving inadequate for the growing town's needs.
In 1759 the Sarehole estate had been rented by Matthew Boulton Senior for his retirement: he died there after only a few months, his widow retaining the tenancy the following year. There is a 1756 reference to ‘Mr. Boulton’s flatting mill’ (rolling mill), which almost certainly refers to Mr. Boulton I and indicates that he was the lessee at Sarehole mill. It is tempting to think that Matthew Boulton II may have considered developing Sarehole as he was soon afterwards to develop Soho. At that time only the small Coldbath Brook, with three pools and the small millpond, supplied Sarehole, which was called 'Little Mill' (as opposed to 'Greet' Mill nearby - or was it, as seems likely, small in size and power?). The Cole was an obvious source of additional water, which was obtainable however only by the cutting of long races. Sarehole must have seemed very worthy of development, except for its location. Labour and materials for a large works would have had farther to travel, and in packhorse days every mile mattered: but probably the important factor was that Ruston's Pool was already made, while at Sarehole all was still to be done.
As Richard Eaves first paid the three guineas annual rent for use of the new channel from the Cole in 1768, this was presumably the year of rebuilding. The ‘sluice’, four yards wide, was cut from the "Whyrl-hole', a small basin half a mile upstream on Sarehole Common. This is only a few score yards from the re-entry of Titterford Mill’s tail-race at the diverted confluence of the Cole and the Chinn Brook: Titterford was in existence by 1778, a decade later. Passing across the frontages of Little Sarehole and Sarehole Hall, the race was augmented by the Swanshurst Brook, which descended from Henry Giles's New Pool (1759). Small brick bridges carried (Old) Brook Lane and Wake Green Road over the channel, which bordered the latter as far as the millpond. As it was here several feet above river level, the meadow (later Cotterell's Meadow, Colebank Playing Field) suffered whenever the leat flooded, and Eaves and his successors had to pay 20s. annually as compensation to its tenant.
The substantial brick buildings erected by Eaves between 1764 and 1768 included the mill building of three floors, with a single-storey forge alongside, a bake-house, and attendant barns and stable. Mr. Charles states that Eaves originally planned a corn-mill only, but during construction decided to include blade-grinding equipment - hence, perhaps, the smaller wheel at the forge end. Later, probably when the steam-engine was installed in the late 1850s, the workshop was converted into a dwelling, part of the floor being raised and a second storey added - thus partially masking the large semi-circular window on the south end wall of the mill.
There are two water-wheels. The south wheel is overshot, but is sixteen inches less in diameter than the twelve-feet breast-shot north wheel, so that there is no difference in height of the water intake. The south wheel probably went out of use when the Andrew family became tenants in 1868. The breast wheel came with iron spokes and rims with flanges for the thirty-six timber buckets. From them water trickled through culverts to a brick-lined channel, thence into the three hundred-yard tail-race, which enters the Cole just above Green Road ford. A side-channel took flood-water round the millsite to the tail-race.
The tenant between 1765 and 1768 was John Jones, who ground corn. The land attached to the mill at this time totalled sixty-eight acres. It was owned by the Lord of Yardley Manor, who from 1768 was John Taylor, Birmingham manufacturer and banker (of Taylor & Lloyd’s Bank) whose factory in Corbetts Lane - now Union Street - employed five hundred people: was this water-powered, by the ‘Moor’ Brook, which entered the Rea just below Digbeth?
Sarehole was still Little Mill in 1767, but thereafter it was often referred to as High Wheel Mill. (An indenture of that year, copied by Bickley, calls it Little Mill and describes it as a corn mill.) I take the new name to be descriptive of the Smeaton breast-wheels, and assume that they were then unusual enough in the district to be sufficient in themselves to identify Sarehole: it would appear then that other local wheels were either undershot or, as Dr. Pelham has shown was the case in Edgbaston, small diameter wide overshot wheels. The installation of two wheels of different power is thought by Dr. Hetherington to have been made so that corn grinding and industrial processes might be carried on simultaneously and independently. If this were so, one may guess that the processes were those concerned with edge-tooling (which required relatively little power and could have been served by the smaller wheel) and perhaps gun-barrel boring, which were certainly activities of the site in later times. The supplementary steam engine was installed in the late 1850s by Robert Simmons, who had converted Titterford to steel-rolling. He installed new wheels at Sarehole and corn-grinding machinery from Titterford, and built up the blade-grindery to make a millhouse. The engine was still supplementing waterpower in 1890. Notwithstanding the provision of blade-grinding machinery in the later stages of Eaves's rebuilding, Sarehole was described only as ‘a water corn mill’ in the 1773 sale (did John Taylor purchase it then?), and the double installation may have been made simply to save water by use of the smaller wheel when this would be adequate.
Dr. Pelham has evidence of blade-grinding, and a report of wire-drawing about 1798. Known millers are Thomas Anderton (1841-47), who went bankrupt and was succeeded by Joseph Briscoe, then tenant of Greet Mill which had gone out of use, in whose first year at Sarehole the barn was built, John Mander, who paid interest on the cost of an engine to the Taylor Estates - whose property it presumably was – and held the tenancy until 1858, when John Andrew succeeded him. His family remained in occupation until the death in 1959 of Mr. George Andrew, who was unmarried, but the mill had been idle since 1919 when his father decided against making necessary repairs to the wheel. Mr Andrew told me that his grandfather took over from William Deakin in 1856, but this cannot be confirmed. There is no mention of a Deakin in the Taylor Rental Books: he was a gun maker and sword cutler at 70 Navigation Street in the 1850s, listed in a directory of the time. This family, the name having varied spellings, was engaged in arms manufacture from 1579, according to a descendant, Mr. A. M. Richardson, who claims that he was indeed connected with the mill: as he was a supplier of arms to the East India Company and had several mills in the area doing work for him, it seems most likely that Sarehole was one of these.
The metal grinding and boring continued into the latter half of the nineteenth century: whether it ceased because of inability to compete in price with modern factories such as the B. S. A. which were near railways is not established but is likely. The grinding of grains and pulses in 1894 brought in only £54 16s 3½d, according to the Grinding Account Book which I found in the rubbish-littered house after vandals had practically wrecked it: as Mr. Andrew Senior’s rent was £20 p. a., he must have had another source of income. It is surprising that he continued milling until 1919.
The Taylor Estates, which came into Birmingham as part of Yardley and Kings Norton in 1911, were for sale two years later. The catalogue describes the mill thus:
‘Sarehole Corn Mill, a compact holding extending to 7 acres 2 roods 39 perches, and including a brick built and tiled house containing three bedrooms, parlour, kitchen, scullery, and boxroom, and the Mill Premises, comprising Breast Wheel, driving two pairs of 4 ft. stones, three mill floors, Bake House, Stable and Pigsties. The Mill and House are let to Mr. George Andrew Junr. on a yearly tenancy…the land is let to Mr. G. E. Tipping on a yearly tenancy… and the rent is £24. (The Mill rent was £20 as aforesaid). The purchaser of the lot will have to enter into a covenant to maintain and keep in repair the three bridges near Sarehole and Brook Farms and Sarehole Mill which span the feeder supplying the Mill Pool’.
One wheel only is mentioned - does this imply that the smaller one was already out of use? The mill and meadow were bought by Mr. A. H. Foster, Solicitor, of Thee Chalet, Green Road - at the far end of the meadow - who left them to the city, to be kept in perpetuity as an open space, to be used as a botanical garden or recreation ground for the benefit of the public. Mr. Foster died in 1928, but the bequest was not to be made until the death of Mr. Andrew. He was a noted local florist, having large greenhouses against the west wall of the mill and the bakehouse: he died in 1959: the following description of the mill and its waterworks is applicable to the summer of that year before vandals - for many years a menace about the site - attacked the empty buildings and came near to destroying them.
A modern weir at the Whirl-hole serves only to maintain river level in the ‘Dingles’ park: the head-race has not been blocked, but is breached about thirty yards from its start, just beyond a small brick bridge, which formerly took the path from Billesley Farm to Paradise. The channel is still nearly four yards wide but much silted and overgrown: it still collects water in flood, but this all returns to the river now by way of the sluice beside the Four Arches Bridge. This once had wooden flood-gates, but these were stolen in 1917 and not replaced. The top of the now bricked-up arch which took (Old) Brook Lane over the race can be seen in the north side of the sluice. Beyond it there is a slight depression bordered by willows along the west side of Coleside Avenue (formerly Wake Green Road) which marks the line of the race. Beyond (New) Brook Lane it is lost: it ran along what are now the front gardens of the 1930s houses on the east side of Wake Green Road, which then crossed it by a bridge mentioned in the Sale Catalogue, in front of Sarehole Farm. (The road south from the farmsite is new - the old lane ran between river and race, and is identifiable by its bordering trees). At the junction with Colebank Road can be seen the brick-lined culvert whence an overflow sluice, still there, returned excess water to the river. The stream from Swanshurst Pool now descends through the miniature golf-course, then by conduit beneath new housing, round the surviving barns of Sarehole Farm, and so directly to the Cole. The Coldbath Brook descends steeply through the bed of the former Lady Mill Pool, and so through the Dell, the alder swamp that was Old Pool until about 1890. The brook cuts through the ruined brickwork of the sluice in the centre of the earth dam, which survives to impede drainage, and crosses what was until recently the ill-drained waste of Great Meadow, but is now (1963) being made into a Corporation housing estate with consequent improvement: by culvert under Wake Green Road the brook then enters the choked and silted millpool. This is embanked rather than dug out of the meadow. Almost no water now falls into the large wheel-chamber, and none into the smaller one: brick walls have been built across the entrances. The pond drains into the side-channel, thence into the tail-race.
Even after forty years of neglect, the metal parts of the wheels seem to be in reasonable condition: much of the timber has gone. Of the thirty-six ‘buckets’, perhaps nine would contain water during use: I estimate that these might hold about twenty-seven cubic feet of water, about 250 lb. weight, which seems inadequate to turn the large wheel and the heavy machinery geared to it, but once started - perhaps by hand - it would have great inertia. The empty engine-house is beneath the forty-foot chimney on the north side of the wheel-chamber. Some at least of the timber works are still in place, the iron-bound four-foot millstones can be seen, and there are smaller blade-stones in the garden.
After the death of Mr. Andrew, it was said that the pool was to be cleared and refilled, and the meadow to become a recreation ground, a small part of the long-promised riverside walk. There was some intention of turning the mill into a branch museum. In July 1960 I discovered that vandals had destroyed every destructible thing in the mill and the house, which were in an advanced state of dilapidation. The Parks Department had provided a custodian only during the day, although it was known that the wreckers worked at night: our only surviving watermill, listed by the Ministry of Works as being worthy of preservation, and a cherished local possession (as a public meeting was to prove), was being allowed to reach such a state of ruin that it would have to be demolished unless something were done quickly. I wrote to the ‘Post’, and my letter and proposal were among the influences which produced the City Council’s decision to save the mill. Public interest and private benefaction saved the mill, and on Sunday 13 July 1969 it was opened as a branch museum. The cottage, two floors on the yard side and one over the dam at the back, were reduced to the original height of the grindery, thus revealing the whole of the semi-circular window on the garner floor, and the interior was fitted out as a rural workshop. Roofs and walls were restored and a new lucam was built. The barn was so tumbledown that it had to be given a stout timber frame: the east wall still leans outwards. The main wheel was restored, and water from the partly-cleared pool turns it for demonstrations. The mill meadow was provided with banks and bridges and opened as part of the long-awaited riverside walk. A spillway from the Cole turns flood-water into the tail-race, the product of three channels. It is nearly a foot below river level at that point and is not able to enter the Cole at its level until approaches Green Road ford, three hundred yards downstream. Later work has been the restoration of the south wheel and installation of a single grindery, and the provision of a small engine alongside the north wheel.
Provisional list of Cole valley watermills
Peterbrook, Dobbs, Crab, Kilcop and Forshaw Mills
Colebrook Priory and Old Mills
Broomhall and Lady Mills
Possible mills in Greet and Tyseley, Medley's Mill