The story of a famous riverside building which stood in Durham for hundreds of years has been told in a new booklet. Chris Lloyd reports.
TODAY, there is only a weir across the Wear to show for the Bishop's Mill which, for best part of a thousand years, stood on the riverbank at the edge of Durham City.
If you want to see where it was, search out the Archimedes Screw that is still driven by its old mill race, generating power for a new office block in the way that the mill race once powered Icy Smith's ice factory.
The stories from a millennium of milling are brought together in a new booklet, From the Bishop’s Mill, by local resident Rosemary Zakrzewski, which is raising money for the Durham Heritage Centre. The mill was really a very humble place with not much recorded about it, but the booklet places it at the centre of the city’s history so that it watches as all the great upheavals of time go on around it.
The mill was mentioned in the Boldon Book of 1183, grinding primarily wheat, but also malted barley, peas, oats and siligo (rye wheat). All of the bishop’s tenants who lived in his tenements had to use his mill, even if there was a mill closer to their home.
In the mill’s early decades, there was much competition. About 500 yards downriver the bishop had another mill at Kepier Hospital, and, even closer, the Clock Mill stood on the opposite bank. The Clock Mill was owned by the priory and powered by the Milneburn which used to flow into the Wear on the north side of Framwellgate Bridge – from Milneburn comes the name Milburngate.
All these mills, built mainly of wood, suffered greatly from the “violence of the stream” – the Wear’s many floods regularly washed them away.
But a map of 1610 suggests that the Bishop’s Mill had been recently rebuilt in more permanent stone, and it also shows that the weir had been built diagonally across the river, driving the water down the mill race to power the mill.
The mill saw its greatest change during the Victorian era. It was enlarged into a three-storey building in the 1860s, and other industry grew up around it – carpet factories on its side of the river and, opposite, a gasworks, fuelled by coal transported by a tramway down from the main railway line.
The river itself was busy with people going to and fro. Framwellgate Bridge was the only dry crossing, but in its shadow was Horsehole where a horse pulled people and goods across in carts. Nearby was a ford, and from the island which had been created by the mill’s weir, there was a ferry over to Sidegate. The cost of the crossing was one penny.
The Bishop’s Mill ceased milling in 1913 and stood empty until 1929 when it was acquired by John “Icy” Smith, who started the quirkiest chapter of its long career. Icy wanted its waterpower to drive his ice factory on the other side of the river.
This, though, was shortlived. In 1930, Frigidaire created Freon, a synthetic refrigerant, which caused refrigerators to become increasingly accessible, particularly to Icy’s upper-crust customers. So Icy quickly diversified, creating an outdoor open-air ice rink next to the old mill.
During the Second World War, a large number of Canadian airmen found themselves based at County Durham airfields. Airmen like 17-year-old Earl Carlsdon, from Toronto who was stationed at Middleton St George and Croft-on-Tees. They wanted to play their favourite sport, ice hockey, and a Canadian Bomber Group League was formed at the rink. Icy went so far as to acquire what was believed to be the largest circus tent in Europe and erected over the ice as a roof.
In peacetime, a more permanent, corrugated iron rink was built, and in 1947, Durham Wasps were formed. Carlsdon, who’d married a girl he’d met at Darlington’s Majestic ballroom and settled, became their star player.
The ice rink was a big part of the city – even Torvill and Dean skated there – until it closed in 1996. It, and the last remnants of the seriously old mill, was eventually demolished in 2013. Now the two office blocks of Freeman’s Reach – one home to National Savings, the other to the passport office – occupy the site.
From the Bishop’s Mill – A view of life, work and Durham City by Rosemary Zakrzewski costs £4.95. It is available from the World Heritage Site centre in Owengate and the Palace Green library, or email email@example.com. All proceeds go to the Durham Heritage Centre in St Mary-le-Bow, North Bailey.