Wilfred Foreman in his definitive book, Oxfordshire Mills (Phillimore, 1983), records in excess of two hundred watermills in the county, many of which were mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086, suggesting that they are largely of Saxon origin. Foreman’s map shows a very high concentration of watermills in North Oxfordshire, with ten of the roughly fifty watermills in this area sited on the Sor Brook.
The main purpose of water mills was to grind corn into flour for baking bread; millers could also be involved in the brewing of beer. The manorial watermill was an integral part of the manorial system, with the revenue generated by the mill being an important element in the manorial lord’s income.
Mills differed in terms of how the water drove the water wheel: the mill could be under-shot (with the water passing under the wheel and driving the paddles upwards), breast-shot (with the flow of water striking the paddles at breast height and hence with more force) or over-shot. Adderbury’s eighteenth-century mill was of the breast-shot type.
The Sor Brook
The Sor Brook rises in the North Oxfordshire Heights a little over a mile and a half north of Shenington and acts as a boundary between Shenington and neighbouring Alkerton. The source is just inside the county boundary north-east of Sugarswell Farm at a height of 175 metres (570 feet) above sea level. It flows in a generally south-eastern direction across North Oxfordshire, passing close to Broughton Castle where it acts as a spillway to the castle moat. The Brook then flows south east to the parish of Bodicote before dropping south to Adderbury. Here the Brook forms the boundary to three parishes: it makes Adderbury’s boundary with Bloxham and divides what were, until merger in 1971, the separate parishes of East and West Adderbury. The Sor Brook then continues almost due east to join the River Cherwell, alongside the River Swere, at the county boundary with Northamptonshire. The height of the Sor Brook at this point is 70 metres (225 feet) above sea level, making a hefty fall over its length of 105 metres (340 feet).
In geological terms, the parishes of Shenington and Alkerton rest on a bed of Marlstone rock formed many millions of years ago during the Jurassic period. The glaciers covering much of the country 10,000 years ago also covered what is now North Oxfordshire. They started to melt and retreat and produced a great deal of water carrying a rocky detritus. This would have found weaknesses in the rock below, scouring out valleys that would make courses for water to follow, creating the rivers and streams we have today. From its source the Sor Brook follows a shallow valley with the water flowing over alluvium (clays and silts) in a layer many metres thick and itself overaying a thick layer of clay.
“Sor” as a river name may possibly be of Celtic origin, with some place-name authorities considering that Sor is cognate with the continental river name Saar, deriving from the Celtic word sara (streaming water). There are River Soars in Leicestershire, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire. It is also possible that the name may have been derived from the Sor family, local to Shenington. It is equally possible that they took their name from the Brook – the Sor family were under-tenants of the earls of Gloucester, who were overlords of the manor of Shenington in the twelfth century.
Two of the four mills mentioned in the Domesday Survey of Adderbury are considered by historians to have been the two belonging to the Winchester Manor (acquired by a bishop of Winchester in the eleventh century), both sited on the Sor Brook, one at Bodicote and one at Adderbury. The other two mills were on the River Cherwell.
The original Adderbury Mill was sited immediately west of the present Duchess Bridge, but was moved to its present location at the bottom of what was to become Mill Lane around 1764 on the orders of the Dowager Duchess of Argyll, then the tenant of Adderbury House. The move was part of a much larger reorganisation of roads and the bridge over the Sor Brook in the area south of the house which had previously been subject to extensive flooding for much of the year. The ancient mill, by then known as Gillett’s Mill, stood in the way of these developments and was hence moved upstream.
The mill stream running parallel to the Sor Brook was constructed to feed the newly located mill, providing a great deal of fast-moving water to power a breast-shot wheel. The narrow island created by the Brook and the mill stream came to be known locally as “The Parish”. The feoffes (a local medieval charity) had some small cottages built on this land, which provided accommodation for the very poor, who “lived off the parish”.
The 1764 complex consisting of stone mill buildings and brick out-houses were built to a lavish standard, as were the miller’s house and stables across the lane. Nonetheless, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the mill ceased working as the mill stream had silted up and clogged with weeds.
The out-buildings to the south of the mill were used before and during World War I for a laundry business. One contract was doing the laundry for the Horton Hospital in Banbury. The large water-wheel which had powered the mill was taken out in the 1930s, when the mill stream was diverted under the garden to produce power to drive a turbine. The rest of the mill machinery was dismantled during the 1940s. About this time a Dr. John moved into the Mill, turning it into a home. It was the first home in the village to have electricity.
The Millers of Adderbury
1782-85: John Wheeler. He is mentioned in the estate accounts
1795: John Falkner, miller, was one of the parties cited in an indenture dated 9th October 1795, whereby he sold land north of the original Adderbury Mill site. His possession of this land may suggest that he was the last miller to work the mill in its original location.
1839-58: William Gardner and James Gardner junior. As well as Adderbury Mill the Gardners were involved in the running of two other mills on the Sor Brook, Bodicote Mill and Lower Grove Mill. They were also farmers, and employed 5 men, probably including the two journeyman millers, Wm Hawkins and Sam Blackwell, who lived in the village.
1860s: John King, master miller, plus wife and two children, together with a servant and a nanny. He also had a mill carter, William Hazelwood.
1870s: James Gardner, who farmed 108 acres in addition to being a miller. He had a wife and four children plus one servant and employed three men and a boy. He may have been the son of the James Gardner mentioned above.
1876: John Coles, who came from one of the mills on the Broughton Estate.
1884-late 1890s: John Henry Wallin. Prior to coming to Adderbury Mill with his wife and four children Wallin was working Wroxton Mill. Possibly through lack of water by 1891 John was running a steam mill at the end of Parsons Street. By 1901 the family had moved again and were running their steam mill in Chapel Lane along with a bakery.
I am very grateful to Nick Allen for allowing me to create the above paper referring in the main to Adderbury Mill from his more broadly based 2014 publication: “Watermills on the Sor Brook”.