The present building dates mainly from around 1800, but probably stands on the site of a medieval mill. Monastic communities were supported by farming and like any landowner, usually had a mill in which to grind their own and their tenants' corn. An inventory drawn up in 1536, when Brinkburn Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII, mentions both a 'water corn mill' and a tannery.
The arrangement of the Priory at Brinkburn was unusual, however. While most monasteries had an outer court containing farm buildings, this was usually to the west of the main dwelling next to the church; and also upstream of it, with the drain for the sewage and kitchen waste running downstream. At Brinkburn, it is now clear, the outer, farm court was both to the east and downstream.
The reason for this was partly the small amount of level ground available. Moreover, in this case, the western end of the site was more secluded. The main approach to the Priory was from the east, along the track used by visitors to the Mill today. This ran off an old Roman road; just downstream are the foundations of a medieval or Roman bridge, where this road crossed the river.
From soon after the Dissolution until 1792, Brinkburn Priory belonged mostly to the Fenwicks. By 1700, the family's main house was Wallington, but the Priory was lived in by cousins, while growing increasingly derelict. The Mill was mentioned in documents from time to time, and 18th century maps show a group of buildings where the present Mill is, one of them with a water-wheel.
In 1792, Brinkburn was sold to Joseph Hetherington. He left it to his niece, Mary, who married Major Richard Hodgson in 1809. They rebuilt Brinkburn House in 1810. At about the same time, or possibly a Iittle earlier, the Mill was rebuilt, as a low building running north-south. An advertisement for a miller was placed in the Newcastle Chronicle in January 1813. The Mill building itself contained no accommodation, but there was a cottage near it.
One of the great millstones was renewed in 1825. Soon afterwards, the Mill was painted by J.M.W. Turner, standing in the foreground of a view of the Priory painted about 1830-1 as one of a series of Picturesque Views of England and Wales. Turner may have exercised some artistic licence, but he showed the Mill as a humble, rather tumbledown, building, with a thatched roof.
Around 1850-60, the Mill was enlarged. The older mill building was re-roofed at the same time, and given a new south gable and new windows. The addition, at the north end, consisted of two rooms, each with its own front door, and with no door between them and the mill proper. With their cornices and tall windows, and imposing porch reached by a tunnel from the main garden, it is thought that they were built as a summerhouse or fishing lodge. The smaller room seems always to have had a cooking range, and so must have been used to prepare food for the assembled company in the larger room. Curiously, this room had no fireplace to begin with.
The owner at this time was Cadogan Hodgson Cadogan, who in 1858-9 employed Thomas Austen, a Newcastle architect, to rebuild the Priory church. It is possible that Austen also remodelled the Mill to act as an eye-catcher at the end of the garden. The west side, which could be seen from the house, was more decorative than the east, with diamond-latticed windows and stone dormers.
More recent history
In 1896, Brinkburn was inherited from her brother, Arthur Hodgson Cadogan, by Eleanor Fenwick. She was married to Hugh Fenwick, a distant cousin of the earlier owners, who had sold the Priory just over a hundred years before.
The north end of the Mill had by then been turned into a cottage, and some minor alterations had been made for this purpose. A new chimney and grate were added in what is now the sitting room and the outside door into it was blocked. Instead, a new door was made in the dividing wall. A small larder was made inside the porch, with a window looking east. The cottage was lived in by Mr Shell, the coachman. He and his wife brought up a large family in the two rooms. Their youngest daughter was born there in about 1900.
By the 1920s, if not before, the Mill had fallen out of use. In the 1930s, a generator was installed there, standing on concrete blocks that were removed in the recent restoration. This provided electricity for the house for ten years. The accumulator jars were kept in the present kitchen.
Mrs Fenwick's grandchildren spent much of their time at Brinkburn House. They played tennis on the lawn between the House and the Mill, and kept a fishing net handy to rescue their tennis balls from the mill race. They used the present sitting room of the Mill as a playroom, and cooked on the stove.
In 1965 the Priory church and Brinkburn House were made over to the then Ministry of Public Buildings and Works by Mr H.A. Cadogan Fenwick, but the Mill remained part of the Fenwick estate. In 1989, to prevent it becoming a ruin, Mr Fenwick offered the Mill and its outbuildings to the Landmark Trust. The sale was completed a year later.
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