Bishopstone Tidemills Visit





John Blackwell
This visit had been arranged to complement our winter lecture on the same subject. Some twenty of us assembled on a perfect summer's day to be greeted by Jill and Bob Allen, our guides. Crossing the Newhaven to Seaford railway line, the platforms of the halt, which formerly served the inhabitants of Tidemills village, are clearly visible although the last train to stop there was in 1942.
Originally the mouth of the River Ouse was at Seaford and, from what is now Newhaven, its course ran in an easterly direction parallel to the shore behind a shingle bank. By 1761 its course had altered to flow into the sea at Newhaven; however its original course, now silted up at Seaford, remained tidal. A wealthy land owner Thomas Pelham, Duke of Newcastle, obtained an Act of Parliament to build a dam across this creek for a tide mill which was built by 1768.

The principle of tide mill operation was to impound the water at high tide and then to release it as the tide fell, driving undershot water wheels that provided power to the stones. The heyday at Bishopstone was between 1803 and 1853 when William Catt headed a somewhat feudal community and the mill had 16 pairs of stones, with 20 acres of storage ponds, and a 16 hour working capability producing 1,500 sacks of flour a week. The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 allowed cheaper foreign grain to be imported and the development of the railway system allowed flour to be easily distributed nationwide from the newer steam driven roller mills. The competition was just too great and in 1879 the complex was sold to the Newhaven Harbour Company. The mill and granary were demolished in 1901; the village cottages were finally condemned in the 1930s due to a lack of mains drainage. Deterioration and use for target practice during WW II left only a few walls and foundations.

With the aid of old photographs Bob explained the layout and operation of the site. The outline of the east millpond is still clearly visible as is the main village street and the bridge across the creek. The wharf for the barges delivering grain and the position of the water wheels are more difficult to find and the west millpond has been completely filled in.

Leaving Tidemills village we emerged on to the foreshore and immediately in front of us would have been a sea wall; the construction of breakwaters at Newhaven Harbour have created a huge shingle beach and now make it hard to visualise the sea reaching this point. A railway line that it is believed was used to transport materials for maintenance of the sea wall is still clearly visible. Some half mile to the west was the site of a Naval Seaplane base from 1917 to 1920. Little now remains other than an area of concrete, the site of the hangars and aprons. A pair of rusting rails were the runners for the sliding hangar doors and a metal post was assumed to be an anchor point for planes standing on the apron.

Returning to just east of the village street Jill Allen told the story of the Marine Hospital School. This was the brainchild of Grace Kimmins, the founder of Chailey Heritage Workshops and Hospital, and was for physically disabled boys who had suffered from rickets, polio or accident causing loss of limbs. She believed in the beneficial effect of sea air, sea bathing and sunshine, beds often being wheeled out on to a veranda on the sea side of the wards on sunny days in both winter and summer. As well as the wards there was a schoolroom and nurses' home. Established in the early twenties the original buildings were WW I wooden military huts on concrete bases. WW II brought the activities to a close but the concrete bases remain and again old photographs bring them vividly to life. By the way, the windmill on the roof in many old photographs served no milling purpose; it was used to power a hoist when loading grain and flour into the barges.

Our thanks to Bob and Jill for a fascinating afternoon and for explaining a site I have always found difficult to interpret. Visits conducted by Society members are always of great interest, as they are fully aware of our interests rather than following a local history or tourist agenda. There are nearly 400 of you out there, so if you know the IA of your area and would be willing to host a visit please let us know; there is always support and guidance if needed.


Ron Martin
Since the mention, in Newsletter No. 123, of Bishopstone Station, a site investigation has been made. The original station which was opened in 1938, comprises a central octagonal atrium rising up through two storeys with a single storey wing at the east and west sides, housing toilets on the east side and, originally, the booking office on the west side, now used as a shop. Underneath the west wing is a basement boiler room. The main entrance is into the atrium from the north side with another opening opposite it onto a steel bridge spanning the tracks, with flights of steel stairs down to the platforms. The walls are red/brown bricks in stretcher bond, those of the atrium being rusticated. A concrete canopy extends across the main entrance. All the roofs are flat, asphalt covered, with parapets and that of the atrium has pavement lights inserted.

On the flat roofs abutting the north east and north west facets of the atrium are two pillboxes, each with two embrasures facing southeast, northeast, southwest and northwest, with stepped reveals. The wall of the pillboxes, 540 mm thick, are of brick, faced with similar, but not identical, bricks to the station and rusticated to match. The roofs of the pillboxes are supported on brick piers built against the external walls of the atrium. The two pillboxes are connected by a crawling passage with a sloping concrete roof. There is an opening from the east pillbox onto the flat roof and another opening which has been cut through the external wall of the northwest facet of the atrium and has been subsequently bricked up. There would presumably have been a cat ladder for access internally through this opening.

There has been some speculation in the past as whether the pillboxes were contemporary with the building of the station. An inspection of the site confirms that this was not so and they were presumably constructed in summer of 1940 at the time of the impending German invasion when the stop lines of pillboxes were built.

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Last modified: December 27, 2004