A partnership between the Woodland Trust and the National Trust

The Changing Faces of Fingle Mill

Last week I gave my second public talk on Fingle Mill as part of the Fingle lecture Series at the Fingle Bridge Inn. First off, I would to say a huge thank you to everybody that came along to the lecture; it was really encouraging to see so many people taking an interest. Secondly, I would like to thank those who contributed information to the talk which built on prior research by Erica Williamson, Bill Hardiman, Elizabeth Stanbrook, Tom Greeves and many others. Thirdly, I would like to say how enjoyable it was to engage with everybody and get some great ideas and feedback from a wide range of expertise and experience. Public engagement is something that is relatively new to me so to be working with such a supportive, interested and knowledgeable audience was very encouraging!


Illustration 1: A view across the Fingle mill site as it stands today, its temporary fences are a reminder of the threat to the ruin from the movement of people and animals. Vegetation is growing rapidly over parts of the stonework, threatening to overwhelm the integrity of the structure. Its rooms are filled with fallen rubble and detritus, hiding many details such as floors and internal doorways from view (own photograph).


Illustration 2: Digital OS map layer from the Geowessex.com Dorset explorer web site, showing the grounds of Fingle Mills within the red polygon.


The talk commenced with a discussion of the project’s aims, which were to:

  • learn more about the mills context, the relationship to the surrounding river valley and the local towns and villages and to update the Historic Environment Records;
  • make the site safer and more accessible to locals and visitors and give them a better experience of the mill;
  • prevent the collapse of the existing ruin, to establish formalised routes around the site for future visitors and to prevent access for people and animals to the parts of the site that are most at risk.

My focus for the talk was the history of the mill from the early 1700’s to the late 1800’s starting with the people who lived and worked there: the tenants, then the sub-tenants of the Courtenay family who owned the Estate.

Between 1740 and 1890 the tenancy was divided between two families: the Davys and the Ponsfords. The Ponsfords, who have been described as ‘Lords of the Manor’ in various writings on Drewsteignton, were one of several families who made a fortune running profitable stone quarries in the local area. The Ponsfords at this time were George, George Jr. and William; all of them buried in Drewsteignton’s Church.

I found it surprising that information on the Ponsfords has been much harder to find than on any other family (I assume it is a case that the information is out there but has not been digitised, although new information contributed by Bill Hardiman will hopefully shed more light on the subject, finding information on the Ponsfords would be a useful job for a willing researcher)! The Ponsfords half of the tenancy refers to ‘Fingle Mill’, sometimes recorded simply as ‘Fingle’.


Illustration 3: A zoomed in, cropped image of a 1780 Map of the Courtenay Estate, showing the layout of Fingle Mill, courtesy of Bill Hardiman’s Historic Outline of Fingle Woods. I have highlighted the roadway which leads from Drewsteignton to Moretonhampstead in yellow, boundaries and walls are highlighted red to give them greater emphasis.


The 2nd family of tenants were the Davy family. They were a powerful merchant family from Crediton who initially made their fortune in the wool trade. Throughout Fingle’s history they owned multiple Manor houses, houses, inns, fulling mills, grist mills, workhouses and factories. Their mainstay is serge making and the dyeing of fabrics but over time they also produced, dowlas, canvas, duck, shoe-thread, ticklingburgh and a range of other products.

The Davys directly associated with Fingle Mill’s tenancy were George, his son George Jr., George Jr.’s children Joshua and John Cadlick, John’s son, William (and probably) William’s brothers Isaac and Samuel. It is uncertain if Isaac’s children Henry and Edward ever inherit Fingle with the other Davy businesses. The Davys were prone to changing fortunes with George, George Jr., Henry and Edward all going bankrupt at various points in the history but the family seem to be good at recovering from these disasters. By contrast William ended his life in Leeds as the United States Consul after serving as part of Thomas Jefferson’s cabinet and having had the confidence of George Washington whom he advised on the cloth trade. He owned a fleet of fifteen ships and had an impact on trade between the United States and various regions of Europe including Britain.

The Davy’s half of the tenancy is referred to as ‘Fingle Mills’ and East Fingle.


Illustration 4: In the Rev Swete’s diaries of his travels around Devon he mentions visiting Fingle Mill in August 1795 and describes it as a grist mill. His diaries contain three water colour sketches of the Bridge and one of the weir but not, unfortunately, the mill, There is a picture of the Mill, which is probably by John Swete’s son Walter Henry (Dr.Todd Gray, e-mail, courtesy of Erica Williamson).


Illustration 5: A cropped, zoomed in image of John Glover’s ‘The Teign near Drewsteignton’ with a possible wheel on the building over the leat. The artist is looking over the site from Prestonbury.


The earliest sub-tenants known to have worked the grist mill are the Brely family who occupied the mill from at least 1804 until 1892.
The miller John lived with his wife Phoebe and ran the mill together. One of the first stories I came across was a tale of hardship; in 1826 their daughter Thriza drowned it the mill’s leat at 1 year and 11 months old.

Their surviving children were Betsy (born 1821) and Henry Charles (1842). Ann, who seems to be John’s sister, married John Gorwyn of Greystone in 1840, she was six months pregnant at the time! In the 1841 Census John Gorwyn is not listed but 30 year old Ann Lambert and six month old Eliza are part of the household. They later live with John Lambert Gorwyn at the manor of Medlake in Hittisleigh. Henry Charles lived in the Mill for the rest of his life (from 1842-1890), marrying Ann Harvey in 1846. Their son John was born in1848, their daughter Anna was born around 1849-1850, her mother died a year later and Henry never remarried. Henry Charles,. perhaps because of this early tragedy. was an avid atheist. He made this statement by working Fingle Mill on a Sunday to the displeasure of the wider community; he was also a practical joker. He once painted a duck blue and photographed it on the river. He then sent the photo to a newspaper causing a huge stir among ornithologists who came from all around to view the mystery bird! His name is apparently carved in to a rock in the middle of the river near Fingle bridge but I have never seen the rock personally.

When Henry died his apprentice and nephew John Lambert Gorwyn took over, John having married his cousin Henry’s daughter, Anna. John ran the mill until his death in 1892, Anna and the daughters remained in Drewsteignton and worked as dressmakers. The Parr’s are the millers when two years later the mill burns down and is never rebuilt.


Illustration 6: 1875 Painting of Fingle Mill by Charles Lever.


The talk then moved on to the mill itself. The evidence for the layout of Fingle Mill is confusing to say the least.


Illustration 7: Plan V from the 1790 Courtenay Survey


There is some confusion about what is meant by ‘East Fingle’ and ‘West Fingle’ as both plots share the same land and it is not certain which buildings belong to which plot or what function each building served.

The remains of the mill, as it stands today, was fitted with two wheels. Since in 1782, John Cadlick Davy insured two water wheels and fulling mills at Fingle it would be logical to assume that the modern building is the ‘Fingle Mills’ referred to in George’s Bankruptcy. The problem is that it is to the west of the site, not the east (although this might not mean anything as the documents for Davy are worded ‘a fulling mill AND East Fingle’, ‘East Fingle’ might just be a piece of land).

This leaves George Ponsford’s grist mill which appears on all the Courtenay records but is physically unaccounted for.

The only building that has potential to be another water mill is the building that appears in Courtenay tithe maps over the surviving mill’s tail race. A painting entitled ‘The Teign near Drewsteignton’  by John Glover shows the mill in the background and may perhaps indicate a wheel on this building but the painting is very vague. Most confusingly this mill is to the east of the site, not to the west where the single mill should be. Physical evidence for this building consists of two piles of stones close to its rough location, where it was exactly remains problematic to answer. Nothing is known about the other outbuildings on the site.

A full report, with more detail and all the references will soon be made available online. I would like to express again how excited I am that we have the opportunity to undertake this project, I feel that as a community we can breathe new (or technically old) life in to Fingle. When visitors look at the site I hope they will see people instead of fallen stones, not just a leat but the tragedy of the long forgotten Thriza, not just a fireplace but the place that John sat after a day of hard labour. Perhaps they will be able to imagine the first Sunday the outraged villagers saw the machines working or the deafening pounding of Mr. Davy’s trip hammers. I feel that between us we can make this site far richer.


Illustration 8: Photograph by ‘Stereoscopic Gems’ of the mill around 1880


All that remains is to say a huge thank you to everybody who have supported the project so far and to everybody taking an interest in the future of the project.


Illustration 9: An undated stereoscopic photograph purchased from e-bay. It is hard to see what the figure is holding but it seems similar to the grass-hook held by the figure in the image below, possibly to indicate he is a miller?


Illustration 10: Image prior to 1894, from a publication by Tom Greeves courtesy of Bill Hardiman. Note that the miller is holding a grass hook like that in the photo above, a long rake-like tool is leaned against the outbuilding. The wall that the miller is leaning on has since been demolished.


Illustration 11: Pre-1909 image of Fingle Mill. from M. Bodman’s collection. Courtesy of Erica Williamson and Bill Hardiman.


Illustration 12: Photograph of Fingle Mill in August 1892, courtesy of Erica Williamson.


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