The Centre is made up of three significant buildings that are all grade 1 listed. The Mill, Willy Lott’s House and Valley Farm.
History of the Mill
1087: A mill at Flatford is mentioned in the Domesday Book, which also mentions that William the Conqueror decided to keep it and some of the surrounding land for himself. So there was a Saxon mill at Flatford before the Norman Conquest of 1066. Earth embankments channelling water to Flatford Mill were constructed by the Saxons. The building would have been a small timber building grinding corn after the harvest in the autumn and into the winter, using power from the river Stour.
1121-1189: Roger Bigot, Earl of Norfolk owned Flatford Mill, managed by the canons of Dodnash Priory who rented it to Nicholas of the Adlegrove
1300’s:The Manor Court Rolls contain a record of a fulling mill at Flatford that was called ‘Flotfordmelle’ Fulling is an ancient process by which cloth woven from raw sheep's wool is cleaned in a mixture of water and fullers earth which is a powdery, soapy clay that absorbs grease. It is used today in cleaning products and cosmetics such as mudpacks.
Flatford Mill continued to ‘full’ wool until around 1700 when the cloth industry started to become concentrated in the larger towns of Ipswich and Colchester before dying out entirely in East Anglia by the end of the century and Suffolk farmers realised they could make more money from growing grain (to be made into bread) than from grazing sheep for the wool and cloth trade. Fulling mills, including the mill at Flatford, were converted into corn mills so that they could grind grain into flour.
Flatford Mill has had many owners several of whom were called “Constable”.
1731: Matthew Isaac bought Flatford Mill
1742-1768: mill-owner, Abram Constable (John Constable’s father’s uncle) bought Flatford Mill from Isaac.
1753: Abram and Isobel Constable rebuilt the mill in 1753 and much of the exterior is unchanged since then. During Abram's time, Flatford Mill operated between two floors:
- two pairs of millstones which were 4 feet in diameter and two wooden water wheels which were 12 feet in diameter and 3 feet wide
- each water wheel was housed inside the mill and set within a channel of running water -a culvert
- water was fed from the River Stour into the culverts through two entrance arches
- the force of the running water drove the waterwheels round and this motion provided the power to turn the millstones, mechanical shafts and hoists
- river water was fed outside into the mill pond via two exit arches which can still be seen today
- the millstones were held within strong timber frames on the ground floor. They were made up of separate pieces of stone (chalcedonic hornstone imported from France) held together by plaster of Paris with iron hoops running around their circumference
- a dry storage space for sacks of grain and processed flour
- a hopper and chute by which grain was gravity-fed from the upper floor to the mill stones on the ground floor
- a lucam* overhanging the road between the mill and the millpond, from where grain carried by farm carts was hoisted to the upper floor via a trap door ( this was moved to above the lane at some point)
- a lucam opening on the opposite side of the mill overhanging the river from where flour was lowered into waiting barges (called lighters)
1768: Abram and his wife Isabel had no children and when they died, they left Flatford Mill to their nephew Golding, John Constable’s father. Golding Constable owned flour mills at Flatford and Dedham and a windmill at East Bergholt. He also ran a string of lighters (commercial barges) along the River Stour running between Sudbury and Mistley Wharf and two sea-going Thames barges running between Mistley Wharf and London.
1816: Abram Constable (John’s younger brother) took over the running of Flatford Mill when his father died
1846: Abram sold the mill for 2,000 guineas to William Rufus Bentall and Stephen Durrant Lott which marked the end of Constable ownership of Flatford Mill.
1846 -1864: William Bentall & Stephen Durrant Lott owned Flatford Mill. William Bentall married Ann Lott who was raised at Valley Farm and whose great uncle was Willy Lott. Stephen Lott was Ann Lott's brother and he formed a partnership with her husband to buy Flatford Mill together.
To improve the efficiency of the mill, Bentall and Lott installed a large, iron water wheel and removed the original wooden water wheels and gearing used by the Constable family. As part of the installation they bricked up the entrance arches that had guided water into the mill and closed up the mill race channels that had run through the mill building. The exit arches were not closed up and can still be seen opening into the old mill pond which was been made so famous by John Constable.
The new water wheel was made of metal with 40 curved, open-ended buckets around its perimeter. It measured 16 feet by 14 feet and was possibly the largest wheel on the River Stour. Because it was far too big to be accommodated inside the old mill building, a single storey wheelhouse was built behind the old mill in which it was housed. Water from the River Stour was then diverted along the back of the mill building, under the new water wheel and into a millpond in front of the lock. Barges would then pull up at the back of the mill to load up with flour. The nineteenth century water wheel would have driven at least four pairs of mill stones
1849: Stephen Lott transferred his share of Flatford Mill to William Bentall and emigrated to Australia. William Bentall then modernised the mill still further and installed a coal-fired, steam mill at The Granary
1864: Richard Barrell owned/operated Flatford steam mill and watermill
1878-1892: Walter Benneworth owned/operated Flatford steam mill and watermill
1896-1901: William Green owned/operated Flatford water mill. Arthur Benneworth owned/operated Flatford steam mill
1900 Flatford water mill ceased trading
1901: Lancelot Docura converted the mill into a private residence and lived there with his wife Catherine and two sons, Thomas and Leonard, both millers
1904: Viscount Buckmaster bought the mill which had fallen into serious disrepair. He restored the machinery to grind corn, oats and beans and adapted the machinery to generate electricity.
1926: Thomas Robert Parkington, an Ipswich builder and philanthropist, bought a near derelict Flatford Mill and a dilapidated Willy Lott’s House in 1926. He carried out basic repairs and opened the Flatford Mill as an arts and leisure centre. He stripped out all the mill machinery and had the iron water wheel removed in the early 1930s.
1943: Parkington died and left both properties to the National Trust
7 August 1946: The National Trust leased both buildings to the Field Studies Council, an arrangement that continues to this day.
2012: Field Studies Council installed a reverse Archimedes Screw in the cavity that once housed the nineteenth century iron water wheel.
Valley Farm History
Valley Farm is the oldest building on site at Flatford. Built in the mid-15th century, Valley Farm is a medieval Great Hall House that was home to wealthy yeoman farmers up until the early 1900s. Valley Farm is Grade I listed, reflecting the historical importance of the building that is made up of Medieval, Tudor and Edwardian features. Valley Farm remains an integral part of Flatford's heritage with its grand hall, where the smoke blackened beams show an open hearth was once used to heat the hall, before the surviving vast inglenook fireplace was inserted during the mid-17th century. Despite minor additions from the Tudor and Edwardian eras, today the house looks very much as it did 600 years ago and one bedroom is still accessed by a 600-year-old log ladder.
1700’s: The tenancy of Valley Farm was inherited by the Lott family, who continued to inhabit the house and work the land there until the early 20th century, first as tenants and later as owners. Willy Lott, the occupant of the “cottage” immortalised by Constable in The Hay Wain, was born at Valley Farm, which eventually passed to his older brother John.
1901: The Lott’s sold Valley Farm to Leonard Richardson, who lived there with his wife and three daughters.
1920’s: Richardson becomes concerned about the condition of the building and asks the National Trust and The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) to assist.
1931: SPAB undertook a structural survey to assess the extent of the problem and suggested the property was worth £1,500 due solely to the building’s character and age.
1935: The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) bought Valley Farm when it was in need of urgent repair and threatened with destruction. They raised the money with the help of a donation from Sir Frederick Minter who stipulated that the public should be able to visit the farm and see inside.
1938: Renovated by private owners
1939: Valley Farm renovations were completed and the building was rented out to Captain Reginald Quail and his wife, Edith.
1947: Captain Quail left to as he was now stationed in Germany and the building was let out to a series of tenants and then to the Field Studies Council.
1959: Fully restored to near original condition following the National Trust's acquisition of the building from SPAB, with the FSC maintaining its tenancy.
1975: The National Trust carry out further major repairs.
Today, the building and its kitchen garden are leased to the Field Studies Council (FSC).
Willy Lott’s House History
Located across the millstream from Flatford Mill is Willy Lott’s House, famously known for being depicted in one of Constable’s most iconic paintings, 'The Hay-Wain'.
The farmhouse was originally named Gibbonsgate Farm after the adjacent field but in the early 1900s when there was a revival of interest in John Constable, it was renamed Willy Lott’s House after being called so in a number of Constable’s paintings.
1824: The lease of Gibeon’s Gate Farm ran out and the owner put it up for sale and Willy Lott bought it and lived at Gibeon’s Gate until his death in 1849. Willy Lott was not just a local farmer but also a good friend of the Constable family, and it is believed that Willy only ever spent four nights out of his long 84-year life away from his home.
Today, the cottage provides bedrooms for those on residential Field Studies Council (FSC) courses.