Architecture of France: Water mills

Mick the miller gets the old water wheels turning again

1 May 2019
The restored Moulin de Gô in Mayenne
By Jane Hanks

The first water mill is thought to have been invented in Greece around 300BC.

In France, they were in operation during the Roman period. There are the remains of a 1st-century water mill at Yèvre, in the  Cher, and of a remarkable site at Barbegal, near Arles, in the Bouches-du-Rhône, where 16 waterwheels were linked.

From the 9th to the 12th centuries, mills were improved. They ranged from simple versions found by the edge of small rivers to impressive constructions, where retaining ponds and channel diversions were created to carry the water to the mills.

The most important mills were owned by the aristocracy and the Church. Around 1040, rich landowners began to make it obligatory for local people to use their mills. Millers were heavily taxed.

This exploitation ended abruptly at the Revolution, when mills belonging to the clergy and the nobles were sold off. 

In 1809, a survey carried out on the orders of Napoléon found there were 82,300 functioning water mills in France.

Most were used for milling grain, but also for generating power to treat a wide range of materials such as stone, marble, iron, copper, wool, skins, and foods such as walnuts for oil.

The introduction of steam power, turbines, fossil fuels and electricity led inevitably to the decline of the water mill.

By 1850, numbers had fallen to 50,000, declining further to 37,000 in 1896 – and by 1931 there were just 15,000 operating.

Today, many of the mill houses remain, but only a few hundred still have their wheels and mechanisms intact. Fewer still are in working condition, and those that are able to grind wheat can usually do so because they have been lovingly restored.

About 300 mills all over the country will be open to the public on May 18 and 19 for the 24th Journées Européennes des Moulins et du Patrimoine Meulier (see fdmf.fr).

Mick Watson demonstrates the water mill

One of them is the Moulin de Gô at Saint-Pierre-sur-Erve, Mayenne, which has been restored so well by British owner Mick Watson that he came second for best restoration project in France by the Sites et Monuments organisation, at the prestigious Salon International du Patrimoine Culturel in Paris.

Moulin de Gô before restoration work

Renovation of the Moulin de Gô (moulindego.com) started in 2012, when Mr Watson was approached by a villager who volunteered to help him turn the home he had owned for the past 20 years back into a working mill.

The restored mechanism

After six months of clearing trees and vegetation, they set up an association – and 30 mostly local French people joined. Several helped with the work on a voluntary basis.

The first big job was to rebuild the water wheel. “It is one of the most interesting jobs I have undertaken in my 40 years in the building trade,” Mr Watson said.

“There was still some of the old wheel because it is undercover and not exposed to the elements.

But this also meant it was tricky to access, so we used green oak, which is more flexible, one piece at a time.

When we let the water in to turn the wheel, it did not move at first.

But we got out the grease gun, greased the bearings at each end of the axle and away it went, for the first time in 60 years.” 

The restored mill wheel

The next job was to renovate all the drive wheels and cogs, as the wooden teeth had rotted away: “The teeth in the large vertical wheel we made out of acacia and all the small horizontal wheels’ teeth were made by a local French furniture maker.

“Having fitted all the teeth, we had to re-level and calibrate the wheels. We were then ready to engage everything and let the water in to turn the grindstones.

“I was amazed how fast they went.”

But the huge restoration project was not finished. Unstable interior and exterior walls needed rebuilding with stone and oak lintels.

A 300-year-old bread oven, which had trees growing through it and was covered in concrete, had to be rebuilt.

“How to tackle the roof was an interesting project, but eventually I managed it and it is still standing after baking over 600 loaves of bread during our open days.”

The 300-year-old bread oven

Now they not only have an oven to cook the bread in, but a mill to grind the flour for the bread, though they are not allowed to sell it commercially.

Research has revealed there has been a mill on the site since the 14th century, but it was rebuilt in the 18th century, and then again between 1844 and 1847. It was put up for sale on October 31, 1847.

At the time, it was considered modern, boasting three stone mill wheels driven using a method invented by American Oliver Evans between 1780 and 1790 and introduced into France after 1817. It was known as à l’anglaise.

Moulin de Gô worked until the 1950s, when it was mainly used for producing animal feed.

Mr Watson said he was proud to welcome the son of the last miller to work there when they had a ceremony to inaugurate the restored wheel.

“He was in his seventies and was 10 when he left the mill. He told us that seven of them lived in the one room where the bread oven is.

“It was also really exciting after all the hard work to win, at the end of 2018, the award for the renovation work so far, against projects from all over France.”

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