The Roden –once the main source of power for North Shropshire.

By Oliver Richardson, Wem Civic Society

The River Roden, rises in Colemere at 315’ above sea level and meanders through water-meadows down to Wem, before cutting through the hills at Lee Brockhurst to join the Tern near Rodington. Today, this tiny river is hardly an obvious source of power for industry. However, prior to the C20th, the Roden and its tributaries (the Sleap Beck and Soulton Beck) had at least six working watermills.

Wem Mill was probably the best known. It survived on its current site from the days of William the Conqueror until its closure in the late C20th. Garbet noted that Hugo Pantulph, the first baron of Wem, obliged his freehold tenants ‘to grind at his mill in Wem and to assist at the carriage of mill stones, and in mending the mill pond.’ In 1553 William Lord Dacre granted a 21 year lease to 2 water-mills and 1 wind-mill at a yearly rent of £8. The condition was that if Lord Dacre kept house, his grains were toll free. In 1541, the mills belonged to the Earl of Arundel, who later sold them.

To the west of the mill was a mill pond, from which water was fed to the millwheel. In 1819, the miller, John Boughey, planned to modernise by making use both of the water-wheel and a steam engine. This proposal was not well received. Iris Woodward, in ‘The Story of Wem’ records that he had a stern letter from local residents, the Walfords, the Roberts and the Nicksons, warning him that ‘we do hereby give you notice and forewarn you not to not to erect or proceed with erection of such steam or other engine as we shall proceed against you for the purpose of having the same removed and recovery of such damage as any of us may individually sustain..’ Their concern was that it would be a public nuisance and would cause private injury to them. Boughey obviously ignored the warning as he converted the mill to be powered by both steam and water, and continued this practice until his death in the 1880s. The mill continued until 1985, producing animal feeds. At that time, lack of investment and competition led to its closure. In the C21st, it was converted into flats.

Most of the mills on the Roden were probably overshot mills, where the river is dammed to provide a head of water, and a flume then feeds the water onto the top of the millwheel, causing it to turn. The water wheel is connected to a shaft, and via a set of cogwheels powers both the corn grinding mechanism and sack lifting gear. Milling is done by two grindstones placed on top of each other. The lower ‘bedstone’ is fixed and the top one rotates. The grain sacks are raised to the upper floor of the mill and the grain is fed via a hopper into a hole in the top stone. It emerges as flour in the gap between the stones. Sharp edges on the adjacent surface of each of the stones grind the grain into flour. The coarseness can be adjusted by raising or lowering the gap between the two stones.

Left: Waterwheel at Stretton Mill, Malpas.

Above: Cog wheel system driven by the waterwheel

From Wem, the Roden winds its way towards Aston, where it is joined by the Soulton Beck. On the headwaters of that stream, lay Prees Mill, also powered by a waterwheel, with its millpond on the east side of the road to Prees Station. In the C19th, the mill was owned and operated by the Batho family. All traces have now disappeared and most of the mill pond site and the mill have been replaced by houses.

The main river cuts round Lee Brockhurst and emerges at Harcourt, where it once powered a corn mill. Further down, at Stanton-upon-Hine-Heath, the Jeffreys family ran a corn mill throughout most the C19th. William Jeffreys was miller in 1841, followed by his son Edwin. He died in 1897, leaving a widow, Ann, who carried on milling. In turn, their son Arthur was corn miller at least 1911. The mill house, in the village, is now let out to tourists, while the mill is derelict.

The last mill on the Roden was just outside Moreton Corbet. Built as a speculative venture by Sir John Corbet, it began life as a water-powered iron forge. C16th and C17th records show an output of 140 tons a year, with pig iron possibly brought in either by river or by cart before being turned into wrought iron. One of the businessmen associated with this forge was William Hazeldine who was an ironmaster born at Sowbath Farm just north of the mill and whose Shrewsbury iron works produced the structures of Pontcysyllte aqueduct, Ditherington Flax Mill and the Menai Bridge. His connection to Moreton also came from his marriage to a daughter of the Russel family who were ‘hammermen’ at the mill. The name ‘Russel’ derives from the French ‘Roussel’ (red faced- a nickname for forge workers) from where that family originated.

By 1721, the profits were shown as £538 a year- no mean amount in those days. In 1760, a new forge was built, but competition from Coalbrookdale made this unsuccessful, and it closed in 1794. It was then converted into a corn mill and a saw-mill, both powered by water from the mill pond. In the C20th, the corn mill was converted to electrical power. The saw-mill closed in the 1960s and both mills have been converted into private houses.

Today, there are no surviving mills along the Roden. The Wem mill pond remains. The others have either been filled in or, as at Moreton, have become marshy woodland. The mills themselves have been abandoned or converted into houses or flats. An industry has disappeared largely without trace, but the river still winds gently on.