In The Beginning
The most obvious question that is begged by “a history of Low Mill” must be: when was it built? And the sorry answer is that ‘we don’t know’.
That there has been a mill on this site for many years is not in doubt. There are, however, a couple of theories as to when is the earliest record of a mill at Low Mill.
In 1913 a local publisher and historian, John Waistell Braithwaite stated that the earliest record of Low Mill appears to be in 1318. In that year the Scots besieged Hartley Castle, having sacked Penrith, Appleby and Kirkby Stephen on their way south, including “the King’s watermill of the town of Kyrkeby Stephan”.
J W Braithwaite continues that in Edward II’s Calendar of Close Rolls for October 30, 1324, the following appears:
Order to cause the King’s Watermill of the town of Kyrkeby Stephan to be repaired for 6 marks, and to cause the timber necessary for the same to be taken in the King’s wood of Whinfel by the view of his forester there, and to cause it to be carried to Kyrkeby Stephan at the King’s expence, as the men of that town have maintained before Robert de Reverlaco and John de Jatule auditors of the accounts of the issues of the lands aforesaid, to repair the watermill which was burnt by the Scotch rebels, for 6 marks, provided that the King find the timber for the same and cause it to be carried to the town. The King has ordered the forester aforesaid to cause the timber to be delivered to Thomas. Order to deliver to the aforesaid keeper sufficient timber for the repairs of the said mills. By Bill of the Treasurer.
Finally Mr Braithwaite opines that “this ‘King’s Watermill’ must have been Hartley Low Mill, the only surviving mill of three that were once in the town in the 19th century”.
This theory is given some credence by the fact that we also know that Low Mill was owned by the Musgrave Family, and there is some evidence as to how they got it, therefore our Low Mill must be the one that was sacked in 1318.
Low Mill is in the parish of Hartley and the Musgraves were the owners of Hartley Castle.
Hartley Castle, now a farm house, was anciently the seat of the warlike family of Musgrave. The original edifice was destroyed by the Scots in 1359. Burn, who wrote in 1777, says, it was “a noble building, standing upon an eminence, overlooking the village of Hartley, the town of Kirkby-Stephen, and many other villages; but the late Sir Christopher Musgrave, in a great measure, demolished it, and removed the materials of wood and lead, for the reparation of his seat at Edenhall, in Cumberland.” The manor was long possessed by a family named Hardclay, or Harcla, one of whom, Sir Andrew de Harcla was created Earl of Carlisle, in 1322, by Edward II, as a recompence for his services in arresting the progress of a formidable rebellion; but in the year following was executed for high treason, and his estates forfeited to the king, who granted the manor of Hartley to Lord Nevil of Raby, who sold it to Sir Thomas Musgrave. The ancestor of this ancient and illustrious family came over with William the Conqueror, and they were soon after seated at Musgrave, in this county, for which they were frequently returned to parliament, as knights of the shire, and filled many offices in the state with great ability. Sir Richard was created a baronet in the ninth of James I, (1611), and that title has since been possessed by his descendants. The late Rev. Sir Christopher John Musgrave, the ninth baronet, died May 4th, 1834, and was succeeded in dignity and estate by his brother, Sir George Musgrave, of Eden Hall, Hartley, and Musgrave, tenth baronet.
So the theory is that Low Mill – the King’s watermill – was given as part of wider estates to Sir Andrew de Harcla, when he was executed it was given to Raby, and he sold it to the Musgraves.
Braithwaite in 1913 says that Hartley Low Mill was the only surviving mill of three that were once in the town in the 19th century. Where were the other two? There are references to a Hartley High Mill at Hartley Croft which would probably have been further upstream on Hartley Beck, possible at the top of what is now Hartley village. Also to Hartley Fold Farm and Mill; Hartley Fold is a quarter of a mile upstream from Low Mill.
In Kirkby Stephen itself the other mills were: the Carding Mill (opposite Low Mill downstream on the other bank of the Eden, so presumably also known as the sawmill which is now the woodyard); the High Mill also known as Blacklins Mill was at Riverside / Mill Lane; the last, or first as the river flows, at Stenkrith.
Hartley Low Mill was the name given to the entire structure, which is now two houses. Confusingly, the smaller part which was the mill is now known as Low Mill, whereas Hartley Low Mill is the larger house which was residential. Pity the poor postman!
There is an alternative theory which suggests that the above is unlikely. The problem being that Low Mill is in the parish of Hartley, not Kirkby Stephen. King Edward II, or his advisors, would have known the difference. So it is more likely that the mill in Kirkby Stephen would have been one in Mellbecks or at Mill Lane.
1746 – 1914
Ignoring for the moment the accuracy or otherwise of the 14th century accounts, after that we have no records until 12 January 1746 when the local courts heard a
“presentment that John Birkbeck and others of Hartley did by hushing for lead ore in a place called Harnagill in the parish of K. Stephen in such manner poison and pollute the streams of water in Hartley Town Beck and Eden that the said streams became unwholesome and corrupt so that those who had lands adjoining to the streams and cattle were hurt and greatly damaged thereby. On 7 April, 1755, John Longstaff was indicted for the same offence and fined one shilling.”
(PS to the above – if Hartley Beck was in the parish of Kirkby Stephen, so so at the time Low Mill itself must have been).
Those having lands must have included the owners of Low Mill at that time. Note that the word ‘Town’ has disappeared from the name of Hartley Beck, and it’s interesting to reflect how the pretty village of Hartley could have deserved the appellation ‘town’ in the first place.
Hartley Low Mill was repaired for Sir Philip Musgrave in 1754 (new cog wheel and ‘trunls’, for £1 14s).
There is also an inscribed stone “1785” in the front / eastern elevation. We suspect that this is the date of a further repair or renovation, in that if 1785 was the date of the building then the stone would more likely be above the main door. There is another inscribed stone on the riverside / western elevation, which appears to say ‘WL’ followed by something which is no longer legible. It’s tempting to suppose that the L may stand for Longstaff. More likely is that WL is “Water Level” and that stone also is no longer where it was originally.
An 1829 directory of Westmorland East Ward lists Joseph Clark, corn miller, Low mill (the lower-case m for mill was then the common usage). A Joseph Clark, miller, also appears in the 1851 Kirkby Stephen census. Our guess is that Mr Clark was a tenant and that the owners of Low Mill were probably the Musgrave family.
In the 19th century the land belonged to Sir Richard Courtenay Musgrave. He died 13th February 1881 and left Low Mill, amongst other lands, to his son Sir Richard George Musgrave of Edenhall. Edenhall is towards Penrith where the rivers Eden and Eamont meet.
In 1910 a John Clark is recorded as the corn miller of Low Mill.
John Clark is probably a descendant of the Joseph Clark mentioned in 1829. The Clark family originated from the Mungrisdale area in the 1620s, migrated to mills near Orton, intermarried with the Robinson milling family and became very prominent in the corn milling trade in Cumbria. Amongst other mills associated with this ‘cartel’ were Bongate (Appleby), Smardale, Warcop, Crackenthorpe, Greystoke, Craggs (Shap), Colby, Bolton, Kirkby Thore, Ravenstonedale, Maulds Meaburn, Kings Meaburn and Cliburn (actually at least 23 in total). In some cases the same individual operated more than one mill.
1914 – 2007
In October 1914 Sir Richard George Musgrave sold to James Cleasby of Hartley Fold. James Cleasby borrowed £3,500 towards the total purchase price of £9,100, which bought not only Low Mill but also many acres of land above and around Hartley. He repaid the £3,500 in 1919.
James Cleasby died in 1962 and left the bulk of his lands and estate to his wife Martha and his daughters Alice (Harker) and Ann.
In 1964 an Annie Eleanor Longstaff is mentioned as the tenant of Low Mill. We don’t know whether she was a relative of the John Longstaff fined a shilling in 1755. We have a photograph showing Tommy Longstaff (son of Annie, we think) standing in front of Low Mill. This probably dates from the 1930s. Peggy and Jimmy Longstaff lived at Low Mill for ages from the 1960s onwards.
The winter of 1962-63 is still remembered as being one of the coldest ever. During that winter the weir between the outflow of Hartley Beck and Low Mill Bridge was destroyed.
Martha Cleasby died in March 1968, aged 92, and in June 1968 Alice Harker was confirmed as the owner of Hartley Fold, Seavy Rigg and Low Mill. Seavy Rigg was sold to an Andrew James Blackett-Ord and in November 1968 John Herbert Strutt purchased Hartley Fold and much of the other land, but not Low Mill, of which Annie Longstaff was still the tenant. Alice Harker benefited to the tune of £66,700 for a part of what her father had bought for £9,100.
After this a land-swap between Alice Harker and John Strutt meant that the Low Mill property ceased to own a long thin strip of land on the south side of Hartley Road, which must have been the path of the old mill race, and instead Low Mill included the land on the other side of Hartley Beck, but not the footbridge.
In January 1974 Alice Harker sold Low Mill to Ernest Stapylton Staines and Marjorie Staines. Between 1968 and 1974 Low Mill and Hartley Low Mill must have become separate properties. On 23rd February 1974, Mr & Mrs Staines paid £1,550 for Low Mill.
In September 1974 Eden District Council gave permission for “conversion of corn mill to dwelling”. The plans showed as existing the mill race, which went though the mill underneath where the dining room and lounge are now, and a kiln.
The mill was still in use well into the 20th century. Local residents can recall the mill working, probably after World War II. The axle of the wheel is half-buried in the side garden, and the course of the water-race is clearly visible in the front garden. The mill-race emptied into the River Eden many yards downstream from Low Mill, below the weir.
There were two water wheels, one with a wooden axle and one with an iron axle. The wheels were situated one after the other at the side of the house. There must have been a mill pond, maybe nearer Hartley Fold.
It’s not clear whether Mr & Mrs Staines ever lived at Low Mill. Certainly when they bought it their address was near York, and when they sold it they also had an address in North Yorkshire. So it may have been their holiday home. On 12th September 1985 they sold it to William Arnold Greenwood and Nancy Winifred Greenwood for £35,000. The new owners had previously lived all their married life in Staffordshire before renting houses in and around Kirkby Stephen in 1984. Low Mill was their home from 1985. Mrs Greenwood died in 2000 but Mr Greenwood stayed at Low Mill until 2007 when he moved moved into Stobars Hall, where he died in January 2009.
We (Katy and Peter Jones) purchased Low Mill in October 2007 and then spent the next nine months ‘doing it up’.
We took down came many of the trees that had grown up around the house and obscured much of the light and sunshine, including two huge hedges of leylandii that hid the house from the footpath. We have replaced the leylandii with a smaller hedge made of indigenous species and some we have imported from ‘down south’. It will be mostly hazel, hawthorn and beech with a bit of holly.
We took down some internal walls. The bathroom used to be two rooms but is now one. Similarly for the kitchen/diner we knocked two rooms into one; the kitchen used to be where the dining room is now and the wall came down so that what is now the kitchen is in what used to be the third bedroom. The en-suite in the red bedroom dates from the winter of 2010-11.
We replaced old electric night-storage heaters, originally with oil-fired central hearing and a more environmentally-friendly wood-burning-stove. Apart from the heating we’ve tried to be as environmentally sustainable as possible. Nearly all the new stuff came from local suppliers and was built by local tradesmen. Plus we’ve put in better insulation made out of recycled newspaper, installed long-life long-energy light bulbs, etc.
Our other ‘improvement’ has been the installation of the deck so that we can sit outside and enjoy the evening sun and the Eden passing by. Interestingly, the 1974 plans showed a very similar structure, albeit much smaller. What they actually built was a stone staircase down from the French doors in the lounge, which looked very nice from afar but was falling away from the main wall, thus trapping moisture which made the basement even more damp than it would be anyway. So although we hadn’t planned to replace the stone steps with the deck immediately, we felt there was little choice but to get it done. The deck was originally accessed from the lounge via a pair of French windows that probably dated from 1974, but they were replaced with patio doors in January 2018. All the other double-glazing replaced old rotten single-glazed windows in 2008.
In 2011 we repaired (or rather had repaired) the river wall which had become eroded and many of the original large stones were being taken down-stream each time the river was full.
Despite being the ‘low’ mill and so close to the beck and the river, we don’t think that Low Mill had ever flooded until the infamous “once in a thousand years” floods of Storm Desmond in December 2015 which ravaged the county and left hundreds of homes uninhabitable. There was nine inches of water in the basement. The same thing happened in February 2020. So converting the basement (where the mill wheels were) to habitable accommodation may have been a risky thing to do. But we took advantage of the lockdown to do just that anyway. Poor Low Mill, more holes bashed in the walls!
 “An Official Guide to Kirkby Stephen in Westmorland” by John Waistell Braithwaite, printed and published by J W Braithwaite & Sons, Kirkby Stephen & Hawes, 1913
 The parish boundary between Hartley and Kirkby Stephen runs along the middle of the River Eden
 Source for this paragraph Images of Cumbria, Kirkby Stephen Parish, from http://www.stevebulman.f9.co.uk/cumbria/kirkbystephen_f.html
 various google searches
 Research by Ann Sandell for Kirkby Stephen Historical Society
 Mellbecks derives from ‘middle of two becks’
 From: ‘Parishes (East Ward): St John, Kirkby Stephen’, The Later Records relating to North Westmorland: or the Barony of Appleby (1932), pp. 121-151.
URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=43507. Date accessed: 03 April 2008.
 In an email from Julian Munby, who has the bill, sent to the author July 2009
 We have no evidence for this assertion. Yet it seems logical that if there was a Musgrave owning the castle in 1322, a Musgrave mending it in 1754, and a Musgrave owning the mill in 1914, the same family had been the landowners for the intervening period.
 As advised by Andrew Shepherd, descendant of the Clarks, in a personal message to the author April 2010
 Personal recollection of Mr Stephen Walker previously resident of Kirkby Stephen Mill, Mill Lane
 This is the famous John Strutt of Eden Place. Mr Strutt was the man responsible for bringing the parrots to Kirkby Stephen. He died in 2010. There is a John Strutt Conservation Foundation. The charity’s objectives are the conservation in perpetuity of the habitats and native wildlife – plants and all kinds of animals including insects, birds and mammals – on the Foundation’s land holdings at Kirkby Stephen and Bouth in Cumbria. Whilst most of the farmland continues to be grazed and the woodlands to be managed – for example by coppicing – these activities are tempered by the need to support the best achievable mix of indigenous wild species.
 Eden DC had only come into being on 1st April 1974, following re-organisation of local government in England which included the formation of Cumbria from the old counties of Cumberland and Westmorland together with parts of Durham, Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire.
 From a conversation with a lady using the footpath, summer 2008.
 Mr Stephen Walker
 In a letter to the author from Thomas Clarke of Howgill Castle, 10.09.2011
 Personal information from Mr Giles Greenwood
 We looked very hard at various sustainable alternatives – wind doesn’t work because the average wind spend is too low, solar would have helped but not much, ground source heat pump systems were technically feasible but prohibitively expensive, and there isn’t any natural gas this side of the Eden. Finally in 2021 we installed an air source heat pump.
 The wood for said stove, at least for the first few years, came from the trees that were felled, the leylandii hedge ditto, and the timber from the internal walls that came down.