The Hogsmill River

Bourne Hall Lake 2016
The source of the Hogsmill River at Bourne Hall Lake (2016)
Image courtesy of Sheila Ross © 2016.

The Hogsmill is a short river, only seven miles long. It is named after the mill owned by John Hog, who was an important man in Kingston upon Thames in the twelfth century. The river was not called after the mill until 1768; before then it was 'the River of Ewell' or sometimes the Lurteborne, which means dirty or urban river. It begins in Ewell, at the lake beside Bourne Hall, where several springs are fed by the rainfall which filters through the chalk downs and seeps out at the junction with the London Clay; it ends when it flows into the Thames at Kingston. The water from the lake flows into the Horse Pond outside Bourne Hall, from there underneath the road to the old millpond of the Upper Mill opposite, and then it becomes a river.

An extract from the Rocque 1768 map.  Click on image to enlarge.
An extract from the Rocque 1768 map.
Click on image to enlarge.

Although it is only a short river, in past centuries the Hogsmill flowed strongly enough to provide power for many mills; some were corn mills and some made gunpowder. Before the invention of the steam engine and the industrial revolution, the power to turn the stones which ground the corn into flour could only come from the flow of water (or wind, for windmills), so a strong river was important for these industries.

There were already mills at Ewell by the river in 1086, when Domesday Book records two sets of millstones working for the manor of Ewell, and paying 10 shillings (50p) rent. These would probably have been at the site of the Upper Mill. Another two pairs of stones, also paying 10 shillings (50p), would have been at the Lower Mill, which belonged to Epsom as that manor had no river of its own on which to grind corn.

1929 Plan of the Mills.  Click on image to enlarge.
1929 Plan of the Mills. Click on image to enlarge.

In 1577 the Upper Mill was known as Fennelles Myll, after the small manor of Fitznells based at the old house nearby. The white-boarded mill was built in the eighteenth century, and partly rebuilt in 1896; it continued to grind corn until it closed in the 1950s.

Upper Mill, North Elevation with Stabling on the Right, 1929
Upper Mill, North Elevation with Stabling on the Right, 1929

The Upper Mill today (2016)
The Upper Mill today (2016)
Image courtesy of Sheila Ross © 2016

At one time smugglers, bringing their goods up from the south coast to London, used to keep a change of horses in the mill stables. As payment they would drop a keg of rum over the garden wall for the miller. One day in the nineteenth century, when highwaymen were still a danger for travellers, the coach carrying the miller's money to the bank in London was held up. A small boy, the miller's son Charles Hall, was in the coach sitting on a box which contained the money. The highwaymen searched the coach and all the passengers, but didn't want to frighten the child so left him alone, and the money was safe.

By the twentieth century there was less water in the river and only one pair of millstones could be used at a time, with a rest in the middle of the day to let the mill pond fill up again from the springs. The mill was last worked in 1953. There was very little trade by that time and so the building was put up for sale. It was demolished and rebuilt in the 1980s, in a copy of the original style, and was afterwards used for offices.

A little further along the river was the Lower Mill. In 1577 there was multiple machinery on this site 'two cornemylles and a fulling myll'. At the beginning of the eighteenth century it ground corn, but later it was converted for making paper.

Lower Mill and Mill House, Ewell, 1929
Lower Mill and Mill House, Ewell, 1929

In 1851 three famous pictures were painted beside the Hogsmill River by William Holman Hunt and his friend, John Everett Millais, who were members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of Victorian artists who liked to paint outdoors and show nature in all its detail. The artists travelled to Ewell by train and rented lodgings in a nearby farmhouse. They both knew Ewell quite well, as Holman Hunt's aunt and uncle lived in Church Street, while Millais had good friends nearby. Millais wanted to paint a picture of the scene in Shakespeare's Hamlet where Ophelia drowns in a stream, and he searched for a spot on the river which looked like the description of the scene in the play:
There is a willow grows aslant a brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream…

John Everett MillaisWilliam Holman Hunt
John Everett Millais (left) and William Holman Hunt (right).

He found the place he was looking for, and spent six months every day outside painting. He wrote to his friend Holman Hunt about some of the difficulties: 'I sit tailor fashion under an umbrella throwing a shadow scarcely larger than a half penny for eleven hours, with a child's mug within reach to satisfy my thirst from the running stream beside me' (John Guille Millais, The Life and Letters of Sir John Everett Millais (1899) 1 pp119-120). He tells how he is threatened with prosecution for trespassing in a field and destroying the hay. He is also threatened by a bull in the same field. And then there are two swans who get in the way of any spot he wants to paint. Also the wind is so strong it nearly blows him into the water.

Ophelia by Millais
By John Everett Millais
Image Source Tate Britain (CC Licence)

The figure of Ophelia herself was not painted outside by the river. The model (who was called Lizzie Siddal) was painted lying in a bath of warm water at Millais' studio in London. There were candles underneath the bathtub to try to keep the water warm, but the artist was too busy painting to notice when they went out and, as a result poor Lizzie caught a bad cold from lying in the cold water.

At the same time two pictures were painted by William Holman Hunt. In a field near Ewell Court Farm he painted The Hireling Shepherd (who clearly was not taking care of his sheep). The young woman in the picture was a local girl called Emma Watkins.

The Hireling Shepherd by Hunt
The Hireling Shepherd
By William Holman Hunt
Image Source Manchester Art Gallery (CC Licence)

Holman Hunt had a great deal of trouble painting the sheep because they would not lie down and pose for him in the positions he wanted to paint them. He employed a man to try and hold them down and keep them still, and a small boy was roped in too. His friend Millais also tried to help. His method was to lift a sheep up and drop it suddenly! As the artists were given mutton chops to eat every day at their lodgings, Holman Hunt felt he had had enough of sheep for a lifetime.

The other picture he painted by the Hogsmill was the first of three versions of a very famous painting called The Light of the World, which shows Jesus holding a lantern and knocking at a door asking for entry.

Holman Hunt - Light of the World
Holman Hunt - Light of the World

This picture was painted outside at night during the winter months, and the doorway in the painting was the doorway of a disused hut which had been used by workers at one of the gunpowder mills. 'On the riverside was a door locked up and overgrown with tendrils of ivy, its step choked with weeds'.

When there was a full moon, Hunt would settle down to paint just as the farm workers were going home, and they often stopped to chat with him. Darkness fell and the lights in the nearby houses went out as he continued to work, from time to time warming his frozen painting hand inside his coat. He had been told the area was haunted, and one night he heard a rustling noise coming nearer and nearer. He saw a mysterious presence and shouted out "tell me who you are". A flash of light shot across the orchard, and then with solemn step the village policeman approached. 'I thought you were a ghost', I said. 'Well, to tell the truth, sir, that was what I thought of you'. Henceforth he was a nightly visitor, and accepted my tobacco while he chatted to me for half an hour. When I asked him whether he had seen other artists painting landscapes in the neighbourhood, his reply was 'I can't exactly say as I have at this time o' night'. {Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, by William Holman Hunt.)

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
For I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

We light bonfires and set off fireworks on bonfire night (5th November) to celebrate the capture Guy Fawkes and his friends in 1605 before they could carry out their plot to blow up King James I (James VI of Scotland) and the Houses of Parliament. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder had been smuggled into the cellar below the House of Lords where the king was coming to open Parliament, and Guy Fawkes was about to light the fuse when he was discovered by some guards who came to check the cellars.

Artist not known, image source

We don't know where Guy Fawkes got his explosives, but gunpowder had been made in Surrey since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. This was the only place where it could be made, since the queen had appointed some local families Makers of Gunpowder. One of the very first gunpowder mills in England, licenced in 1589, was on the Hogsmill at Worcester Park. The owner was George Evelyn, the grandfather of the diarist John Evelyn who described, among other things, the great fire of London in 1666.

The only known photograph of one the Ewell Gunpowder Mill buildings
The only known photograph of one the Ewell Gunpowder Mill buildings c.1900
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Gunpowder is made from charcoal, which was manufactured locally from wood, and sulphur, which came from Sicily. The third ingredient, saltpetre or potassium nitrate, is nowadays imported from India and other hot countries, but in the seventeenth century it had to be made artificially. This was done by mixing black earth with animal dung, lime and ashes and leaving the disgusting mess in a heap to cook, watering it from time to time with urine and turning it over. Workmen called 'Saltpetremen' were, by law, allowed to go into barns, stables and dovecotes to help themselves to the nitrate-rich earth there. This dangerous mixture was ground in the mills driven by the Hogsmill.

Gunpowder continued to be made along the Hogsmill river until production stopped in 1875, after many explosions and deaths of workers, because it was considered too dangerous. At one time there were as many as twelve different mill buildings along the stream. A new mill was built on the site of the original one in Worcester Park in the eighteenth century by William Taylor. Near Ewell Court another set was built by Alexander Bridges. These were separated from each other by ponds, so that if one mill blew up the water would absorb the blast and the other mills would not catch light. In spite of these efforts there were nineteen explosions at these two sites with more than twenty men being killed. One of the explosions (in 1757) could be felt in London and people thought it was an earthquake!

Click on thumbnail to see a larger map based on the 1870 OS map
Map showing the buildings of the Ewell Powder Mills
Click on thumbnail to see a larger map based on the 1870 OS map.

In 1863, early one morning, there was an explosion at Ewell powder mills and three men who had only just arrived for work were blown to pieces. The vicar of Ewell at the time, Sir George Glyn, Bart., recorded in his notebook that 200 14s 6d. had been collected and put in a savings account for the benefit of the widow of one of the men who had been killed.

Aftermath of the April 1863 Ewell Gunpowder Mill Explosion
Aftermath of the April 1863 Ewell Gunpowder Mill Explosion
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Gunpowder from Ewell was used in the American Civil War (1861-5) and then in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, when local people said that the French lost because of the bad gunpowder they bought from Ewell.

One day in 1869, at about 3 o'clock in the morning, the village was woken up by a loud explosion. At first everyone thought it came from one of the powder mills, but in fact it was something quite different. A man called Spooner was having a very early breakfast before setting off to London. When his wife went out of the house to get some coal, she was attacked by a man hanging about outside. She ran back inside, followed by her attacker, who got into a fight with her husband. During the fight the stranger threw a bag of gunpowder onto the fire and the whole house was blown up. The husband was very seriously injured and expected to die, and the intruder later stabbed himself to death. Before he died he confessed that he had broken into the powder mills at Ewell and stolen the gunpowder. The whole story was reported in the Times newspaper on 24th December 1869.

Drawing of two men fighting on stairs from The Illustrated Police News 01 January 1870
Image Source: The Illustrated Police News 01 January 1870

After West Ewell the river flows under a bridge across Ruxley Lane, which is nowadays a very busy road with a lot of traffic. In 1924 it was a quiet country lane and the river flowed across it, forming a 'splash' which, when it rained very hard, could become quite deep. There was a wooden bridge for people to cross on foot, but other traffic had to ford the splash. It was quite easy for horses and carriages to drive through the water, but as motor cars became more popular, the problems started. Cars would often get stuck in the water. Boys who lived nearby would earn money from drivers by helping to push their cars out of the water. However, there was one man who lived in Ruxley Lane, who hated cars and so he would pay the boys a shilling (5p) not to help the drivers. The local nurseryman was also fond of the splash s he used to go down there to collect water for his plants. There was no piped water supply to West Ewell then.

The Ruxley Splash c.1911
The Ruxley Splash c.1911
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

The river flows on through Old Malden, under the main road at Tolworth, past Berrylands and on into Kingston where it flows into the Thames. Just before it enters the Thames it flows under Clattern Bridge, which dates from the 12th century and is one of the oldest in Britain. The name comes from the sound of the horses' hooves as they clattered over the stones.

Clattern Bridge Kingston
The Clattern Bridge at Kingston (2016)
Image courtesy of Sheila Ross © 2016

The Clattern Bridge - other side
The Clattern Bridge - other side (2016)
Image courtesy of Sheila Ross © 2016

Across the road from the Clattern Bridge, inside some metal railings, sits the Coronation Stone. This is traditionally said to have been used for the coronation of the seven Anglo-Saxon kings who were crowned at Kingston. The names of the kings are written around the base, and a silver penny of the reign of each of them was set into the base. The kings, and the dates of their coronations, are:
  • Edward the Elder (son of Alfred the Great), 900;
  • Athelstan, 925;
  • Edmund, 940;
  • Edred, 946;
  • Edwy, 956;
  • Edward the Martyr, 975;
  • Ethelred II (Ethelred Unred), 979.
As you can see, none of them reigned for very long.

The Coronation Stone Kingston
TThe Coronation Stone Kingston
Image courtesy of Sheila Ross © 2016

The Kingston stone is a sarsen (a type of sandstone) boulder, which was used as a mounting block for horsemen in the marketplace until in 1850 traditions of its royal use were first circulated. After that was put onto its special base and surrounded with railings.

After passing through Clattern Bridge, the Hogsmill river finally flows into the Thames and ends its journey.

The Hogsmill enters the Thames at Kingston
The Hogsmill enters the Thames at Kingston (2016)
Image courtesy of Sheila Ross © 2016

Sheila Ross with help from Jeremy Harte, July 2016

You may also be interested in some of our other pages: