Working The Wool - A Look Round The Restored Coldharbour Mill

By Rory Trust | 29 July 2005
Shows a photo of the exterior of Coldharbour Mill across a body of water.

Coldharbour Mill, Devon. Courtesy Coldharbour Mill Trust.

The largest water wheel in the South West is now open to the public.

Coldharbour Mill in Uffculme, Devon turned from a working mill into a museum in 1981 and now, after years of restoration work, the wheel is turning again and open for viewing.

The mill is over 200 years old and when commercial work stopped in 1978 the site fell into a state of disrepair. The wheel has since had extensive repair work carried out and is now part of a wool museum.

“We are more a working museum,” explained Ashley Smart, curatorial and education manager at the museum. “It is all about being able to see the machinery work. Now we have the wheel turning and can show the public how machines were driven before steam power.”

Shows a photo of some people standing behind a large engine wheel seen through a thin veil of smoke.

Visitors can see the vast machinery in action. Courtesy Coldharbour Mill Trust.

The mill was built in 1799 and carried on working commercially until 1978. Local residents then bought the site and what is now the Coldharbour Mill Working WoolMuseum emerged. The museum has gradually been restoring machinery over the years, but the wheel was not launched until June 3 2005.

Devon may seem an unlikely location for a wool museum - people tend to think of Yorkshire as the hub of the wool trade - but it turns out this is only part of the picture.

“It is quite a common misconception that all the wool industry was in Yorkshire, but actually the South West was quite a force as well, exporting all over the world,” said Ashley. “We have the only wheel of its type, still installed in situ, in the country.”

Aside from seeing the wheel in action, visitors can expect to gain a good insight into the other machinery involved in working with wool. There is a floor of impressive spinning machinery, which can be seen in action. Now powered by electricity, they would have originally been driven by the water wheel and later steam.

“We tell the story in relation to seeing it all work,” explained Ashley.

Shows a photo of a vast machine supporting and weaving a huge number of reels of woolen thread.

The mill is still working and producing a variety of cloth. Courtesy Coldharbour Mill Trust.

There is also a collection of power looms and even an old hand loom on display. The museum continues to produce yarn and a selection of tartans and clothing, which are available to purchase.

The importance of steam power throughout the mill’s history is evident, with the great Victorian and Edwardian boilers forming part of the tour. Horizontal and beam engines which drove the mill machinery alongside the wheel are also on display.

Four tours a day tell the story of the whole process and, from the arrival of the combed wool to the production of yarn and weaving of rugs and clothing, all the machinery can be seen working. The evolution from hand to power looms and water to steam power is also explained.

The next step for the museum is to restore the combing sheds where the raw wool would have been prepared for spinning. “There is still so much to do,” said Ashley. “I hope to have the combing shed open. All the machinery in there is the only full set of combing machines in the country.”

The museum also contains a permanent World War II exhibition and a temporary art exhibition area. With the newly restored water wheel in action, Coldharbour Mill provides a comprehensive and instantly engaging view of the wool industry in action.

Shows the Renaissance in the Regions logo.

Rory Trust is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the South West. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.

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