One of the earliest references to Force Mill is in connection with a bridge built on this site in the mid-sixteenth Century when Elizabeth the First was still on the throne. The then master of the College of Kirkoswald, Ronald Threlkeld (d.1565), undertook the construction of a bridge over the Eden to facilitate his regular journey between two of his parishes at Melmerby and Lazonby.
There is evidence though of a much earlier river crossing at this location and in William Hutchinson’s History of Cumberland (1794) he makes mention of a previous medieval bridge at Force Mill that was destroyed by floodwaters in 1360.
Threlkeld’s bridge was destroyed itself in 1540, having stood for only 20 years and it wasn’t until 1760 that a bridge at Force Mill was rebuilt, this time to enable Victorian workmen to cross the river to the Long Meg gypsum mine on the eastern bank.
Today, only a little rubble remains to show any bridge ever existed, the last one having been lost in another of the Eden’s great floods in 1885 and Long Meg mine hasn’t produced anhydrite, the base for plaster of Paris, since 1976 – though at least there’s still extensive evidence of its past industry. The concrete weir, originally channelling water to a turbine that powered the mine’s pumps is clearly visible in the falls opposite the cottage and if you take the public footpath to Lacy’s Caves, on the opposite bank, you’ll pass obsolete railway tracks and decaying mine buildings.
Bridge rubble in foreground and further evidence on the opposite bank.
Remains of the pump turbine can just be seen on the right, where the white water channels through.
A pile of masonry on the site of former bridge at Force Mill may be the remains of a bridge built circa 1770 and in ruins by 1885. It was recorded as extant in 1794, at which time a column of masonry in the river was also noted, and this may possibly be the remains of an earlier bridge of circa 1530. The earliest bridge recorded was destroyed by flood in 1360.
Force Mill cottage with the bridge remains behind and on the far bank.
It is testament to the importance of Force Mill and its perceived hierarchy in the locality, either as working mill or river crossing, that as recently as 1872 gazetteers described the local village (with a population of 502 at the time) as: ‘SALKELD (Great), a parish, with a village, in Penrith district, Cumberland; on the river Eden, near Force-Mill fall’. The corn mill clearly remained such a focus for the community that it warranted mention as a geographical reference and today the mill house is Grade 2 listed, reflecting this historical importance. (English Heritage Building ID: 74237).
The present cottage at Force Mill dates from the eighteenth century, not the sixteenth and there have clearly been many alterations to the buildings on site over the centuries. Indeed this is hardly unexpected bearing in mind the property’s purpose as either a busy flour mill or, latterly, as a working farm where adaptations and improvements are inevitable to accommodate business conditions or more modern equipment. Its last tenants were the Robinson family who lived here and managed a smallholding until the 1980’s producing exceptional turkeys and geese that were much in demand locally.
The Mill House also shows no evidence of its Tudor origins. The latest structure is still there, sadly much dilapidated, nature contriving to erase a history of toil. The race, the carrier that created sufficient water-flow to drive the wheel and power the millstones, is more resilient and if you look carefully at the shape of some of the sandstone rocks below the cottage you’ll be able pick out the channel that was hewn out of them.
The actual mill is the sandstone building on the left behind the alder trees.
John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales
Richard Singleton’s Description of Melmerby from: ‘Colleges: Kirkoswald’, A History of the County of Cumberland: Volume 2
W Hutchinson’s The History of the County of Cumberland, Vol 1
Sarah Nelson-Palmer, who grew up at Force Mill wrote a very emotive poem entitled ‘The Home of my Childhood’. We are very grateful to Brian and Sue Blay for setting this poem to video and successfully evoking the feeling and atmosphere of Force Mill.
Sarah Nelson was born at Force Mill in 1876, the middle child (of five) to miller Thomas Nelson and his wife Marian.
Sarah Nelson Palmer revisiting the place of her childhood in the 1930’s
Thomas Nelson was a local man managing a 70-acre smallholding and successful milling business at Force Mill Farm; the Force Mill itself being a watermill on the banks of the River Eden. In family matters however, Thomas was a late starter; married to a bride almost half his age, it wasn’t until he was at the relatively mature age of 49 that he fathered his first child, Hannah, followed 2 years later by John and then at regular intervals by Sarah, Thomas and Clare.
It was into this ostensively humble stock that Sarah entered life and it is of some surprise then, considering that nature of the times, that she ended her life nearly ninety years later as a doyenne of first New York and then Miami society.
It transpires that the Nelson family had gravitated to the United States in previous generations and Sarah was not without important connections. Sarah was a direct descendent of Thomas Nelson who settled in Virginia in the late seventeenth Century and founded the town of York. Thomas’s grandson, Thomas Nelson Jr. was a signatory to the American Declaration of Independence, a founding father, and one of the victorious American Generals to whom Lord Cornwallis surrendered in 1781 at the battle of Yorktown, firing on his own house in the process.
It was with the backing of these new-found American aristocratic relations that Sarah carved out a successful life for herself in the land of opportunity. Eventually, in 1914, she married wealthy New Yorker Alden Palmer, a retired capitalist who had made his fortune in the confectionary business. They had a son, Thomas.
However, Sarah’s connections with her homeland remained exceedingly strong and she often returned, despite the complexities of travel. Her husband, Alden had even purchased a house near Penrith for her as a wedding gift, to which she would periodically return to visit her mother who by this time had left Force Mill, moving a little distance to a house called Holmleigh, near Appleby.
Yet Sarah still held fond and vivid childhood memories of her birth place and continued to visit Force Mill from time to time to remind herself of the old farm house in the valley with the Mill and the ‘Roman’ bridge just below.