The current brick Wood Mill was built after the two wooden mills on the site burnt down in 1824. There has been a mill here since at least medieval times (and probably since before Domesday). In 1875 it had a single waterwheel. Before 1922 this was replaced by turbines. However, in the 1930s the supply of water from the river became unreliable due to water abstraction upstream at Otterbourne Water Works, so Southampton Corporation (then owners of the works) bought the mill. The mill was still used as a mill until 1954. Between 1958 and 1964, parts of the mill complex were demolished, including the house. The buildings are used today as an activity centre, mainly for canoeing and kayaking.
Wood Mill’s best known occupant was probably Walter Taylor (1734-1803) who supplied wooden, rigging blocks for ships of the Royal Navy. 1,400 were needed to fit out a 74-gun ship of the line and were used to raise and lower sails and yard-arms. He greatly improved their quality, developing machinery to mass produce them repeatedly and to an exact specification. He moved to Wood Mill in 1781 and supplied the Navy with 100,000 blocks a year until his death in 1803 when production was moved to Portsmouth.
There is a large car park beside the non-tidal section of the river accessed from Woodmill Lane.
Further pictures of the area around the mill may be found in the previous section of this portrait: Mans Bridge to Wood Mill.
Wood Mill to Cobden Bridge
The tidal river downstream of Wood Mill was considered part of the Navigation and tolls were charged on cargoes carried to and from Northam that passed through Woodmill Lock. Although powers were given by Act of Parliament in 1795 to canalise the river down to Northam, these were never exercised. A towing path below Wood Mill was never constructed and the barges used wind and tide to help work up and down stream.
Riverside Park, on the east bank of the river, extends downstream from Mans Bridge as far as Cobden Bridge. Before the First World War, much of the area that is now park below Wood Mill consisted of foreshore or marshland liable to flooding on high tides. Southampton Corporation started reclamation near Cobden Bridge between the wars but it was the mid-1960s before work was finished. There was both official and unofficial tipping of rubbish including debris from Second World War bombing raids. Today, it is possible to walk through the pleasant surroundings of Riverside Park close to the river for nearly a mile from Wood Mill as far as Cobden Bridge.
One commercial traffic that continued to use the tidal river until the 1990s started from Portswood Sewage Waste Water Treatment Works across the river from Riverside Park. This involved a motorised barge that carried sewage sludge for dumping at sea off the Isle of Wight. This practice was banned by the European Union from 1998. Subsequently, sewage sludge was taken by a towed barge from Portswood to Marchwood on the west side of the tidal River Test for further processing - eventually into agricultural fertiliser. Known locally as the “Poo Barge”, the boat used to have to ensure that the river level was low enough to get under Cobden and St Denys Railway Bridges but not too low so to avoid running aground. However, Southern Water said the barge had reached the end of its operational lifespan in April 2020 and it appears that four road tankers a day, on residential roads, are now used instead! The planning authority have said they are unable to insist that the transport continues by water.
The first Cobden Bridge was originally opened in 1883. It was built of iron by the National Liberal Land Company, the developer of new housing at Bitterne Park on the east side of the river. It was named after Richard Cobden, a prominent Liberal politician. It was often known as Cobden Free Bridge as until 1929 a toll was payable to use Northam Bridge. It was rebuilt and widened by Southampton Corporation in 1926-28 and renovated in 1979-80. It thus post-dates the days when barges used the Navigation above Wood Mill.
Several of the pictures on this page are shown by kind permission of Marie Keates. A keen walker, she has written about and illustrated several attempts to walk the full length of the Navigation during 2013 in her blog at https://www.iwalkalone.co.uk. She has walked along all or parts of the Navigation often since then: all illustrated with some excellent photographs.