Holywell Mill / Holywell Ford

Holywell Mill house in 2022Holywell Mill House in 2022, photographed from Addison's Walk

Holywell MillThe earlier building at Holywell Mill in the early 1830s,
drawn by W. A. Delamotte and engraved by Orlando Jewitt

The present house was built in 1888 by Clapton Crabb Rolfe. It is in the seventeenth-century style and is a Grade II Listed Building (1369449).

A mill has stood on this site since at least 1200. Anthony Wood records that in about 1300 Boner or Banner Hall in Horsemonger (now Broad) Street “came to Phillip de Wormenhale, a burgess of Oxon”. In 1301–2 he acquired a moiety of Holywell Mill, and in 1302 leased the other moiety from Merton College.

In 1331 the private share of the mill ended up in the hands of William of Bicester and according to Wood, he sold it back to Merton College:

As for the other mediety; it having bin successively possest by privat persons was at length with two acres of ground called “Mill acres” conveyed to certaine clerks of [Merton] College by William Burchestre, a burgesse of Oxon, and Alienor his wife 5 Edward III.

The road to Holywell Mill led off the east side of St Cross Road (formerly Church Street), and was measured as exactly 12 yards wide in the 1772 Survey of Oxford.

Edward Nicholls (who was also a keen bell-ringer) was already miller here in 1808. On 3 January 1857 he put a notice in Jackson’s Oxford Journal saying: “For sale: Holywell Mill, Oxford. For particulars apply to Mr Nicholls, at the Mill”. On 7 February 1857 this was superseded by a more formal notice of an auction to be held on 3 March which included not only the working Holywell Mill, but also King’s Mill (which was now a dwelling) and a fishery. The advertisement is shown below: it states that this house included a bake-house, stabling, cart sheds, out-offices, garden, and orchard occupying about two acres.

Holywell Mill for sale

Edward Nicholls moved to Kidlington, where he died on 19 March 1864.

The mill must have been bought by Nathaniel Harrison, who on 10 September 1859 advertised a pony for sale at his mill. Harrison is listed as a miller in the 1861 census, but later also went into partnership as a coal merchant with his son, Nathaniel Harrison the younger, who lived at Holywell Cottage: this partnership was dissolved on 28 May 1869. Soon after this, on 12 June 1869, it was announced that the miller had gone bankrupt.

An1866 directory lists Nathaniel Harrison the younger, the son of Nathaniel Harrison the elder of Holywell Mill, as living at Holywell Cottage: this may be the mill house itself or a cottage nearby. Until their partnership was dissolved on 28 May 1869, the two Nathaniels worked together as coal merchants at the North-Western Wharf in Oxford. On 3 March 1866 an advertisement for “cuero guano” (manure) in Jackson's Oxford Journal named Nathaniel Harrison, a coal merchant of Holywell Cottage, as an agent for the company. On 6 July 1867 another advertisement gave the address of a young lady desirous of employment as “care of Mr. N. Harrison, Holywell Cottage”.

On 7 August 1869 this “capital water corn mill” was advertised to be let by tender on lease for ten years from Michaelmas 1869. Harrison appears to have remained at the mill (but no longer working it), as the 1871 census shows Nathaniel Harrison (67) living at Holywell Mill with his wife and two children but described as a common room man.

The following advertisement appeared on 25 April 1874:

To Millers, Corn Dealers, and others.
TO LET, with possession on the 1st of May,— Holywell Mill, a Water Corn Mill, driving three pairs of stones, with constant supply of water, granaries and corn bins capable of storing 800 quarters of corn, four-stall stable, cart shed, and piggeries; convenient Dwelling House containing three sitting rooms, five bed rooms and offices, wash-house, brew-house, and laundry; kitchen garden and orchard, altogether occupying a site of about 1¾ acres. — Apply to the Bursar at Magdalen College, or Messrs. Pike and Son, Estate Agents, 21, New Inn Hall-street, Oxford

The miller Nathaniel Harrison the younger had probably retired through illness, as he died seven months later in December 1874 and was buried in Holywell Cemetery.

By 22 May 1875, the mill house was again occupied as a private dwelling, first by Edwin Cross, a flock manufacturer, who filed for bankruptcy on that date, and he was still there in August 1887.

The house was rebuilt by the architect Clapton Rolfe in about 1888, but some original material survives.

In 1930 the ownership of the mill passed from Merton to Balliol College.

In 1940s and 1950s it was occupied by the historian A. J. P. Taylor and his lodger Dylan Thomas.

In 1994 Magdalen College took the site of the mill into its new development to the north.

Holywell Mill in the censuses


The 1841 census for Holywell does not give house numbers, but it is possible to deduce where people listed that year lived by examining directory entries between 1839 and 1842 and later censuses

Holywell Mill
Edward Nicholls (55), a miller, lived here with Mary (50), Mary Ann (20, Elizabeth (16), Hanwell (15), James (14), and Thomas (9). Also living in the house was William Woolman (20), who was a junior miller; two lodgers; and a 14-year-old servant girl.


Edward Nicholls (67), miller & mealman, was now a widower, and lived here with his daughter Mary (33) and his sons Hanwell (26) and Thomas (19), who were assistant millers. Another man described as a miller & carter and a house servant also lived there.


Holywell Mill
Nathaniel Harrison (57), a corn miller, lived here with his wife Susannah (53) and his children Nathaniel (25), who was a clerk & rent collector; Edward (22), who was a compositor; Harry (21), who was a miller; and Louisa (13), who was still at school. A carter, Henry Harrison (23) was also living with them, and they had one female servant.


Holywell Mill
Nathaniel Harrison
 (67), now described as a Common Room man, still lived here with his wife Susannah (63) and their children Edward (32), who was a printer & compositor, and Louisa (23), who was a teacher of music.


Holywell Mill
Edwin Cross
(43), a woollen manufacturer, lived here with his wife Ann (45).


Holywell Ford
Clapton Crabb Rolfe (46), an architect, lived here with his wife Annie (42) and their son Benedict (17) who was a student. They had one servant (a cook).


Holywell Mill Ford
Clapton Rolfe (56), now described as an architect and author, still lived here with his wife Annie (53) and his sister-in-law Miss Dora du Pré. They had one servant (a cook).

Occupants of Holywell Mill House listed in directories etc.

Survey of Oxford

“To Holywell mill; road”: 12yds
(The mill building itself does not appear to be listed)


Edward Nicholls
Corn miller, Holywell Mill


Nathaniel Harrison
Corn miller, Holywell Mill


Edwin Cross
Woollen manufacturer/Flock & mill-puff man

Rebuilt in 1888, and thenceforth usually named Holywell Ford


Clapton Crabb Rolfe
Architect, & Diocesan Surveyor of Oxford


Clement Charles Julian Webb
Fellow & Classical tutor, Magdalen College
Wilde Lecturer in Natural & Comparative Religion


Edward Murray Wrong
Fellow, Vice-President, & tutor in Modern History, Magdalen College

Mrs E. M. Wrong (1929 only)


Revd Charles Beverly Davies
Chaplain of Christ Church


A. J. P. Taylor
Fellow & Tutor in Modern History, Magdalen College


John Walter Stoye
Tutor in Modern History, Magdalen College

Holywell Mill today

Part of Magdalen College

See Christopher Bell et al., “Archaeological investigations on the site of a medieval and post-medieval watermill at Holywell Ford, Magdalen College, Oxford”, Oxoniensia LXI (1996), 275–295.

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© Stephanie Jenkins

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