Trehannick Saw Mills

The elm, once one of the commoner deciduous trees in Cornwall, has all but disappeared for woodworking purposes. If you sit down for a drink in the pool room at The White Hart, take a look at the new elm-topped table - not many more pieces of furniture will be crafted from local wood like this.

elm leaf
elm table at The White Hart
Les Mewton and Sons
attractive elm grain

Many items of furniture were made from local elm trees, a once common resource in the St Teath area and now almost unobtainable because of the ravages of Dutch Elm disease. Much of this elm and also local oak was sawn at Trehannick Saw Mills, a business which has been in the Mewton family for well over 100 years. Although not particularly resistant to weather or damp, elm has been widely used for furniture making, structural building work and was quite commonly used for coffins. Native oak is still sawn at the mill and is increasingly in demand for building work. We were fortunate to learn about the history of the Trehannick Mill thanks to current owners John and Michael Mewton and their father Les, now retired, but still keeping an eye on the business.

There is evidence dating back to 1469 that the mill was built to grind corn into flour, rather than cut wood and surprisingly, there exists to this day the storage containers and and shoots for directing the grain to the millstones.

grain storage
old mill entrance from road
The millstones have now been removed. The three story building in which the milling was carried out still fronts onto the A39 trunk road where entrance was gained at the top level of the mill - convenient for tipping grain directly into storage containers.

Motive power for mills in Cornwall was generally supplied by water and Trehannick was no exception. Water has to be supplied to the mill at a high enough level to drop onto the millwheels and at Trehannick a leat or channel had to be constructed for about half a mile up the Allen Valley towards Knightsmill, roughly parallel to the A39. Quite a lot of the leat still remains, but is overgrown. Although this a would be a classed as a 'green' energy resource today, it was a high maintenance undertaking, particularly in autumn, when leaves from this heavily wooded area could easily block the leat.

The mill leat ran alongside the A39 trunk road
and is now covered in nettles
Now disused road level entrance
to grain store

The exterior wall of the mill building which supported the mill wheels is shown in the photo below and the positions of the wheels are marked. This can be compared with the appearance of the mill when it was working, as recreated from descriptions in a 1988 water colour by Pinfold.

The old mill building as it is today
- dotted lines show position of wheels
Water colour impression of mill
when mill wheels were in operation

No doubt some wood was worked at the flour mill before water was harnessed to drive a saw.
Les Mewton believes that a pit saw was used for this purpose in the lean-too building joined to the mill. This was tremendously demanding work, pulling and pushing a long saw with one men above the log and another below. A working version has been preserved at Cotehele. At Trehannick, a drive system from the water wheel was eventually used to turn a circular saw, so replacing the drudgery of the saw pit. The pulley system from the waterwheel for this went out of use around 1922 when a 25 hp Blackstone (now R A Lister) diesel engine was used to drive the circular saw. The arrival of mains electricity in 1950 enabled a powerful Stenner band saw to be installed in a new building. This saw is still in use and is capable of cutting logs up to 3 feet in diameter and 24 feet in length. Band saws are generally preferred over circular saws, especially for large logs, because they produce a smaller kerf (width of cut) and wastage is minimised.

Large logs are cut lengthwise with this band saw
Sharpening band saw blades

Band saw blades need re-sharpening from time to time and the machine shown above does this automatically. The band saw blades in the background apparently need 'resting' before being used again. In recent years there has been a trend towards the use of 'green' (unseasoned) oak for building purposes and the band saw can easily cut beams for this purpose.

The business stocks a wide range of building materials, plumbing fittings, concrete blocks, gravel, cement, gates, garden tables, fencing panels, windows, joinery, dog kennels, logs, wood chips for the garden and offers digger hire. Even an undertaking service was available up to about 8 years ago. Sheds of various sizes can be supplied and the picture below shows a shed in construction destined for Bowoood Park.

Shed production
John, Les and Michael Mewton

Many thanks to John, Michael and Les Mewton for showing us around.