Mill Gate Museum Building

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Mill Gate Museum Building' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Mill Gate Museum Building' page

The background history of one of Newark's heritage buildings near the Trent Navigation riverside


Readers may recognise the illustrated building as the town's current museum, Mill Gate.  Standing, as it does, in its own courtyard, set back from the street and away from the main town centre, it is not all that easy to locate for the visitor who is unfamilar with the area.

Whilst it is the task of the Museum service to house and present memorabilia of bygone days, it is often forgotten that the museum building itself is an interesting artefact, being set in an historic Victorian building.

Mill Gate Museum Building or John Clark’s Oil Mill

This structure began its life in 1870 as John Clark’s oil mill, producing linseed, cotton and rape cakes, used in arable farming, by which Newark gained its market town status, as an alternative to phosphates. Its location alongside the C18th Trent Navigation Canal, or Newark branch of the River Trent, was ideal for waterborne trade, whilst the newly-opened Midland Railway line, linking East Lincolnshire with the industrial Midlands, was also convenient. This was one of the first steam-powered mills. Milling of one product or another is one of the town’s oldest industries, witnessed in the Domesday Book.

Adjoining the oil mill, and not to be confused with it, stands a building which began its life as a malting, later to become the Trent Navigation building whose name is still adorned along the riverside wall. Both buildings closed and were left desolate during the middle of the C20th, after a brief spell as a warehouse for ‘Bachelors peas’. Dereliction followed before the Mill Gate restoration of the 1970s, during which the Mill Gate Folk Museum was established, later to become Newark’s only heritage museum after the 2005 closure of the Appleton Gate Museum. Its partner building later became the Navigation restaurant and bar

The buildings are set back in Mill Yard (today opposite Pelham Street). This is now a car park, surrounded by the old mill cottages, still populated following renovations. A carriageway exit links with Mill Lane.

Mill Gate Museum occupies the central and south ranges of the adjoined structures, the former being four-storey and the latter two-storey. At all levels there are small rectangular windows now with modern glazing, whilst the longer windows on each façade show a greater respect for conservation of the original. Wooden hatchways at the higher levels were once access ways reachable only by outdoor stairs or internal ladders. The doorway that is now the entrance to the museum appears to be original; other doorways and some windows are now visibly bricked-in. Round Classical arches mark the upper limits of the original windows, both on the frontages and inside the carriageway return. The building is brick with slated roofs. The south range, originally the powerhouse of the oil mill, bears witness to the chimney, although much lowered. On the riverside façade,1 the second bay of the central range still indexes a previous hoist canopy, once used for loading and unloading cargo vessels on the alongside canal to the upper storey. There was also a ground-floor loading-entrance, modernized in appearance, again on the riverside wall. This currently can be viewed from inside as one pauses for refreshment at the tables in the coffee area.

The tie-bars penetrating the outside walls bear engravings proclaiming the origin; the chimney also is marked with the name and date of the mason.

As a public building, the interior of the museum can be viewed. All levels have been redesigned to correspond with exhibition areas, storage space, stairways, toilets, and administrative offices for its current purpose, and several floors are new, as is the museum’s Mezzanine Gallery of temporary exhibition work by contributors. The whole bears only little resemblance to the original mill bays. However, the original cruck roof can still be appreciated above the upper exhibition areas, as can the base of the chimney stack. There are also original beamed ceilings, and cast-iron piers supporting the structure.

No photographic or artist’s work has yet been found to depict the working-mill, and one can only hazard a guess as to the location of the mill wheel. It seems likeliest that it would have been in the area to the left of the reception and shop area (facing as on entering from the yard), in the present toilets area and above. Here are no intermittent ceilings of the original design, for the wheel, if that was its site, would have occupied most of the four floors. Elsewhere, there is evidence of hatchways in the ground-floor ceiling, and in that of the added gallery; these would have been accessed by ladders by the Victorian mill labourers.

The closure of the mill in the early C20th was no doubt an effect of the decline of waterborne commerce and the evolution of new and heavier industry for Newark. Much of Mill Gate was to meet the same fate, reducing it to dereliction and eyesore status until the restoration project rescued the area for the sake of the tourism industry, which has superseded much of the town’s factory economy.

Currently, there are exciting times ahead for the town's Museum Service, along with other heritage bodies.  Thanks to the award of a lottery grant, it is planned to relocate the facility in the Old Magnus buildings, once the site of the town's grammar school, the gift of Archdeacon Thomas Magnus to Newark in the sixteenth century.  This was previously The Newark Museum after the school moved to Earp Avenue in the early 1900s. The new project will not, however, be confined to local history.  It is to become a national Civil War Centre, reflecting that time of seventeenth-century conflict between the supporters of King Charles I, which included Newark, and those who fought for the cause  of Parliament under Oliver Cromwell.  This is scheduled to open in 2013

1Painting by K W Burton: Keeping Newark’s history alive: Newark Fine Art prints: No 5: Trent Navigation, Newark, commissioned by Hampson’s Car Hire of Newark, who have authorised the use of the copyright

This page was added by ROGER PEACOCK on 14/12/2012.

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