Small River Big Story

I count myself fortunate to live beside a river. But should I call it a river? It is still, cartographically speaking, anonymous just known locally as “The River”. Along its northbound route innumerable little streamlets have joined and barely two miles from where it made its ‘sudden sally’ from the earth a bridge is needed. It is no longer jumpable, therefore, it must be deserving of river status. Notwithstanding its modest size the waters of this little river could tell a tale of long service to the locality. Oliver’s mill was situated at the upper side of that first bridge and the vertical mill-wheel was driven by the flowing water of the river. The Ordnance Survey maps show that the enterprise grew from a modest Cornmill in 1840 to an extensive Corn and Sawmill in 1911, facilitated by significant hydro-engineering developments. About a mile upstream from the mill the body of water in the river was divided into two separate streams. While the original stream wound its way along the usual path the new manmade channel was designed to take greater advantage of the natural fall in the ground and feed the water into a finely balanced control system. This comprised an upper dam, a mill race and a lower dam through which the flow of water could be regulated as required by the millwright, using overflow channels and sluice gates. Oliver’s Mill was the property of the Oliver family, the owners of the Castle Oliver estate. The construction costs of the mill were borne by the landlord and it was run by the landlord’s step-nephew, William Oliver, as a profit-making business until his death in 1863. At that time the milling consisted of grinding or crushing farmers’ corn, returning it to farmers or selling it into the market in Fermoy, Mallow or Cork. During the Famine it was business as usual and judging by the surviving numbers of ‘meal tickets’ in the archive many of the transactions during that period were sponsored by relief funds. These tickets were allocated to the destitute and were exchanged for quantities of oatmeal or Indian meal. Based on the quantities of oatmeal and Indian meal sold to the two local Fever Hospitals during the winter of 1847-8 it is possible to calculate that the number of inmates in those institutions was at least two hundred. But other families were more fortunate to have the steady income provided by work in the mill. The miller earned one shilling and eight pence per day. The seven male workers received either eight pence or ten pence a day and the single female employee earned sixpence a day. Oliver’s Mill became a hive of industry under the stewardship of William’s son, Richard. Local memory recalls the bellman ringing the bell to call the workers at 6.00am. Additional buildings were constructed to house kilns for drying grain, hoists for lifting grain to the top storey, winnowing fans to clean the grain and grade the flour. A sawmill, a bakery, a shop and a coal store were added. Following Richard’s death in 1918 the fortunes of the mill declined due to family differences, the political climate and the changing agricultural practices of the early twentieth century. Sadly, much of the infrastructure of the mill was destroyed by fire in 1942 and its final death knell was sounded with the demolition sale of 1954. Nowadays, the lone chimney stack stands like a monument to what was a thriving industry for at least one hundred years-and all driven by the flowing waters of a small river.