During the early colonial settlement of Natal, agricultural development was slow and the establishment of corn and maize mills was restricted to small mills which many farmers built themselves.
As conditions during the second half of the 19th century became more settled, agriculture developed and water-driven corn/maize mills in Natal tendered to follow the trend developed in other parts of South Africa at the time. Mason’s Mill was one of them.
Mason’s Mill was situated alongside the Umsindusi River between Pietermaritzburg and Edendale, and was a water-powered mill with the primary function of grinding maize for the local inhabitants. The Umsindusi River was formerly documented as the Little Bushmans River in the Surveyor General’s diagrams.
The mill was built by Tom Lawes between 1880 and 1890. A three-story building, the two lower levels were of random rubble slate and the top was made of brick. From photographs it appears that the original building was extended at some stage for additional storage facilities for grain. The roof appears to be corrugated iron.
Willow trees are observed to the left, a common feature along the banks of the Umsindusi river. The undershot wheel was fed from a dam and drove three pairs of French burr-stones. Being fed from a dam suggests that the building was not at the water’s edge and that the water was led from the dam via a canal to the wheel controlled by a sluice gate.
The mill was sold by Lawes to Richard Mason, an early colonist (1850), from whom it passed to Harry Mason. Richard Mason had a grain store on the corner of Commercial Road. (The Place of the Elephant — Ruth Gordon, p 33). Richard Mason’s second son Sowersbury Joseph Mason (b. 1855) followed in his father’s footsteps and was a grain merchant in Pietermaritzburg.
During Harry Mason’s time the mill must have been a thriving concern as he operated a 24-hour shift, from 6 am on Monday morning until Saturday, and employed an Indian and four African workers in addition to working himself.
Of interest, the old Surveyor General’s diagrams dating back to the early 1900s did not show the mill. I believe the mill was on railway property and that the latter demolished the building sometime during the early 1970s, without any concern for its historic importance, to be lost for all time. The National Heritage Resources Act, Act 25 of 1999, was not in force at the time which would have prohibited the demolition of the mill, being a building over 60 years old. There is a record that there is, or was, a railway station at Mason’s Mill and it is documented as one of the oldest Natal Government Railway stations. Mason’s Mill loco depot was also located near the old mill.
There are four parts to operating a water mill. First is the outdoor part involving the river and the wheel, second is the indoor machinery on the ground floor of the mill, third is the top floor where the grain store and hooper are located, and finally there is the operation of the mill stones where the grinding takes place on the first floor above the machinery.
The waterwheel is undershot, which means that the force of water strikes at the base of the wheel to turn it, and it turns in an anticlockwise direction. It can be made of cast iron or wood, possibly sneeze wood, an indigenous wood which is impervious to moisture. And it can have as many as 24 wooden paddles. These are set at a slight angle to catch the full force of the water. The axle, on which the wheel turns, fits through an opening in the wall of the mill into the interior.
The flow of water turns the large waterwheel, and a shaft which is connected to the wheel axle is used to transmit the power from the water through a system of gears and cogs to work machinery such as a millstone to grind maize.
Stones were usually imported from France at that time.
The cast iron metal gears and cogs would also have been imported from overseas.
Most of the inner timber structure — the beams and flooring, etc., was made from yellow wood. From the yellow wood looted from the mill during the 1970s, I was fortunate to obtain several planks which were used to make a three-tier display shelf.
I recall cycling to Mason’s Mill back in the 1950s, which was located within a stones throw of the road to Edendale. However, as it looked daunting and spooky inside, I did not venture in and only peered through the door and windows.
Among other grain water mills to be found in the Pietermaritzburg district was Smuts’ Mill which was acquired by John Vanderlank and named Compton’s Mill or Vanderlank’s Mill.
The mill erected by Paul Anstie in the late 1850s was named Belvidere Mill, which was located three quarters of a kilometre downstream from the Victoria Bridge.
We are aware of the former existence of Caversham Mill built between 1852 and 1853 by the brothers James and Richard Hodson.
This Midland historic building was wrecked by floods in 1987, but there is still enough left of the millhouse and wheel to interest any historian.
Another interesting millhouse can be found at Reichenau Mission near Underberg.
Readers are welcome to furnish me with any additional photographs and information on the old mills. firstname.lastname@example.org
• Paul Raw has been doing family research for over 30 years, which has included the many farms owned by the family and other Raws, mainly in the KwaZulu Natal Midlands. He also has an interest in the history of the old railways, with a focus on old station buildings of the KwaZulu Natal Midlands area.