Beacon Hill was formerly called Mill Hill and anciently and correctly “The Bury”. It stands on two thirds of an acre and is twenty feet high, with a flat top eighty feet in diameter. Originally it was surrounded by a great ditch forty feet wide and fifteen feet deep, from which the earth was cast up to make the mound.
Over the years there has been much speculation as to the origin of the mound and it is possible that it was originally a Bronze Age barrow. The suggestion that it was a Roman signalling station is likely to be the brainchild of romantic eighteenth century antiquarians: there are no records earlier than the Inclosure map of 1789 that give the mound the name of Beacon Hill.
All the evidence gained from excavation points to the mound being the motte of an “Anarchy Castle”. Central government was weak during the reign of Stephen (1135 – 1154), and many local barons turned their manors into small castles, complete with motte (mound) and bailey. On the motte was erected a wooden or stone tower (the keep). During the reign of Henry II (1154-1189) the Crown regained authority, Henry curbed the power of the barons, and many of the newly-erected castles were knocked down – some before they were completed.
Beacon Hill seems to be an example of this. The dating and purpose of the latest stage of the mound were determined by excavations carried out in the twentieth century. The east and north sides of the great ditch had long been filled in and built over, thus sealing in any evidence in the ditch bottom. In 1961-62 a section of the filled in ditch was cut. The levels were found to be well preserved, going back through Victorian, Georgian and Elizabethan deposits until the medieval fill was reached. The ditch was finally bottomed at twelve and a half feet (3.85 metres) below present level. Pottery from the twelfth century was found, and on the original side of the mound there were masses of rubble thrown down from a substantial building on the hill top.
Early in the twelfth Century the owner of the adjacent Bury manor (now the site of Wollaston Hall) was Robert de Newburg, but he was an absentee landlord and probably let the manor out to an unknown tenant. Unfortunately, therefore, there is no clue as to who built the mound or who was involved in the destruction of the defences.
The first specific written reference to the mound is in a document from 1614 in the Ellesmere Collection, which values the “myll hill and the kill (kiln) belonging thereon” at 13s 4d. (about 65p) per annum. The windmill which gave the mound its name at that time was erected in the thirteenth century, and pottery found at the site suggests a period of use from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries. A more accessible site was found for a new mill, and the mound was eventually cultivated as a garden, but it kept the name Mill Hill into the eighteenth century.
Based on material contained in David Hall’s book – Wollaston: Portrait of a Village
Published in 1977 by the Wollaston Society (now out of print but copies available to view at the Museum)