This is the first in a series of posts on the Mills family, the paternal ancestors of my maternal grandmother Julia Mary Mills. This part focuses on the years between 1750 and 1879 and the generations who lived through this period.
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Since at least the mid-Eighteenth Century, the Mills family had lived in and around the cluster of small parishes between the East Midlands market towns of Nottingham, Derby and Loughborough. Here in the valley of the river Soar near where the borders of Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire converge, they toiled in the fields for centuries, rarely venturing far from their ancestral homeland and quietly passing on their skills and knowledge from one generation to the next. Their story, unlike that of Frederick England’s ancestors, is one which retained a predominantly rural character until quite recently, and it therefore provides a glimpse of a different way of life to any I have looked at so far.
My earliest identifiable Mills ancestor was my sixth great-grandfather Robert (b. c. 1750), who married Mary Clayton in Prestwold, Leicestershire on 23 May 1774. While Robert Mills’s family background is unknown, his wife Mary (the eldest daughter of William and Elizabeth Clayton) had been baptised on 26 October 1752 in Long Clawson. At the time of their wedding both were said to be living in ‘Burton’, which was likely a reference to the village of Burton-On-The Wolds just south of Prestwold. They appear to have had at least six sons, whose names were:
- William (bp. 21 November 1774, West Leake, Nottinghamshire – bur. 8 May 1853, West Leake, Nottinghamshire)
- Edward (bp. 17 November 1782, West Leake, Nottinghamshire – 23 October, Bunny, Nottinghamshire)
- Robert (b. 2 April 1784, West Leake, Nottinghamshire – d. 16 December 1863, West Leake, Nottinghamshire)
- Thomas (b. 8 April 1787, West Leake, Nottinghamshire – d. bef. 1793)
- Thomas (b. 19 February 1793, West Leake, Nottinghamshire – bur. 4 November 1878, Gotham, Nottinghamshire)
- Joseph (b. 23 July 1797 – bur. 13 Feb 1859, West Leake, Nottinghamshire)
From their sons’ baptism records it appears the couple had settled in the village of West Leake in Nottinghamshire by 1774, but beyond that we can be certain of little else. There is however some interesting potential evidence in 200 Years of Basketmaking in Ratcliffe-on-Soar, West Leake and East Leake, Nottinghamshire by the East Leake & District Local History Group (2001, 8):
In a newspaper interview of 1896 John Horace Mills said, “my grandfather’s great grandfather [he probably meant his grandfather’s father] lived in West Leake where he ran a public house called ‘The Basket'”. He also said that the osier beds there had served the family for 154 years. That dates them back to 1742. It seems possible the Mills of West Leake were rod merchants supplying the Withers of Ratcliffe on Soar with osiers, before they started as basket makers on their own.
Based on this account, the book goes on to speculate that it may have been Robert’s grandfather (possibly a Thomas Mills of West Leake) who first begun the family’s association with basket making.
Robert’s wife Mary died at the age of seventy and was buried in West Leake on 20 January 1822, while Robert himself was interred at the same place thirteen years later on 3 July 1835. All Robert and Mary’s surviving children found employment as agricultural labourers in nearby villages such as Gotham and Bunny, with the exception of their eldest son William, who continued the family’s involvement with basket making and also ran The Basket alehouse in West Leake. According to John Horace Mills (East Leake & District Local History Group, 2001, 9):
“William took the coach twice a year to London to collect payment for baskets ordered by the firm of Copestake & Moore”, which according to the Post Office Directory of 1846 were lace and sewed muslin manufacturers of 5 Bow Churchyard and 62 Bread Street. It was a very large firm with factories in Nottingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Paris and New York, employing ninety clerks and over three hundred shopmen in their various establishments. Another customer was Parliament which placed orders for, ‘In and Out stationary baskets’.
Several of William’s children carried on their father’s basket making business and spread it to East Leake, where it evolved into the Beehive and Central Works.
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Robert and Mary’s third son Robert Mills Jr. is my first Mills ancestor whose life can be traced in any detail, as unlike his father he survived long enough to be recorded in the census. At the age of twenty one he married a woman named Elizabeth Milner (b. c. 1783) on 17 November 1805 in her home village of East Leake, and over the next two decades they had the following seven children together:
- William (bap. 1 June 1806, West Leake, Nottinghamshire – d. 1 May 1887, West Leake, Nottinghamshire)
- John (b. c. December 1808, West Leake, Nottinghamshire – d. 7 January 1892, West Leake, Nottinghamshire)
- Mary (b. c. 1811)
- Sarah (b. c. 1813, West Leake, Nottinghamshire – d. aft. 1891)
- Thomas (b. c. 1815, West Leake, Nottinghamshire)
- Joseph (b. c. 1818, West Leake, Nottinghamshire – d. 22 May 1894, Keyworth, Nottinghamshire)
- Elizabeth (b. c. 1821, West Leake, Nottinghamshire)
In the censuses of 1841-1861 Robert Jr. and Elizabeth were shown living in West Leake, and in all of them Robert was listed as an agricultural labourer. Although this is the earliest available evidence of what Robert Jr. did for a living, a brief reference to him in the local press tells us he had been doing this almost all his working life. On 17 October 1856 the Loughborough Agricultural Association held their annual meeting at the King’s Head Inn, and among the prizes awarded was one for “the labourer who has been for the longest time a member of any benefit or sick club, and of good character” (Leicester Journal, 24 October 1856, p. 6, col. 6). Robert, then seventy two, won second prize in the husbandry category for having been a member of the East Leake Old Sick Club for fifty years and eight months, meaning he must have been an agricultural labourer since at least 1806.
Agricultural labourers in early Nineteenth Century were the poorest class of working people in England, with average wages even lower than those of urban factory workers, and the toil they endured was just as exhausting and dangerous. Writing in 1956 the folklorist and oral historian George Ewart Evans warned against viewing pre-industrial rural life as in any way ‘colourful or romantic’, as the first-hand accounts of elderly farm workers he interviewed revealed a very different story. The language used by one old agricultural labourer from Suffolk is particularly striking (1965, 96):
He was paid the rate of 3s. a coomb for threshing; and he had no two thoughts about it: ‘Threshing was real, downright slavery.’
Like their fellow workers in the towns and cities, agricultural labourers in the early Nineteenth Century saw their livelihoods threatened by the introduction of new technologies such as the threshing machine, which together with low wages was one of the causes of the Swing Riots of 1830, a widespread uprising of agricultural labourers which started in the south of England but spread as far north as the Mills’ home county of Nottinghamshire. Elsewhere agricultural labourers attempted to improve their lot by forming trade unions, but the draconian labour laws of the time made such activities highly risky. The most famous victims in this regard were undoubtedly Dorset’s Tolpuddle Martyrs, three labourers who were sentenced with transportation to Australia for ‘swearing a secret oath’ as members of a Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers in 1838. Sick clubs like the one Robert Mills Jr. joined in 1806 were in many ways a precursor to the modern trade union movement, and because they involved working people organising and helping one another outside the structures of the church and state they were fiercely opposed by the establishment, as one former labourer Joseph Arch recalled (Arch, 1898, 10-35):
When they [the agricultural labourers] did start a sick benefit fund … the parson, the farmers, and the leading men of the parish did their very best to put it down, to stamp it out with their despotic heels. The parson refused point blank to preach a sermon in aid of funds for it… That a labourer, who had fallen out of work through illness, should be supported, even for a time, from a common fund over which the rectory had no direct control, was gall and wormwood to the parson. Worse still, the labourer’s wife would not be so ready to come to the rectory back-door, humbly begging for help. Worse and worse still, she and the children might slip out of the yoke of Church attendance altogether, if rectory charity were no longer a necessity. No; this sick club was the thin end of a bad wedge, and it must be pulled out and broken up without delay.
Robert Mills Jr. died of ‘natural decay’ aged seventy nine on 16 December 1863. Sixteen years later his widow Elizabeth died from the same cause on 31 July 1879 at the age of ninety three. On both their death certificates the informant was their daughter-in-law Sarah Mills (née Topley), wife of their eldest son William. In the next post I’ll be looking more closely at this younger generation of Millses, including Robert Jr. and Elizabeth’s second son John, my fourth great-grandfather.
Arch, Joseph. The Life of Joseph Arch. London: Hutchinson & Co, 1898.
East Leake & District Local History Group. 200 Years of Basketmaking in Ratcliffe-on-Soar, West Leake and East Leake, Nottinghamshire. East Leake: East Leake and District Local History Society, 2001.
Evans, George Ewart. Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay. London: Faber and Faber, 1965.