Going through the Mills (part 5)

This is the much-delayed fifth and final post tracing the history of the Mills family, focusing specifically on my great-grandfather Harry Mills, his siblings, and my maternal grandmother Julia Mary Mills. To catch up on their story so far, see the first post in this series, Going through the Mills (part 1).

* * *

The seven surviving children of George and Fanny Mills all grew up in their family home at 17 Loughborough Road, Kegworth, in the 1880s and 1890s, before moving to London Road sometime before 1901. Their eldest son John George Mills (b. 13 May 1886, Kegworth, Leicestershire), better known as ‘Jack’, was the first to enter work, and is recorded as a pantry boy in that year’s census. This was considered one of the lowliest forms of domestic service, and would have involved assisting the kitchen staff of large houses with basic tasks like washing dishes, peeling potatoes and sweeping floors.

John George Mills
John George “Jack” Mills, c. 1905. Courtesy of R. Watkins.

In  1909, at age twenty two he married Elsie Ethel Mills (b. c. November 1889, West Leake, Nottinghamshire), a dairy engineer’s daughter who by the time of their wedding was already several months pregnant with their first child. Over the next three years they would go on to have two daughters together, whose names were:

  • Edith (b. 19 July 1909, Kegworth, Leicestershire – d. November 2001, Mansfield, Nottinghamshire)
  • Frances Hilda (b. 21 August 1911, Kegworth, Leicestershire –5 August 2010, Leicester Royal Infirmary, Leicester, Leicestershire)

Jack, Edith, Hilda and Elsie Mills
Jack, Edith, Frances Hilda, and Elsie Mills, c. 1915. Courtesy of R. Watkins.

The 1911 census records the family living in a row of cottages off Kegworth High Street known as ‘The Rookery’. By this time Jack was working as a lace maker or twist hand, the same occupation he gave decades later in the 1939 Register, and before that he is said to have been a stockinger. Lace making had been an important part of Kegworth’s economy since the industrial revolution but by 1911 the majority of the village’s lace workers like Jack would have been employed at A. Leatherland’s factory at Borrowell. The work here would have been very different to the kind lace makers would have known a century earlier, as Sheila A. Mason writes:

During the period 1820 to 1860 the hand-operated lace frames were gradually replaced by steam-driven, factory-based machines. Hours were regulated by the steam boiler; power and heat were usually provided between 4 am and midnight Monday to Friday and 4am to 8pm on Saturday. Lace machines required a constant temperature so the factories were heated to between 65 and 70 degrees. A factory containing 100 machines would have about 500 workers.

Lace machine operatives, called ‘twisthands’, were male and as the machines were lubricated by black lead, (graphite), and oil they often finished work as black as coal miners.

Until the 1920s shift work was a feature of the industry and the twisthand and his mate, known as a ‘butty’, worked five or six hour shifts of five or six hours a shift; the first man usually working 4am to 9am and 1pm to 6pm and the second man 9am to 1pm and 6pm to midnight. Twisthands were paid by the amount of work produced, not by the hours worked, and take-home pay varied considerably according to the type, width and speed of the machines and the type of lace being produced.

This picture is confirmed by his second daughter Frances, who recalled taking her father’s billycan and sandwiches to the factory as a little girl and finding the noise frighteningly loud. In later years he went on to work at Slack & Parr Ltd., an engineering factory on Sideley Road.

Kegworth Lace Factory
A. Leatherland’s lace factory at Borrowell, Kegworth, early 20th century (via Kegworth Village).

Kegworth lace machines
Lace machines at Kegworth (via Kegworth Village).

Outside work however, we know from his descendants that Jack was also an accomplished musician, and that he played the euphonium in Kegworth Brass Band. Contemporary newspaper accounts show both bands performing at a huge number of functions over several decades, including military parades, dances and country fairs, highlighting the centrality of brass bands to northern and midlands culture at this time.

According to Dave Russell (1997, p. 213-214):

The membership of brass bands … was exclusively male and solidly working-class. […] Bandsmen always described themselves as ‘working men’, as did middle class observers, whether friendly or hostile. The majority, judging by the evidence of oral testimony and the personal details that appeared in the band press, appear to have been from the skilled or semi-skilled sections of the working class. Hardly surprisingly, given the social and geographical base of the movement, many, perhaps a majority, were miners. Others simply reflected the occupational structure of their area.

From this description it is clear Jack’s background was fairly typical for a bandsman of this era. Despite the bands’ humble backgrounds and lack of formal training however, by the Edwardian era the best of them were attracting crowds of over 70,000, and at the peak of their popularity it is thought most communities in England of over a thousand people supported an amateur brass band of some kind. Consequently, and with some justification, the brass band movement in England has been described by Russell as “one of the most remarkable working-class achievements in European history” (p. 205).

Kegworth Band
Kegworth Brass Band, c. 1910. Jack Mills is seated on the middle row, second from the left (via Kegworth Village).

Sadly Jack’s wife Elsie died prematurely in 1921 when she was only thirty one years old. Their daughters Edith and Frances would have been eleven and nine. Four years later, Jack married a second time to Lucy Ethel Marchant (b. 8 April 1896, Kegworth, Leicestershire – d. c. February 1971, Nottinghamshire), with with whom he had two more children:

  • Eileen (b. 10 April 1926, Kegworth, Leicestershire – d. 14 June 2012)
  • John (b. 7 July 1930, Kegworth, Leicestershire – d. c. April 2006, Rugby, Warwickshire)

Shortly before his death, my mother recalls meeting Jack and his family for the first time in Kegworth when she was around ten years old, and noted how much he resembled her grandfather Harry (as well as how much his daughter Eileen looked like her mother Mary). Jack died on 11 September 1963 at the age of seventy seven. His probate record shows his effects at the time were £341 15s, which went to his widow Lucy.

Jack’s younger brother Alfred William “Fred” Mills (b. c. February 1888, Kegworth, Leicestershire) was recorded working as a farmer’s boy in the 1901 census at the age of thirteen, and then as a ‘coachman (domestic)’ in 1911, however his whereabouts after this date are unknown and so far no death record has been identified. Fortunately, more is known about Jack and Fred’s younger siblings, including their brother Harry (my great-grandfather, to whom we will return shortly), and their sister Edith Ellen Mills, better known as ‘Nell’, thanks to the research of one of her descendants.

Nell was born on 8 February 1891 in Kegworth, and by the time she was twenty had begun work as a machinist specialised in skirt making, possibly at the same lace factory as her brother Jack. The census of 1911, taken on 2 April that year, records her living at her parents’ house on London Road, however just ten days later she was married at Long Eaton Register Office to an iron pipe jointer named Samuel John Terry (b. 12 March 1886, Bolton, Lancashire – d. 8 August 1966, Boultham Park House, Lincoln, Lincolnshire). Her brother Harry was one of the witnesses. The wedding’s timing and non-religious setting is noteworthy as by the time they were married Nell was five months pregnant with their first child. The photograph below, purportedly taken around this time, shows Nell with her pregnancy concealed discretely behind a well-positioned gate.

Edith Ellen Mills
Edith Ellen “Nell” Mills, c. 1911, possibly around the time of her wedding. Note her pose and the position of the gate concealing her pregnancy. Courtesy of T. Lang.

Shortly after the birth of their daughter, who they named Ellen (b. 13 August 1911, Kegworth, Leicestershire – d. 18 April 1985, Denny, Stirlingshire), Samuel accepted a job as a pipe jointer at a London waterworks, and the family relocated to the capital. During this period Nell ran a lodging house for navvies at 26 Dock Street, North Woolwich, which was said to have been very difficult as by this time the family had grown to include their second daughter Isabella (b. 7 June 1913, North Woolwich, Essex- d. 12 Apr 2013, Kings Mill Hospital, Sutton In Ashfield, Nottinghamshire), later known as “Cis”.

Soon afterwards the family returned to the East Midlands, settling in Lincoln where they had five more children:

  • Frances Anne (b. 28 December 1914,  Lincoln, Lincolnshire – d. September 1987, Lincoln, Lincolnshire)
  • Kathleen (b. 7 June 1917, Lincoln, Lincolnshire – d. 28 December 1995, Lincoln, Lincolnshire)
  • John “Jack” (b. 23 November 1918, Lincoln, Lincolnshire – d. 29 December 1984, Lincoln, Lincolnshire)
  • Bessie (b. c. November 1920, Lincoln, Lincolnshire – d. 16 March 1929, Lincoln, Lincolnshire)
  • Colin (b. August 1933, Lincoln, Lincolnshire – d. 23 March 1935, Lincoln, Lincolnshire, England)

Samuel, Nell and their children appear to have remained in Lincoln for the rest of their lives, however they changed address a number of times. Their first home in 1914 was at 14 Gaunt Street, and later they are known to have lived at 7 Water Lane in around 1925, at 17 Albany Street in 1939, and finally at 51 Holly Street in about 1958 after Nell suffered a stroke. She died a few years later on 27 April 1960 at the age of sixty nine and was buried at All Saints Churchyard, Bracebridge. Her husband Samuel died aged eighty in 1966.

Terry family
The Terry family, c. 1955. Back (L-R): Ellen Terry, Frances Anne Terry, John “Jack” Terry, Isabella “Cis” Terry, Kathleen Terry. Front (L-R): Samuel John “Jack” Terry, Edith Ellen “Nell” Terry (nee Mills). Courtesy of T. Lang.

Comparatively less is known about Nell’s three younger sisters. Alice (b. 12 March 1893, Kegworth Leicestershire) was recorded as a glove maker in the 1911 census, and seven years later she married Thomas Alfred “Alvy” Wilmott, a twenty seven year old labourer (and later fruit and potato salesman) from Sawley in Derbyshire. The couple do not appear to have had any children, but are shown living with Alice’s elderly father George in the 1939 register when they were living at 220 Tamworth Road, Long Eaton. The photograph below of Alvy and George was probably taken in their back garden at around this time. Alice died in Long Eaton on 3 February 1961 at the age of sixty seven, at which time her effects were valued at £312 16s 4d. Her husband Alvy lived a further twenty three years before passing away in 1984 at the age of ninety three.

Alice Mills, c. 1913. Courtesy of R. Watkins.

Alfred Wilmott and George Mills
Thomas Alfred “Alvy” Wilmott and George Mills, c. 1930, possibly at Long Eaton. Courtesy of R. Watkins.

Even less is known of Frances Harriet Mills (b. 22 April 1895, Kegworth, Leicestershire). Like Nell, as a teenager she she was recorded in the 1911 census as a machinist (skirt maker). She is known to have been married twice, first to a transport foreman named Samuel Hardy Tyers, then later to a man with the frustratingly untraceable name of John H. Smith whose occupation is uncertain. She was thirty three at the time of her first marriage on 14 July 1928, which was three years older than her husband Samuel. In the 1939 register the couple were recorded living at 16 Hawthorne Avenue, Long Eaton, which would have been about ten minutes away from her older sister Alice’s house on Tamworth Road. On 27 November 1943 Samuel died at the age of forty five, leaving Frances a widow at just forty eight. Ten years later though she was remarried to her second husband John H. Smith, and she would go on to live a further thirty nine years. Her death was registered at Ilkeston in the first quarter of 1982 when she was eighty seven. She is not believed to have had any children from either marriage.

The youngest daughter of George and Fanny Mills youngest, Elizabeth Ann “Lizzie” (b. 9 December 1899, Kegworth, Leicestershire) was only eleven at the time of the 1911 census so any jobs she may have held prior to getting married are unrecorded. Given her older sisters’ occupations it is possible she could have worked as a machinist or at the local glove factory on Pleasant Place. Like Alice, she married relatively late in life at age thirty five to George Frederick Steel, with whom she had one son, Richard David (b. c. August 1937, Derbyshire). It is unclear how the family supported themselves, but they are said to have lived above a branch of Boots in Nottingham, which her probate record conforms was at 71A Bracebridge Drive. An unusual story about Lizzie which has been been passed down to some family members was that she believed the stairs in her home were haunted, having experienced a ‘presence’ walk past her and ask the question “what troublest thou?” She died on 8 January 1979 at the age of seventy nine, and her effects were valued at £1,943.

* * *

We return now at last to Harry, the third son of George and Fanny Mills and my great-grandfather, born on 7 October 1889 in Kegworth. As a boy he was taken on as a cobbler’s apprentice, and by the time he was twenty one he was recorded working as a ‘boot repairer’ in the census of 1911. That same year he featured in a local news report on a ‘social and dance’ at Kegworth Temperance Hall, at which he performed in a play called ‘Who’d be a bachelor’.

Social and Dance
Description of a ‘social and dance’ held at Kegworth Temperance Hall by the Men’s Adult School in 1911. Harry Mills is reported as having performed a role in the play ‘Who would be a bachelor’. Source: The Leicester Chronicle and Leicestershire Mercury, 4 February 1911, p. 11, col. 5 (via the British Newspaper Archive).

At some point between April 1911 and March 1913 Harry moved to Derby in the hope of setting up his own business. Although his first known address there was at 95 Gerard Street, by 1915 he was running a bootmaker’s shop at 117 Abbey Street. Bootmaking is a related but distinct trade to cobbling (boot and shoe repair), and it is notable that even at this early stage Harry was showing signs of an enterprising, ambitious streak that would serve him well in the years to come.

Shortly after moving to Derby, Harry had met met a young woman named Ruth Spencer (b. c. February 1895, Greatford, Lincolnshire – d. 20 December 1926, 47 Ryhall Road, Stamford, Lincolnshire). Ruth was the daughter of a platelayer and had grown up in Greatford Gatehouse by the railway lines in a small village in Lincolnshire. Coincidentally or otherwise, by 1911 Ruth was working as a domestic servant at 123 Osmaston Street in the house of Charles Trubshaw, a renowned architect with her father’s employer the Midland Railway Company. It is not clear how Harry and Ruth met but they were married on 23 March 1913 in Christ Church, when they were twenty three and eighteen respectively, and soon afterwards moved in together above Harry’s shop on Abbey Street.

A few months later Ruth became pregnant with twins, who they named Mary and Kathleen, however both died shortly after they were born in early 1914. They tried again for a child the following year, and this time the baby survived. They named their first son George Kenneth Mills (b. 28 September 1915, Derby, Derbyshire – d. c. 1980, New Zealand), perhaps after his grandfather. Four years later Ruth gave birth to his little sister Julia Mary Mills (b. 24 July 1914, Derby, Derbyshire – d. 19 September 1993, Derbyshire Royal Infirmary, Derby, Derbyshire), known as Mary in later life, who was my maternal grandmother.

Given Harry’s youth and non-reserved occupation it is curious how he was never conscripted for service in World War I, although exemption on the grounds of a health condition is a possibility. Whatever the reason his business clearly benefitted from the relative lack of competition during the war, as the 1925 edition of Kelly’s Directory shows that by then the family were operating at two premises on Abbey Street, a boot repair shop at number 8 and a wardrobe dealership in Ruth’s name at 117. This picture is backed up by their daughter Mary’s account of her childhood written seventy years later, in which she states that Harry employed one man in the bootmaker’s shop and that the other shop dealt in “[second] hand furniture, kitchenware etc.,”and later expanded into antiques.

At this time the family were not poor but neither were they especially well-off. They lived in a simple terraced house, kept a pig in their back garden and the children received nuts, an orange and a shined-up penny for Christmas. According to Mary, her father Harry, a small balding, bespectacled man, was hard-working but emotionally distant. Ruth was the polar opposite: warm, affectionate and attractive, with the distinctive auburn hair which Mary would pass on to her own daughters. As for her older brother, Mary idolised Ken and used to follow him around wherever he went, but it seems Ken occasionally exploited his sister’s unwavering loyalty for his own amusement. One of Mary’s earliest memories is of throwing a silver coffee pot and jug out of a bedroom window at age four because Ken told her to, and on another occasion he apparently made her dig a hole in the garden and bury her teddy bear in it.

An interesting news story from around this time reveals that despite Mary’s angelic view of her mother, Ruth was actually charged with larceny on 8 August 1920 after finding two rings in Belper River Gardens and “making no reasonable attempt to find the owner or acquaint the caretaker of the premises.” Ruth explained that she had intended to keep them until they were advertised for and “had not thought to mention the finding of the rings, or leave her name and address at the gardens.” The Bench fined her £7 10s., stating that there had been no obligation to go to the police but there might have been a risk of prosecution once she was found out.

Rings Lost and Found
Details a charge of larceny made against Ruth Mills after she took two rings from Belper River Gardens. Source: Derby Daily Telegraph, 12 August 1920, 12 August 1920, p. [3], col. 6 (via the British Newspaper Archive).

Ruth’s true intentions that day can never be known, but the story’s publication must have been hugely embarrassing for both her and Harry and could only have contributed to what was by then already a strained relationship. The aforementioned 1925 edition of Kelly’s Directory, which gives Harry and Ruth’s business address as 117 Abbey Street, must have been compiled several years earlier as by 1925 they were no longer living together. According to Mary they had separated when she was about four, which would place the date at around 1922. Of her parents’ separation Mary wrote:

I was too small to wonder…what had caused the break-up of my parents’ marriage. I just remember that I was not really surprised to be in the position I was.

She later came to believe her mother had been involved in an affair, though there is of course no way of verifying this, and her parents’ separation could just as easily have been caused by their seemingly incompatible personalities. It was agreed that Ken would stay with Harry at Abbey Street and Mary would go with Ruth.

Mary and Ruth stayed with a friend named Emma Taylor (known as Aunty Pem) in Sheffield for a few weeks before moving in with Ruth’s sister Annie and brother-in law George Johnson at 47 Ryhall Road in Stamford. Mary lived here with her aunt, uncle and older cousins Reg, Cecil and Mabel, while her mother went to work in a hotel in London. She later recalled her time at Ryhall Road as “a tiny corner of my childhood that was happy” as her adopted family were very loving and treated her well, but we will return to Mary’s maternal family in a future post.

Among Mary’s fondest memories from this time included being crowned May Queen at a carnival in Stamford (an experience ruined somewhat when some jealous girls started chanting “May Queen margarine!”), and playing in her front garden with her school friend Vera Holmes.

The little front garden…was once a place of magic to me, lined down one side with Canterbury Bells all those years ago…we used the bells of the flowers for fairies hats or dolls hats – and I have a distinct feeling that we were probably forbidden to pluck them, thus making the game even more enjoyable. Even so, I was not disobedient with intent! I merely was the sort of child that got carried away with my imagination.

At school Mary was a bright, sporty pupil with a particular love of drawing, reading and writing stories, and she recalled first learning how to form letters by tracing them with her finger in a sand tray. Around this age she also acquired her first (and least favourite!) nickname, ‘Mary Pom-Pom,’ after coming to school wearing a hat with a pom-pom decoration on top.

This happy period was to be cut tragically short however when her mother Ruth fell ill with cervical cancer. Mary recalled a painful conversation shortly before Christmas 1926 with her mother, who had been forced to leave her job due to her declining health and had returned to her sister’s family at Ryhall Road:

I walked into the room and found her crying, and when I asked her why she said “I’m crying because I haven’t a penny to give to you” and I hastily and honestly tried to comfort her by saying “I was only trying to cheer you up!” which was so true that I was distressed that she thought I wanted any money [sic]. It must have been about this time that I said “when you are better mum” we will do something or other, and she said quite calmly and unemotionally that she would never get better as she had something very wrong with her tummy, so possibly preparing me for what was to come a few weeks later.

Ruth died on the twentieth of December 1926 at the age thirty two at Ryhall Road. Her sister Annie was present at the death, and also acted as the informant. She was buried in an un-purchased grave in the non-conformist section of Stamford Cemetery three days later.

After her mother’s death Mary left Stamford and moved in to 40 Heskey Street, Nottingham with her father and brother. She had been estranged from Harry and Ken since she was four so readjusting to this new home must have been hard enough, but to make matters worse her relationship with Harry’s second wife Ethel Irene Morris was to prove an enduringly difficult one. “Aunt” Ethel, a farm labourer’s daughter from Plungar in Leicestershire, was twenty five when she married Harry Mills on 2 June 1928, thirteen years younger than him and thirteen years older than Mary. Ethel seemed to resent Mary’s presence in the home, perhaps because she served as a reminder of Harry’s first wife Ruth, but whatever the reason she treated her more like a servant than a daughter. In stark contrast to her brother Ken who was indulged as the favourite, Mary was only ever seen as a source of cheap labour, and even after winning a scholarship at school she was forbidden from furthering her education because she was a girl. Perhaps the cruellest thing Mary was forced to endure was when Ethel burned all her pictures of her mother, and to this day it is unknown whether any photographs of Ruth Spencer survive.

Mills-Morris wedding
Notice of Harry Mills’s wedding to Ethel Irene Morris. Source: The Grantham Journal, 9 June 1928, p. 8, col. 4 (via the British Newspaper Archive).

Given this combination of Ethel’s vindictiveness and her father’s apparent complicity or indifference, it is not surprising that Mary left home as soon as soon as she was able at around the age of seventeen. After securing her first job at I.R. Morely’s hosiery factory in Heanor, Derbyshire, she began lodging in the home of her friend and co-worker Hilda Hunter, with whom she would remain close for the rest of her life. On hearing of Mary’s death many years later Hilda wrote a letter of condolence to one of her daughters in which she gave a vivid account of her and Mary’s work and life during this period. Their hours at the factory were “7.30 AM – 1 PM, 2 PM – 5.30 & Sat AM. No tea or coffee breaks & until I was 16 I earned from 10/- – 12/- a wk” (around £20 in today’s money).

We used to go to the pictures – “the Cosy” [Heanor’s Cosy Market] & the Empire…& when we went dancing to the Town Hall in Heanor at the interval Mary & I would rush over to Elliot’s chip shop in Ray St. for tripe – but Mary only ate the crinkled bits so I had all the thick pieces. We occasionally went dancing at Annesley, & Mary would say “leave it to me I’ll get us a lift home,” & she did, you wouldn’t dare do it today. She was a happy person with a laughing smile.

It was said that when she went out dancing Mary was pretty enough to “fetch a duck off water,” and the impression one gets from Hilda’s account and contemporary photographs is that for the first time in almost a decade Mary was truly happy. She was financially independent with an active social life and a good circle of friends, but by far the most significant relationship she would go on to develop during this period was yet to come.

The life and family history of my maternal grandfather Frederick England has been discussed elsewhere in this blog (see There’ll always be an England (part 3)). He was born on 23 July 1912 to a Heanor coal miner named Thomas and his wife Maud Ling. His father’s family had lived in Derbyshire for generations, were strongly connected to the area’s major extractive and manufacturing industries and had been active in local politics. His mother’s family by contrast were geographically dispersed and made their living mainly from general dealing and traveling fairgrounds (see Travelling with the Lings (part 4)). From this unlikely union came Fred, who worked as a silk hose finisher at I.R. Morley but was also a talented gymnast with ambitions of becoming a professional. Given that he and Mary worked in the same factory and his best friend at the time was Hilda Hunter’s brother it was perhaps inevitable that their paths would cross at some point. During their courtship they would go to dances together and on one occasion went on a cycling holiday to the seaside on a tandem (although apparently Mary left all the pedalling to Fred). At some point around Christmas 1937 however, Mary became pregnant with Fred’s child, and a few months later they were married in Heanor on 16 April 1938. In recognition of her four-month-old baby bump Mary wore a white dress with a subtle hint of apple, and a Juliet cap beaded with pearls.

Following the wedding Mary and Fred moved in with Fred’s parents at 98 Holbrook Street, Heanor. Shortly after Mary gave birth to their daughter  Gillian Maureen England on 23 September 1938 they found a house to rent across the road at number 119.

Had Gillian been born at almost any other point during the twentieth century she could have expected to have been followed within a year or two by a younger brother or sister, but of course just under a year after she was born Britain declared war on Germany, and any hopes Mary and Fred may have had of settling down and having more children were quickly dashed. Among his five brothers Fred was the only one at this point to have started a family, but unfortunately he was also the only one of fighting age working in a non-protected industry and was drafted into military service in 1940. He joined the local tank regiment the 9th Lancers as a trooper and after training was sent to Egypt as part of the 1st Armoured Division in General Montgomery’s famous 8th Army.

While Fred was away fighting, Mary was left to raise their one year old daughter Gillian by herself. Thanks to Fred’s large extended family though she had a strong support network, and during the height of the blitz she even welcomed several evacuees into her home at the age of only twenty two (after they had been thoroughly de-loused of course). Local businesses like I.R. Morley were adapted to manufacturing parachutes for the war effort but the lack of heavy industry in the Heanor area meant the threat of German air raids was relatively low (aside from the odd stray bomb on its way to Derby’s Rolls Royce factory where Fred’s brother Ken worked). Despite her husband’s absence Mary’s memories of the war years would be largely happy ones of her and Gillian surrounded by loved ones, who were brought closer together through their shared struggle.

This neighbourly spirit even led to a brief reconciliation with her father Harry, who by this point was running the Greendale Oak inn in Cuckney, Nottinghamshire, and whose business was booming by 1944 thanks to the large number of American G.I.s stationed nearby. Harry was first recorded as a publican at the Coach & Horses in Billinghay in the 1939 register (which also mentioned that he was a sergeant, perhaps in the Home Guard), and by 16 February 1940 he had been promoted to manager of the Hurt Arms in Ambergate, which was owned by the same brewer. By all accounts he was a very shrewd businessman. His sister Nell even recalled visiting him with her family at the Greendale Oak during the War and being rather affronted when Harry asked them to pay for their drinks. His ascent up the social ladder is evident from his membership of the the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes fraternal society, for whom he was reported to be the “Retiring Provincial Grand Primo for South Lincolshire”  (Lincolnshire Standard and Boston Guardian, 6 January 1940). Later in life he was also said to have been a member of the Freemasons.

After the war there was to be no easy return to the way things had been for Fred and Mary. Fred, shell-shocked by his experiences struggled to readjust to civilian life, and for Mary there would remain a sense that the gentle man she had fallen in love with had been brutalised, as Mary’s friend Hilda wrote many years later:

I remember your mum saying Fred wasn’t the fellow you knew after the war – but it changed all the young men, they went through so much, & to our generation it is still in our minds.

Their relationship would gradually recover over the next twelve months, and 1946 was to be a pivotal year for them in more ways than one. Not only did it see the birth to their second daughter, but a few months after this they were granted a mortgage loan of £700 for their house at 119 Holbrook Street. The approval of this loan, worth around £18,165 in today’s money, is the first indication of Mary and Fred’s steadily improving financial situation during the late forties and fifties. After the war Fred had intended to retrain as a P.E. teacher, however he instead took a job as a dyer at Aristoc, another hosiery manufacturer based in Langley. After a time he was promoted to foreman and eventually gained managerial position which paid well enough to enable the family to move into a larger detached house at 34 Crosshill in Codnor, Derbyshire. Their new house was purchased on 16 May 1959 for the cost of £2000, about £30,000 in today’s money, and both Mary and Fred would remain here for the rest of their lives.

As was common among women of her generation, Mary had left work after getting married to become a full-time mother (her third daughter having arrived in June 1953). Like Ruth before her, Mary is remembered as being a very affectionate, loving mother who always put her children first. Perhaps as a result of her father and step-mother’s dismissive attitude to her own education, she always encouraged her daughters to work hard at school and pursue fulfilling careers. In time her three daughters would grow into assertive, confident, professional young women. Seeing her daughters leave home and establish careers would in turn encourage Mary to re-enter the world of work. Aside from a brief stint working as a meal supervisor at Loscoe Road Infants’ School Mary had not been in paid employment since giving birth to Gillian in 1938, but after attending a number of Red Cross classes she decided to retrain as an occupational nurse. In about 1966 she took an industrial nursing course at Nottingham General Hospital before going on to work as a factory nurse at Burnham spring works and Tinsley Wire Ltd. until her retirement in around 1974.

Julia Mary Mills's retirement
Julia Mary Mills’s retirement, c. 1974.

The mid-to-late sixties was to be a period of significant change for Mary both professionally and personally. Not only was she establishing a career for herself for the first time in thirty years, but she was also starting to rekindle a relationship with her estranged family. It began in 1963 with a visit from her brother Ken, who after serving as an army cook in the war had emigrated to New Zealand and started a family of his own. During the visit he convinced Mary that if she did not make peace with their father now, she might never get the chance again as by this point Harry was already in his seventies.

Mary and her father had never been close, but following an argument between Harry and Fred in around 1952 they had not spoken in more than a decade by the time of Ken’s visit. At Ken’s prompting therefore, Mary took Fred and her two youngest daughters to the Station Hotel in Worksop which Harry and Ethel were running at the time, and from that point onwards she did manage to maintain a civil relationship of sorts with her father. Even when Harry and Ethel lost most of their money from their hotel business in the mid-sixties, Fred and Mary graciously helped re-home them in a terraced house in Heanor. Harry died in early 1968, and Ethel on 19 November 1981. Although Mary had been the one to rehouse her and even arrange her funeral, the entirety of Ethel’s £20,015 inheritance passed to her brother Ken.

Ken, Jack and Harry Mills
L-R: George Kenneth Mills, his uncle John George “Jack” Mills, and father Harry Mills, possibly taken during Ken’s visit to England c. 1963. Courtesy of T. Lang.

Since retiring together in 1974 Mary and Fred had been enjoying their free time together, finally unencumbered by work or child-caring responsibilities. That was all to change quite unexpectedly one day when Fred was crossing the road on the way back from the local garage and was struck by a severe heart attack. He died on 24 September 1980 at the age of only sixty eight. The sudden loss of her husband deeply affected Mary, and for at least two years she was quite inconsolable. It was only the birth of her third granddaughter in 1982 which eventually brought her out of this depression and provided her with a renewed sense of purpose. In her later years she also felt more free to develop her own opinions and interests, and there is no question that Mary became a far more independent and assertive woman than she had been in her youth. For example, ever since Fred had become a manager at Aristoc Mary had voted Conservative in accordance with her husband’s wishes. After Fred died however her views shifted dramatically to the left to the point where she could not see Margaret Thatcher on the television without declaring “if she came up Crosshill I’d kill her,” and she was overjoyed on witnessing Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. She also rediscovered her love of drawing, painting, gardening and needlework, skills she would enjoy passing on to her grandchildren.

This is the woman I knew growing up. Among my earliest and happiest memories are of going to visit my ‘Gaga’ at Crosshill with my family at least once a week, playing in the garden or sitting in the big armchair with her learning how to paint. She was always smiling and laughing and was never stern in the least. Even in her final days, when I visited her in the hospital and remarked that her respirator mask made her look like an elephant she seemed to find this greatly amusing. Sadly Mary would spend the greater part of her final years in and out of hospital owing to various illnesses. She eventually died in Derby Hospital on 19 September 1993 at the age of seventy five. The huge collection of heartfelt commemoration cards which have survived stand as testament to the number of lives she touched over the years. Although not a believer in an afterlife herself, I think she would definitely have appreciated the following words from my mother’s friend:

I’m sure she’ll be alright…I bet right now she’s fluttering her eyelashes & looking for a big pan to make everyone some piccalilli!!

Today her descendants include her two youngest daughters, plus four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. It is unknown if her brother Ken has any living descendants in New Zealand. On 29 July he had married Marjorie Bradshaw in Billinghay, with whom he had one daughter, Deirdre A. Mills (b. c. May 1941, Chelmsford Essex). They appear to have lived at various places including Christchurch and Wellington up to the 1970s, after which the trail runs cold. Members of the wider Mills family can be found all over the UK and beyond, and several have been generous enough to provide me with images and anecdotes for this blog. In the next series of posts I will be looking at the ancestry of Mary’s mother, Ruth.


Mason, Sheila A. “Black Lead and Bleaching: The Nottingham Lace Industry.” BBC website. Accessed 20 March 2019. http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/work/england/nottingham/article_2.shtml.

Russell, Dave. Popular Music in England, 1840-1914: A Social History. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Going through the Mills (part 3)

This is the third in a series of posts about the Mills family, the direct male-line ancestors of my maternal grandmother Julia Mary Mills. In this part I trace the stories of her great-grandfather Reuben’s generation who lived during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

* * *

The children of John and Elizabeth Mills were among the first members of their family to abandon their ancestors’ rural way of life in search of work in the towns. In the previous post I speculated that this may have been a consequence of the Great Depression of British Agriculture which began in 1873, but the census shows that at least two of the Mills children left their parents’ home in Sutton Bonington in the 1860s, a time of relative prosperity. There could be a more local explanation however, as at around this time their landlord’s manor at West Leake had been put up sale (East Leake & District Local History Group, 2001, 8) and the threat of change would have led to a general unease among the agricultural workforce.

The first to leave was John and Elizabeth’s eldest son Thomas Mills (b. c. March 1830, West Leake, Nottinghamshire), who had already moved to Codnor in Derbyshire by 1861. That year’s census records him and his wife Elizabeth (née Hywood) living there with their two children George and Emma on Jessop Street, and Thomas’s occupation was given as ‘labourer on coal field’. Although the fact that Thomas’s wife hailed from Bolsover probably explains how the family ended up in Derbyshire, his occupation suggests the area’s well-established coal mining industry was another likely attraction.

So-called open-pit mining had been in operation at Codnor since at least the fifteenth century, but as Stuart Saint explains:

It wasn’t until the Butterley Company was established in 1790 that mining in the area began to get more advanced. The company invested huge amounts of money into mines that penetrated the coal and ironstone seams deeper than ever before. The local community grew from a small agricultural based workforce to a rapidly growing industrial one. The increasing population needed more housing and many of the streets in Codnor did not exist until the mid 1800s, when they were built to accommodate hundreds of workers needed for the many mines in the area.

One of these streets was Jessop Street, built in around 1860 and named for William Jessop, one of the Butterley Company’s founders, where Thomas and his family lived until at least 1881.

Jessop Street, 1906 (via The Codnor & Disctrict Local History & Heritage Website).

By that year’s census Thomas was recorded as an ‘iron worker’, so it is likely he had begun working at the Butterley Company’s vast ironworks just north of Ripley. Although the company was one of the most distinguished engineering firms in the country, and had been responsible for such innovations as the great arched train shed at St Pancras Station, they would nonetheless face calls from their employees to improve pay and working conditions later in the century. These calls were initially fiercely resisted by the company, who fired eleven workers in 1874 for their role in a strike over pay, although no official charges were ever brought. Thomas was not among those who lost his job as a result of the strike, however given his union activity later in life (more of which later) it seems plausible he could have participated in it.

Codnor miners
Thomas Mills’s co-workers at the Butterley Company, who were refused work in 1874 for taking part in strike action (via Healey Hero).

Like any under-regulated nineteenth century workplace, the Butterley ironworks would also have been an incredibly dangerous place to earn a living, especially for men like Thomas who were forced to work well into old age. On Thursday 23 January 1890, Thomas, by then almost sixty, accidentally dropped a heavy iron plate he had been picking up, which fell and crushed one of his legs. Upon his arrival at Derby Infirmary the doctors were forced to amputate the smashed limb.

‘Serious Accident at Butterley Ironworks’. Description of Thomas Mills’s accident which inaccurately gives his age as sixty eight. He is also said to be living on Nottingham Road by this point, the same address he would give in the next three censuses. Source: The Derby Daily Telegraph, 24 January 1890, p. 2, col. 6 (via The British Newspaper Archive).

Fortunately Thomas survived the procedure, and the following year’s census shows he had already found work as a general labourer, one would hope with the assistance of a new wooden leg. Ten years later in 1901 he was recorded as a ‘head furnace weighman’ at the ironworks, a more prestigious but less physically demanding role better suited to a seventy one year old amputee. His work here would have involved leading the team who checked, weighed and recorded the coke and iron ore being charged into the blast furnace. A unique insight into the lives of the Butterley Company’s workforce at this time can be gained from this rare footage from 6 October 1900, which shows workers leaving the ironworks at the end of a long day’s work.

At some point before 1911 it appears Thomas returned to the coal mining industry, as in that year’s census his occupation was given as ‘colliery checkweighman (above ground) previously’ (i.e. recently retired). This job, while similar to what he had been doing at the ironworks, differed in that he would have been working not for the enrichment of the Butterley Company but for the benefit of his co-workers through their union, the Derbyshire Miners’ Association. At this time miners were paid by the amount of coal produced, so it was important the weights recorded were accurate. Two weighmen were therefore employed, one working on behalf of the company, and a trade union representative (a ‘checkweighman’) elected by the miners to verify his findings. The photograph below taken at Denby colliery in 1898 shows the type of weighing machine Thomas would have used on a daily basis. Note also the elderly one-legged man on the right. As Denby colliery was situated only about an hour’s walk from Thomas’s home on Nottingham Road, it is tempting to think the man in the picture could be him, even though the census suggests he was still working at the ironworks at the time.

A pit top weighing machine at Denby Colliery, Derbyshire, in 1898 (via Picture The Past).

It is interesting to compare Thomas’s story to that of Thomas England (see There’ll Always Be An England (Part 2)), whose grandson Frederick would go on to marry Thomas Mills’s great-grandniece, my grandmother Mary, in 1938. Not only did both men survive potentially fatal accidents at work, but as a result both ended up as  colliery weighmen instead of manual workers. Unlike Thomas England though, Thomas Mills’s accident happened near the end rather than at the beginning of his working life, which perhaps explains why his career did not benefit to quite the same extent. He died in the last quarter of 1914 at the age of eighty four.

It is unclear what happened to John and Elizabeth Mills’s second son Charles (b. c. 1833, Sutton Bonington, Nottinghamshire). Oddly, there is a baptism record for him from 8 June 1845 at Sutton Bonington, when he would have been around twelve, but after that we can only speculate. Charles’s baptism appears to have been a joint ceremony with his younger brothers Reuben (b. c. December 1835, West Leake, Nottinghamshire) and John Jr. (b. c. June 1845). Reuben we will return to shortly, but John Jr. is another son whose later life is a mystery.

We know a little more about their younger brother, John and Elizabeth’s last child Robert Mills (bp. 11 October 1849, Sutton Bonington, Nottinghamshire). Born almost twenty years after their eldest, by the time he was twenty one Robert was still living at his parents’ house but working as a labourer at an iron foundry. Six years later he married Charlotte Musson, another Derbyshire girl from Heanor, on 18 December 1877. The next census shows that by 1881 they had left Sutton Bonington and moved to Leake Road in nearby Normanton on Soar. It also shows that Robert had begun working as an agricultural labourer, an occupation he would still hold ten years later, and that Charlotte was employed as a hosiery seamer. The final census on which Robert appears records that by 1891 his family had moved back to Sutton Bonington where they lived at Rectory Farm, a short distance away from where he had grown up at Pit House. Robert died at the age of only forty nine and was buried on 1 September 1899 at West Leake. Over the course if their marriage he and Charlotte had twelve children together, and after Robert’s death many of them went with their mother when she returned to Heanor to work as a charwoman.

Rectory Farm
1901 25″ OS map showing the locations Pit House and Rectory Farm in Sutton Bonington, where Robert Mills lived in 1871 and 1891 respectively (via National Library of Scotland).

* * *

We return now finally to Rueben Mills, John and Elizabeth’s third son and my grandmother’s great-grandfather. Like his brothers, Reuben grew up at Pit House in Sutton Bonington, but by the time he was sixteen he was working as a farm servant for a  widow named Rebecca Oakley in Wilford. According to the 1851 census, Oakley’s farm covered thirty acres and employed three other servants (two domestics and a charwoman). Farm servants like Reuben differed from agricultural labourers in that they typically lived in the farmer’s house and received board as part of their pay. As a result, they were considered to be “just a little further up in the pecking order” according to Crawford MacKeand (2002):

If single, he “lived-in” and bed and board were part of the contract for hire, and if married, he was provided with a house or a cottage, with possibly some grazing rights or strip of land to use and some provisions for the family. Cash wages were maybe less than 40% of total income. Hiring could be a continuation of existing employment or a new contract established at a “hiring fair”, and was normally for a one year period, or at least six months.


In some areas the Farm Servant was also known as a “confined man” and this was a desirable status to be aimed at. He, almost always he, was skilled typically in horse or other livestock care…and was therefore employed continuously year round…The Agricultural Laborer on the other hand was paid day wages, hired on a short term as and when work was needed, and therefore much more characteristic of arable farming, for planting, hoeing, reaping etc. He or she was given no accommodation, often operated as part of a gang under a contractor, and received only wages.

It it may be hard for those familiar with Wilford as a Nottingham suburb to imagine it populated with farm servants and agricultural labourers, but in the mid-nineteenth century it still retained much of its original rural character. It is possible to get an idea of what the village looked like in Reuben’s day from the surprising number of Victorian oil paintings of it. Writing in 1914 Robert Mellors even noted that “Wilford has the honour of being the most painted, and best illustrated village in the county”, and that there were several paintings referring to it at the Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery:

There is a view of the Trent, shewing the church, ford, etc., painted by Thomas Barber, about 1840; a view at Wilford from the Trent, “Looking to the Castle,” by Benjamin Shipham; “Wilford Ferry” (The Cherry Eatings) about 1858, by John Holland, Junr, shows a boat being towed over, full of passengers, while a crowd of ladies wearing crinolines, and gentlemen top hats, are waiting their turn. The vendors of cherries are doing a busy trade.

The three paintings described by Mellors can be seen below, and more can be browsed via the Culture Grid website.

Reuben did not settle permanently in Wilford however. By April 1861 he had moved back in with his parents at Sutton Bonington, and that year’s census records his occupation as ‘agricultural labourer’, suggesting something of a downturn in his fortunes. This would prove to be a temporary state of affairs though, as by November he was once again working as a farm servant twenty two miles away at Langar Lodge. Soon after he would be joined there by his new wife Charlotte (née Wilcox), who he married on 25 November 1861 at St Helena’s church in West Leake.

Charlotte was the third daughter of an agricultural labourer named Thomas Wilcox (b. 1797, Beeston, Nottinghamshire – d. c. February 1872, Nottinghamshire) and his wife Mary Attawell (b. 27 June 1799, Bradmore, Nottinghamshire – d. 1862, Stanton On The Wolds, Nottinghamshire). She was born on 2 May 1840 in the village of Stanton On The Wolds, Nottinghamshire, and in 1861 had been working as a domestic servant for a farmer named Thomas Hardy on Main Street, West Leake. As Reuben would have been living only half a mile away at the time it is unsurprising that the two of them eventually crossed paths, they may have even shared the same employer. Whatever the circumstances of their first encounter, sometime around August 1861 Charlotte became pregnant with Reuben’s child, and six months after their wedding she gave birth at Langar Lodge on 9 April 1862. The boy who was christened George Mills on 11 May that year was my great-great-grandfather.

Langar Lodge
Langar Lodge, where Charlotte gave birth to her and Reuben’s son George in 1862 (via Little Langar Lodge).

Shortly after their son’s birth Reuben and Charlotte left Nottinghamshire and rural life altogether to settle in Codnor, where Reuben’s brother Thomas’s family had moved a few years earlier. The 1871 census records both families living on Jessop Street just eight houses apart, and like his brother Reuben’s first job here was at the local colliery. There he worked as a banksman, which involved directing the loading and unloading of the cage that carried men from the top of the pit down to the coal face below.

The family stayed in Codnor for at least six years, during which time they had the following three more children:

  • Ellen (b. c. 1865, Codnor, Derbyshire)
  • William H. (b. c. November 1866, Codnor, Derbyshire)
  • Elizabeth (b. c. 1870, Codnor, Derbyshire)

At some point before 1877 they moved back across the county border to Underwood in Nottinghamshire, another mining village, where they had their fifth and last child:

  • John Thomas (b. c. October 1877, Underwood, Nottinghamshire)

Unlike his brother Thomas however, Reuben would not stay in the coal industry for long. The 1881 census shows that by then he had returned to farming, and that his family had resettled in Ratcliffe-on-Soar near where he grew up. Of Reuben and Charlotte’s children, sadly only George, William, Elizabeth and John Thomas were living with them at this point, suggesting their eldest daughter Ellen may have died. Their oldest sons George and William, then eighteen and fourteen, had started work as farm servants, while Reuben was once again an agricultural labourer, an occupation he would continue to hold for the rest of his life.

Sometime before the next census in 1891 Reuben and Charlotte moved for the fourth and final time  to Kegworth in Leicestershire, where they lived on Nottingham Road. Their eldest son George had moved here a few years earlier, and many of their descendants would continue to live here well into the twentieth and even twenty first centuries. By this time all Reuben and Charlotte’s children except William and John Thomas had moved out, so they had been obliged to take in a lodger, a plumber and gas fitter named William Smart who was still living with them in 1901 and 1911.

Nottingham Road in Kegworth, where the Millses lived from the 1890s to the 1910s (via Kegworth Village).

Charlotte and Reuben died within just five days of each other on 18 and 23 November 1915 respectively. Charlotte’s cause of death at the age of seventy five was given as ‘old age [and] myocardial degeneration’, and Reuben apparently succumbed to ‘senile decay’ aged seventy nine. While Reuben died at the family home on London Road, sadly Charlotte’s last recorded address was the Shardlow Union Infirmary and Workhouse, suggesting she may have been unwell for some time.

The informant on Reuben Mills’s death certificate was his daughter-in-law Fanny Mills, who was also present at the death. Fanny was the wife of Reuben’s first son George and my great-great-grandmother, and I will be looking at this next generation of Millses in the next post.



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.

MacKeand, Crawford. “Farm Servants and Agricultural Laborers”. The Wigtownshire Pages. 2002. Accessed 24 March, 2017. http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~ainsty/articles/profession/aglab.html.

Mellors, Robert. “Wilford: Then and Now.” Nottinghamshire History. 2010. Accessed 26 March, 2017. http://www.nottshistory.org.uk/articles/mellorsarticles/wilford6.htm.

Saint, Stuart. “Mining.” Codnor & District Local History & Heritage Website. Accessed 9 March, 2017. http://www.codnor.info/mining.php.

Going through the Mills (part 2)

This is the second in a series of posts recounting the history of the Mills family, my maternal grandmother Julia Mary Mills’s direct male-line ancestors. This part largely concentrates on her great-great-grandparents John and Elizabeth, who lived in Nottinghamshire during the nineteenth century. To read about the family’s story so far see my previous post Going through the Mills (part 1).

* * *

My fourth great-grandfather John Mills was the second of Robert and Elizabeth Mills’s seven children, all of whom were born in West Leake in Nottinghamshire between 1806 and 1821. John’s three brothers, William, Thomas and Joseph all went on to work as agricultural labourers in West Leake or other nearby villages, including Greasley and Keyworth. Of his three younger sisters, little is known of Mary but Sarah married a labourer from Wysall named Charles Shaw, and Elizabeth, who had worked as a servant in her youth, married John Johnson Shaw, a lace worker who briefly served as a police constable in Eastwood during the 1850s. Her family later moved to Beeston just south of Nottingham where she worked as a laundress.

John, was baptised in Sutton Bonington on 12 December 1808. At the age of twenty he married Elizabeth Brown (b. c. 1809), the daughter of John Brown and Mary Monks, on 5 October 1829 in her home village of Bunny. The parish registers there show he had been living in nearby Long Whatton at the time, just over the Leicestershire border. The couple appear to have had at least five children together whose names were:

  • Thomas (b. c. March 1831, Sutton Bonington, Nottinghamshire, bp. 9 March 1830, Bunny, Nottinghamshire – d. c. November 1914, Derbyshire, England)
  • Charles (b. c. 1833, Nottinghamshire, bp. 8 June 1845, West Leake, Nottinghamshire)
  • Reuben (b. c. December 1835, West Leake, Nottinghamshire, bp. 1 January 1836, Sutton Bonington, Nottinghamshire – d. 23 November 1915, London Road, Kegworth, Leicestershire)
  • John (b. c. June 1845, Sutton Bonington, Nottinghamshire, bp. 8 June 1845, West leake, Nottinghamshire)
  • Robert (b. c. October 1849, Sutton Bonington, Nottinghamshire, bp. 11 October 1849, Sutton Bonington, Nottinghamshire – bur. 1 September 1899, West Leake, Nottinghamshire)

Their birthplaces suggest the Millses settled in Sutton Bonington, which is where they were recorded in the first national census of 1841. This census shows that, like his father and brothers, John grew up to be an agricultural labourer and would have been in his twenties during the tumultuous 1830s when the Swing Riots were sweeping the English countryside. That year their sons Thomas, Charles and Reuben were all still living at home, but by the next census in 1851 all three had left to find work elsewhere and only their youngest boys, John and Robert, remained.

This latter census also reveals that the family’s modest income was being supplemented by their mother Elizabeth’s work as a ‘lace runner’, i.e. “a person who hand embroidered lengths of machine net with darning…or running stitches” (Textile Research Centre, 2016). In the early-to-mid-nineteenth century, Nottingham’s world famous lace industry employed thousands of women in similar roles across across the county, as Sheila Mason (2013) explains:

While the centre of Nottingham concentrated on lace finishing most lace making was carried on outside the town. Every town and village in the map [see below] accommodated lace machines at one time or another. Into the 1840s most lace machines were small and worked by the hand and feet of the operative, so that for nearly 100 years they could be located in houses or workshops.  It was only after the 1850s, that machines were generally worked by steam power, and moved into factories.

Nottinghamshire lace runners or embroiderers at work, c. 1843. Source: Charles Knight, The Pictorial Gallery of Arts. Volume 1 Useful Arts, 1843 (via Textile Research Centre).

The map below from Mason’s article indicates the presence of at least one ‘twist machine or plain net machine’ in both West Leake and Sutton Bonington where Elizabeth was working in the 1850s:

Known locations of lace machines from the 1770s to 1850s in Derbyshire, Leicestershire & Nottinghamshire (via The Nottinghamshire Heritage Gateway).

By 1861 however, Nottinghamshire’s lace industry had shifted away from the kind of small-scale cottage industry which enabled women like Elizabeth to work from home to the more centralised factory system which survived well into the twentieth century. The Mills family would have faced a dilemma at this stage: either migrate to Nottingham where Elizabeth could perhaps retrain as a factory hand, or stay in Sutton Bonington and hope  John’s wages alone would be enough to sustain them. As a fifty three year old agricultural labourer John would have stood little chance of finding work in the city, therefore it is perhaps unsurprising that they chose the latter option. The 1861 census records that John was the only one still in paid employment, but by that time their twenty four year old son Reuben, also an agricultural labourer, had moved back home, and his wages would undoubtedly have helped with the family’s finances.

That year the family’s address was recorded as ‘5 Pitt House’, and in later census returns it appears as ‘Leake Pit House’ and ‘Leake Pit Cottages’. Although the building no longer exists it is possible to work out its location by examining contemporary Ordnance Survey maps of the area. The extract below from the 1883 edition clearly shows a small terrace or row of cottages with that name running parallel to Pithouse Lane, the road connecting Sutton Bonington with West Leake to the north. Its location on on the outskirts of both parishes could explain why some of the Mills boys were born in one parish but baptised in another.

1883 OS map showing of Pit House, as well as the Mills’s osier beds to the left of Pithouse Lane (via National Library of Scotland).

‘Pit House’, which was named after the cock pit it once incorporated, lives on as the name of the restaurant attached to the Star Inn. The Star is identified on the map above by the initials ‘P.H’ (public house) below and slightly to the right of the words ‘Pit House’. Today  it stands on the same site on the outskirts of West Leake and Sutton Bonington as it did when the Mills family lived just around the corner. It can also be clearly seen about seven minutes into a 1936 film about the activities of the Long Eaton Co-operative society available via the Media Archive for Central England website.

The Star Inn, home of the Pit House Restaurant named after the Millses’ former home (via The Star Inn West Leake).

Both John and Elizabeth lived surprisingly long lives given their humble socioeconomic backgrounds. Elizabeth was the first to go, finally succumbing to jaundice on 9 June 1885 aged seventy five. John followed six years later on 7 January 1892 at the age of eighty three. Although little is known of their final years, it seems likely the couple would have found life increasingly hard as a result of the Great Depression in British agriculture, which began in about 1873 and would continue well into the 1890s. Increased competition from America had led to a steep fall in the price of grain from which British farming has never truly recovered, and consequently this period saw both a fall in the living standards of rural workers and a wave of migration from to countryside into the towns and cities. Although John and Elizabeth were not part of this wave, a number of their children were. In the next post I will focus on this next generation of Millses, and in particular my grandmother’s great-grandfather, Reuben.


Mason, Sheila A. “Lace”. Nottinghamshire Heritage Gateway. 2013. Accessed 9 December, 2016. http://www.nottsheritagegateway.org.uk/themes/lace.htm.

Textile Research Centre. “Lace Runner”. Textile Research Centre. 2016. Accessed 9 December, 2016. http://www.trc-leiden.nl/trc-needles/index.php/component/k2/item/10234-lace-runner.

Going through the Mills (part 1)

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.

* * *

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.

Nottinghamshire map
‘Mills Country’. Detail from J. and C. Walker’s 1836 map of Nottinghamshire showing Bunny, East Leake, Gotham, Kegworth, Sutton Bonington, West Leake, and other villages where the Mills family lived. Source: Nottinghamshire History.

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.

The Basket
Plaque in West Leake commemorating The Basket, the Mills family’s alehouse and basket making workshop. Interestingly the plaque suggests it was originally opened by William’s younger brother Edward before William took it over sometime before the 1841 census (via Peter’s Pursuits).

* * *

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
Agricultural workers c. 1814, from George Walker’s The Costume of Yorkshire (via MaggieBlanck.com).

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.