Going through the Mills (part 4)

This is the fourth in a series of posts about my maternal grandmother’s family, the Millses. This installment follows the lives of her grandfather George Mills and his siblings. For information on the preceding generation see Going through the Mills (part 3).

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Of the five children Reuben and Charlotte Mills had between 1862 and 1877, only three are known to have survived into adulthood. Their two daughters Ellen (b. c. 1865, Codnor, Derbyshire) and Elizabeth (b. c. 1870, Codnor, Derbyshire) appear on just one census each (1871 and 1881 respectively) suggesting they both died in childhood. Their second son however, William H. Mills (b. c. November 1866, Codnor, Derbyshire), appears in every census between 1871 and 1911, meaning we can say rather more about his life.

Aged fifteen William was recorded working as a farm servant at Ratcliffe-on-Soar in Nottinghamshire, the same occupation his father held as a young man. A report in The Grantham Journal however reveals that by 1888 William had moved to Saxby in Leicestershire, where he was employed as a cowman by a farmer named Mr. Rose (12 May 1888, p. 8, col. 8). The report in question was from the Melton Mowbray petty sessions, and recounted an incident where William was accused of stealing “two fronts and collars, and one shirt, valued 4 d, the property of John Ashwell, farm pupil” of the same household. During the trial it was argued there was no direct evidence of William’s guilt, and that there were in fact several others in the house who could have taken the items. In addition his parents Reuben and Charlotte said he “had been out to service eleven years, and had never been discharged from a situation…had always borne a good character and was a dutiful son”. Despite these protestations he was found guilty, fined “£1 and costs, or fourteen days’ imprisonment with hard labour”.

Whatever the truth behind the accusations, it is unsurprising to find that by the following census in 1891 William was recorded living back at home with his parents in Kegworth, Leicestershire, where he had taken on the slightly less prestigious role of an ‘agricultural labourer.’ By this time he also appears to have met and married his wife Elizabeth, but so far no marriage record has been uncovered and her original surname remains unknown. Ten years later, with his life seemingly back on track, the 1901 census shows William employed as a ‘stockman’ (cattle specialist) on a farm in Toton near Nottingham, where he and Elizabeth were living with their five children. By his final census appearance in 1911 however, he was back living in Kegworth and working as a plumber. The reasons for this rather abrupt career change in his forties may never be discerned but regardless, this is the final identifiable appearance of William in the historical record.

William’s younger brother John Thomas Mills (b. c. October 1877, Underwood, Nottinghamshire), Reuben and Charlotte’s youngest son, begun his working life as a ‘rod buffer’ in Kegworth according to the 1891 census. Quite what this occupation entailed is unclear, however it may have had something related to agricultural drainage. By 1901 however, John Thomas had found employment as a footman in the service of the wealthy Lancashire quarry and colliery owner William Brooks, Second Baron Crawshaw of Crawshaw Hall. As the household’s only footman he would have reported directly to the butler, and his work would have involved a mix of domestic duties such as waiting at table, attending the door, cleaning silver, and perhaps acting as a valet. A good contemporary description of a footman’s daily routine can be found in Mrs Beeton’sThe Book of Household Management(Beeton, 1907, 1764-1766).

Crawshaw Hall
Crawshaw Hall, Rawtenstall, c. 1880, where John Thomas Mills served as a footman to the wealthy quarry and colliery owner William Brooks in 1901 (via CrawshawHall.co.uk).

Valued highly as status symbols in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, footmen were often tall, good looking and athletic young men whose function was as ornamental as it was practical. Perhaps because of this, footmen were sometimes denied the respect they deserved. The master of the house would typically call all footmen by a generic name (e.g. ‘William’) to avoid having to learn a new name each time a man was hired. In addition, by the early 1900s domestic service was beginning to be seen as a somewhat ‘unmanly’ occupation due to the growing number of female household servants in the late Nineteenth Century (Lethbridge, 2013, 46-47). Despite this social stigma John Thomas continued working as a footman until at least 1911, when at the age of thirty four he was recorded living back in Kegworth in the employ of a local clergyman named Henry Major Stephenson.

The Rectory Kegworth
The Rectory at Kegworth, where John Thomas Mills was employed by the clergyman Henry Major Stephenson (via Fretwelliana).
Footman
Unidentified footman, c. 1905, wearing the distinctive livery of the period which indicated his status (via Servants’ Stories).

By the time he was thirty eight however, there is evidence John Thomas had left domestic service and had begun working as a labourer in Derby, where he lived at 97 Shaftesbury Crescent. This evidence comes from his army service record, which tells us that on 19 November 1915 he had enlisted as a private in the 16th Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment. The timing is especially poignant given that his mother Charlotte had died the previous day in Kegworth Union Workhouse, and his father Reuben, who he gave as his next-of-kin, would also be gone within four days.

His service record also attests that he was 5’5 1/2″ tall (average for the time, but relatively short for a footman), and that he had initially been relegated to the army reserve. On 19 March 1917 however he was mobilised and a week later was posted to Beaumarais in south-west Germany. Over next few months he was attached to a succession of different regiments, as the war’s rising death toll forced shrinking regiments to merge and reorganise. On 14 April he was transferred to the 25th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry (7th Labour Battalion), then on 30 April to the 4th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment (L Company), and then the Labour Corps on 14 May. A few days later, on 25 May he returned to his original regiment, the 16th (transport workers) Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment, and on 16 June was transferred one last time to the 1st Battalion of the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment.

The number and type of regiments to which John Thomas was assigned suggests he may have served mostly in non-combatant roles, providing labour to build and maintain the army’s transport and communications infrastructure when and wherever this was required. These roles, typically filled by older or less physically able recruits like John Thomas, were not without risks however. On 31 January 1918 he was diagnosed with ‘myalgia’, a form of chronic muscle pain, and was evacuated to England a few days later. According to his army pension record, his condition was attributed to his service, which entitled him to a 20% bonus to his weekly pension (total 5s 6d). His pension record also records his last known address as 3 Trenville Avenue, Fulham Road, Sparkhill, just south of Birmingham. He appears never to have married or had any children, and it is currently unknown when or where he died.

* * *

Like his younger brothers William and John Thomas, my great-great-grandfather George Mills was recorded in the 1881 census living at his parents’ home in Ratcliffe-on-Soar, Nottinghamshire. As we saw in the previous post, he was born at Langar Lodge on 9 April 1862, and had moved with his parents to Codnor, then Underwood. In the 1881 census he was listed as a farm servant, but by 1884 was working as an agricultural labourer in the nearby village of Kegworth, just over the Leicestershire border. This we know from his marriage certificate, which tells us that at the age of twenty one, on 10 March that year he married a local eighteen year old dressmaker named Frances “Fanny” Hardy Oldershaw (b. Frances Hardy, 4 June 1863, Kegworth, Leicestershire).

Curiously, although both were living in Kegworth at the time, their wedding is said to have taken place over twenty miles away in Langar, George’s Nottinghamshire birthplace. This inconvenient choice of wedding venue cannot be explained purely by a sentimental attachment to George’s place of birth, which he would have been too young to even remember. More likely it was chosen because it was a discreet distance away from both George or Fanny’s families. As Fanny was under twenty one at the time the couple would have required her parents’ permission to marry, and perhaps this was an attempt to get around that.

Is it possible to guess why her parents may have refused to support the marriage? A birth certificate for a girl named Minnie Hardy Oldershaw registered the previous year may provide a clue. This certificate confirms that on 12 July 1883 Fanny had given birth to a baby girl in Kegworth, eight months before her marriage to George. Perhaps when her pregnancy became public knowledge her parents shunned her and refused to have anything to do with the baby? As Fanny was unmarried at the time, no father’s name was recorded on her daughter’s birth certificate, but when Minnie sadly passed away from measles and capillary bronchitis on 25 November 1886 her father was named as ‘George Oldershaw’. This appears to be a false name given by George Mills, the informant, in an attempt to pass off Minnie as his legitimate daughter. Whether or not he had also been her biological father all along we can only speculate.

Tragedy was to strike the family twice in late 1886, for not only did they lose Minnie but also their second daughter, one-year-old Ellen Elizabeth Mills. Ellen’s cause of death has not yet been ascertained but it seems plausible she could have been carried off by the same measles outbreak which took her older sister. George and Fanny’s third child John George “Jack” Mills would have been just a few months old at the time, but fortunately he is known to have survived to adulthood, as did all six of his younger brothers and sisters. The Mills children were all born in Kegworth and grew up in the same family home near the hermitage at 17 Loughborough Road (later called London Road). Their names were:

  • Ellen Elizabeth (b. c. February 1885, Kegworth, Leicestershire – d. c. November 1886, Kegworth, Leiecestershire)
  • John George “Jack” (b. c. August 1886, Kegworth, Leicestershire – d. September 1963, Leicestershire)
  • Alfred William “Fred” (b. c. February 1888, Kegworth, Leicestershire)
  • Harry (b. c. November 1889, Kegworth, Leicestershire – d. c. February 1968, Heanor, Derbyshire)
  • Edith Ellen “Nell” (b. 8 February 1891, Kegworth, Leicestershire – d. 27 April 1960, 51 Holly Street, Lincoln, Lincolnshire)
  • Alice (b. c. May 1893, Kegworth, Leicestershire – d. 3 February 1961, Long Eaton, Derbyshire)
  • Frances Harriet (b. 22 April 1895, Kegworth, Leicestershire – d. c. February 1982, Ilkeston, Derbyshire)
  • Elizabeth Ann “Lizzie” (b. 9 December 1899, Kegworth, Leicestershire – d. 8 January 1979, Bilborough, Nottinghamshire)

The two photographs below from around 1888 and 1894 show Fanny with some of her and George’s children. In the first, she is shown with Jack and Fred in black clothing, which could have been mourning attire for her daughters Minnie and Ellen. Rather poignantly, the dresses her sons are shown wearing had probably belonged to their older sisters before being handed down to them (the tradition of dressing of young boys in dresses had always been one borne of economic necessity, rather than a conscious fashion choice). It is a posed, studio photograph, perhaps taken to commemorate Fred’s christening. The second more informal photograph was probably taken outside the family home and shows her with Jack, Nell, Alice, Fred, and my great-grandfather Harry Mills.

Jack, Fanny and Fred Mills (sepia)
L-R: Jack, Fanny, and Fred Mills, c. 1888. Courtesy of R. Watkins and T. Lang.
John, Edith Ellen, Fanny, Alice, Alfred and Harry Mills
L-R: Jack, Nell, Fanny, Alice, Fred, and Harry Mills, Kegworth, c. 1894. Courtesy of R. Watkins and T. Lang.

Throughout the 1880s and 1890s George had continued supporting the family working as an agricultural labourer, but by 1901 he had found employment at a plaster and cement mill works, most likely the one owned by the Winser family which stood over the river at the bottom of Mill Lane. The map below shows its location on the eastern edge of the village, as well as the Millses’ home on London Road to the south.

Kegworth 3
1901 6″ OS map of Kegworth (via National Library of Scotland).

By 1911 George was once again working as a farm labourer. At around this time, according to one of his descendants, he is said to have had his picture featured in a local newspaper after preventing a bank robbery. He was apparently on his way to fetch Dr. Bedford for his daughter Lizzie when he saw two men attempting to break into Westminster Bank. He quickly went off to find a policeman who lived nearby and the robbery was stopped in time. After all their children left home George and Fanny moved into in a house opposite the cinema on Derby Road, where they lived until Fanny’s death at the age of sixty seven on 26 August 1930. The official cause of death was a carcinoma of the liver, and her daughter Elizabeth was the informant.

Fanny and George Mills (sharper)
L-R: Unknown, Fanny Mills, unknown, George Mills, c. 1930. Image courtesy of R. Watkins and T. Lang.

Following his wife’s death, George moved in with his daughter Alice and her husband Thomas Alfred “Alvy” Wilmot, who are recorded living at 220 Tamworth Road, Long Eaton in the 1939 register. He remained in Long Eaton for the rest of his life, and his last known address was 16 Hawthorne Avenue. Two days before Christmas 1950, at the age of eighty eight he died in Shardlow hospital of broncho-pneumonia, cerebral thrombosis and a carcinoma of the rectum. He was buried alongside his wife Fanny in Kegworth Parish churchyard.

Alfred Wilmot and George Mills (sharper)
L-R: Alfred WilImage and George Mills, c. 1930. Image courtesy of R. Watkins and T. Lang.
George and Fanny Mills memorial
Memorial headstone of Fanny and George Mills, their daughter Elizabeth Ann and her husband Frederick Steel, Kegworth, c. 2010. Image courtesy of R. Watkins and T. Lang.

In the fifth and final post in this series we will look at what happened to George and Fanny’s children, before focusing specifically on my great-grandfather Harry, his wife Ruth Spencer, and my grandmother Julia Mary Mills.

Sources

Beeton, Isabella. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of household management : a guide to cookery in all branches, daily duties, mistress & servant, hostess & guest, marketing, trussing and carving, menu making, home doctor, sick nursing, the nursery, home lawyer. London: Ward, Lock & Co., 1907

Lethbridge, Lucy. Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.

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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.

nottingham-lace-running
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:

lace-making-locations
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.

pitt-house-map
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.

the-star
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.

Sources

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.

 Sources

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.