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).

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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.

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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.

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Since at least the mid-Eighteenth Century, the Mills family had lived in and around the cluster of small parishes between the East Midlands market towns of Nottingham, Derby and Loughborough. Here in the valley of the river Soar near where the borders of Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire converge, they toiled in the fields for centuries, rarely venturing far from their ancestral homeland and quietly passing on their skills and knowledge from one generation to the next. Their story, unlike that of Frederick England’s ancestors, is one which retained a predominantly rural character until quite recently, and it therefore provides a glimpse of a different way of life to any I have looked at so far.

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).

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Robert and Mary’s third son Robert Mills Jr. is my first Mills ancestor whose life can be traced in any detail, as unlike his father he survived long enough to be recorded in the census. At the age of twenty one he married a woman named Elizabeth Milner (b. c. 1783) on 17 November 1805 in her home village of East Leake, and over the next two decades they had the following seven children together:

  • William (bap. 1 June 1806, West Leake, Nottinghamshire – d. 1 May 1887, West Leake, Nottinghamshire)
  • John (b. c. December 1808, West Leake, Nottinghamshire – d. 7 January 1892, West Leake, Nottinghamshire)
  • Mary (b. c. 1811)
  • Sarah (b. c. 1813, West Leake, Nottinghamshire – d. aft. 1891)
  • Thomas (b. c. 1815, West Leake, Nottinghamshire)
  • Joseph (b. c. 1818, West Leake, Nottinghamshire – d. 22 May 1894, Keyworth, Nottinghamshire)
  • Elizabeth (b. c. 1821, West Leake, Nottinghamshire)

In the censuses of 1841-1861 Robert Jr. and Elizabeth were shown living in West Leake, and in all of them Robert was listed as an agricultural labourer. Although this is the earliest available evidence of what Robert Jr. did for a living, a brief reference to him in the local press tells us he had been doing this almost all his working life. On 17 October 1856 the Loughborough Agricultural Association held their annual meeting at the King’s Head Inn, and among the prizes awarded was one for “the labourer who has been for the longest time a member of any benefit or sick club, and of good character” (Leicester Journal, 24 October 1856, p. 6, col. 6). Robert, then seventy two, won second prize in the husbandry category for having been a member of the East Leake Old Sick Club for fifty years and eight months, meaning he must have been an agricultural labourer since at least 1806.

Agricultural labourers
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.