Part 3 – John Battams Whitworth and the great fire (1877 – 1885)
John Battams Whitworth (b. 1855)
Immediately upon taking over the management of the mill, John displayed a determination and an ability to succeed in his endeavours, as shown in one obituary which read “conspicuous for the success and enterprise he displayed in conducting his business and his readiness to adopt any new machinery which he saw would improve the quality of the flour manufactured in his mills”
Being given a corn mill to manage in the late 1870s might be seen as a poison chalice given the state of British farming and the price of corn at that time.
An overview of these Laws provides an insight into why the Whitworths entered and expanded their interests in farming and milling and the challenges now facing John. During the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815) the British used their sea power to blockade European ports, intending to isolate the Napoleonic Empire. Goods within Britain were protected from foreign competition and the price of goods, including wheat, rose considerably. Farming became very lucrative and farming land was traded very profitably. The nobility and large landowners were concerned that, following the end of the war, prices would decrease and so sought to introduce a law that protected farming from foreign competition.
Lord Liverpool’s Government introduced the Corn Law in 1815 which stated that foreign corn could not be imported into Britain unless the price of corn rose above 80 shillings a quarter. Thus, the price of corn was kept artificially high and led to an increase in the price of bread and riots in London.
Despite various attempts to repeal the law, as voting rights depended on land ownership, Parliament had a vested interest and no inclination to change the law. However, pressure continued, as most families spent the bulk of their income on food. They had little left to purchase the manufactured goods that were increasingly coming onto the market. Unemployment rose and so began a vicious circle of recession.
The first major change came in 1828, when the Duke of Wellington’s Government introduced a law allowing imports of corn but with an import tax on a sliding scale determined by the price of British corn. If British corn was at 73 shillings a quarter the tax would be one shilling, if the price of corn went as low as 52 shillings or less duty would be 34 shillings and 8 pence. The impact of the new law was negligible.
Pressure continued and voting reform in 1832 gave the right to vote to a large proportion of the merchant class, the very people who wanted lower prices for corn and greater opportunities for trading both home and abroad. A powerful Anti-Corn Law League was formed, with a strong social reform agenda, drawing membership from middle class merchants and manufacturers. This group was fundamental in persuading Robert Peel to change his opposition to reform and in 1846 the Corn Laws were repealed, it being ironic that Peel’s party did not support him but the opposition did.
For the next 20 years the price of corn was stable at about 52 shillings a quarter. However, by the 1870s the full impact of the Industrial Revolution began to impact on farming. Foreign competition increased significantly brought about by cheaper shipping (both sail and steam) , cheaper transportation by rail and steamboat, the modernisation of agricultural equipment and the development of prairie farming in North America which resulted in vast quantities of grain being imported into Britain. Most foreign counties increased their tariffs, Britain and Belgium were the exception. In 1877 the price of wheat averaged 56 shillings and 9 pence a quarter but for the rest of the century the price never rose higher than 46 shillings. Many farmers faced bankruptcy, including John Battams’s brother Charles Henry who had a mill in Newport Pagnell and over £13,000 of debts. In 1830, Britain imported just 2% of grain, by 1860 it had increased to 24% and in 1880 the figure stood at 45%.
It was into this financial climate that John Battams Whitworth started his milling career.
John immediately saw that Turvey Mill, which continued to be powered by water, needed modernisation. In 1879 he commissioned the Charter Building Design Partnership to make plans to add a new top floor to the mill and the other floors were refurbished.
The various Whitworth millers seemed to be plagued by fire, the destruction of the mill at St James, Northamptonshire on 14th July 1883 and owned by his third Cousin John Whitworth of Olney was the fifth mill owned by a Whitworth to be destroyed by fire in recent years, although all were covered by insurance.
The land at St James had been freehold. Turvey Mill was on a lease from Charles Longuet Higgins of Turvey Abbey. Nevertheless in 1884, showing great ambition and determination, he gained permission to build a new mill alongside the old one, but fitted out with the newest patent roller machinery, supplied by Messrs Childs and Son of Church Street, London which could be driven by either water or a steam engine of between 60 and 70 horsepower, supplied by Messrs Malby and Co. of Northampton. The new mill, which was five stories in height, was designed by the Charter Building Design Partnership20 and built by Clayson and Sharman of Cogenhoe, Northamptonshire at a cost of £1600. The most up to date new machinery was installed at a cost of £6000. Turvey Mill was, at that time, the largest mill in the region.
Once the new mill was built, the old one was converted into a warehouse storing flour and grain and the old machinery was kept intact to be used for cleaning and screening newly arrived wheat.
Friday 13th November 1885
During the daytime some 16 men were employed at the mill but overnight only two were on site. At the completion of work on the Friday, all was well with the mill having been in continuous operation for around 50 hours. At around 10.45 that evening, nightwatchman George Warren, aged 30, smelt burning in the old mill and called his colleague Renham from the new mill. They went to the first floor of the old mill which was used for wheat cleaning and found everything in order but as they moved to the upper floor they found it full of smoke and the woodwork at the head of an elevator and close to the stored wheat and corn was on fire, probably caused by friction. The flames soon reached the roof of the mill.
Seeing the intensity of the fire they withdrew and immediately raised the alarm in the village and sent word to Mr Whitworth who lived only 400 metres away in Cold Brayfield. He came immediately and instructed that messengers be sent to the Olney and Bedford Fire Brigades. Despite the best efforts of the villagers with their buckets of water the fire made its way rapidly down to the lower floors of the old mill. The little hand engine owned by the village and stored in the Pound in May Road quickly arrived but it did not have enough power to deal with the inferno. Some one and a half hours after the initial alarm the Olney Fire Brigade arrived to find the whole of the old mill in flames and that any attempt to save the building would be useless.
Attention turned to ensuring that the new mill was safe. Knowing of the considerable danger of fire in mills, John Whitworth had insisted that great attention be given, in the design of the new mill, to ways that prevented fires starting and spreading. However, one thing had been overlooked. The roof of the new mill overlapped the roof of the old mill by 50 cm and when the fire from the roof of the latter was at its greatest the flames crept under the former and set that alight.
The fire swiftly moved across the roof of the new mill and little could be done by the Olney Brigade. The building was five stories high and their hoses could not reach, nor did they have long enough ladders. They could only watch as the fire made its way across the top floors and then downwards. By the time the Bedford Fire Brigade arrived, some two and a half hours after the alarm was raised, the new mill was entirely enveloped by flames and all the brigades could do was play water onto the burning mass. The fire continued to gain hold and the booming noise of the collapsing floors and machinery could be heard.
Immense showers of sparks rose in the air and began to drift over the village aided by the wind. People living on Bridge Street began to gather carts and load them with their belongings expecting the fire to move to the Three Fishes Inn and then down Bridge Street. Those with thatch roofs went aloft with buckets of water to dampen their thatch and young boys gathered on the bridge to watch the conflagration.
The fire had destroyed both buildings, leaving just the external walls. The heat had been so fierce that the massive machinery was twisted and turned into unrecognisable shapes being well beyond repair. Luckily the fire did not reach the large steam engine room or chimney which was all that remained. There was no damage to any of the buildings in the village and no casualties.
The total damage was estimated at £10,000 with the premises insured with a variety of fire insurance companies which was to cause additional challenges.
The principal loss though was the business and the jobs of the 16 men employed at the mill, most of them being married with families. At this point a man of lesser determination might have decided that enough was enough, but with the help of his wider family in the trade and friends John Battams was able to pay off his debts, negotiate the insurance settlements and then consider what to do next.
A New Beginning
Even though the mill at Turvey had been in operation for only a short time, John could see, even with the current price of wheat, that a large modern mill could be made profitable, particularly if it had easy access to the railway. However, there remained the issue of the burnt down property in Turvey which was on a lease. The two parties, John Battams Whitworth and Henry Longuet Higgins could not agree on a settlement and had eventually to go to arbitration which John won. In the meantime, John set about researching the latest ideas and machinery that he wanted to install in the new building. Once he had settled on this and knew the size of building required, he worked with the architects Usher and Anthony of St. Paul’s Square Bedford to design the new mill on land he had bought in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire next to the River Nene and by the railway line.
In 1886, John Battams together with his younger brothers Herbert William (1868 – 1942) and Newton Thomas (1869 – 1929) formed the Whitworth Brothers Company. By May 1886 financial issues in Turvey had been settled, the design was complete, plans and adverts placed for a building contractor. Mr Henson of Wellingborough secured the contract and construction began on the Victoria Mill in the autumn of that year 21 22
John Battams remained a bachelor all his life. Initially the brothers lived in lodgings and in 1901 John can be found living with his brother Newton and his family. The business grew and John became a significant figure in the life of Wellingborough, holding many important public offices. He became known as the Squire of Wellingborough and his benefactions to the town included St Andrew’s Mission Hall.
John Battams died on 15th August 1945, aged 91, at his home, Croyland Hall, Wellingborough, his estate being valued at £72, 596. He was buried at the Wellingborough Parish Church on Saturday 18th August 1945.
20. Bedfordshire Archives Service CDE 148
21. Milling News December 2019. Milling Journals of the past at the Mills Archive. Mildred Cookson.
22. The building was impressive and dominated the Wellingborough skyline. It consisted of two sections, a five storey high warehouse and a four storey high machine room. In addition, there was stabling for 10 horses as well as coach houses and offices. The machine plant came from Messrs Thomas Robinson & Son of Rochdale and the 150 horse-power steam engines from Messrs Pollitt & Wizgell of Sowerby Bridge, Yorkshire. A major innovation was electric lighting in the form of Edison’s Swan Incandescent Electric Light from Messrs F. Christy & Son and Norris of Chelmsford.
Given his previous experience with fire, it was not surprising that considerable attention was given to ways in which fire could be prevented and controlled. Wherever possible metal was used rather than wood and large iron fireproof doors were installed between parts of the building. However, the most innovative precaution was the recently invented Automated Sprinkler System installed by Messrs Merryweather & Sons of London who had a 7000 gallon water tank installed on the roof. Regular fire drills were also implemented.