Skip Navigation

Welcome to Bedford Borough Council

Home > Community Histories > Oakley > Oakley Mill

Oakley Mill

The old Mill Bridge September 2011
The old Mill Bridge September 2011

The Bedfordshire Historic Environment Record [HER] contains information on the county’s historic buildings and landscapes and summaries of each entry can now be found online as part of the Heritage Gateway website. The entry for Oakley Mill [HER 1320] reads: “The site of a mill mentioned in the Domesday Survey and still present in the late 18th century, marked on a map of 1795. The position of the mill is apparent on Bryant's map of 1826, marked by a weir and sluices, which were destroyed by new river works in 1973. Some remains of the millrace and foundations may survive".

The mill stood on the north bank of the River Great Ouse immediately west of the first arch of Oakley Bridges as one travels south towards Bromham; this arch is all that remains of a foot bridge leading from the mill over the river which was widened in 1812-1813 in expectation of the new five arch bridge completed by the Duke of Bedford in 1815.

Domesday Book of 1086 states that the mill lay in the manor of Robert de Tosny. It was worth twenty six shillings and two hundred eels. The mill continued to form part of the Manor of Oakley Reynes which was purchased by the Duke of Bedford in 1737 and it is from the Dukes’ ownership that the majority of our information on the mill comes. The first correspondence, between 1831 and 1833 dealt with a complete renovation.

The mill occurs in correspondence between two of the Duke’s officers, from T. Bennett to W. G. Adam. On 1st September 1831 [R3/3699] Bennett wrote: “Mr. Lowray sent me a Copy of Swansborough’s report on Oakley Mill. My opinion is decidedly to do away with the Mill altogether if it is to be kept at an Expense of £500 outlay. That the Meadows will be improved by doing away with the Mill, to the full value of the Mill, I never doubted, but I beg to differ from Mr. Anderson decidedly when he maintains they will be worth £200 a year more. Time will prove if he is correct. In the mean time, I think there can be no hesitation in doing away with the Mill”.

In March 1832 Bennett wrote [R3/3723]: “I am very glad Lord Tavistock is satisfied to adhere to the first resolution as regards Oakley Mill”. This resolution seems, despite the opinion in Bennett’s first letter, to repair the mill as in July 1832 Bennett wrote [R3/3731]: “I have written to Swansborough to know if he can come to Oakley this week”. On the 13th of the month he wrote [R3/3733]: “I have been with Mr. Swansborough to Oakley today, he appears to be satisfied with the practicability of retaining the Mill with the reduced Head of Water, he has gone minutely into the business and will report to you early next week, the only point it will now depend upon, is whether it is worth the expense, of which he will be able to give you a decided opinion”.

On 2nd August Bennett wrote [R3/3735]: “There are no Millwrights in this part of the World with anything. The better way is to leave Oakley Mill to Mr. Swansborough, he will send people to execute the Work, on whom he can depend, as he did at Crawley Clay Mill”. On 6th August he wrote [R3/3736]: “Hulatt says he will be able to pay an additional rent of £15 per annum for the outlay at Oakley Mill and as a great part of the reed bed will be done away, he thinks the loss of that with the increased Rent he will pay will be equal to £20 per annum advance on the Mill”.

On 3rd July 1833 Bennett wrote to Adam [R3/3764]: “I have looked over my papers relative to Oakley Mill and I think I have Copies of Swansborough’s reports, at least all of any consequence except that one in which he sent his Estimate of what he expected would be the Cost, which I perfectly remember on some occasion when with you to have read, but think I did not get a copy of it. I expect that the main thing that Lord Tavistock must depend on for the regulation of the Head of Water is the present Flood Gates and the Small Weir, which I will lower to the proper level. It was suggested to Mr. Swansborough (but whether by Palfreyman, Anderson or the Miller I do not know) that the present Gates and Weir should be done away altogether and in their place an overfall should be substituted, on rather a magnificent scale and to this Swansborough was rather inclined to, but on further consideration of the subject, I understood him to give it up and retain the present plan, until it was seen how it operated, without going to an expense which in all probability would be afterwards proved to be useless. Swansborough’s estimate of £117 must be for lowering and repairing the present Weir and Gates, that will, I expect, go a short way in carrying into effect Anderson’s plan and I am now more satisfied that he must not attempt it, at least till we have experience of the alteration because the Miller and other wise people at Willington told us and actually persuaded Swansborough that the Gates there would be of no use without the addition of an overfall. You will recollect this and it was agreed to ask Captain Polhill to join in the Expense. To which he agreed provided it was necessary and knew what the Cist would be. I have an estimate prepared according to Swansborough’s Instructions and the amount was something like £500 as I was aware this was a lot Captain P. was not likely to share in, even if the Duke had been willing, I wrote to Mr. S and proposed we should try one Winter flood before taking any further steps in the matter. The result is that the Miller and the tenants of the Willington Meadows are now perfectly satisfied that the Gates are quite sufficient without an overfall. There is certainly some trouble and attention required to see that the Gates are kept so as to regulate the Head of Water and if the Miller can get clear of that trouble, it does not heed him what it costs his Landlord. This is the truth and much annoyed he is, or was, when I told him a few days ago that I expected the Gates were to regulate the Head of Water”.

On 21st July Bennett wrote [R3/3766]: “I have been to Oakley on Thursday which was the only day I had last week. The Millwright is getting on very well and I wrote to Lord Tavistock to tell him so and also to explain to His Lordship that as none of us yet can tell what practical effect upon the Water the result of the present Works may have, I proposed not to incur the Expense of a New Waterfall until we see that it is actually necessary and if after the experience of the Winter Floods we find it is requisite, it is but then to do it. I am the more confident of this because by the power the Miller will now have of raising and falling his Wheel according to the State of the River, an immense body of Water will at all times pass at the Mill which did not before and then we have the original Waste Gates and overfall, which I have given the necessary directions in order to reduce to the proper level. I have just been with the Duke and His Grace says he had heard from Lord Tavistock since I wrote and that His Lordship is perfectly satisfied with this explanation”.

On August 14th Bennett wrote [R3/3770]: “Hulatt the Miller at Oakley wishes us to give him more Room in his Mill, he was always sadly cramped, and the New Machinery takes up still more than the old, he therefore wishes us to carry into effect the addition suggested by Mr. Swansborough to make him Floor Room over the Water Wheel (which we have to cover in at any Rate). As the same Roof will do, the addition is the Extreme Height of the Water (which also must be stronger then if only a Roof to carry) and the Flooring, the difference in Cost between what we must do and this addition will be £90 and £20 that we must do, in all £120 [sic]. The additional Building was not taken into account by Mr. Swansborough, as he and I both thought the Miller might possibly be able to do without it and he can still do without it by hiring a Room at Bedford to hold his Flour, as all his Stuff goes there when manufactured. But one reason makes it desirable that when we are about it we should make the thing complete ,is, that an outbuilding used as a Granary is in so dilapidated a State that it will cost in the course of 2 or 3 years £50 to renew it. The additional Room in the Mill will be amply sufficient for all the Miller’s purposes. We shall be able to do something with the old Granary and Hulatt is willing to pay us, in addition to his Rent, what he would have to pay at Bedford. Therefore, taking all matters into consideration, if you approve, I think we better do it when about it. I will wait till I hear. This dry Weather has been very favourable to us and all the Work, which would be effective by the Floods, is nearly complete, at least will be within a Week. Do you know whether Mr. Wing had an opportunity to know from Mr. Swansborough who he would have named to value the Work done by Cox because if Mr. S. did not name a person we must think of one as it will be desirable that as soon as Cox finishes his Work and the Mill is fairly set a-going, that the Amount he will have to receive should be ascertained for both parties. I have advanced him £60 to pay his Workmen”.

The eastern side of the old Mill Bridge September 2011
The eastern side of the old Mill Bridge September 2011

On 20th August Bennett wrote [R3/3772]: “Cox says that when Mr. Swansborough gave him his final Instructions as to the work at Oakley Mill, they entered into some calculations as to the probable Cost of the Work, but as he expected to find more to do when the old Machinery was pulled down than either he or Mr. S could tell from the examinations they had made, no precise Sum was stated what he was to receive for his Work. I therefore told him that when his Work is quite completed to make out his Account and that we would employ a competent person to inspect the Work and to see that his Charges were fair and Just and that if anything was to the contrary then both parties would abide by the decision and valuation of the Work by one or two Men as may be afterwards agreed upon. To this he had no objection and as Mr. Swansborough had a high opinion of him as a good and trusty Workman I do not anticipate his Charges will be more than he may be entitled to”.

Presumably Bennett was correct in his thinking as Oakley Mill disappears from estate correspondence for eight years, only returning on 30th March 1841 when Bennett wrote to Adam’s successor Charles Haedy and recapitulated the story so far [R3/4372]: “The Duke must have forgotten the circumstances relating to Oakley Mill. I advised it being entirely done away with, Mr. Adam approved of that, the late Duke gave immediate consent, Hulatt worked upon the present Duke’s feelings [he the Marquess of Tavistock in the correspondence of the 1830s] in the same way that Boston did a few years afterwards about his farm, both the Two were seconded by Palfreyman and they carried their point. At the time the Mill was repaired the Miller had a Barn and yard in the Park and opening into the Road between the Mill and the Church. After the Mill was repaired the Duke, in making alterations in his Park, required the Miller’s Buildings to be removed and there was no other place for them to stand upon except where they now do. Thus you will see the whole expense and annoyance now complained of had its origin in the giving way to the man’s lamentations and having obtained all he asked for he has ever since done just as he liked. As to the improvident expenditure in the Buildings I suppose I must bear the blame of it but, although we must not say so, I had difficult Cards to manage in consequence of the strong Influence in Oakley House, which was so often brought to bear against what both Mr. Adam and myself thought was right, and in all such cases Mr. Adam advised yielding with the best grace possible and to make the best of such things. I was always of one and the same opinion that in every point of view the decision as to keeping up the Mill was wrong and all the consequences that have followed (excepting the Smell) was anticipated.

On 18th April Bennett wrote [R3/4381]: “Having so recently expended so much money upon Oakley Mill I cannot now advise it being done away with, neither can I recommend the Duke to taking it into his own hands, I think a good Tenant is to be got to occupy the Mill without its being any nuisance. The Trade of a Miller is particularly a clean one and no one but the man now there could think of being so offensive [this presumably relates to the smell mentioned in the previous letter, the mill may have been used for grinding up animal bone or other material for fertiliser]. There is a scheme on foot now for making cake for feeding Cattle and Sheep made with Barley Meal and Linseed Oil, as a substitute for Oil Cake. Some man has taken out a patent for it and I think the plan is feasible if this trade can be engrafted to that of Miller. I think the situation likely to answer and that it would be worth encouragement from the Duke or any Landowner because I think the example of the Total Abstinence people or tea totallers is having and will have a wonderful effect upon the habits of the people and if they do not spend their money on Beer they will want to buy more solid food than they now get. If this should prove so then the farmers must look for another market for their Barley and the increased consumption of Animal food will create a greater demand for Beef and Mutton. I have had an application from a highly respectable man for the Mill, he would have no objection to enter with this business as well as Miller provided he ran no great risk. If upon further enquiry the cake made is likely to be useful there is no difficulty in getting eight or ten influential farmers to take shares in the Concern and this man would undertake the management of it and take a share in the risk as well”.

On 2nd May Bennett wrote [R3/4391]: “Although the old Mill at Oakley is not substantial enough for a Cake Mill I do not expect it requires a more substantial Building than we should put up at Willington for a new Corn Mill. I would suggest that if the Cake Mill goes on, that His Grace should build the Mill and put in the Moving Power, that is the Water Wheel and pit wheel and that the Company should put up their own Machinery (just as a Brewer would fix his Plant) if the Manufacture did not succeed, then the Building would remain ready to work a Corn Mill off it. I do not know that I can give more particulars of Rogers the applicant for Oakley Mill than to say that he is young, active, sober, steady and industrious, as to his capital, he refers to Mr. Bassett, Leighton Bank in religious matters, he is a Protestant Dissenter [the Bassetts were Quakers] and for his politics, his father and family have been, and he is, constant supporters of the Whigs”.

The next letter, two days later, included the following [R3/4392]: “Mr. Rogers lives at Leighton just now – his father is in the Flour and Corn Trade, the young man has been in business at Stony Stratford, where he hired a Mill with little or no trade at a low rent. By exertion he found a good trade and then his landlord advanced his Rent and, as he would not agree to it, he lost the Mill, he is now doing a little in the Corn Trade until he gets another Mill”.

On 28th June Bennett wrote [R3/4402]. “When I last saw the Duke, His Grace told me that Blanchett had a Daughter married to a Miller and that if he was a fit person for Oakley Mill, His Grace would like to him to have it. I had not an opportunity to enquire as to the Young man’s abilities until a few days ago and on Saturday I saw Blanchett and his Son in Law, Peacock. They tell me that Peacock’s father will give him £500 and be responsible for the Rent and will also advance more Capital if the business increases but this will do nothing either for the Mill or the Tenant, it is Capital that is required first of all to make a trade and with £500 only to commence the young man will have a poor chance to make a trade. Neither do I think he has had experience enough, at least he has a very youthful appearance, and he has never been in a Mill where a good business has been carried on. I hope I have not tired out Rogers’ patience in keeping him waiting so long, but the delay arose from my wish to learn something of this young Peacock from disinterested parties and as he and his family live at Kimbolton I could not till now find all that I wanted to know. Rogers if by far the most eligible both in point of Capital and Experience and when you can see the Duke upon this I should like to give him a definite Answer as soon now as possible”.

Clearly Bennett’s recommendation was successful as his name appears in trade directories, which were not published annually but every few years; those for 1854 and 1862 give the name of the tenants of Charles Rogers as miller at Oakley. After this date there are no further references to the mill. There was a further proposal to do away with the mill in 1860 [R4/190] and so it seems as if the mill was, indeed, demolished during that decade.

The western side of the arch of the old Mill Bridge September 2011
The western side of the arch of the old Mill Bridge September 2011