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William Mitchell (c 1800 - c1863) and other PAPERMAKERS

William Mitchell (c 1800 - c1863) and Other Papermakers 

This biography started out as the story of papermaker, William Mitchell, but like others before me, I soon became embroiled in the complex history of the various mills along the Nene boundary of the Ringstead Parish. The 1835 and 1871 Ordnance Survey maps show on the Nene, working from the south, a mill at Cotton near the station, a Paper Mill due west of Ringstead, and Woodford Mill between Woodford and Denford. There is also a windmill SSW of Ringstead in Ringstead Field.

So far, all is reasonably clear but the mills are, at times, called by the same name and tenants come and go, sometimes hopping from one mill to the other. Finally the usages of the mills also changes. So what started out as a brief history of a man has become also a short and rather confused history of two of the mills

Woodford Bottom Mill also known as Allen's Mill was used in the nineteenth century by the Hill family until about 1863 when Samuel Allen took over the premises. This was later demolished and as it is not, even in part, in the Ringstead parish it has been omitted from the story.

Woodford Upper Mill is the same as Willy Watt Mill which is also sometimes called Willett’s Mill, Ringstead Mill and it is still there. This must be the Paper Mill on the maps (by the position). Although it is in Woodford parish some to the millrace is in Ringstead Parish and it is nearer to Ringstead village than Woodford. 

Finally there is Cotton Mill (or also Ringstead Mill) which was also used for paper production.

To avoid confusion I will use the names Willy Watt Mill and Cotton Mill wherever possible 


My first sight the water mills of Ringstead came from a strange source. The website The Exeter Working Papers in Book History lists historical insurance policies taken out by people in the book and paper trade. There are three references to a Francis Tidbury. One for 1782 for £600 has the address as “Willett Mill, Ringstead –papermaker. Also Miller”. 1783 is similar but for only £400 but 1785/6 is for £1700 and has the address as Cotton House. This poses questions to be answered. Did he mill corn and make paper in the same mill, perhaps according to the time of year or did he have two mills. Also did he move in 1784 to new larger premises or did he invest in new machinery?

Googling idly, seeing if I could find anything on Cotton Paper Mill I came across a site which had extracts from a book on Jane Austen’s letters It lists the watermarks on letters written by one of England’s most famous novelists who would have been writing in the last decade of the eighteenth century and the first two of the nineteenth. It includes in the list:

            John Hall, Cotton Mill, Ringstead, Northamptonshire 

It seems that Ringstead was producing good quality writing paper which was sold to clients far away from Northamptonshire. Perhaps we need to revise our preconception of a little cottage industry in a backwater of the Nene. It may help if we first we look very briefly at the craft of papermaking and its gradual but accelerating industrialisation during this time. 

Paper is a commodity that we now take for granted. With newspapers, magazines, computer printouts, books, advertising leaflets, bags, wrapping paper, bills letters, envelopes, banknotes, till receipts, wallpaper, toilet and kitchen rolls, disposable nappies etc etc etc we now use more paper in a week than our ancestors would use in a lifetime. When we remember how John Clare, the Northamptonshire poet, had to use scraps of paper such as the backs of bills or envelope in order to write we see how the access to paper has changed. For many centuries and well into the nineteenth century paper was made almost entirely from rags and it was the speeding up of the process of pulverising these rags by mechanisation that first changed the trade. Also high taxation on paper and even higher duty on imported paper kept its product out of the reach of ordinary people but these were gradually relaxed and finally abolished. It was only as the century progressed that paper could be produced on continuous paper rolls so it was for many years labour-intensive.

In 1800 there were a little over 400 paper mills licensed by the Excise authorities, mostly driven by waterpower and small in scale. These mills took in rags and originally the colour of the rags determined the colour of the paper. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century the only bleaching was by sunlight and by sprinkling with sour milk. One can only imagine the smell. They were steeped in water for weeks and then pulverised by a machine called a “Hollander” before being laid onto wire screens and then put to dry into sheets of paper. This was a slow process taking some three months between the rags arriving at the mill and the finished paper leaving it The rags had to be sorted and graded which was an unpleasant job because different rags gave different grades of paper and a mixture would  end up uneven and blobby. Also at first only white rags produced white paper. 

The paper was made by a man dipping an oblong, divided, wooden frame with a fine wire screen backing into a tub of pulverised fibre and water. He would swish it around and take it out so that he had left a thin layer of fibres laid on the screen. The mixture in the tub would get thinner so he had to adjust accordingly. The size of the paper was limited by the distance a man's arms could stretch. In 1816 it was calculated that it was a day’s work for three men to make 4000 small sheets of paper. This was after all the initial processing of the fibres. The amount of paper produced in the United Kingdom increased nearly five times in the forty years after 1820 and quicker mechanised paper production, printing and transport made it become affordable to an ever increasing circle of society. 

Of course, as in many industries, the industrialisation and cheaper prices tended to concentrate production into larger factories and the smaller mills, such as those at Ringstead, struggled to survive. The new railways could bring cheap, good quality paper to the village, whether blue for the grocers to wrap the sugar in or white for the letters to go by the penny post.

When we look in more detail at the mills along the Nene we find that there was a history of paper making which lasted at least a century. As I have said, we shall have to consider both mills in order to get a clear idea of how the story unfolded for William.

Looking at Willy Watt first, there has been a mill on the site for over a thousand years. In the Domesday Book it states that (in translation)

                In WOODFORD Roger holds 7 hides from the Abbot.

                Land for 12 ploughs. In lordship 2½ ploughs; 4 slaves 

                12 villagers, 3 smallholders and 12 Freemen with 9½ ploughs.

                A mill at 2s; meadow 20 acres ……….

It was used for fulling cloth in the early eighteenth century. Before the Hollander was invented for mashing up the cloth for paper manufacture a system of water operated wooden hammers were used and it would not be difficult to alter the fulling hammers for this process. A little earlier, in 1742, Henry Shuttleworth had married Catherine Bletsoe. She was the only child of Charles Bletsoe of Great Bowden. By the marriage, the couple had six water mills and one windmill (probably at Ringstead).

It was in 1765 that Francis Tidbury, who we first met via the internet obtaining his insurance, started making paper. He was married to Susanna and there is a floor slab in the tower of Ringstead Parish Church which has the epitaph:

In memory of SUSSANNA TIDBURY wife of FRANCIS TIDBURY who departed this life Nov’r ye 2d 1791. Aged 52 years

Francis remarried Keziah Loveday (Loveden in the record) on 4th April 1793. Unlike most of the tenants of the mills, Francis was a well-to-do man who also owned a mill at Southwick. He lived in Cotton House and, at his death, in 1814, his estate was estimated as worth £3,500.

His widow Keziah Tidbury, took over Willy Watt but within two years she was bankrupt and one son became a baker in Raunds and another a farm labourer in Woodford. This was not the last time that comparatively well-off families were brought low by the mills. Then James Fernelly (various spellings) took over the mill for paper production.

The earlier history of Cotton or Ringstead Mill is not yet so clear and it is not until 1814 that I have found the name of a tenant, although we do know that the Shuttleworths owned both mills from the middle of the previous century.

We have mentioned John Hall of Cotton Mill whose paper was used by Jane Austen. The Morgan Library and Museum in the USA has a collection of 51 of the surviving 160 Jane Austen letters (it is estimated that she wrote some 3000). It has put online the watermarks of the paper used and they have John Hall and also have the date of 1814 as part of the mark. Whether this was the date that he started business in Cotton Mill or if he changed his mark each year, I am not certain. It does show, however, that he was making paper in Cotton Mill at this date.

The next glimpse of a tenant comes from a number of bills and letters that have been preserved which relate to the repairs carried out and not paid for at "Mrs. Bull's Mill" in 1829. In one of the bills it also refers to it as "Ringstead Paper Mill" The letters involve a John Fisher of Woodford, who appears to be the brother of Sarah Bull, for he pleads on her behalf to the agent of Mr Shuttleworth, the owner, not to expect her to pay the cost of some other associated repairs. I have tried to transcribe it as faithfully as possible.


The consult [import?] of my letter his to in form you that i have paid George Willson one pound in account on the 17th of October has he was so bad in wants of the money 

He continues later in the letter

I ham showing you the diferent expence i consider it will be verry hard for my sister to pay in [?] to the whole amount. i shall take it a faviour if you will do what you can for my sister. i hope Mr Shuttleworth will be at the expence of a new [pit?] well has the hold one will not last long.

The repairs carried out must have been quite extensive because the bill came to £127.13s.11d and included bricks, lime, wood and iron and oak, as well as the services of a mason, millwright, plumber, blacksmith and sawyer. There also appears an amount of £2 16s for beer from Mrs Allen and five shillings to repay him because he, "Gave men drink by way of encouragement."

John Fisher seems to have acted as the building supervisor for his sister and the slow payment by Shuttleworth gave him some difficulty. The millwrights sent him a threatening letter on 27th November 1829.


As our money is been due this 3 months wee think it is time it was paid and as you was our employer wee shall look to you to pay us. If you don't pay us or cause us to be paid between now and next Friday wee must see further about it As we had plenty of trouble About it

Geo. John and Wm. Wilson

The years from 1829 to 1841 produce a large amount of documentary evidence, which although still sometimes confusing, does begin to give us some picture of the two mills. It is here that we first encounter William Mitchell, whose paper making activities straddled both mills but apparently, with no more success than most other tenants.

On 12th July 1840 William Mitchell wrote and signed a "Declaration", although the language suggests that it was drawn up by a solicitor or J.P.. it was probably made to help the Shuttleworth family prove ownership ready for the Enclosure of Ringstead when all the parish was surveyed and allocated to specific individuals (and, more directly, for a sale to George Capron who bought up much of the land in the area).

In this Declaration, William states that he hired, of Nathaniel Shuttleworth, Willy Watt Mill from midsummer 1830 until midsummer 1834. He also records that it had previously been hired by Francis Tidbury and, on his death, by his widow Keziah Tidbury (although she may have had "undertenants"). James Fernley (Fernelly) then took it over. All had used it as a paper mill. After William quitted in 1834 it was lived in by Henry Shuttleworth Bellamy for a year before being succeeded by George Ivens, although the rent was paid by his brother William who farmed some adjacent land.

At about this time (1835-6) part of Willy Watt was turned into a bone mill. These mills were used to render down the bones from local slaughterhouses (and perhaps whale bones from the blubber factory in Kings Lynn). The bones were boiled down to make them brittle and to remove the fat, which was used as grease on carts etc. They were then broken into small pieces by hand, or by feeding them through a toothed cylinder. Finally they were ground into a fine powder by millstones powered by the water wheel. At Narborough Bone Mill, in Norfolk, human bones from cemeteries in Hamburg in Germany were shipped to Kings Lynn for use in the Mill. I am not sure if any came up the Nene to Ringstead. The fine bonemeal was, and still is, a valuable fertilizer but perhaps the cycle is not so complete.

In the month following William Mitchell's Declaration, George Ivens drowned in the Nene while looking for his brother's horse. He left a wife and eight children. The Nene, even more than today often claimed victims both from accidental drownings and from suicides. In the story of John Ball, the quarry workman, Bill Warren told of the barn in Denford where the bodies were taken on hurdles when found in the Nene. A son of one of the Twentieth Century owners of Willy Watt Mill tells that in the 1930s, during the Depression years, that, on his way to school in the mornings, he would look out for bodies washed down the river. He got 7s 6d for every body that he reported to the police.

After George Ivens' tragic death, John Smith, a coal and timber merchant from Northampton, took over the lease and continued with the bonemeal production, which he sold from his riverside wharves in Stanwick, Irthlingborough and Wellingborough.

Returning to Cotton Mill, Pigots’s Directory of Cambs, Hunts and Northants 1830 list two papermakers for the area, James Fernelly for Woodford Mill and Sarah Bull for Ringstead Mill. From the parish records we can deduce that Sarah was the wife of John Bull, and their children’s baptisms are recorded. The earlier ones are in the Ringstead Parish Register but the younger children are baptised in the Ringstead Particular Baptist Register. We see that, by 1830, Sarah was a widow and trying to carry on the family papermaking business.

By 1835 Sarah had left Cotton Mill, which was then taken over by William Mitchell, and by 1841 she is acting as a nurse for Eliza, wife of Henry Hill, who has two young children. Eliza is the right age to be Sarah’s daughter (born 28th October 1817) but this still has to be further researched.

It is here that other documents clarify the position a little more. If we look in the Apportionment of Rent Charge in lieu of Tithes in the Parish of Ringstead (24 October 1838),we see that in Cotton there are 5 acres of grass owned by Henry Shuttleworth but occupied by William Mitchell and a little further down it talks of:

A certain mill called Cotton Mill of which Henry Shuttleworth is owner and also payed a Modus (?) of customary payment of six shillings and eight pence yearly in lieu of Tithes payable to the said Rector...

Soon after, in 1841, Ringstead was finally "Enclosed" and all those who felt they had an interest in the land to be enclosed had to submit claims. We will look at this when we tell the stories of some of the agricultural labourers but there is one claim that is worth looking at here. A George Capron who was a London solicitor who bought up large areas of the land at this time, and also in 1841 bought Southwick Hall near Peterborough, put in a claim for:

A water mill and offices and a windmill

A paper mill with dwelling house and offices and Mill Holliner [Hollander?] near or adjoining / Mitchel tenant

Mill Cotton Close / Mitchel tenant

Holiner [Hollander?] and meadow adjoining Lower Mill in the occupation of William Ivens.

It still leaves open whether the paper mill was adjoining the corn mill, or a separate mill, although it implies the latter, it does make clear that William Mitchell was only the tenant, who, among other things, was a papermaker.

Below is the Inclosure Award map of 1840. Woodford or Willy Watt Mill is the small mark right at the top of the map where the straight yellow road crosses the larger island. (Cotton Mill is shown as award 129).


Part of the Inclosure Award Map 1840 (ML 1550 NRO)

With the kind permission of Northampton Record Office) 

In the Inclosure Schedule of Estates it again lists George Capron as owning various estates previously owned by Shuttleworth which includes 3 islands a (river) bank area, Cotton orchard and homestead and a "Water Corn and Paper Mill" comprising 3 roods. Looking at the Inclosure map and the numbering it is clear that this refers to Cotton Mill.

I thought that I was beginning to clarify the usage of the two mills until I made another visit to the Northamptonshire Record Office. I read through a Draft Schedule of Land at Ringstead [C(S)82] which appears to be listing premises for a future sale, giving the rents payable and various acreages. Unfortunately there is no date but it appears to be around 1840.

It includes:

The Royalty or Sole Fishery in the River Nene, otherwise Nen, on both sides of the River from a certain stone called the Red Stone in Raunds Meadow to the Mills called Willywatt Mills in the Parish of Woodford.

The Fishery at per annum      £5. 15s  0d

There is also the, Right of cutting Rushes in the said river at £3 3s 0d per annum. More importantly for our present story are two toher entries:

All the Messuage now divided into two Tenements with the Water Paper Mill, Closes, Lands and Premises situate and being at Ringstead Cotton at present therewith let, in the lane of Great Addington within the county of the tenure or occupation of William Mitchell.

......Also that Bone Mill situate and being at Ringstead Cotton aforesaid now in the occupation of John Smith.

This seems to prove that the Bone Mill was not at Willy Watt but was at Cotton Mill (or both!). Certainly the  reference to the Bridge over Mr Mitchell's Mill Head which we will look at in the 1835-6 repairs makes more sense if the Bone Mill is at Cotton.

Returning to William Mitchell, the Northampton Mercury for 20th January 1844 reports that he is prosecuted for trying to evade the excise duty on paper. As we have said there was a heavy duty on paper and the paper was watermarked, and put into wrappers which were stamped as duty was paid. Three charges were brought against William but he seems to have had a smart lawyer who argued successfully that two of them should be dropped for technical reasons. The nub of the case against him was that: 

“A ream of paper was found on the premises of Mr T. O. Beale of Wellingborough which had been permitted to Northampton twelve months ago. The grounds of the suspicion were that the defendant had got possession of an old wrapper and re-filled it and sent it out again, thereby evading the duty.”

William’s lawyer tried another technical challenge without success. He then called Thomas Beale who told the court that Mitchell would sometimes make up his order with paper that he would fetch from Northampton, if he did not have enough of his own manufacture. This was perhaps the way the wrapper had come to be there. The Bench, however, found William guilty and fined him £25 which was a large sum of money. It is difficult to compare with today’s world because average incomes have increased so much faster than prices, but, according to the National Archives “Currency Converter”, in 1840, £25 would buy about 120 days of a craftsman’s time (in the building trade) or 37 stones of wool or 12 quarters of wheat or 4 cows or 1 horse.

From the evidence we have, it is in Cotton Mill not Willy Watt Mill that William is producing paper in 1844. We have noted that Pigots Directory of 1830 gives two paper makers: James Fernelly at Woodford Mill and Sarah Bull at Ringstead (Cotton) Mill. We know, therefore that there were times when papermaking was carried out at both mills simultaneously.

The bills also, sometimes refer to it as a paper mill. It seems probable that William Mitchell left Willy Watt in 1834 and took over Cotton Mill for papermaking from Sarah Bull and her son Enos. Meanwhile Willy Watt (or part of it) became a bone mill. There was a long list of work done to "Ringstead Flour Mill" by Edward Button in 1835-6 for H Shuttleworth Esq. These repairs were again extensive and include work "on Mr Iven's house and Bone Mill," "a bridge over Mr Mitchell's Mill Head" and a laying of a new floor in the Flour Mill. Was this all done at Willy Watt (it was the year after Mitchell had given up his tenancy of Willy Watt) or was work done at both mills and the bridge over the mill head was near Cotton Mill? Was the Flour Mill, Willy Watt? It is still very confusing.


 Rough sketch based on the Specification and Estimate for repairing the overshot at Woodford by Thrapston Bone Mill (mid 1830s)

I would welcome any corrections to the Key or explanation of the Plan.

 By kind permission of Northamptonshire Record Office (FS 40/1)

Between 1829 and 1836 the water mills, Cotton Mill, Willy Watt Mill and the Bone Mill had extensive improvements and repairs. The letters and bills tell a story of estimates being questioned and reduced by Mr West, on behalf of his employer Henry Shuttleworth. Henry had married his cousin Eliza, daughter of George Shuttleworth, and on the death of his father, Nathaniel, he owned properties in Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Gloucestershire.

We also see irate tradesmen complaining about late payment which caused some of them great hardship. William Mitchell also complains to the agent:

I am sorry I have not got the balance by me at present and as rent day is soe near I pray let it be tel then. Sir, you promised me a new press and [???] there is great difficulty in carren on the business with out one.

William was plainly struggling, which may explain his attempt to evade the paper tax. What, perhaps William and the others were not aware of, was that Henry Shuttleworth was being destroyed by debt and that in 1839 he had to declare himself bankrupt. A junior line of an ancient family was brought down by his attempts to ride on the new wave of industrial enterprise. It was family was brought down by his attempts to ride on the new wave of industrial enterprise. It was, perhaps, the Light-Poole Mills in Gloucestershire where Henry, with his partner had bought the patent to a new pin-making machine and hoped to make their fortunes, which really destroyed his empire. It appears that he had been a solicitor in Market Harborough and he had dealt with money matters in a way that some considered fraudulent so perhaps his empire was built on dodgy foundations.

Henry and his wife both died within a short time of each other and left eight children. Eric and Mary Humphries record that a letter was written to ask for subscriptions for the orphans and hoping “that the follies of the parents would not operate to the disadvantage of the children”. What exactly do these words refer to? If we look some ten years after his bankruptcy, at the effect on some of Henry's family, the effect is clear. In 1851, Nathaniel at 16 is on trial as a grocer with Joseph Roberts in Leicester St. Martin; Georgina, at 25, is a teacher in Norfolk and Edward, by the end of the decade, is living in Victoria, Australia. There is a further story to be told but Ringstead was only a small part in Henry's fall from grace and his family’s troubles. We must leave their stories for someone else to tell

If we now return to the 1841 Census which records that Enos Bull and George Lovell are living at “Ringstead Mills” and that they are papermakers. In 1841 too, the Great Addington parish register records that Henry William Lovell, aged two years, the natural son of Fanny Lovell papermaker at Cotton Mill was scalded to death in a vat. Women worked in the paper mills sorting and treading the cloth ready for the Hollander to pulverise it into fibres. One can only imagine that Fanny had to take her child with her to work, with terrible consequences. At best it was an unpleasant, smelly job with the constant threat of disease from the stinking, often imported, rags.

This census records that a further four papermakers are distributed throughout Ringstead. The four are Thomas Mundin, Thomas Stanley, Robert Phillips and Benjamin Mitchell. It does not discriminate between master and worker or craftsman and labourer. It seems likely that Willy Watt was now a bone mill so all were working at Cotton Mill. As we have seen, there may have been other workers living in adjacent parishes.

It looks as if, after Sarah Bull was replaced, as tenant of Cotton Mill, by William Mitchell that Enos Bull, probably the son of Sarah although I have not yet found his baptism, continued to work for William. William’s son, Benjamin was not living at the Mill but was working there, perhaps learning his trade.

By 1851 Enos Bull has disappeared and another son of William Mitchell called Samuel, aged 22 and born in Great Addington, is the only paper maker listed in the Ringstead parish. I have not traced George Lovell, Thomas Stanley or Thomas Mundin. Robert Phillips, the oldest worker, is still in Ringstead but, aged 66, he is a “Road Labourer and Scavenger”. It is possible that scavenging might include the collecting of rags for the paper mill but we have no proof of this.

By 1861 Enos Bull is still a “Papermaker and Packer” but now living at 5 North Street, Spitalfields, Middlesex with his wife, Sarah and their three children.

Returning to the 1841 Census we find William Mitchell, aged 40 living with his wife Mary, some ten years his elder. He is listed as a papermaker. He originally came from Romsey in Hampshire (usually Ramsey or Rumsey in the transcriptions) which had a number of papermaking mills so perhaps he learnt his craft there before moving to Great Addington.

As we have seen his son Benjamin is also recorded as a papermaker in Ringstead and his profession is confirmed at the baptism of his daughter Charlotte on 20th March 1842. He had married Dorothy Bateman on 12th September 1836 in Ringstead but by 1851 he has moved to Northampton and has become a shoemaker. Of course, this is not as sudden as it may appear. The Censuses, coming every ten years, tend to condense time.

Another son of William, called Samuel, became a papermaker and by 1851 he is the one remaining person in the trade living in the parish of Ringstead.

William Mitchell, living in Great Addington, is recorded as a “Victualler”. It may be that he is taking a back seat. But Samuel too, for some reason, leaves the business and by1861 William is again a paper maker now lodging with Thomas Wadsworth and his family. Wadsworth is a Miller in Ringstead. It seems possible that William was making paper in the same mill, or an adjacent one to that used by Thomas Wadsworth to grind corn. It would be interesting to know how this arrangement worked for Paper Mills were known as messy unpleasant smelling places.


 Drawing of Woodford Mill by George Harrison in "A Wanderer in Northamptonshire"                  

(Some time between 1925 and 1945)

So William Michell carried on the paper business possibly doing it alongside the milling business of Thomas Wadsworth. Certainly the Tithe and Inclosure documents of the period around 1840 talk of a Corn and Paper Mill at Cotton. What we do know is that William’s son, Samuel Mitchell, with his wife Naomi, moved to Stirchley in Shropshire as a Station Master and later became a railway guard on the London and North West Region Railway still living in Shropshire. In 1901 he is recorded as a retired Passenger Guard so it is unlikely that he returned to Ringstead to live. As an aside, in 1881, Samuel and Naomi are lodging with Thomas Gelson who was a skilled potter at the famous Coalport China factory. The factory had been taken into receivership in 1876 but Thomas Gelson became the General Manager and helped bring it back to profitability.

It seems most probable that William died in 1863 and some two years later Mary followed him to the grave. These deaths need to be confirmed but certainly I have not been able to find either in 1871 or the later censuses.

In 1861, William, the eldest of William Wadsworth’s sons, appears in Marylebone in London as a railway porter. Perhaps it is no coincidence that he followed the same route as Samuel Mitchell although in the opposite direction. If we look for Thomas Wadsworth, the father, he is 74 but still recorded as a "Relief Miller” His wife is presumably dead but four unmarried children live with him and his sons Richard and George are now the Millers. Interestingly the residence is recorded as "Flour Mill" and is sandwiched between Cotton Farm and the Railway Station in the Census. It seems that this must be Cotton Mill

Ringstead Mill (possibly early 20th Century: Source of photgrqaph unknown).

Muirheads lived in one of the Mill Cotttages but were shoemakers.

Perhaps the mill is being used for houses but the mill itself has stopped working

What happened next to papermaking in Ringstead? Did it die with William? The 1871 Ordnance Survey map still shows a paper mill but at Willy Watt. So far I have no evidence that paper was made there after William Mitchell left in 1834 so perhaps the map had not been properly updated. Plans of the two mills, drawn up for the sale of the two mills to Mr Eady in 1879, show that both existed at that date but, although they record the buildings,  they do not tell us what state Cotton Mill was in and whether it was in use. We must look on the mills as power sources which were used in different ways as times and markets changed.

If we now look briefly at what happened to Willy Watt and Cotton Mills after the death of William we see the slow decline of both mills as first steam and then electricity, together with the new fast transport system made both mills uneconomic


The owner, Mr. Hawes, carrying water outside Willy Watt Mill in the 1950s.

A tunnel from the church, built by Monks from Croyland Abbey in the 15th Century, was rumoured to emerge in the old elm tree which here casts winter shadows on the Mill.

It seems possible that both mills reverted back to being corn mills. In Cotton Mill we have Thomas Wadsworth and his sons, Richard and George. In Willy Watt Moses Irons Eady became the miller. In 1841 a Moses Eady was living in North Mill, Burton Latimer. This was a windmill and in 1852 a thunderstorm destroyed one of the sails. In 1870 he was admitted to the Woodford Baptist Chapel as a Deacon but it appears that his membership ceased, possibly because he went to the Burton Latimer chapel. In 1884 a Mr Eady is advertising the North Mill for sale. Previously to this, in 1880, following the plans we have seen sketches of, Moses Eady had bought Cotton and Willy Watt mills.

Something of their siting and working can be seen from the plans prepared for George Capron’s sale to Moses Eady


Sketch from Siddons map of Land sold to Eady 1879 [C(S)662]

By kind permission of Northamptonshire Record Office


Sketch from Siddons map of Land sold to Eady 1879  [C(S)662]

Could this be showing the presence of two mills?

By kind permission of Northamptonshire Record Office

 When, in 1897, William Dodson bought the Willy Watt Mill it was to grind corn. He had been a baker in Great Addington, after previously running a public house and outdoor beerhouse in Little Addington. He bought Tithe Farm in Ringstead and Willy Watt Mill so that he owned the whole process from growing the grain to baking the bread. Before the First World War some 46 people were involved in the farm and mill. The last miller there was Frank Hart who was nearly a hundred when he died. It seems possible that both mills continued as flour mills alongside or adjacent to, the other activities such as paper making, throughout most of their working lives from the late eighteenth century

By the time that William Dodson bought both mills, Cotton Mill was in a semi-derelict state. The only reason why he bought it along with Willy Watt was so that he could demand two heads of water (of about four feet each). This enabled him to run the Willy Watt Mill for much longer each day. It is possible that this was already the reality for the last part of the nineteenth century. The rough map below is based on one provided by a descendant of William Dodson



If this map is correct it has Ringstead Mill on the other bank to that shown in the Inclosure (see earlier in life story) and other nineteenth century maps. This has still to be investigated and clarified. Writing in 1970 Geoffrey Starmer states that Cotton Mill was reported as finally dismantled in 1920. It is also interesting to note that Carters Ford, near Willy Watt Mill, was, originally, the only crossing point before the railway came and new bridges were constructed. In the Twentieth Century the bridge outside Willy Watt Mill, which had only been built for horse-drawn vehicles, collapsed under the weight of lorry traffic.

It seems that Willy Watt Mill had had two wheels from the eighteenth century. In the twentieth century the smaller one was used to generate electricity from 1903 to 1947. Previously to this it had been used, probably by John Cave, who married Moses Eady’s daughter Harriett, in the late Victorian period, for driving the mill machine shop which made cartwheels etc.

Today Willy Watt Mill is still there although the mill wheels have long stopped turning. It became increasingly difficult to make a living using waterpower and was used, among other things as a bed and breakfast establishment. Ringstead Mill had been in ruins for many years by the mid twentieth century and now a few bricks and broken concrete among the tangle of bushes by the choked millstream show where it once stood.


Is this the site of the ruins of Cotton Mill beside the old millstream? (Taken June 2010)

It may seem a sad end for the Mills but remember that both bone and paper mills were foul smelling places which polluted the streams that they used. It was more Dickens than Constable. In Strapetona, the magazine of the Thrapston District Historical Society, in 1989, one former resident of Willy Watt Mill told of his grandfather in about 1913 during floods following a snowmelt. The water almost reached the Dining Room ceiling, confining the family to the upper rooms. Their drinking water was collected in an old milk churn from a well in Ringstead.

As the waters subsided a little his grand father set out with the mill cart drawn by his largest carthorse. The strong current across the road took the horse and cart downstream and his grandfather had to jump for his life. Luckily the horse struggled out of the water near Woodford with the harness still attached to the broken shafts of the cart, which had probably acted as buoyancy aids. The cart was never found. Much later in the century, the writer returned home one Friday evening to find his parents, quite unconcerned about the rising water which was coming through the keyhole in the door.

If you have managed to struggle through all the confusion to this point I can only apologise for the lack of clarity. It is still unclear to me, at certain points in the history who was doing what in which mill. We do know that all have long ceased working. As we walk or cycle or fish and look into the clear water perhaps, on reflection, they are better gone. Like many industrial places they are at their best in retrospect.


1    Films were made in Irthlingborough in the very early days of cinema and one, "The Poacher's Sweetheart” described in an advertisement of the 8th July 1916 edition of the Poverty Bay Herald in New Zealand as a "Three-Reel Masterpiece" featured a Ringstead Mill. Tony Ireson tells that, "the villain imprisoned the heroine there but she escaped and swam the Nene, rushed to the courthouse on a newfangled motor-cycle and sidecar, saved the hero from the black cap and arranged the downfall of the villain". Does the film still exist? Little of the more famous epic, "The Battle of Waterloo" remains so perhaps it has gone

2    A previous owner of the Willy Watt Mill also told of the past when it too was used for paper production. He remembers hearing that the workers would tread bark and rags to help soften it before it was made into a form of paper parchment. Two workers from Ringstead were said to have died as a result of working in this way, he believed from some disease or poisoning contracted from this treading process. Perhaps it was the bark itself but, increasingly, chemicals were used. Chlorine bleach was introduced to produce white paper and arsenic was also sometimes used to prevent mould from forming. In damp houses arsenic in wallpaper was known to poison people in Victorian times. It has even been alleged that this is what killed Napoleon in exile.

3    David Phillips states that Ringstead Lower mill  - was demolished when the Blisworth - Peterborough railway was built in 1845 but all the three mills mentioned here are shown on both the 1835 and 1871 maps so is it another one?



Victorian Northamptonshire Vol 2 Scandals and Surprises of 1840-41. Eric Jenkins (W. D. Wharton 1999)

The River Nene: A Pictorial History. Josephine Jeremiah (Phillimore 2003)

Papermaking in Britain 1488 – 1988: A Short History Richard L. Hills (The Athlone Press 1988).

The River Nene from Source to Sea. David Phillips (Past & Present Publishing 1977)

 Jane Austen’s Letters by Deidre Le Faye (OUP) 1995 on .

A Wanderer in Northamptonshire. George Harrison (Mitre Press

Northamptonshire. Tony Ireson (Robert Hale Ltd. 1954)  Exeter Working Papers in Book History. Index of Insurance Policies. Site run by Ian Maxted (Northampton Mercury newspaper 20th January 1844)

Pigots Directory of Cambs, Hunts, Lincs. and Northants for 1830 (Huntingdon Record Office)

Ordnance Survey Maps 1835, 1871

Censuses 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901. ( )

Declaration of Mr. William Mitchell (NRO C(S) 429/22)

Narborough Bone Mill

Victorian Northamptonshire Vol 2 Scandals & Surprises 1840-41. Eric Jenkins (W.D. Wharton 1999 P 81)

Ringstead Enclosure 1839 - 41 Enclosure Commissioners' Act, Claims Book, Minutes, Accounts (NRO)

Ringstead Flour Mill 1835-6 (NRO FS40/8) Bill to H Shuttleworth from Edward Button

Draft Schedule of Premises at Ringstead (NRO C(S)82)

Specification and Estimate and Plans for repairing the overshot at Woodford by Thrapston Bone Mill (NRO FS 40/1)

Ringstead Inclosure Award Map 1840 (NRO ML 1550)

Apportionment of Rent-Charge in lieu of Tithes in the Parish of Ringstead (24th October 1838) (NRO)

Ringstead Inclosure Map 1841 with Schedule of Estates (ML 1550 NRO)

Siddons map of Land sold to Eady 1879 (NRO C(S)662) a Woodford Baptist Chapel Membership List

The Times: Dec 18 1840 p6; July 23 1841 p6; Dec 12 1842 p6; Dec20 1842 p6;Dec08 1843 p6;Dec12 1843 p6. (Times Archive via Cambridgeshire Libraries online)

A genealogical and heraldic history of the commoners of Great Britain Vol 4 by John Burke p 665-6 ( ).

Bulletin of Industrial Archaeology in CBA Group 9 No. 12 April 1970. A Checklist of Northamptonshire Wind and Water Mills by Geoffrey H Starmer is on It gives the OS grid references as: Ringstead Mill SP 968745, Woodford Upper (Willy Watt) Mill SP 973752, Woodford Lower (formerly Dodes Mill) Mill 981769


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