Industry and Commerce at St Neots in Huntingdonshire
The beginnings of the towns commerce lay in its position on the River Ouse, as at first a river crossing point, later a ferry, and then as a bridge, with tolls to help support its maintenance. As you can see from the District Map, this was an important road junction right through history.
The town is laid out around its market square, which was set out in the 12th century. It continues to this day each Thursday. The town possesses a mixture of architecture, industrial, with its surviving brewery buildings, for which the town was once famous, now sadly being demolished with only the facade remaining. St Neots and St Ives both had thriving breweries at one time as they had access to "good water", essential to brewing. A brewery existed at St Neots in 1638, but its exact location is not made clear. At one time there was also a paper and flourmill.
The area was also noted in the past for its lace making. Women and children living in the workhouse, established in 1722, were expected to make pillow lace to raise money towards their keep. Receipts dated from as early as 1711 show a dealer supplying threads, pins and bobbins, and buying back the finished lengths of lace.
The introduction of a structured and recognised regular stage coach route brought St Neots back into prominence, on the main route from London to York by 1706 and extended on to Edinburgh by 1754. Some travellers staying overnight, some just stopping for fresh horses and food. At its height as many as 20 coaches a day passed through the town. The Royal Mail was then introduced to this route being dealt with at the Cross-Keys. The stagecoach not only brought direct trade to the coaching inns, but also caused increased business for the allied trades of harness makers, farriers, forage merchants etc. A spin off from this form of transport was Highway Men, the most famous being Dick Turpin, born in Essex and plying his trade on the routes north as far as York. A few miles away from St Neots there still stands a gibbet, where bodies of local highwaymen and villains that were caught were put on display to discourage lawbreakers. But highway crime was occurring in the area as early as 1265, when a group was attacked travelling back from St Neots market to the leper hospital at Sudbury. With no police in those days you relied on the aid of good men within earshot to come to your aid. On this occasion William the Shepherd of Sudbury came to help and lost his life, one of the robbers bringing down a fatal blow on the side of his head with a sword.
The logic the monks used in deciding to site the priory where they did, with its river frontage for unloading building materials etc also made it a good site for the industries that choose to build on the site later. Joseph Eayre’s bell foundry shows on this site on the Anderson Estate map of 1757, and again on the Jeffrey’s map of 1768, the wharf proving useful in transporting the raw materials in, and sometimes in moving the bells out.
In 1780 William Fowler a brewers merchant and farmer, took over part of the site. There are records showing that he extended the range of building, a clock on the east wall of the riverside warehouse had a stone set under it inscribed ‘W F 1782’, the clock was removed in 1966. Described as a maltster, William Fowler had two sons, George 1774-1811 acquired the adjoining bell foundry from Joseph Eayre in 1789. Whilst the youngest William 1779-1814, appears to of worked with his father, the company being made over to him in 1800. Unfortunately William Fowler the younger passed away in 1814, his trustees selling the business which included a considerable amount of property. The buyer was John Hill Day of Bedford, included where 10 inns or public houses within the town, and 26 located in the surrounding areas.
This local brewing empire stayed in the Day family for the next 100 years. His son Francis 1818-1863, who was survived by his widow Emily Anne 1833-1910, succeeded John Hill Day. Sadly on the death of their son Frank the business came to an end, as he remained unmarried. From records given to the County Records Office by Mrs J S Addington, it seems along with the barley-malting kiln, in 1823 they also owned a lime kiln. Barrels of beer were being exported down to London, as well as the selling of coal, salt, slates, barrel staves imported from Quebec, clunch ?, timber, isinglass, sperm oil, Greenland oil, and seal oil. Most of this was being moved down river from King’s Lynn. From this thriving empire things slowly went down hill, until on the death of Frank Day it could no longer be sold as a going concern, and all the properties being sold off in lots. The Priory house and yard going to Jordan & Addington, a firm of millers in 1919.
The town stands on a sub-soil of Oxford clay, once used by its own local brickyards; with Godmanchester also having its own brick kilns. The brickfields were only small and most closed at the beginning of the last century, when the large mechanised brickfields went into production closer to Peterborough, making the smaller, local companies unprofitable. London was the main customer, the London Brick Company’s’ numerous stacks being a familiar part of the landscape approaching Peterborough right into the 1970s.
St Neots also had windmills, many of which had stood for centuries, but went from grinding corn for human consumption, to grinding food for livestock as the larger mechanised flour mills were built in the town producing refined flour. Bearing in mind that until mid 1900s, horses and in some cases oxen were the power on the land. The Suffolk Punch being a specially bred local horse, small and powerful, with less feathering on the leg than larger draught animals, a beautiful bronze colour in the sunlight. The windmills still had plenty of work for the numerous animals working on the land.
Paper mills also featured in St Neots history, the paper mill is almost certainly on the site of the mediaeval corn-grinding water mill of Okestuble Mill, once belonging to St Neots Priory. It was still producing flour into the 19th century. Circa 1799 this site was acquired by Ousley Rowley, it was rebuilt at this time, possibly by him as the landlord as it was let to Mr Hobson of Eaton Socon until 1804. When it was leased to a firm of paper makers, Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier, and John Gamble. William Fourdrinier in 1807 built a machine capable of manufacturing paper on one long continuous roll. A revolution in its day, as paper was made in large sheets, which although over time had been produced in bigger and bigger moulds, and then guillotined, to size, was a slow labour intensive way of production. So successful was his invention that his mill was still running 100 years later, and had a more structured patent been taken out, Mr Fourdrinier would have been even wealthier, as companies around the world converted to this method of production. But he can still be credited with bringing about the creation of the modern paper industry.