Oral History: Michaelchurch Mill and related matters
This is a transcription of recorded informal discussions with Woody and Helen Cole in 2005 about Michaelchurch Mill and related local matters. Woody Cole was brought up at Bank Farm, just a few hundred yards up the road from the mill, and has lived in the Michaelchurch area all his life. Questions and explanatory comments are shown in square brackets. Minor editing has taken place where appropriate to clarify occasional conversational confusion/ repetition, but without changing the substance or idiom.
[What do you remember about the mill?]
[In the shed] alongside the mill, that’s where they used to keep the Gambles, the horse traps and carts, out there on the side of the Mill [where the extension now is], right beside the mill wheel. The carts would be needed for farm work because you know there were several fields belonging to the mill. Ben Price helped with them, I think he was a relative, a cousin or something, to Mrs Lewis, see, she was a Price, Warren’s mother, and she did all the baking, though Warren helped her for a while. Originally it was Mrs Lewis doing it and her husband assisted her with the Post office and the shop, and then of course when they gave it up their son Eric took it over, but in the meantime the mill had stopped working and of course he wanted to bring down his baking equipment into the mill, that was after the war, so he took out all the grinding equipment, look, and then he put in his bread ovens, that was about 1946 when he came back from the war. He’s still alive, Eric is, he was the youngest, and he’s living down in South Wales somewhere.
When we had socials up in the Cottage room, that was our village hall, you know, it’s gone down now – did you ever go down those steps? – you went down some steps, it was where they went to school when the school burnt down, but we had these whist drives and socials, ladies played the accordion and others played the piano in that cottage room, it was down some steps off the road in front of the house where Tim Davis lives and his wife [Escley Cottage, next to Escley House on the Hay on Wye road]. It was between their place and the road. When we had do’s like that we’d order five dozen butterfly cakes, you see, and Eric would make them and cook them in his ovens, big steam ovens. We took sandwiches too because if you had a do that was how you made your money, you know what I mean, people would have a cup of tea and a sandwich, whatever organisation had it. Then one night we had a dinner, I think it was for the Escleyside [ploughing team], it wasn’t the National I don’t think, that was up in Hay, it must have been the Trumpet ploughing competition, and of course it was considered to be one of the main ones, especially in the west of England, look, and the main part was described as the Championship of the British Isles and they invited the ploughmen to come from all over, you know, Dixon from Durham, Tommy Ott[?] from Cornwall, they’d go there and it was considered to be a bit of an honour to win it, and of course it came to us one year look and the Escleyside wanted to make something of it I suppose so they decided to have this celebration banquet in the school itself, and they decided they were going to have a goose dinner and they got Eric to cook these geese in his bread baking ovens, and he did. I can’t remember where he got the geese but he must have had a lot of trays to put those geese in because they’d have wanted quite a few.
[How did the mill come into Eric’s family?]
In 1900 the mill was being run by Charlie Price, he was Mrs Lewis’ father, she was the daughter and married a Lewis, and the mill came to her when her father died.
[Do you remember much about the mill when it was working?]
The last miller that I remember was George… George Maddy his name was, he came after Warren Lewis. Warren got married and took the Post Office at Longtown, you see, and he was there for a good many years. He used to do the butchery too, he used to come around every weekend you know, if you were lucky, with a van full of beef and lamb and pork all jumbled up, and if it happened to fall on the floor Warren would pick it up and dust it off and put it back in, while on Monday and Tuesday he’d be taking lambs to the market in his van and all. Anyway, George, he didn’t live here, his home was at the top of Craswall, that’s where his parents lived, look, and then eventually he bought a farm up there, but before that he was working as the miller here for Charlie Lewis and Mrs Lewis, see, Warren’s parents of course. George was a tall athletic kind of fellow and one thing he was good at, really good at, was pulling up on a stick, you know, in those days people of just about equal weight would have a bit of a contest, they’d have a stout stick like this and they’d catch hold of the stick and they’d sit themselves down on the floor of the mill and put their feet together and both contestants would get hold of the stick and see who could pull each other up off the floor, see. George was pretty strong, though you wouldn’t have thought so because he tended to be tall and slim, like, George was, but he must have been pretty strong. But I remember one night George met his match, and that was Bernard’s dad, Bernard Jones by Newton School, Tom Jones and he was as tall as George but about two stone heavier you know, and pretty near all muscle, like, and they decided they were going to have a go, you know. They were two big fellows with a bit of a reputation you know for pulling on this stick so they got down there in the mill, on the mill floor there, beside the chutes that produce the ground wheat, and they got hold of this stick; there were several youngsters there, it was a sort of meeting place, on a Saturday night that’s where all the, anybody who had a minute or two to spare, that’s where they’d come to have a little bit of entertainment and so on. Anyhow, they got hold of the stick and started to take the strain, and it wasn’t long before the stick broke, so there was no winner and no loser that night.
Anyhow, do you remember Mr Badham, lived somewhere down along the middle road, how old is John Badham, about ninety now? George Maddy married eventually John’s sister Hilda Badham, I think in St Margarets church though they moved away up to a farm near Hay I think, and George was doing his courting about the same time as we were. She lived along the Chapel road.
Helen lived in Newton, and what I’d do on a Sunday if I was going down there, you know the upper Escley Chapel, the next turn down, the Iron Pear Tree turn we call that, signposted to St Margarets church, well about a hundred and fifty yards along that turn there used to be a lady who used to keep a sweet shop and the husband delivered the Hereford Times, and he had a job on the roads, that’s right, a roadman, but she used to keep a sweetshop, she had all these jars on her sideboard, it was a bit of pin money, you know, he worked but.. and I would go along there and get myself a packet of sweets, look, see, and go on down to meet her [Helen] and I’d come back out onto the other road, the Chapel road there and I’d then be going by the house where George’s Hilda, George’s girlfriend, was living look, see, and very often he’d be outside there talking to her. There was a bit of a garage where they kept […?] And he’d bring his bicycle down and lean it against this garage and both of them would be there, like, talking. I think her father was alive then wasn’t he, and he lived there. That was about 1935.
[Is there a place up there called Pear Tree Cottage? Warren Lewis said a fellow up there used to make the wooden teeth for the mill]
Yes, that’s right, down in the dip, you know Bob’s shop, then the chapel, then the next one down in the dip that’s called the Iron Pear Tree, but yes it’s also called the Pear Tree, and he did coffins as well, Bill Powell, he never ever got married, like, he lived there with his sister, and he had a little shed, a carpenters shop, he’d make anything you wanted, you know, gates and so on. Yes, he made the coffins and he was the undertaker, or one of them, there was another one opposite [Helen’s] home, Tom Gwillam made coffins, you see, in Newton by the old chapel.
[The Traffords up at Michaelchurch Court owned the mill, didn’t they?]
Her [Mrs Trafford’s] children took over the Court, look, she sort of semi retired and went to the cottage, what do they call it now, Escley House. And then of course they had a few cows, just one cow I think, for to have milk for the house. And Bill [Powell] had the job of going over and feeding this old cow and milking the old cow look, for Mrs Trafford to have milk in the house, milk and to make butter and that sort of thing.
Mrs Trafford married twice, her first husband died, I think it was Henry Trafford, and then she married this fellow, his name was Capper and I think he was a variety artist or something, he was in the entertainment business, but her children were all by the Traffords. Michael Hunter’s mother was a Miss Trafford, that’s right, one of the daughters married a Hunter, which is Rosemary Hunter’s ... er ... Grandfather, I think. Randolph Trafford, the son, he was killed in the war, look, and then his sister who was Mrs Hunter, she took over the Court, and she was the mother of Michael.
Now Randolph Trafford, he was very friendly with the Germans, but that was sort of before the war; he used to invite them over and they would bring their aeroplanes, fly over from Germany and land on the aerodrome, you know, up on the top. I think Goering came over here, Herman Goering on one occasion. [Randolph Trafford] was with the RAF during the war, though.
[What sort of machinery did they have in the mill?]
Well, there was you know all the chutes the flour came out of, you know the different standards of flour, the different coarseness of flour, he had a roll of sacks and he used to hook the bags on, and they had a bin or two in there. The flour was coming down from upstairs where the stones were. They had a sack hoist coming down through the centre of the mill, there were trap doors and chains, he’d hitch them on at the bottom and pull a cord you know with a bar in the cord if he wanted the thing to go up and when he got up to the top well there’d be somebody on the top with another bar in the cord and he’d pull that one when he wanted it to stop, look, and of course the trap doors would shut underneath once the bag had gone up through the trap doors would drop shut and then he’d loose the bag back onto the door.
There were several different varieties of flour, coarse and fine, oh yes, and they were grinding some for animals, that was barley but they wouldn’t use that for bread, it would be wheat flour they used for bread. There were two pairs of stones, they used one for the animal feed and one or the flour and of course they were grinding for the farmers to use themselves you know in baking ovens. They’d grow corn on the fields round here, I suppose it isn’t produced in such large quantities now as it was then, of course, but I’ve heard that some of the farms round here the corn would be black, they’d get the dust in it, you know the black, what’s that black disease you get in corn, what do you call it, but they’d still grind it to make the bread. Rust, wheat rust, it was called, and then of course the corn seeds deteriorate and instead of the white flour inside it goes black, you know, I forget what farm it was where they were very poor, well you know everyone was more or less on the same level, but if it was black they’d still take it back, you know they brought it here to grind the farmers did and they’d make their bread with it, black bread, it probably tasted alright but it was just the look of it.
The cleaning machine [smutter] wouldn’t have been on the bottom floor, would it, and I think they used the top floor for storing the corn you know storing it and storing the flour and that, once they’d ground it they’d put it in bags and then they’d hoist it up. They had hoppers up there to feed the corn down to the stones, there would have been one for each set of stones, wouldn’t there. Once it had been ground it went back up through a machine to get the different grades of flour, that’s right, and then of course when the wheat was ground there would have been the bran, and they had a machine for parting the bran from the flour, that would be for the pigs, wouldn’t it. Of course in those days they didn’t bleach it, I mean they bleach the white flour now don’t they, I mean it wasn’t like our white bread now in those days was it, home made bread wasn’t as white, when my mother used to make it it wasn’t as white as nowadays. We used to grind wheat with an old Albion mill, you know and my Ma used to make bread with that and that was all the wheat; that was whole grain.
George Maddy would have run the mill on his own, oh and of course he would have attended to the fields as well, make a bit of hay and that, though the mill wouldn’t be running in the summer because there wasn’t the water, only in the winter.
[Do you ever remember the reservoir over the road feeding the mill?]
What Pool Wood? No, oh no, that wasn’t ever in use when I can remember. It used to feed the mill but it was a long time before I can remember, but what was there on the opposite side of the road just about where the water runs down through there, of course I can remember that, across the road was a shed and it was used by the postmen and they used to keep their post vans in there and they would come up from Abergavenny with their post vans, just the one van, to deliver the post to the post office and then they would deliver it all around the parish and then they would come back and put the van in the shed and they’d also got a couple of bunk beds in there and the postmen would sleep there the night, in the shed. It was probably another van then that would come up the next day, and this one would take the post back to Abergavenny, I think that’s the way it must have worked. One postman, his name was Reg Lewis, but he was no relation to these Lewises of course, he came form Abergavenny somewhere or maybe Walterstone. And there was one called Fritz something or other; he obviously had ancestors in Germany you know. Then after they’d done their posting they’d come back to the Bank [Farm] and drink cider and spend the rest of the day at the Bank.
And old Burt the blacksmith, Burt Davis his name was, Burt really used to work hard like, he had his blacksmiths shop going and sparks flying in there and shoeing horses and working hard but not making a lot of money and of course shoeing horses especially in the summer was a pretty thirsty job, like, and every now and again Burt used to go off down to the Bridge for a glass of beer; well it was open about two hours in the afternoon wasn’t it, from eleven till two or something like that then closed in the afternoon until six o’clock in the evening.
But I was telling you about Bill Francis, well poor old Bill I’ve heard him say tell this story he was a bit of a lad in the village, see, was Bill because he was born here his father lived in the cottage beside the blacksmiths shop, which was where Pip Evans lives now, down by the pub called Forge cottage. His garage where he keeps his car now, that was where they stabled the horses. But Bill was a bit of a lad, look and he would be going off in the evenings up to the dances up to the Cottage room there, see, probably getting home a bit late at night, because he was tired in the mornings, look and his work was right next door, his cottage was right on the end of the blacksmiths shop but he had this bantam cockerel and it had grand plumage this bantam cockerel and he’d perch on the post outside the blacksmiths shop and when it came time for Burt to go down for his pint of beer the cockerel would perch on his shoulder, see and he’d take the bantam cock down to the pub with him. This is absolutely true, there was a post right opposite the Blacksmiths shop and it was also right opposite Bill’s bedroom you see, because he was in the next place you see, with only a wall in between and of course Bill, as boys and girls did in those days stayed pretty late at the dance look and would get home tired in the morning, and this blooming cockerel would start crowing in the morning and it annoyed Bill a lot and he got a bit fed up with it, see, but of course nobody sort of knew this was happening. But anyway there was one morning Burt got up opened his window and found the cockerel on his post with not a feather on him. And Burt called the local police to come up you know to find the culprit. Well, what had happened, though the story didn’t come out till years and years later, not till we had dinner at Bill’s house, no one had said a word about it because he’d got hold of this flipping cockerel and took all the feathers off him; what a sight that would have been for Burt, just imagine I mean going to the trouble to call the police to come up and find the culprit. Bill told us, but he said I’d never said a word for years he said, because I was living next door and it wouldn’t hardly have helped him to have said, would it. It wouldn’t have been quite so humorous if Burt hadn’t thought so much of the cockerel.
I remember one night down the village [church], Dad used to go down and wind the clock and of course in those days they had the old heating system I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed but just outside the church [St Michaels] there they’ve got steps going down into a little underground compartment and they used to have the heating system there for the central heating in the church and they used to keep the coal down there for shovelling into the stove and Dad used to go down every Saturday night to wind the clock and light the fire so it would be warm in the church for Sunday services, look, see and he was doing this one winter and suddenly thought when he went down in there to shovel some more coal it looked like the coal, no coke it was, had been moved sort of thing but he didn’t notice it for a bit so what he did, of course it would be pretty dark down there he’d use a candle or something when he went down there to do anything so he got some ashes out of the boiler look when he left when he’d fixed it all you know lit the boiler and that, before he left he got a shovel full of ash and sprinkled it over the coke so the next time he went he could tell if it had been moved. He suspected that it was like but he wasn’t sure so he did this and the next time he went he could see that somebody had taken some of the coke from there you see and he tried this for a couple of weekends until he was absolutely sure so he said to me this night, Saturday, he said you come with me down to the church [I would have been 15 or 16 at the time] and we’ll sit in the church to wait and see if anyone came , so we went and sat in the back seat and more or less snoozed off. We’d got farm boots on then with metal heels and metal studs on them in those days, hobnails they were called, so anyway we were snoozing and suddenly Dad said there’s somebody about so we got up and out through the church door to go round to see who was there but what we didn’t realise was that our hobnailed boots when we got up touched the pipe that went straight down into the boilers, look, and it was like a bell going off though we didn’t realise it and by the time we got round there this fellow was coming up the steps with a bag on his arm like see, and of course he’d heard the noise of our boots touching the pipe because it would have been right by his ear, see, so of course that alerted him and he didn’t touch anything then and he came back up without anything but he’d got the bag over his arm which he was going to put the coke into. He was from Church Cottage and he’d recently come to the estate to do some job, you know people would come from anywhere, he’d taken a job at the Court helping with the masonry and the repairs and that, but we knew he’d been taking it. We didn’t catch him red handed though, it was our fault, like, touching the pipe as we got up. He said he was only coming down to see if the boiler was going off you know, but it was in the middle of the night but there wasn’t a lot we could do.
George Maddy was the miller here, well I mean the Lewises, Warren’s father were the family, they kept the mill, look, and the shop and the post office look, but then of course when Warren and all the boys went to, well to the Army Eric did, they were still wanting the mill working so George Maddy came down to do the milling and help with the farm and the few animals , and Elwyn and Jim Maddy are relatives, cousins, and Rhys Maddy, Rhys’ father would have been George’s cousin you see. Some evenings instead of pulling on the stick look if there was no one about George would come up to the Bank see and I was up there, Jessie was there, she wasn’t married, my sister and one evening they were up there and George and Jessie were sat at the table playing cards, there wasn’t much to do in those days only playing cards and draughts, so I thought to myself I’ll have a little it of fun with George, he’d got a twinkle in his eye and a bit of humour about him you know, he was a character. Now I didn’t say anything, I just got up from the table and they went on playing cards and I said I think I’m going to have a couple of them Beecham’s pills and I got the box of pills, they used to be this little round wooden box in them days, with fifty or so of these little pills not much bigger than I don’t know what – they weren’t much of a size, anyway these pills, laxatives they were, see. So I went and got this box and I got a cup and a bit of water and I stood up in front of the table but I was sort of facing the fire and George was sat at the table behind me and of course I made it known to George I was going to take a couple of these Beecham’s pills and of course George knew what they were for, laxatives, a general one in those days that everybody used. So I was there and George was alongside Jessie and I was going ‘one’ and rise this cup, and ‘two’ and rise this cup like this and I kept going on ‘three’ and rising the cup, ‘four’, and I got to about eight and George turned round with such a look on his face and he said God, boy you’ll be up all night on the toilet. He never minded being wound up and would have a laugh, and you had to make your own amusement in those days.
Conversation recorded 2005