Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

Hidden industry 2: Able survivor

As I indicated in my previous post, milling in Tewkesbury goes back many centuries before the Victorian Borough Flour Mills were built. The earlier history of the industry in the town is beautifully reflected in the Abbey Mills, originally part of the property held by Tewkesbury Abbey at this end of the town, and rebuilt in the 1790s, long after the dissolution. Unlike the Borough Flour Mills, which were first powered by steam (later by electricity), the Abbey Mills were water-powered. There were four water wheels, of which one remains.

The structure is a focal point for this part of the riverside townscape, a once practical and now simply handsome collection of hipped and gabled roofs, mottled brick walls, and weatherboarded extensions and gantries – all this partly from the 1790s, partly the result of an extension in the mid-19th century. Harmonising with all this is the weatherboarded structure in the foreground, a relatively recent building acting as control house for a sluice installed in the 1990s.

Unlike the Borough Flour Mills, over the years the Abbey Mills have found a succession of new uses that have ensured the building’s survival. I remember it in the 20th century festooned with signs and  housing a café, together with shops selling antiques and souvenirs. It was then capitalising on its role as Abel Fletcher’s Mill in the best-selling Victorian novel John Halifax, Gentleman, by the writer known back then as ‘Mrs Craik’.* More recently it has undergone conversion to apartments, and is looking well on it from the outside at least. As I took my photograph, I was joined by a number of visitors to the town – some vocally envying the residents, some simply admiring the view.

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* I’ve read quite a few 19th century novels in my time, but the works of Dinah Maria Craik, aka Dinah Maria Mulock, aka Mrs Craik have passed me by. John Halifax, Gentleman is apparently a Victorian rags-to-riches story exemplifying the virtues of middle-class life. I’ve read it described by one critic as ‘moving’ and by another as ‘mawkish’.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

John Halifax, Gentleman is indeed both moving and mawkish: the Tewkesbury setting is essential in establishing the Country Town context, where the whole gamut of society, rich and poor, can be contained in one place. The theme of social inequality might be applicable today: we often find behind the fine historical house-fronts in a place like Hastings, Tewkesbury, Trowbridge, Wilts., or Warminster much of the usual tale of unemployment and need. Mrs Craik's novel at least spelt out some of the problem, though hardly advocating revolution! The remains of the water wheel are impressive and evocative, I seem to remember.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joseph: Thank you. Yes, I'm very familiar with the poverty and need that often exists behind or just beyond the attractive historic house facades. I've experienced it in the Cotswold town where I live (and where I was once involved in a campaign to get more 'affordable' housing built), and it's certainly there in those other places and many others. Although Hastings has moved rapidly upmarket in recent years, there's still the inequality there.