Friday, September 10, 2021

St Neots, Huntingdonshire

‘Go’ in St Neots

Although I like to think I am good at spotting small, unregarded buildings, sometimes my attention is drawn irresistibly to the large and showy structures that stand out, whether in a rural landscape or in a town. Pulling into a car park in St Neots recently, there was one such building that I couldn’t miss, because its massive tower with corbelled top and striking tiled roof dominated the skyline in that part of town. The tower seemed to be an essay in polychrome brickwork, built to stand out, but what was the building that it was standing proud above? And how old could it be – was it from the brash 1860s or maybe somewhat later?

A stroll in its direction revealed a structure every bit as showy and massive as I’d expected from the tower. It was Paine’s Flour Mill, and its exterior walls are a riot of yellow brick, gothic arches, diaper patterns, and something resembling a Star of David beneath the arches of the upper stage of the tower.* Paine’s were a well established St Neots company founded by James Paine. They began as brewers and built their brewery into one of the town’s biggest businesses. But James’s entrepreneurial son, William Paine, expanded and diversified into all kinds of areas – flour milling, timber, and dealing in everything from building materials to coal. The interest in flour milling seems to have started when he bought a mill on this site, where he also built maltings for his brewing business. The mill was rebuilt in the 1880s, but the building that survives seems to be later than this one – there was a fire in 1905 and a rebuilding. A photograph online shows the present structure, with its gothic arches, under construction; this image is dated 1910, although according to Lynn Pearson, the mill reopened in 1909, so the actual date of the photograph is probably just before this.†

Another image of c. 1920 shows the mill complete with the tall corner chimney, which has now been taken down (its stump is visible in my photograph). Even in its current state, converted to flats, it’s still an imposing building and testimony to the industrial flair of the Victorians and their successors, who saw that a striking factory could be an effective advertisement. The architect was Edward J. Paine, grandson to the founder of the firm, suggesting that the building is also a memorial to a lineage that had in spades that active, strong-willed quality of movers and shakers that the Victorians called simply, ‘go’.

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* It’s not a perfect star but in any case the symbol was not, for the Victorians, associated only with Judaism; I’ve seen such stars in brick on 19th-century nonconformist chapels.

† See Lynn Pearson, Victorian and Edwardian British Industrial Architecture (Crowood Press, 2016).


Hels said...

The mill's massive tower is what confuses the viewer, partially because the corbelled top and striking tiled roof dominated the skyline in that part of town, in that era, as you noted. But the polychrome brickwork was so unusual, I would have guessed it was designed for a trendy art gallery.

bazza said...

We have some family in St Neots so I will take a look at this next time I'm there. The place has never struck as being of architectural interest before!
The brickwork and ornaments are wonderful. I would like to see more new buildings in this style. The brickwork has a quite modern look but sadly, ornament is rare these days.
I'm sure the Star of David is a random design feature with no significance.
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Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I would associate the polychrome brickwork with the 1880's - quite bold, as late as the early 20th century, indulging in the gothic arches too. Was the design deliberately old-fashioned?
Certainly not a slave of its period - showing that irresponsible aesthetic streak - originality? If it was in the family, why not?