Monday, 17 November 2008

James Miller (1815-1893) drainage man & brickmaker

In a series of three previous articles (Parts 1, 2 & 3) I described how researching life of my Miller ancestors and visits to the village where they lived had uncovered a great deal of interesting material, and resulted in the acquisition of a new family heirloom. I've now come across quite a bit more material which relates in particular to the head of this family from Weston Underwood in Derbyshire, and have received some more relevant photographs, all of which help to illustrate the story very nicely.

I have known the basic outline of the life of my ggg-grandfather James Miller (1815-1893), a drainage contractor and brickmaker from Weston-Underwood, for some time. This background information was supplied by the widow of his great-grandson, Gwen Miller, and researched by myself through parish and census records. He was born in about January 1815 in the village of East Leake, Nottinghamshire, son of Mary Miller, and after marrying Mary Cuckson (1815-1878) in Gamston (Notts) lived briefly at Markham Moor, East Markham (Notts), where he worked as an agricultural labourer. In the late 1840s, he became a land drainer, working at various places in eastern Cheshire before settling in Weston Underwood around 1858-1859. Soon after arriving in the village, he established a brickyard, employing a number of men and boys, including several of his sons. James and Mary Miller had four daughters and three sons. Mary died in 1878, and James remarried Elizabeth Gardner née Garton at Derby the following year. In the 1891 census he described himself as a farmer and surveyor, and he died in 1893.

Image © and courtesy of Mary Hirst

Some time ago, my Dad's cousin Mary Hirst sent me a transcript of a lengthy newspaper cutting which I filed away then forgot about. However, I have just rediscovered it, as well as a rather poor copy (it appears to be a low-resolution laser print) of a photograph of James. I'm hoping to get a better scan of the photograph in due course, but for the moment will have to make do with this one. Although the caption provided by Mary for the photo stated that, "James Miller & Mary née Cuckson," I believe that the photograph may have been taken in the mid- to late 1880s, in which case this must be his second wife Elizabeth.

The newspaper cutting transcript made for a very interesting read.
Death of a remarkable character. Sept. 19th, 1893.
We have received the following from an esteemed correspondent:- A well known figure has been laid at rest in Mugginton Churchyard, James Miller, age 77. His death took place at the residence of his son, at Heatley, Abbots Bromley. At the grave was sung “Now the labourer’s task is o’er.” A labourer he had all his life been, at work in a brickyard at five (he would boast), farm servant at ten. Never at school, save to an old woman, yet he would say he would beat all the village lads in scholarship. Industry and energy were rewarded in his case. We find him occupying a farm on the Combermere Estates in Cheshire, employing labour far beyond the requirements of his farm in his speciality of draining. This took him from place to place, and his heavy commitments in farming improvements, such as the application of steam in days when science was not so well understood seems to have crippled him, however. He left the “Noon Sun Farm” for draining operations. The drainage of Kedlestone Park was his first operation in this neighbourhood. His life now experienced a change for the worse. His business calculations after a night spent with friends, required an occasional spoonful of brandy, till his wife would say, after calls for more spoonfulls than she possessed patience, “getting sober is worse than getting drunk,” and would place the bottle before him. This one old friend indignantly refused. Nevertheless he would put in his occasional plea for a spoonful still. However, it was soon plain enough that the beer and the brandy must go, or else there would be no business falling in. It was some 33 years ago that he was induced to attend a temperance meeting at Derby. He said little to his companions on the way home, but, characteristic of his energy and determination, on reaching home he broke in the head of the beer barrel, and seeing the week’s marketings just brought home – on the table – pounced on the weekly parcel of ‘baccy and burnt it, remarking upon beer and ‘baccy – when expostulated with as “being what might have done some poor creatures good” – “What’s bad for me can’t be good for others.” His wife was wholly sceptical as to any change of a permanent nature – she was mercifully wrong in this forecast – and, with the dismissal of alcoholic drinks, his better fortune revived. He started somewhat substantial brick and tile making works at Weston Underwood, built a reservoir, introduced all recent appliances, and with stout sons and labourers to push the drainage works, was soon in possession of a large connection and comfortable income. His energy in the temperance cause was great; on the first row of seats his square shoulders might be observed. From his youth he had suffered from deafness, probably the result of a blow from a master when in service – when, then, the speaking commenced, his ear trumpet was an unfailing landmark. His liberality to this, and many good causes, was profuse; in fact, he only seemed to prosper for the prosperity of objects brought under his notice of a deserving character. He was self-taught as a self-made man, and, knowing the value of education, he gave his leisure hours to the education of others. He taught for years in a night school, in days when lads had never heard of “standards” and “labour certificates.” He was a great composer of prose, the spelling and grammar of which was controlled by rules of his own. The sense, however, was there. This leads to a digression. Being a great politician and reader of Parliamentary debates, he would delight his audience (on reading of “a scene in the House”) by remarking – “Another SENSE in the House of Commons!” and no one could ever persuade him as to the correct pronunciation of that word. His last great work was that of the formation of a chain of lakes on Mr. Ratcliffe’s estates, near Diseworth, but in this neighbourhood his name is most familiar. In later years he had the satisfaction to see the closing of many public-houses, the steady increase of members of abstinence convictions, the growth of the Bond of Hope, under the peculiar care of his eldest son, Mr. John Miller of Weston-Underwood, who, without having the impetuosity of his sire, has convictions upon the great questions of temperance. The subject of this memoir was a sterling Christian. Whoever might be absent, he ... sure (whom he long lost at Manchester), were ever in our places at church. When wholly too deaf to hear he came for example’s sake, and read an M.S. sermon placed in his hands by the Rector as he ascended the pulpit. Of late, almost entire blindness supervened; but his patience and tranquility astonished all. His Weston Underwood business had been finally closed, and he lived, until his second wife’s death, among relations, after which he settled down with his Staffordshire son. The tone of himself and family (all of whom are strictly teetotal) was admirable, and he has passed away in a good old age, leaving an example for those who knew him.

Image © and courtesy of Andrew Knighton

In previous articles I posted several photographs, old and more recent, of buildings in Weston Underwood, including the scan of a commercially produced postcard from the early 1900s shown above (Courtesy of Andrew Knighton). The north-easterly view shows the main cross roads in Weston Underwood, with the chapel or "reading room" built by James Miller in the centre middle ground. Apart from five boys and a girl, an elderly white-bearded man is shown leaning against the wall on the left, and I speculated that this may have been my gg-grandfather John Miller.

Image © and courtesy of Barbara Ellison

In a phone conversation with my aunt, she told me that a few years ago she found a framed photograph in a Derby antique shop of a Weston Underwood scene, apparently enlarged from another old postcard, and that it had since been hanging in her spare room. Although it was too large to scan, I'm very grateful to Nigel Aspdin for photographing it for me. It clearly shows the large Miller house to the north-west of the cross-roads (to the left of the previous view) with seven young girls standing on the pavement and in the road, and the chapel partly visible in the right background, through the trees. Also in the shot is a tent, apparently of pseudo-medieval style and perhaps used as a children's playhouse, erected in the garden.

It is possible that two or three of the children in these photos are grandchildren of John Miller; his son Wilfred Miller had married in 1904, had two sons and a daughter by 1909, and was still living in the village at around this time.

Image © and courtesy of Ivor & Eve Abbott
Wesleyan Chapel and Reading Room, Weston Underwood, 1965
Image © and courtesy of Ivor & Eve Abbott

The current owners of the property where the chapel was, Ivor and Eve Abbott, purchased it around 1965. They took these three excellent photographs of the chapel and surroundings in 1965, before and during the demolition of the building. I'm very grateful to Ivor and Eve for permission to use the slides, to John English for scanning them with a great deal of skill, and to Nigel Aspdin for arranging it all.

Image © and courtesy of Ivor & Eve Abbott
Wesleyan Chapel and Reading Room, Weston Underwood, 1965
Image © and courtesy of Ivor & Eve Abbott

Image © and courtesy of Ivor & Eve Abbott
Wesleyan Chapel and Reading Room, Weston Underwood, c.1965
Image © and courtesy of Ivor & Eve Abbott

However, the most exciting discoveries - at least for me - were two surviving bricks from the old chapel, bearing James Miller's stamp, which were discovered by Ivor and Eve in a corner of their property.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

Nigel duly collected them from Weston Underwood and photographed them for me.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel AspdinImage © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

Nigel also paid a visit to the Derby Museum of Industry and History, housed in the old Silk Mill off Full Street, where there is a section of clay industries, including brickmaking. They have on display a brickmaking machine, shown above, which may have been very much like the ones used by James Miller at Weston Underwood.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

The upper plate of the mould shows very similar screw heads to the impressions left in the "J. MILLER"-stamped ones photographed by Nigel. One of the two bricks is already in the safe-keeping of my aunt, and Nigel intends to deposit the other with the Industrial Museum, to go with their established collection, shown below.

Image © and courtesy of Nigel Aspdin

There are many people who have been directly or indirectly involved in bringing together the various aspects of this story. I am very grateful to my late father Bud Payne, aunt Barbara Ellison, cousins Lynne Tedder, Gwen Miller and Mary Hirst, as well as Andrew Knighton, Ivor & Eve Abbott, John English and, last but not least, my friend Nigel Aspdin. Without them researching this story would have been far more difficult, perhaps impossible. It certainly would have taken a great deal longer.

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