Birch, Layer Breton & Layer Marney Local History
Published in Parish News - May 1999
In this issue we outline what is known about another important trade to those who lived in many villages in olden times. Unlike the smiths described in the last issue we concentrate this time on the more maligned trade of milling. Characterised by Chaucer as schemers who were out to defraud both their suppliers and their customers, they were, nevertheless, an essential element in the farming system of yesteryear. Relying on either wind or water to provide the motive power to drive the mill, many of the buildings, including all of those in this area, have long since disappeared. The nearest we have is the water-mill at Layer de la Haye. At one time Birch boasted two windmills, commemorated in poetry, plus two water-mills. The poem:
All people that on earth do dwell,
Shall grind their corn at Digby's Mill;
If not they'll have to buy their bread
And flour of old John Royce instead.
Digby's Mill stood on the east side of the road about halfway between Birch Church and Post Office Cottages and was recorded as early as 1724. In the ownership of James Round of Birch Hall the tenant, in the 1770s was Isaac Barrett who, as a condition of the lease, was required to deliver to Birch Hall each Christmas Day one good fat turkey and fetch two chaldrons of coal from the Hythe, Colchester! In addition he also had to pay rent of £60 per year and, no doubt, deal very carefully with his landlord's produce which would almost certainly have taken precedence over that of other farmers. The Mill's name came from the fact that the Digby family were tenants up until 1855 when they became bankrupt having lived for some years in dire poverty. The mill with round house and two pairs of stones was sold by auction in 1855 and removed from the site, possibly being re-erected at Layer de la Haye. Now nothing remains although the family name lived on in the area for some years and one of the descendants, as mentioned in an earlier issue, was Charles Digby Harrod of the famous West End store. In 1825 this mill attracted the attention of the correspondent of the Chelmsford Chronicle who reported that "a tom-tit's nest had been found on one of the sails" of the mill and that it contained a number of eggs despite the fact that the mill had been in constant use!
Much more is known of Royce's Mill. The site was in Mill Road where there is still a Mill House built about 1890. The last miller, William Smith, noted that one of the timbers of the original mill was dated 1786 although this may not have been correct and it is more likely that the mill was built about 1819. John Royce was the owner miller in the Tithe Map of 1842 and held 23 acres. It remained in the family until William, possibly John's son, also became insolvent in 1887. During this time the Royces also had a hand in operating the water mill at Layer de la Haye. William moved into a nearby cottage in Mill Road and the mill was taken over by George Kindred. A few years later it became idle but was in use again in 1905 under William Smith who also had the water mill at Layer de la Haye. And later of Great Holland mill. However this period of activity was short lived and by 1910 the Birch mill was abandoned. It was derelict until the 1930s although there was some interest in preservation and estimates were submitted for various work which was never undertaken. By 1959 the roof, rear platform and most of the flooring had gone and it was in a dangerous state and it was no surprise when it was demolished in 1962. Today nothing remains apart from the name Mill House in Mill Lane, Birch.
It is interesting to note that an estimate for the essential repairs in 1936 came to £142 plus painting. This figure which now seems quite small would have preserved, at that time, a feature of the landscape, which at almost fifty feet high, must have been second only to Birch Church in dominating the village. Both Birch mills were post mills, unlike the Tiptree tower mill which still survives, and although made of substantial timber when erected they were always at the peril of the weather which of course provided the power as well as being a danger when the winds were too high. There is a detailed technical description of Royce's Mill, with photographs in "Essex Windmills, Millers and Millwrights" Volume III by Kenneth G Farries, from which much of the above has been taken.
To find a water mill in the area came as something of a surprise given the lack of a swift moving stream of any size but according to Hervey Benham's book "Some Essex Water Mills" the "diminutive stream" from Heckford Bridge joins with the "smaller trickle" from the lake in Birch Park and, about three quarters of a mile below Heckford Bridge, stood a mill, which Benham refers to as Stanway Mill, and about half a mile below the lake, on the other stream, stood Birch Mill. These were fulling mills used for pressing or kneading woven threads with the aid of soap and for scouring the grease and filth out of the woven cloth. In so doing the cloth became denser. The two mills in this area disappeared as the valley became more populated although the site is remembered in the name of Bay Mill where there were cottages occupied until the 1960s. The mills were shown on a map of Birch Hall 1725. The mill nearest to Stanway was occupied until about 1820 but the Birch Mill ceased to be tenanted a little earlier. Benham recorded that traces of Birch mill could still be seen in the form of brick foundations not far from Hill Farm. No trace of the site of Stanway Mill exists and it is difficult to see, from an examination of the stream, where it might have been sited.
Today the nearest water mill building to be seen is that at Layer de la Haye once operated by the same Royce family as the windmill on Birch Green. For a windmill we have the tower at Tiptree and a number of others, some still turning on occasion, within the county or like Saxted Green Mill in Suffolk, open to the public to show an early example of the use of the elements in producing flour.