The maid of Taverham mill

It was a beautiful warm summer  in 1786. The squire of Taverham, Miles Branthwayt, had recently taken over the running of the paper mill. His former tenant, John Anstead, was employed as his manager. Anstead had two grown-up sons, John junior and Thomas both paper makers, and a beautiful daughter, Elizabeth, aged 21. In truth we cannot be sure that she was beautiful, but she was very dear to her mother. She was also in love with another paper maker, a young man called John Burgess. By harvest time she was expecting his baby.

Her father cannot have been best pleased, and we must suppose from the facts that he would not consent to a marriage. The child, Richard, was born early next February and then, at last, when it was apparent that the infant was healthy and likely to survive, he agreed to the match. Elizabeth became Mrs Burgess in March 1787.

After this inauspicious start John Burgess’s career went from strength to strength. His father-in-law John Anstead died aged 77 early in the next century and his son became manager of the mill in his place. However, shortly afterwards the squire, Miles Branthwayt, died at the comparatively young  age of 52. His widow did not wish to continue as proprietor of the paper business  and consequently the mill need a new tenant. For some reason John Burgess junior missed the chance to  become the operator of the mill and continue the family tradition.

Instead the mill was leased by a partnership led by the ambitious editor of the Norwich Mercury, Richard Mackenzie Bacon. Under Bacon it was among the first mills the world to install one of the new paper making machines. John Burgess  it was who quickly became expert in operating the new equipment, not John Anstead. In the event things did not go well for Richard  Bacon and his business failed. After Bacon and his partner were made bankrupt in 1816 it was John Burgess who continued to operate the mill on behalf of the creditors. When the business was acquired by a new owner, Robert Hawkes a wealthy Norwich merchant, Burgess became his partner. By 1820 he was himself wealthy enough to start buying property in Norwich and Costessey, where he purchased several cottages and the White Hart pub. This he rebuilt in the latest style ten years later.

At the time there was probably no one alive who knew more about making paper by machine than John Burgess, and during these years Taverham mill supplied paper to printers across East Anglia and as far afield as Cambridge, where the University Press was a demanding customer. This prosperous period was brought to a close in 1830 when the mill was attacked one Saturday afternoon in December by machine-breakers who caused hundreds of pounds’ worth of damage. One of the rioter was identified as having been present at Taverham on that afternoon, and was brought to trial, but was acquitted by a sympathetic jury. Less lucky was another man who was transpoted to Australia.

Robert Hawkes, the principal shareholder, had already sold his share in the mill.  The new partners with whom Burgess now found himself the junior partner were two young men from wealthy local families. Unlike Robert Hawkes, they had no other business interests, and they tried to meddle at the mill, where Burgess had previously been free to manage alone. He soon left this new partnership, and instead took the lease on the vacant paper mill in Bungay. It was certainly a come-down in professional terms, since the Bungay mill was engaged in making brown wrapping paper by hand, instead of the machine-made white printing paper that he was experienced in. On the credit side he was at last his own boss.

What about Elizabeth, the young lady who had brought him into her family and so started his career? After the birth, out of wedlock of their first son Richard, the couple went on to have three more sons. Charles was a healthy boy like his elder brother, but the next son, George, died soon after birth. Infant mortality was high in those days, and old John Anstead’s cautious delay in giving his consent to his daughter’s marriage had made sense from his point of view. It may seem hard-hearted to us, but, as he saw it, if his daughter were forced to marry an unsuitable lad merely to legitimate an unborn child, who later died, she would have missed her chance to make a better match, and all for nothing. Of course, had he known how successful young John Burgess was later to become, he might have had no objection to his daughter’s choice.

Sadly, Elizabeth herself did not live to share in that success. Another son, again christened George, was born in 1795; the boy flourished, but this time it was the mother who did not survive. Elizabeth Burgess, nee Anstead, was buried in Taverham churchyard on the 7th of March, aged 30. On a cold spring day, it was a sad (but all too common) end to a love affair that had begun in that hot summer, nine years earlier.

JOSEPH MASON

joemasonspage@gmail.com

FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIA

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