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In Tring, malting barley, straw plaiting, silk throwing, canvas weaving, iron-working, vehicle body building, coaching inns, the construction of canal craft (at Gamnel) and of lock gates (at Bulbourne) and the manufacture of coal gas (The Tring Gas Light & Cole Company) are some of the businesses that over the years have come, and have gone.  Tring recently reacquired a brewery to replace the several – if pub brewing be included – that once existed in the town, while the sewage works at Gamnel can trace its roots back at least 140 years. [1]  This leaves just one important and long-established business, grain milling.  Milling has taken place at Gamnel for over two centuries, longer if an earlier watermill that is known to have existed in that locality is included.  The following account is, therefore, the story of Tring’s oldest continuous business, the manufacture of flour.


My thanks go to Mrs Heather Pratt, grand-daughter of William Mead of Tring Flour Mill, and to Miss Catherine Bushell, whose father and uncle were proprietors of the Tring Dockyard, for allowing me to use their family photographs and papers.  I am also grateful to Paul Messenger, Manager of Heygates’ Flour Mill, for an interesting and informative tour of the mill and its packaging plant (also for some free samples of the product) and to Wendy Austin for her help with research and editing.

Ian Petticrew

April 2017















An early product of the Industrial Revolution was our canal network, which improved quite dramatically the means of transporting goods, particularly those in bulk such as coal, grain and manure (for in that horse-powered age, large quantities were shipped from the cities to fertilise the land).  Many local businessmen and farmers soon became aware of the potential benefit that canal transport would have on their profits, and factories, mills and wharfs soon sprang up along the banks of the new waterways.

The Grand Junction Canal (since 1929, the Grand Union Canal) reached north-west Hertfordshire at the end of the 18th century.  Fortunately for Tring, which would otherwise have been bypassed, the need to provide the Canal with a reliable water supply as it crossed the ridge of the Chilterns led to a plan to construct a feeder ditch, which led westwards along the contour between Bulbourne and Wendover, passing the northern outskirts of Tring on its journey.  However, pressure from local farmers and land owners led the Grand Junction Canal Company (GJCC) to apply to Parliament for an Act to make the ditch navigable. 
In due course the following statutory notice appeared in the newspapers published along the route of the GJCC, giving notice of the Company’s intention to apply to Parliament for an Act which, among other things, would authorise them:

“. . . . to make navigable, the cut or feeder now making, and intended to be made, by the company of Proprietors of the Grand Junction Canal, from the town of WENDOVER, in the said county of Buckinghamshire, to the summit-level of the Grand Junction Canal, at Bulbourne, in the parish of Tring, which is to pass in, to, or through the several parishes of Wendover, Halton, Weston-Turville, Aston-Clinton, Buckland, and Drayton-Beauchamp, in the said county of Buckingham; and the parish of Tring; till it joins the said summit-level at Bulbourne aforesaid. Dated this 5th day of September, 1793.”

E. O. Gray, Aston Chaplin, Clerks to the Company.

Exactly when the Wendover Arm was completed is unknown, but it was probably shortly after 1794, for in his progress report of May of that year Chief Engineer William Jessop states that “About seven-eights of the Wendover Canal is cut”, and in a GJCC circular of November, 1797, reference is made to “The Wendover collateral line, now finished for the sake of the water.”  Thus, the Arm was widened and made navigable, and wharfs were built at, among other places, Gamnel (Tring), Buckland and  Wendover to cater for the trade that commenced when the main line of the canal reached Bulbourne Junction in 1799.

The earliest reference to milling in the Gamnel locality is also in that year.  The site now occupied by Tring Flour Mill (Heygates Ltd.) was in the vicinity of a water mill – probably located near the Baptist Chapel in New Road – that had been bought by the GJCC and then dismantled, its water supply having been diverted into the canal summit.  The loss of the mill pond affected the local Baptist community, whose traditional baptism ceremonies were thus curtailed:

 “The Water Mill at New Mill is now sold to the Canal Company, and the pond cannot therefore be used in future for baptism. A baptistery is being made in front of the pulpit in the Chapel
[where it remains].

The Mill had previously been in the ownership of friends of the Chapel, and after a baptismal service the women used to change their clothes there, and the men walked up to the Chapel to change. The open-air baptisms were a good thing [to be] done away with, although they were greatly preferred by the Minister and some members of the Chapel. The services were always scenes of much hostility and abuse from certain people in Tring, the participants in the service oftentimes being pelted with filthy missiles.”

From the Tring Vestry Minutes for 1799.

Then, on the 14th October 1800, the GJCC Minutes record that a wharf at Tring – presumably that at Gamnel, now generally known as
Tring Wharf – was sold by auction for three years from 29th September.  It was taken by James Tate, a coal merchant and barge owner, for £15 per annum.  The first reference to Gamnel appears in a deed of transfer held by Dacorum Heritage Trust dated the 5th July 1810, when the GJCC sold the freehold of what appears to have been the same site . . . .

“. . . . by Deed Poll under Common Seal in Consideration of Four hundred pounds paid to them by the said William Grover grant and release to the said William Grover his Heirs and Assigns All that wharf Land and Buildings thereon containing one acre and three roods more or less situate next Gamnel [canal] Bridge in the Parish of Tring . . . . ”

. . . . which, with some later extensions, is the site now occupied by Heygates flour mill (see map below).

A section of the GJCC's plan for the Wendover Arm, the numbers identifying the respective land owners.  The canal company bought the Gamnel site –
plots 25 & 26 (shaded red), comprising an area of 1 acre and 3 roods – from Henry Harrison and William Butcher respectively.



William Grover must have seen a business opportunity in further developing the Gamnel site on which “wharf Land and Buildings
did already exist.  On it he (or perhaps his brother James) later erected a windmill and set up in business sending and receiving goods by canal.  Exactly when the windmill was built is unknown.  Andrew Bryant’s 1820-21 map of Hertfordshire includes a windmill symbol at Gamnel Wharf, while Pigot’s Directory for 1823 lists the brothers William and James Grover as ‘millers’ at Gamnel, but the earliest record of Gamnel Wharf and premises is in 1829, when they were held by William Grover, while James Grover held the windmill and a house on the same site, at a rateable value of £13. 5s. 0d.

Viewed from across the Wendover Arm, the steam mill erected in 1875 and the tower mill demolished in 1911.

Old photographs show the mill to have been a brick-built 6-storey tower mill with a gallery on the second floor.  In its latter days its four sails were of the double-shuttered patent type.  The cap was in the ‘Kentish style’, winded by a fantail with an extension at the rear to support the fantail’s stage.  It was considered to be a relatively large mill having power sufficient to drive at least three pairs of millstones.  While no record exists of the mill’s machinery, it was probably comparable to that in the later tower mill at Quainton and, judging from photographs of Gamnel Mill, was of similar external size and appearance.

At some time after 1829, the partnership between the Grover brothers ceased.  Why is unclear, but following their father’s death in 1820 there arose a prolonged dispute between them concerning the terms of his will.  In her history of Aldbury, Jean Davis refers to a vestry dispute of 1828, and states that . . . .

“The fact was that, at some time before he died in 1820, John Grover had given up his baker’s shop in Aldbury and moved to Tring Wharf.  Having acquired some land in North Field, he proceeded to build a house there adjacent to the road, which he left to his son James with the crop and implements and household goods.  According to John Clement, watchmaker and Baptist preacher of Tring, James’s brother William disputed the will, which finally went to arbitration.  James is reported to have said that he was wronged of ‘hundreds of pounds’.”

For whatever reason, James Grover set out to build and work the nearby Goldfield windmill in competition with his brother, which is where the 1839 edition of Pigot’s Directory lists him.  The mill at Gamnel Wharf continued to be run by William in partnership with his son Thomas, while the pai ralso ran a canal carrying business, their listing in Pigot’s trade directory for 1839 advertising services To London and all places on the line of the Grand Junction Canal, and goods forwarded to all other parts of the Kingdom, by Grover and Son, from Gamnel wharf, and Thomas Landon, from Cow Roast wharf, daily.”

The 1841 Census records William Grover, then age 60, at Gamnel with his son Thomas, and the Hillsdons, father and son, who were later to set up business as millwrights in Chapel Street, Tring, all four being described as millers.  But the business was not to last much longer.  In January, 1843, a brief notice in the London Gazette announced the dissolution of the partnership between William Grover & Son, wharfingers, of Tring Wharf and Paddington.  In the following month, a notice appeared in the Bucks Advertiser announcing that:

“William Grover, in the town of Tring in the County of Hertfordshire, having on the 28th day of January last disposed of the business of wharfinger, coal and coke merchant and mealman, and dealer in hay, straw, ashes, and other things, lately carried on by him in partnership with Thomas Grover, at Tring Wharf, and at Paddington in the County of Middlesex, under the firm of ‘WILLIAM GROVER & SON’ to his sons-in-law, William Mead and Richard Bailey.

Messrs. Mead and Bailey beg to announce that they will continue to carry on the same business, upon the said premises, in partnership under the name of ‘MEAD & BAILEY’.  All debts due to and owing from the said William Grover, will be received and paid by Mead & Bailey.”

The inherited rumour is that William Grover became insolvent, but a book held in the Herts Records Office based on correspondence between the deacons of New Mill Baptist Chapel and William Grover attribute the reason to illness:

“He [William Grover]
had a sad end.  He became ill and descried to make the business over to Richard Bailey and William Mead – they took over the Wharf and it was conveyed to them, and paid annuities of £100 to Wm. and £90 to his son during their lives - since it has been said that his circumstances being in a deranged state, caused his illness, if he was ill, which some thought not the case.  Thus the Wharf and house that he had erected passed away from himself, his son and grandson, and his name perished from his inheritances after the sudden death of Richard Bailey in Feb. 1856.”

Characters against Clements 1853 (ref: D/EHn Z48/6, Herts Records Office)

It is interesting that the Grovers described themselves not as millers, but as “wharfingers”, which suggests that their principal business activities were the shipment of produce by canal and the resale of imported bulk commodities, such as coal, coke and manure.  In an age before the development of road transport and with the nearest railway goods yard almost two miles from Tring town centre, the Wendover Arm was not only an important source of water for the Grand Junction Canal, but of commercial importance to the town and its surrounding area.  Indeed, it is known that the Arm was used to convey grain not only to the windmill at Gamnel, but also to that at Wendover, it too being located strategically close to that town’s canal wharf.

After 1843 the Grovers disappear from the story of the mill, and for the following century Tring Flour Mills were owned, either in partnership or in the sole possession of members of the Mead family, eventually becoming known as Mead’s Flour Mills.



Following the change of ownership, Messrs. Mead and Bailey continued to offer a diverse range of services at Gamnel Wharf, advertising themselves as millers, coal merchants, wharfingers and water carriers. They were also dealers in horse manure, which they imported by canal from London sending cargoes of hay and straw in return.  It is likely that Bailey managed the wharf, for in the 1851 Census he describes him as “Miller and Wharfinger” while Mead appears as “Farmer and Miller”(the Mead family continue to farm in the area today).  Their workforce numbered around 30 men, which the Census lists living (with their families) in the immediate vicinity of the mill, which covered only half the area of that taken up by the mill today.  William Mead lived on site in a handsome house adjacent to the yard.  However, it is open to question whether this was a close-knit and caring community, for a contemporary account relating to one of the mill’s employees rather belies this view.

William Massey, who worked as a labourer at the mill, lived with his family on the wharf where he rented a hovel from the miller for a shilling a week.  David Shaw, in his biography of Gerald Massey, William’s eldest son, writes:

“For this money they [the Massey family] were given a damp flint stone hut with a roof so low that it was impossible for an average adult to stand upright.  Having paid the rent, nine shillings remained from Williams weekly wage to provide a minimum subsistence.”

In his autobiographical sketch, John Mead, William Mead’s sixth and youngest son, also refers to the cottages (and to the windmill):

“We are sometimes told that adults do not generally remember anything that happened before they were 5 years old, unless of a very special character.  Such a special happening did take place in my case, for the neck of a windmill broke, and the sails all tumbled down together. This is my earliest recollection, and I was then but 3 years old [i.e. 1849].

It was the custom in those days for mothers to send their children while very young to such schools as were convenient, so that they could get on with their work without being hindered by the presence of the little folks, and I was sent, with my cousins the Baileys, when under 4 years old. My first school was at Mam Rowe’s, who lived in one of 4 houses in a row of 4 flint cottages. The next one was occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Massey, parents of the better known Gerald Massey, the poet; and the others by Thomas Rowe, a stoker at the mill, and Joseph Anderson. The rent of these cottages, including good gardens, was about 1/- per week. At Mam Rowe’s school we sat in a row on a form about 1 foot high, and there I learned the alphabet.”


Gerald Massey (1828-1907),
 poet, critic and writer on Ancient Egyptian beliefs.

Gerald Massey was to become a Chartist agitator, later acquiring renown in literary circles as a poet, critic and author.  Some years after William’s death, Gerald Massey had this to say about his late father’s employment at Gamnel Wharf . . . .

“I know a poor old man who, for 40 years, worked for one firm and its three generations of proprietors.  He began at a wage of 16s. per week, and worked his way, as he grew older and older, and many necessaries of life grew dearer and dearer, down to six shillings a week, and still he kept working, and would not give up.  At six shillings a week he broke a limb, and left work at last, being pensioned off by the firm with a four-penny piece!  I know whereof I speak, for that man was my father.”

Regardless of whether the Meads treated their employees in such a Dickensian manner, their business prospered.  However, the partnership between Mead & Bailey was to end in 1856 with Bailey’s death.  In the following year his widow Sarah bound their son Thomas as an apprentice miller to Edward Mead for a period of five years.  The details of whatever financial settlement William Mead reached with Sarah Bailey do not survive, but following her husband’s death sole ownership of the mill passed into the Mead family, beginning with William.

By the 1860s ownership of the mill had passed jointly to William’s sons,  Edward and Thomas, but in 1865 Edward sold his share to his brother John, who three years later sold out to Thomas, leaving Thomas Mead the sole owner of the business.  In the same year Thomas extended the site with the purchase of an adjoining plot of land facing the Wingrave Road (curiously, the purchase document describes his occupation as “farmer”).

Although not relevant to the milling business, it is interesting to see the nature of the canal trade that was still being carried out at Gamnel Wharf despite the damaging impact of the railway.  This from John Mead’s autobiographical sketch . . . .

“My next move was to Gamnel Wharf, where I was born – my brother Albert who had the hay and straw trade there was a bachelor.  He had done well in business, and offered to let me have it which I did, taking it over in 1879, when I was 33 years old.  I then became coal merchant, lime burner, and dealer in artificial manure etc., sent hay and straw to Paddington by canal, and had stable manure for the return journey . . . . I had nothing to do with the sale of hay and straw at 5 South Wharf, Paddington.  My brother Albert arranged with another brother, Frederick, to pay commission of 1s. on each load of 36 trusses of straw, and 5s. on each ton of hay, and he charged 2s. 6d. for each ton of manure brought back by boat.”

. . . . from which it is fair to conclude that at this date the Wendover Arm remained important to local farming interests.

Thomas Mead was blessed with five sons (of which Thomas Mead Jnr. died in his youth) and two daughters.  In the late 1890s Thomas Mead Snr. bought Clifford Mills, Northampton, and this business was managed by Frank and Duncan Mead, until Duncan was killed in the Boer War; Frank then carried on the business alone for many years.  Of the other two sons, Percy later took over Gubblecote Farm, Tring, which his descendents continue to farm, and, in 1898, William bought the Tring Flour Mill from his father in exchange for an annuity of £200 p.a.  William Mead then carried on the business successfully until his death in 1941, at some time also farming Old Manor Farm, Wingrave; Hospital Farm, Marsworth; and Silk Mill Farm, Tring.  And until government restrictions caused it to be discontinued following the outbreak of World War II., he also ran a successful retail coal business from the wharf.



By the 1840s it appears that a steam engine had been installed to supplement wind power, which by then was fairly common practice, for in his autobiographical sketch John Mead refers to one of the occupants of the mill cottages as Thomas Rowe, a stoker at the mill (the 1861 Census lists 19-year old Samuel Bull as an “engine stoker”).  Nothing is known about the steam engine, but later evidence suggests it was separate from the windmill, unlike the practice adopted at Wendover where a small steam engine was installed beside the windmill and coupled to its spur wheel (which drove the millstones, etc) via an iron shaft and cog.

Wendover windmill and engine house.  The flue from the engine’s boiler passed underground to a tall brick-built chimney in the centre of the mill yard. 

By this date the business at Gamnel Wharf was run by William Mead’s sons Thomas and Edward (who also rented Wendover windmill).  Edward had become a busy man, having acquired milling interests at Watford, Hunton Bridge and Chelsea, where he is believed to have installed the UK’s first roller mill.  But having sold his share of the business to his younger brother John (in 1865, see previous section), Edward Mead departs from the story of Tring flour mill.  John Mead then carried on in partnership with Thomas for 3 years, as he records in his autobiographical sketch . . . .

“Prior to my return home Gamnel [a.k.a. Tring] Flour Mill was run by my brothers Edward and Thomas, but the former took the mill at Hunton Bridge, near Watford, and said I might have his share of Gamnel for £1500.  This I accepted, giving notes of hand [i.e. promissory notes], which I paid off when I had earned the money.  I worked hard, sometimes up to 10 oclock, and if windmill and steam-mill were both working I would stay until 1.00 oclock in the morning.  In these cases I slept at my brother Williams house . . . . After being a miller for 3 years, my brother Thomas took the business, and I became a farmer.  This was in 1868 when I was 22 years old, but farming was not so remunerative as milling.  I should have made more money at the mill.”

. . . . after which John also leaves the story of the Tring Flour Mill.

A particular milestone was reached on the 1st March, 1875, when Thomas Mead took the bold step of signing a contract for the construction of an imposing brick-built grain mill adjacent to the windmill.  The builder was one Duncan Stewart of Wallington, in Surrey, who undertook to build the mill for the sum of £1,246, the contract stipulating that the building was to be complete by the end of July against a penalty of £2 for every week over-run.

The new steam mill. It consisted of five spacious and lofty floors fitted with the necessary storage bins.

The new mill was powered by a beam engine capable of driving five pairs of millstones.  Installation of this new machinery did not go without incident, as one local newspaper reports . . . .

“Accident — There was a shifting of the old boiler out of the old engine house at Mr Thomas Mead’s flour mill into the new one on Tuesday; and in order to do this, the boiler had to be raised four feet.  A small space had been left at the end for the jack, and the block underneath slipped when the boiler was raised about two feet, and caused the boiler to run ahead, striking against Lot Denchfield, fracturing his right thigh and left fore arm.  Denchfield was at once taken to the County Infirmary at Aylesbury.”




Schematic illustration of traditional milling equipment.

The age-old process of producing flour was to crush wheat between two circular millstones.  Of the two, the lower ‘bed stone’ remained stationary while above it the ‘runner stone’, which does the grinding, was caused to rotate under the power of a windmill’s sails or a waterwheel  (a few combined wind and water mill also existed, Doolittle mill at Totternhoe been a nearby example).  Under gravity, wheat trickled into the eye of the rotating runner stone from where it was channeled between the faces of the two stones.  The rotating runner stone then subjected the wheat to a ‘scissoring’ or grinding action that produced ‘meal’.  The runner stone was generally slightly concave, while the bed stone was slightly convex.  Under the rotating action of the runner stone, this shaping channelled the meal to the outer edges of the stones where it was gathered up.

A ‘flour dresser’ was then used to sift the meal into various grades of fineness.  This consisted of a cylindrical drum covered in wire mesh of increasing grades of fineness, and set at an angle.  Inside the drum revolved a set of brushes.  Meal, fed into the upper end of the cylinder was rubbed against the mesh screens by the brushes as it fell through the cylinder under gravity.  The finest meal, white flour, passed through the finest mesh screen; next came semolina flour, which passed through the next grade of mesh, leaving the coarsest product, bran.  Each grade was ejected into canvas chutes which feed sacks on the meal floor below.

The principle of the roller mill.

As the 19th century progressed, advances in technology swept away old industrial systems and grain milling was not exempt from progress.  This, in 1894 Thomas Mead took a further step forward when he installed the recently-developed roller milling system, running it for some years in conjunction with the windmill (which was probably relegated to grinding animal feed).

Roller milling made possible the construction of larger, more efficient grain mills, hastening the abandonment of the small country wind and water mills that used millstones to crush the grain.  The new system crushed the grain between a series of fluted steel rollers of about 12 inches in diameter.  The rollers are set with a specified gap between them and spin towards each other at high, but at different speeds; the surface of each roller is also grooved with a different pattern.  The input and output to the milling equipment is through a system of pneumatic pipes.

Roller mills enabled the production of a larger amount of better-grade flour from a given amount of wheat, quicker and to a much more consistent standard than traditional stone grinding. (Appendix 1)

A modern roller flour mill.

Then, in 1905, Thomas’s son William, by then the mill’s owner, (Appendix 2) replaced the old Bolton & Watt-type beam engine with a Woodhouse & Mitchell tandem compound condensing engine, rated at 120 hp, which drove the mill until it converted to mains electricity in 1946.

The early 20th century saw the rapid demise of what windmills remained.  After some ninety years of service Gamnel Wharf tower mill was demolished on 4th May 1911.  A local newspaper gave the following account . . . .

“Removal of a Landmark — On May 4th a familiar landmark was demolished.  For many years the old windmill where Mr. Mead and his ancestors have long carried on their business, has stood at Gamnel.  The leisurely business methods of bygone days have had to give place to more up-to-date arrangements and so the ground on which the old mill stood was wanted for an extension of the steam-powered mills.  Under the personal direction of Mr W. N. Mead the structure was first undermined, wooden struts taking the place of the brickwork and when it was ready a steel cable and winch hauled it over.”

The demolition of Gamnel Wharf tower mill, 4th May 1911.



Following the demolition of the windmill, nothing is then on record until the 1930s.  This was a time of severe depression throughout the land, which included farming and milling.  Subsidised French flour was brought into this country for as little as 12s 6d (twelve shillings and six pence) a sack of 280 lbs.  Wheat was selling for about 18 shillings a quarter (4½ cwts or 229 kilos), and even home-produced flour was as low as 17 shillings and 18 shillings a sack, but with the inception of the Wheat Act (1932) [3] conditions gradually improved and farming became more secure.  Then, at the outbreak of World War II., in common with all other flour mills, Tring was brought under the control of the Ministry of Food.  No-one envisaged at the time that this control would last until August 1953, nearly 15 years! – indeed, government controls and restrictions on the production and distribution of food grew even more severe for several years following the return of peace.

During the war the milling business was run under very difficult conditions.  This was due in part to the rationing of a wide range of items, to manpower shortage, and to stringent government controls implemented by the Ministry of Food.  In his autobiographical sketch, Ralph Seymour, the mills former General Manager, describes working under Ministry of Food control:

The effect of the World War II on the mill was instant and shattering.  We came under the direct control of the Ministry of Food, who issued an endless stream of Statutory Rules and Orders, which sometimes contained twenty or thirty pages of closely printed instructions and regulations, all couched in such legal jargon and phraseology as to be almost incomprehensible.  You needed the help of a lawyer to decipher it all, so much so that one wag succinctly observed You don’t make a mistake today, you commit an offence! [4]

The mill was now run on a constant 24 hours, 7 days a week basis.  The men worked 8 hour shifts − 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., and 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. again, and these were worked on a rotation basis, so that each man worked a different shift each week, on a 3-week cycle.  The only stops were made for essential repairs and maintenance, but to get parts and machinery replacements you had to sign applications ad nauseam to obtain a licence.  Even then you had to use every wile and trick known to man to actually get the stuff!  I have personally travelled 150 miles or so to fetch a particular part.

Unfortunately Harold Saunders, the flour traveller, died in 1940, and a few months later Teddy Clarke also died.  Replacement staff had to be employed, and we were lucky to get an accountant, who came out of retirement to help, and we also found a flour traveller who was exempt from war service, but every firm then was having staffing troubles, as so many were in the services, or munitions, or other war jobs.

Soon, all animal feeding stuffs were strictly rationed.  Coupons were issued to all owners of livestock, the number of coupons being apportioned from returns made in previous years to a government department, and depending on numbers and type of stock.  Beef farmers, for instance, fared very badly, as they were expected to make full use of their grazing land, whilst producers of milk were in a much better position.

The coupons were valid for the month of issue and the subsequent month only, and a strict account had to be kept of each transaction.  Officially, no customer was to become ‘overdrawn’ so to speak.  The coupons then had to be tabulated by us on special forms, fully detailing the number and value of each coupon, and the quantity and type of feeding stuffs supplied against it.  Different forms were required for the different types of feed-cereals, protein, etc.  The forms then had to be submitted to a central area office, in our case Cambridge.  On submission of the tabulated forms to Cambridge, we were issued with Buying Permits, to enable us to purchase more feeds for sale.  At the end of each month, these again had to be tabulated.

Under Ministry control the quality of flour was gradually lowered.  White flour became unobtainable, and the resultant output of ‘national’ flour produced a ‘standard’ loaf of a dingy grey crumb.”



William Mead and his wife Edith.

William Mead died in April, 1941.  There being no son to succeed him, the business passed into the control of his executors and trustees.  Ralph Seymour, who was a minority shareholder in the business, [5] states in his memoires that the three years following William
s death were a very unsettled period during which the future of the mill was by no means clear.  Then, early in July 1943, Ralph returned from a busy day on the London Corn Exchange to learn that the mill had a new owner – he relates what then transpired:

“. . . . on coming into the office I was introduced to a Mr. Robert Heygate. This gentleman said he wished to consult me about the purchase of English grain from the coming harvest.  ‘In what connection, may I ask?’ I enquired.  ‘My family has bought the business of Wm. N. Mead Ltd., and has paid a deposit,’ was the startling reply.  ‘Well, you haven’t bought me with it, have you?’ I responded.  I suggested that we should talk after I had dealt with all the affairs of my London trip, and if he would accompany me to my home for tea we could converse without interruption.  Subsequent to my meeting with Robert Heygate I agreed to travel down to their family mill at Bugbrooke, Northampton, to meet his father and elder brother Jack.  I liked what I saw there.  A family firm, they had employees with upwards of 50 years in their service, which told its own story.

I agreed to continue to manage the Tring business, but much of the previous responsibility was off my shoulders.  From the outset the Heygates placed implicit trust in me and, as formerly, I continued to be the sole signatory for cheques, etc.  After consultation, it was agreed that for the time being the Tring mill would continue trading under the name of Wm. N. Mead Ltd; three years later the trading title was revised to Meads Flour Mills Ltd., still with me in charge, and we continued under this name for a number of years.

Despite the limitations of continued Ministry control and shortages due to the war, I liked the Heygate approach, which was: ‘What can we do to modernise,’ rather than the old Governor’s ‘Make do and mend’ attitude.”

Messrs. Heygate and Sons, of Bugbrooke Mills, Northampton were – and remain – a family business of millers, merchants and farmers.  The family, who had been farming the same land in Northamptonshire since the 16th century, [6] moved into milling in the 19th century, when Arthur Heygate Snr acquired Bugbrooke Mill.  A large change to the business came in 1942 when the mill was destroyed by fire.  It was rebuilt with state-of-the-art milling equipment capable of converting 24 sacks of wheat into 18 sacks of flour every hour, plus bran for a feed mill alongside.  In 1944 the company acquired the Tring Flour Mill followed, in 1958, by the Downham Market Mill.  Subsequent investments have made Heygates one of this country’s largest independent millers, while the Group also has interests in a specialist milling business in France.

Ralph Seymour, for many years General Manager of Tring Flour Mill.
Following retirement Ralph was ordained and worked as a clergyman in the Parish.

Following the takeover, the management of the Tring Flour Mill was reconstituted.  Ralph Seymour became General Manager and with the return of peace the ravages of the war years were gradually repaired.  From 1946 to 1950 considerable extensions were made to the warehouse and the offices.  The conditioning bins were increased in capacity and the intake of wheat by barge was discontinued, with all supplies subsequently arriving by road.  This change created a very awkward bottleneck in the single road access to the mill, the existing entrance being between the Mill House building and the mill cottages.  To remedy the problem some 2 acres of land on the south side of the mill were purchased from the Rothschild estate to permit a new access road to be laid down.  To make an entry, the old south boundary wall was removed – this had formed part of the Carpenters’ Shop and was the remaining part of the old windmill that had been pulled down in 1911.  Shortly after this work was complete it was found necessary to extend the warehouse and the silo accommodation, which until then were exactly as built nearly 40 years previously.

With the return to peace government wartime controls gradually eased.  Bread production was no longer limited to the national loaf [7] and again became profitable.  Good salesmanship in both flour and feeding stuffs became essential.  With the mill remodelled, production increased and the business grew steadily.  Major re-arrangements of the flour milling procedures were again undertaken in 1955-56 when the first pneumatic system was installed, the third such installation in the U.K.  Further major changes took place during the 1970s, when additional bulk flour storage was erected, and all the wheat cleaning plant and almost the whole of the mill machinery was replaced.  Careful management of this project permitted the mill to continue to grind the same amount of grain each week while the work was being carried out.



Above: A. Harvey-Taylor (Aylesbury) narrowboats at Gamnel, c.1930s.
Below: Mr. and Mrs. Ward from Startops End with their daughter Phoebe and her family.  They are discharging Manitoba wheat at Tring Flour Mill.

By the late 19th century much U.S. and Canadian imported wheat was being exported to the U.K.  In his memoires Ralph Seymour says that it was shipped by barge from Brentford to Bulbourne, where it was transferred to a horse-drawn narrowboat for its passage to the mill up the narrow Wendover Arm.  However, the above photographs suggest that wheat might also have been shipped directly to the mill by narrowboat.

So far as local deliveries were concerned, before the Great War horse-drawn wagons were used to deliver goods, with either 2-horse or 4-horse teams according to the load, the flour being delivered as far as Chesham, Aylesbury, Leighton Buzzard and Dunstable.  A single horse van was used for smaller local deliveries.  Then, in 1916, a Foden steam wagon running on solid tyres and capable of carrying 8-tons was first used; judging from the photograph below, a Sentinel steamer also joined the fleet.  In 1918, a 2½ ton Napier lorry, also on solid tyres, was added, the body of which – and of all succeeding lorries up until the Second World War – was constructed by Bushell Bros. at their boatyard on the premises.

Above: a Foden steam lorry in W. N. Mead livery. Below: a Sentinel steam lorry.

The intake of wheat by canal was discontinued soon after the end of the World War II., with all supplies subsequently being delivered by road.

By the time this photo was taken the steamers appear to have been replaced
by internal combustion-engined vehicles.  This is a Dennis dropside lorry c.1935.

According to a 1953 article appearing in the Berkhamstead Gazette, the fleet then consisted of two 6-ton and three seven-ton Bedfords, a Foden lorry and trailer with a carrying capacity 15 tons, and a bulk grain wagon with a carrying capacity of 13 tons used for haulage of wheat from the Docks.  The article goes on  to say that
even this is insufficient to cope with the work, so that a large tonnage of business is hauled by local contractors,” a situation that continues.

Today, the mill is owned by Heygates Ltd., whose transport division operate a fleet of 80 vehicles covering their three milling operations (16 being based at Tring) to deliver 450,000 tons of flour annually.



The motor barge Progress being launched at Tring boatyard in 1934.

Until the 1940s, all the imported wheat and flour used for admixture were carried along the Grand Junction Canal by barge from the London Docks, and considerable quantities of flour were also despatched by canal boat from Tring to London, particularly to the Fulham and Chelsea districts.  In the early days of the Mill the barges often returned to London carrying other cargoes including hay and straw for use in the horse-powered Metropolis.

Meads had their own fleet of barges, and from about 1850 John Bushell, a local man, was employed by the Meads to build and repair them.  At that time canal boats were often built in small boatyards run by a few men and this applied at Gamnel Wharf, where the boat builders worked in the open air in the most extreme weather.  Eventually – c.1930 – the open-sided shed shown above was erected to provide some shelter from the elements.

Modernisation at the mill in 1875 resulted in John Bushell’s son Joseph leasing the boatyard and developing it into a separate business, while continuing to meet the Meads’ requirements for building and maintaining their canal craft.

In 1912, Joseph Bushell’s two sons, Joseph junior and Charles, took over the business.  They renamed it Bushell Brothers, and boats for many of the largest canal users in the country were built and repaired in their boatyard.  Their crowning achievement was the 400 h.p. barge tug Bess built in 1920 for use on the Thames.  Following her sideways launch she was taken along the Grand Junction Canal from Tring to London.  Most careful precautions had to be taken before this could he done to ensure that she would clear all the bridges on the route, and scale models of the tug and the two bridges likely to give trouble were built, which showed a clearance of just 2 inches – when Bess at length reached them, the clearance was found to be exactly 2 inches!

Bess being prepared at Bushell Bros. boatyard for launching into the Wendover Arm at Gamnel.
Tring Flour Mill complete with its splendid engine chimney is in the background.

The Thames tug Bess, built  for the London Haulage Co. in 1920 by Bushell Bros. at Tring.
Originally powered by a 400 h.p. steam engine,  she was re-engined in 1926 with a 200 h.p. Kromhout diesel.

By the 1930s as canal traffic and the market for new barges and repairs was declining, and more varied work had to be sought.  Besides their work on narrowboats, the firm is known to have built and repaired pleasure boats, maintenance flats, wide boats, tugs and even a fire float, while their letterhead advertised boats for hire, carpentry and decorating services.  Shortly before its closure in 1952, Bushells were constructing and painting coachwork for commercial vehicles.

Some examples of Bushell Bros. coachwork.



Silos at Tring Flour Mill, from the works entrance.

Today, flour milling continues at Gamnel Wharf, but in a manner greatly transformed from its wind and steam-driven milling days.  The mechanical shafts, cogs, belts and sets of grindstones have long been replaced by banks of cabinets that house sophisticated filters and grinding rollers serviced by a network of pneumatic feeder pipes.  The finished product is no longer packed in the 2½ hundredweight (280 lbs.) sacks that carters like William Massey had to deliver into bakers’ lofts, sometimes carrying each sack up slippery external wooden steps or ladders.  Today, Gamnel’s modern automated packing plant fills 32 kilos (70 lbs.) sacks as well as a large output of 1½ kilo bags for the domestic consumer market.  These are then neatly palleted, swathed in polythene sheet, and loaded onto lorries by forklift truck.  Some flour also leaves the mill in bulk transporters such as that shown on the right of the picture above.

Rear of the steam mill of 1875.

In the days of the windmill, two millers could process half a ton of grain per hour.  Today, only two men are needed to operate the plant, but  its electrically-driven machinery operating under computer control can mill 12 tons per hour; or put another way, 100,000 tons of wheat is milled in a year resulting in 76,000 tons of flour (the bulk of the waste going into animal feed), mainly for baking, but there is also a major commitment to wholemeal for biscuits and bulk outlets.  The mill employs a workforce of 80, and 16 trucks deliver its products to outlets throughout the south of England.

Silos at the rear of the mill.

Overall, the Heygate Group spans farming, flour and feed milling and baking, with seven flour mills on three sites, a feed mill, two modern bakeries and 7,500 acres of mainly arable land in England.  In total it employs over 900 staff, compared to just 20 in 1935.  Its seven flour mills over three sites consume more than 450,000 tons of wheat a year, the vast majority coming from British farms.  More than 80 grades of flour are produced, for breads, cakes, pizzas, burger buns, chapattis, biscuits and more besides, supplying large manufacturing plants, in-store supermarket bakeries and craft bakers, delivering 24/7.

Rear of the flour mill from the Wendover Arm.



Before the actual milling process began, wheats were blended into what was called the grist.  The foot of each storage bin had a calibrated release on a ratchet principle so that this could be set and the correct quantity of each wheat released.  All the wheats contained extraneous matter to some extent, so the next process was to remove this by a most exhaustive cleaning process, so that sound grain, free from all impurities, resulted.  By various elevators this was then fed into a washing process, and from there into a screen-meshed whizzer, to remove excess moisture.

The next process was to feed it into a heated container to open the pores of the skin of the wheat, and then on to a cold container to close the pores up again.  The grist was then put into a conditioning bin for 24 hours, with the result that drier grain absorbed moisture from the damper, and a level moisture of about 16% was arrived at, ready for the milling process.

The strongest gluten cells of the grain are towards the outer skin, so the object of the treatment is to scrape them free without breaking up the outer skin.  A series of chilled steel spiral rolls were employed, the first with serrations of four to the inch, the top one of two revolving at a differential speed of 2 to 1, thus opening the grain wide with a shearing action.  The subsequent rolls were serrated progressively less acutely.  The release from these was elevated to the top storey of the mill into a most ingenious machine called a plansifter.  This consisted of an outer wood casing containing no less than 12 sieves, from a coarse wire mesh at the top to a fine one at the bottom.  The whole plansifter was suspended from the ceiling attached to 16 flexible bamboo rods. Under the bottom was an elliptical weight which, when in motion, afforded a perfect sieving motion.

The releases from this operation were fed back to the roller floor, the coarsest to the second rolls, and according to the grading, to each appropriate roll, and a final pair of smooth rollers.  Meanwhile, the finer separations from the plansifter were fed to the enclosed cylinders inclined at an angle but clothed with coarsely meshed cloth.  The finer release was then fed to the next machine clothed with finer mesh, and the over-tail despatched to the last sequence of the rolls.

The resultant fine release was now actual flour, which was fed to a holding bin, from where it was bagged up by an operative into jute bags weighing 140 lbs. nett. (Nowadays it is packed into 32 kgs. stiff paper bags, or alternatively stored in a glass-lined bin, from which it is loaded into bulk lorries, and at the bakeries blown from the lorries by means of compressed air into the bakers’ bins.)



In 1898, William Mead acquired Tring Flour Mill from his father in exchange for an annuity of £200 p.a.  Being a prudent businessman, before completing the transaction William arranged to have the business valued to assess whether it was worth the capitalised cost of the annuity in relation to his father’s likely lifespan (Thomas was then 65). 

This plan of the mill in 1929 was found among some Mead family papers.

The valuation has disappeared, but the following manuscript letter that accompanied it provides an interesting summary of the fixed assets of the business as they then existed:

In accordance with your instructions I have attended at the Steam Flour Mills, Tring, July 5/98 and now beg to make the following remarks.

The property consists of (all being freehold) a brick built and slated house, fronting the Wingrave Road, containing kitchen, scullery, dining room with marble mantel & folding doors to garden, small sitting room with grate, passage & small wine cellar off; basement and cellar.  First Floor: five bedrooms, bathroom and W.C.  There are also two staircases.

The Mill House, c.1930s.

Adjoining (and though originally a separate house, it is now connected) is a brick built and slated dwelling house containing, in basement, a dairy and cellar: ground floor, washhouse with 2 coppers, with range and cupboards.  Room with grate forming entrance hall (under staircase is entrance to a cellar), drawing room with marble mantel, dining room, also entered from garden is a small office up steps.  In the rear is a pretty garden, tastefully laid out with shrubs, trees, grass plots and paths.

The construction of the above mentioned houses is somewhat peculiar.  They were originally a row of cottages, which have been built onto and converted into their present state.  The condition and state of repair is generally speaking very satisfactory.  Both houses are inhabited by Mr Thomas Mead and his family.

Crossing the Wingrave Road, I came to a nice enclosure of a paddock, enclosed with brick walls on two sides and containing a tennis court, nut stems and fruit trees.  At one side and at one time forming part of same is a capital garden, enclosed with a high wall and well stocked with fruit trees and laid out with paths.  In it are a lean to potting house and two lean two vineries.

The above described freehold land contains about 1½ acres.  It has a long frontage to the Wingrave Road and forms an excellent building site.  I understand, however, that at the present time there is no demand for ground for such a purpose here.

Again crossing the road, I come to the wharf and business premises connected with the mill, including four freehold brick built and slated cottages, containing two rooms upstairs and two rooms downstairs.  Range of brick and slated wood barns to each house, also 2 WCs and shed at end.  These cottages are substantially built and in a very fair state of repair.  They are let at 2s 6d per cottage per week, the landlord paying outgoings.

Also abutting onto the Wingrave Road is a range of brick built and slated stables and coach house (4 stall stable), also loose box, nag stable and harness room.  The coach house is entered by double folding gates.  The whole has lofts over.

In the rear of above is a range of brick built and tiles pigsties with enclosed yard, 2 pigsties, feeding place and yard at back, and open cast shed.  Further is a paved washhouse with copper, 2 sinks and 2 pumps with loft over brick built and slated coach house with folding gates and loft over.  Part paved yard behind.  Boarded and tiled 5 stall stable with brick underpinning and paved.  Attached and forming part of above is open shed, and oil shed.

The boat-building business that in 1912 became Bushell Bros.

There is also the spacious wharf used as a boat building establishment and occupied by Messrs W. Mead and Co. Ltd., who have erected several sheds for the carrying out of the business, which are their property.  The wharf also contains, adjoining the canal a part brick built, boarded and slated warehouse and store with lofts; also a brick built and slated warehouse further; a boarded warehouse on brick underpinning with pan tile roof; a long boarded shed with galvanised iron roof; a brick built and slated building forming a forge and workshop.

The flour mill viewed from the owner’s garden, engine and boiler house on the right.
William Mead bought the ornamental fountain at the dispersal sale of Aston Clinton House in 1923, while the stone relief coat-of-arms behind it came from the Mark Lane Corn Exchange in London when it was demolished in 1931.

The modernly substantially brick built slated steam flour mill, known as Tring Steam Flour Mill.  This is a very imposing and handsome building erected as recently as 1875.  It comprises a lean-to boiler house and shaft through door to engine room.  The mill consists of five spacious and lofty floors fitted with necessary bins.  Above top floor is a platform and above a glazed observatory.  Boats can be loaded or unloaded directly from, or to the mill ex canal.  In front of the mill and setting off the appearance is a very useful ornamental iron built loading shed, which has recently been erected at a considerable cost.

Edith Mead and her three daughters in the Mill House garden (one daughter died in childhood)

At right side of mill is a brick built and slated cart shed, chaff house and 2 stall stable, loft over.  On left hand is a recently erected open shed with galvanised iron roof.  Also a weighing office and weigh bridge.

Adjoining, and entered by a covered passage from the modern mill, is the original 4 story windmill in going order and repair, with a lean-to brick built and slated store surrounding the base.  Part boarded and brick built store in position of old mill adjoining.  Brick built and slated engine room now used as a wagon shed.”

A Sunday School outing about to depart from Tring Flour Mill in 1931.
William Mead is shown with his arms outstretched.



1.    Yes, the shareholders of Thames Water would classify sewage disposal as a ‘business’, even if their works at Gamnel has not exactly been a profit centre in recent times (a fine of £1m plus costs was imposed on Thames Water in January 2016 for discharging partially treated sewage from its Gamnel sewage works into the adjacent Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal).
2.    Advertisements suggest that the sale of coal at Gamnel Wharf continued to be a lucrative business until government restrictions brought it to an end at the outbreak of World War II.
3.    The Wheat Act 1932 aimed to provide U.K. wheat-growers with a secure market and enhanced prices for home-grown wheat of millable quality.
At one time the chief officer at Cambridge was a fiend of a bureaucrat, and every pettifogging little detail of the regulations had to be conformed to.  On one occasion I had an excess of 28 lbs. of face value on the coupon returns I submitted, and my ‘friend’ at Cambridge refused to accept other than an exact balance on the forms, and sent the offending one back.  I telephoned him, explaining the difficulties in getting a balance to the exact pound every time, but he still said he would refuse to accept, so I said Right, then, I shall just blot out the quarter of a hundredweight, and re-submit.  I was immediately told this would be an offence!  Hinting that I had a friend in high office at the Ministry, I called his bluff and got my Buying Permits.” . . . . Taken from Ralph Seymours autobiographical note.
5.    The other shareholders were William’s wife Edith – she being the majority shareholder – and his two daughters.

Edith Mead, c.1930s.

6.    The first mill on the site was established in 800 AD and, by the time of the Domesday Book, was the third-highest rated mill in England.  It is now the site of the Heygate Group
s headquarters and its flour mill, whose large central tower can be seen for several miles around.
7.    The National Loaf was of bread made from wholemeal flour with added calcium and vitamins.  Introduced by the government in 1942 to save space in shipping wheat to Britain, the loaf was made from wholemeal flour to combat wartime shortages of white flour.  The bread was grey, mushy and unappetising, and contained quite a high amount of salt to make it keep longer - only one person in seven preferred it to white bread.  In 1950 sliced, wrapped white loaves were again allowed to be sold, which people preferred, although the National Loaf was not discontinued until October 1956.