McDougall’s Flour Mill, East Sussex

By Elizabeth Wright

Just north of the market town of Hailsham, East Sussex, on the A271 through Upper Horsebridge, there once stood, on the banks of the river Cuckmere, a fine water-driven flour mill, a three storey, white-washed building, that once belonged to the well known company McDougall’s, producers of self raising and plain flour.

Corn grinding water-mills had existed here since before the 16th century, often worked by monks from nearby monasteries. In 1792 there was a move to construct a canal from Beddingham, on the river Ouse, to a newly built Horsebridge mill, opening up the area for better trading, but this idea never came to fruition. At that time the proprietor was Henry Earl, who advertised the mill for sale and stated that it ‘was newly built and containing four pairs of milling stones.’

It would appear that this mill was then twice destroyed by fire. An advertisement in the “Sussex Advertiser” of September 30th, 1884, stated: ‘To be sold by auction, the site of Horsebridge Water and Steam Corn Mill. The property comprises the aforesaid remains of the well constructed mill, lately burnt out, including the walls and loose fallen bricks, the large water-wheel, nearly intact, shaft and large cog wheels in the mill, the 10hp horizontal engine with double cylinder (by Clayton and Shuttleworth) just out of repair, a new 20hp boiler by W. H. Nicholson and Son of Newark on Trent, undamaged, the boiler house and shaft, in nearly perfect state. Also dwelling houses and land. The mill has recently been destroyed by fire and the owners and occupiers, being men in advanced years, are not practical millers, are desirous to leave the reconstruction to younger hands, and an opportunity is thus given to an energetic man to fit up a new building with modern machinery under his own superintendence.’

On January 2nd, 1908, when the property belonged to the Horsebridge Roller Mill Company, a second fire gutted the building. The Old Hailsham Manuel Pump was first on the scene, followed by the Eastbourne Steam Pump pulled by four horses.

McDougall’s took over the mill in 1921 and no expense was spared in the installation of a modern plant. Although the old breast wheel driven by the river was still used until the 1930’s, the main driving power came from a steam engine which operated a dynamo, generating electricity for light and power. In the thirties an electric motor was installed to drive all the machines by main line shafts and belts. Later, in the mid-forties, independent motor devices were added to the new equipment.

The grain was delivered in lorries and wagons, in sacks or bulk containers and the  was tipped into an enclosed hopper and conveyed to a receiving separator for preliminary cleaning. From the wheat bins it was passed to the screen room where second cleaning by sieves and aspirators removed further debris and a washer disposed of the dirt. The wheat was gradually dried by passing through radiator heaters and then transferred to conditioning bins for twenty-four hours before being milled. One of the managers, a Mr. Feneley, claimed he could tell when a storm was brewing some hours beforehand, because when the dried wheat was weighed, it would vary from the norm. Each grade of wheat was cleaned and conditioned separately then mixed to make up the ‘grist’ to give the right character to the flour.

The wheat then went on the break system, which consisted of fluted rollers and centrifugal sieves. The rollers broke open the wheat, releasing the particles of semolina, which were passed to purifiers to grade it by size and, by upward air current, remove the light pieces of wheat skin. Once purified, the semolina was passed to the gradual reduction system consisting of smooth rollers to crush into flour particles, these being sieved out by centrifugal force.

Afterwards, the flour was passed, in closed conveyors, to the long packaging department, running north to south on the site, situated on the opposite side of the mill yard. Here Sealtite automatic packing machines would fill up the familiar McDougall 1lb and 3lb paper bags, which accounted for 90% of the retail trade..A few 112lb sacks of plain and self-raising flour were put aside for the bulk trade. An up-, to -date  automatic packer was now being used which had speed and accuracy, but to check this, every fourth bag was weighed by hand as a test. To ensure uniformity in the grading of the flour, a sample was drawn off for testing every hour, and this was sent to the main laboratories in London to see that it conformed with McDougall’s standard of quality and purity. The filled bags were then packed in cardboard boxes previously erected on the premises nearby. These were put on to pallets and loaded on lorries for local deliveries.

The mill owners and managers lived on site at the big Mill House, and the sixteen or so supervisors, millers, packers and office staff, were all local people from the surrounding district. Three of the managers who stayed working at the mill, from the Second World War through to its closure in 1969, were Mr Feneley, Joe Marshall and Claud Kebby. Harold Beeny was a management trainee for McDougall’s during the early 1950’s and remembered Horsebridge Mill with affection. He never forgot the time when his father, who was then a director of F. Strickland, the Hailsham based agricultural merchants, turned up with a ‘parcel’ of wheat to sell and haggled for a favourable price. Once agreed, father and son slapped hands to seal the deal. Harold’s father began to laugh. When Harold asked why, his father said, “This is the best day of my life. I bought this load of corn from your brother this morning for 22s 3d per cwt, sold it to you this afternoon for 22s 9d and made 6d on the deal.”

Harold recalled, “The mill foreman in the years from the 40’s to 60’s was Fred Eves, a man of some character. The young trainees were the bane of his life. Tricks were played on him whenever possible and his ability to mispronounce words was famous. He ran the local cadet corps, of which he was very proud, and we would persuade him to show us how to carry out a drill routine with brooms over our shoulders. Brooms with which we should have been sweeping the floor. When he caught onto our delaying tactics he’d yell, “Clean that floor up!”

The mill ran on shifts, twenty-four hours a day, 6am to 2pm, 2pm to 10pm, 10pm to 6am. At night one man oversaw the mill; a second man looked after the screen room and kept the boiler going. The outside was regularly repainted white to maintain a good appearance, and the wheel, because of its historical value, was routinely overhauled.

Harold continued, “In my training days at the mill, in the mid-fifties, long before employers offered the luxuries of staff canteens, we had a mess room, a building of some age, which was situated behind the mill gardener’s cottage. Here employees could sup a dubious cup of tea whilst eating their food brought from home. The mess room was run by an ageing lady called Maud, who came to work on an equally aged tricycle. A dear old thing, she was teased unmercifully by the younger people who often let down the tyres of her bike.”

“The saddest time for me was being involved in organising the closure of the mill in 1969, because it had become uneconomic, turning out just 200 tons a week. Many people I had worked with, and learnt from, I had to make redundant. My abiding memory of McDougall’s Horsebridge Mill and its employees is of a happy environment with many characters.”

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