1000 Years of Milling
by Theo Gibbs
The Mill Theatre is a skillful conversion of a former water mill known as Stoke Mills. The Domesday Book in 1086 records Stoke Mills as having been jointly owned by Countess Judith, niece of William I and Hugh de Beauchamp, both extensive landowners in Bedfordshire. It seems probably that there was a mill on the site prior to this. The tax paid was 10 shillings. In many cases, taxes were supplemented by an order to supply eels, although a deed 200 years later states “Eels were found in the greatest abundance and of the greatest size at Stoke Mills”.
1500 – 1817
It is not clear when the ownership of the Mill changed, although the list of tenants and owners is almost complete from the early 16th Century. It is probable that at about this time Stoke Mills became the property of the St. Johns of Bletsoe and Melchbourne, who made substantial improvements. The oldest part of the building still standing is dated 1703.
1817 – 1979
Daniel Hipwell (1786-1878), the founder of Hipwell & Sons, who had his own rush matting business in Pavenham, took over the tenancy of Stoke Mills in 1817. His family purchased the property in 1929 from the then Lord St. John.
Considerable changes took place during the period 1817 to 1929. The Mill House, which had been attached to the Mill, was rebuilt in stone c.1817. A turbine replaced two wheels in 1889 and this was still in use until 1969, producing 50hp at best. It remains in situ. in the present Mill Theatre. The millstones, originally 6 pairs, hence the term “Mills”, indicative of a considerable turnover, were superseded by up to date flour milling machinery using the “gradual reduction process”. This necessitated extensions to the building, an extra storey being added literally by raising the roof 12 feet! Lace bobbins were found during the alterations, maybe evidence of a supplementary income!
Waterpower was augmented, at first by steam in the mid to late 19th Century, subsequently by diesel and finally, in 1962, by electricity. The average fall of the river was 8 feet at that time. Many may remember crossing the old “overshoot” waterfall either by a ford or by the bridge, which consisted of a one-foot wide board with wire handrail! This was located about 75 yards upstream from the present weir that was built by Anglia Water to control the traditional flood problems.
Frank Hipwell (1878 – 1965) often told the tale of a brave mill worker who lived across the Mill meadow at Radwell. When the floods came he would cross the watery waste on stilts until reaching the weir bridge. Also, recalling the horse drawn era, he told us of the drunken dray driver who died falling from his perch, the shires sauntering safely home to the Mill alone!
Between the late 1800’s and the 1930’s the Hipwell business included Stoke Mills, Hill Farm in Mill Road and coal merchants. It was the largest employer in Sharnbrook until Unilever Research acquired Colworth House in 1947. At that time there were two other mills in Sharnbrook, one on Kennell Hill and the windmill on Thompson’s Corner, which is now an observatory in the grounds of Windmill House. During the two World Wars the Mill, as a food source, was under government control. Hipwell & Sons became a limited company in 1950. Associated British Foods (ABF) took over the property in 1961 but the existing Board of Directors continued to run the business. The large silo and grain drier in the mill yard was designed by the late George A “Bill” Blackburn for Hipwell & Sons in 1965 and is still in use by the current owners.
In 1967 everyone connected with the firm celebrated 150 years (5 generations) of family interest. But production became uneconomic when the large port mills were built after the Second World War, and on 29th June 1969 Stoke Mills ceased making the Gold Award-winning flour, used for making biscuits and bread. A subsidiary of ABF continued provender milling until the mill estate was dispersed.
In 1979, Stoke Mills became the home to Sharnbrook Mill Theatre Trust, opening with the musical Salad Days. The Mill House retains its name as a prestigious hotel and restaurant overlooking the River Great Ouse and the former mill yard and buildings have become a business park
In 2020, the Trust announced, with great pride, that we had been awarded the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service (QAVS). QAVS is equivalent to the MBE and is the highest award a voluntary group can receive in the UK.