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Historical biographies

Mary Dobell (nee Couchman) 1759-1825; Mill Owner, Tallow Chandler, Mother and Bankrupt

(Credit: Peter Bourne, Cranbrook Windmill Association)

Little is known about Mary’s early life other than that she was born and brought up in the Kent village of Benenden.

At the age of 30 she married William Dobell, who was the Tallow Chandler in the nearby Wealden town of Cranbrook. (Tallow was used for making candles, when these were the primary source of lighting, and for soap and as a lubricant in engineering.)

Sadly, William died 10 years later leaving her with 4 surviving young children, a substantial inheritance, including a farm, the family home at “Greycoates” and the thriving tallow business.

Mary proved herself to be an astute business woman and the family prospered. However, it seems that her eldest son Henry, with the encouragement of the local Millwright James Humphrey, was keen to follow a more attractive career than working in the tallow business. Instead, he is believed to have been apprenticed with a Miller in the neighbourhood.

This was all at a time when there were great improvements in agriculture, spurred on by the Industrial Revolution and the demand for more food from the growing industrial towns. In the Weald, much of the land was brought under the plough for growing corn and consequently, more mills were needed for grinding corn into flour. The outbreak of war with Napoleon in 1793 resulted in increased demand for supplies for our Army and Navy. Thus, the next 20 years were a prosperous time for most businesses, including tallow chandlers, farmers and millers.

With Henry reaching the end of his apprenticeship his mother recognised that there was an opportunity to meet the local demand for flour and animal feed, and she set about to plan a new windmill for the area with Henry as the Miller. Mary considered that, the land (which she already owned) at the rear of “Greycoates” would be an ideal site and sought the advice of millwright James Humphrey. He would have pointed out that the land was not really high enough and that the impact of nearby buildings meant that the proposed mill would catch only the strongest winds. However, James had recently been commissioned to build a new (tall) Windmill in the Town of Sheerness and this had been planned with a substantial brick base, which would enable the mill itself to sit high above than the neighbouring buildings.

The result was that Mary engaged James to build her an even taller mill for Cranbrook, 72 feet (22.15 metres). Despite not having to buy the land on which to build the mill, the cost of construction escalated considerably and ultimately totalled around £3,500. This was a huge sum. However, with the threat from Napoleon remaining, and her tallow business continuing to thrive, she was easily able to obtain loans from other prominent towns people to cover some of the costs.

Completed in 1814, the new windmill was a sensation in the town, showing above the surrounding buildings and easily accessible for the trade of the local bakers and farmers.

Mary’s financial collapse was sudden. Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo one year later and the peace which followed, resulted in many soldiers and sailors being demobbed. There was widespread unemployment and economic depression. By 1819 the returns from the windmill and from the tallow businesses were no longer enough to pay off Mary’s debts - or, possibly, her creditors, also hard pressed, had needed to call in their loans earlier than had been anticipated. On 11th October 1819 she was declared bankrupt. At that time this would have been a highly unusual event for a woman, and one which had serious consequences for her.

The Bankruptcy order obliged her to sell all of her assets, the farm, the family home and buildings at “Greycoates”, including a wind cornmill lately now erected and built by and at the costs and charges of the said Mary Dobell……, all stock in trade, stock alive and dead, farm implements and effects whatsoever and wheresoever…And all the Household Furniture, Plate, Linen, and China Goods, Wares, Merchandize, Book and other Debts, Bills, Notes, and Securities, and all her goods and chattels except her wearing apparel.”
The mill passed into the ownership of her Creditors and whilst attempts to sell the mill were made, with the ongoing recession, no acceptable offer was received. The Creditors therefore employed a Miller to continue to run the business on their behalf until 1832, by which time the economy had improved and a buyer found. It was in the period 1819-1832 that the windmill became known as “Union Mill” since it was being run by The Union of the Creditors of Mary Dobell.

Mary, having achieved so much in her life, but now penniless, is believed to have lived with one of her children until her own death on 9th June 1825, age 66.

Union Windmill, Cranbrook is now in the care of the Kent County Council, and with the assistance of the women and men volunteers of the Cranbrook Windmill Association is open for visits on a regular basis. It is Nationally recognised as a Grade 1 Listed Building, being an exceptional building. A tablet on the side of the mill celebrates the contributions of Henry Dobell as the first Miller, and of James Humphrey as the Builder. Sadly, Mary Dobell the inspiration, funder and entrepreneur who made it all possible is not mentioned!

Cranbrook Windmill website:
Cranbrook Windmill’s archive, hosted by the Mills Archive:

Mary Dobell (nee Couchman) 1759-1825; Mill Owner, Tallow Chandler, Mother and Bankrupt

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