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Historical biographies

Sarah Rockhill, Miller of Sprowston, Norfolk 1793-1885 Part 2

(Credit: Jennie Butler, volunteer for the Mills Archive)

Life at the new mill was not all roses. Daughter Hannah died within a month of being born. In July 1832 Sarah’s husband was involved in an accident when his horse careered into a gig resulting in the death of one of the occupants and the horse. In 1838 the mill was broken into and 25 stone of flour stolen. Aged 48 on 8 Apr 1842 Robert had a fatal accident at work. He was caught by the wrist and pulled up into the mill machinery where he was found dead by his daughter Elizabeth. Sarah was left with six children aged 8 to 20, a possible business to wind up and the potential to be homeless as the mill was advertised to be let with immediate possession, described as ‘a capital windmill driving two pairs of stones, situate near one of the most populous parts of the suburbs of Norwich, and in which a good trade has been carried on for many years’. All debts owed and owing were to be reconciled with Sarah as administratrix or her solicitors. Unfortunately Robert’s will does not appear to have survived.

She must have thought and moved swiftly however, as a newspaper report just three weeks later on 30 Apr 1842 announced Sarah’s intentions and she expressed her:
‘.... thanks to those friends of her late husband, who for many years favoured him with their support, and she takes this opportunity of acquainting her friends and the public, that having engaged a competent person to superintend the mill, she intends carrying on the business as usual in all its departments, for the maintenance of herself and six children, and earnestly solicits a continuance of those favours enjoyed by her late husband.’

Who her competent person was is unknown but she would have been acquainted with other millers in the area or she may have trusted her eldest son Robert even though he was only 19. Running the mill would have been hard, heavy work hoisting sacks, operating and maintaining the machinery and sails. Two years later in the 1844 tithe award Sarah is firmly listed as owner and occupier of the mill. By 1850 things had progressed as the Norwich trade directory includes Sarah Robertson & Son. It is odd that the listing is in the singular as both sons Robert and George were living with her working as millers in the 1851 census. She also employed one man and retained the title of miller for herself.

She was still advertising as Sarah Robertson & Son in 1856 by which time she was 63 and thinking about retirement. There was a double wedding in Oulton, Suffolk on 17 Oct 1856 with Sarah’s son Robert marrying Elizabeth Goff and her daughter Julianna marrying Elizabeth’s brother Thomas Goff a farmer in Oulton. Sadly neither marriage lasted very long. A year after their wedding Robert and Elizabeth buried an infant son, also named Robert William, and three months later Elizabeth herself was buried aged just 28. Julianna’s husband was buried in 1858 aged 30.

At some time Robert decided to move away from Sprowston and Sarah’s son George took over the mill in 1858 and continued to live there with his spinster sister Susanna as housekeeper. He ran the business for at least 23 years until his death in 1884, employing his young nephew George William Harrison in the later years. He may well have taken over the mill as there is a gap in the records of ownership until 1891.

Sarah died in 1885 aged 92 leaving an estate worth £1,443 (the equivalent of £190,000 in 2021). She spent her whole life in the milling business which she not only handed down to her sons, grandsons and a great grandson but also her daughters who married into the trade. Her family supported her through difficult times, stayed within the locality and looked after her in her retirement. Her story is one of resilience and a successful business woman with strong family values.

Sarah’s decision to carry on milling after her husband’s death lead to the foundation of a dynasty of millers. As mentioned above, her son Robert who initially helped her, left Sprowston for Oulton and ran the mill there until he retired.

Daughter Elizabeth married William Harrison, a farmer in Great Yarmouth where they stayed all their lives. Elizabeth’s son, Sarah’s grandson, William Albert had a short foray into Hammersmith, London as an ironmonger’s assistant but by 1891 was the miller back at Sprowston. In fact the mill became known as Harrison’s mill. A photograph of 1925 shows Harrison’s Corn Store on the road in front of the mill advertising flour, meal, bran, linseed and cotton cake, seeds, hay and straw. William carried on working Sprowston until handing over to his son, Sarah’s great grandson, Horace who ran the mill until 1927 when it ceased to be a profitable business. He became landlord of the Brickmaker’s Arms public house in Sprowston.

Sarah’s youngest son William Alfred owned St Margaret’s Church mill in Lowestoft, Suffolk and retired calling himself a corn merchant. Three grandsons went on to run their own mills: Robert William at Mutford Bridge, Oulton, Clifford Rockhill at Haddiscoe, Norfolk and George William at Gisleham, Norfolk.

Sarah’s daughter Julianna’s second husband was John Parker, a seed, corn and manure merchant, at one time living in Sprowston. Susanna remained a spinster all her life but supported her brother and mother.

The history of Sprowston post mill, built in 1780, is very well documented on internet sites particularly the Mills Archive Trust website with photographs, in the archives of Norfolk Record Office and in a book written by a member of the family, Herbert Clifford Harrison. A model of the mill exists in the Science Museum, London. These sources are invaluable as the mill was destroyed by fire in 1933 a day before it was due to be handed over to the Norfolk Archaeological Trust.

Prior to Sarah and her husband taking possession of the mill it had been advertised for sale a year earlier with a full description:

‘A good substantial post windmill, able to do from four to five score per week, in good repair, with two pair of French stones at the head, flour mill and jumper, with a good round house with two floors; also a new house with stables and other conveniences, with one acre of good land more or less, all freehold; situated one mile from Magdalen Gates, Norwich.’

Over the years Sprowston parish has been absorbed into the suburbs of Norwich, but the mill is not forgotten as it features on the town council’s logo, the parish sign and the community academy school badge. A housing development on the site is named Windmill Court. The building which once housed Harrison’s stores still survives as 481 Sprowston Road. Following the mill fire, some of the bricks were repurposed in local houses and small artefacts were made from the oak timbers. A local legend claims that the ghost of a miller walks the site of the lost mill.

Sarah Rockhill, Miller of Sprowston, Norfolk 1793-1885 Part 2

Sprowston mill sited high on Mousehold Heath (Source: purchased
by Jennie Butler, donated to Mills Archive Trust).

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