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Orton Staunch on the River Nene

In the early 1700s, the Nene was considered navigable upstream only as far as the mill at Alwalton. Beyond that the river course was regularly utilised by and punctuated by watermills which made navigation impossible.

A printed document in 1653 had suggested the river could be made navigable at a cost of £8,000 by creating locks to bypass the watermills and staunches to control river depth but it wasn’t until a 1724 Act of Parliament that the plans were implemented.

The theory behind the staunches was that the river flow could be dammed at various points to build up water levels above the staunches which would then enable barge traffic to move up the otherwise shallow river ….. a slow and hugely inefficient process but it worked !

The navigation work was to be carried out in stages with the first section being the 22.6 miles from Peterborough to Oundle Bridge North and the contract for this task went to Robert Wright and Thomas Squire who started work in 1726 and completed the section in 1730. It was during these works that Orton Staunch, known also as Goldiford Staunch at the time, was built (Goldiford was believed to be derived from a ford that had earlier crossed the river at this point via a mid-river island known as Gold or Golde Island).

The work was carried out at cost to the contractors who, in return, could charge reasonable levies at the staunches and locks albeit these were limited to what was considered a reasonable profit. The same Wright/Squires partnership subsequently took on and completed the second stage of work between Oundle and Thrapston in 1737.

Despite the work carried out, poor maintenance and controls at the river staunches meant that by 1800 the river was once again only deemed navigable as far as Alwalton which resulted in the Nene’s Commissioners using a further Act of Parliament to force Wright and Squires to take action.

Despite their efforts, the volume of river traffic remained low with tolls totalling less than £500 per annum along the Peterborough to Thrapston length.

In June 1825 the Stamford Mercury carried an advert from the river’s commissioners looking for a new contractor to improve and develop Orton Staunch. It is not clear who took the task on but nearby Alwalton Staunch was similarly improved in 1837 by Thomas Atkinson so he may well have been involved.

In 1830, the lock keeper was known to be Joseph Watts who lived at the lock keeper’s cottage with his wife Lucy but Joseph died in 1843 leaving Lucy to take on the task of “toll collector”. By the time of the 1851 census, Lucy was still in charge at the lock keepers cottage but had Thomas Simpson working as book keeper and 13 year old Orton girl Charlotte Burton working as a servant.

The early 1850s were tough times for Lucy as the arrival of the railways had seriously reduced the amount of river trade and the exposed lock keeper’s cottage had also become a target for local criminals. In 1852, a well known group of local villains had armed themselves with guns and iron fixtures stolen from a nearby farm in Longthorpe to break into the cottage, stealing the toll monies and putting both Lucy and Thomas through a frightening ordeal for which they were subsequently punished with deportation to New South Wales !

Shortly after this ordeal, a new lock keeper took over with William Peck reported as being in residence by 1856 but it was all change again by 1871 with Woodston born George Langton in charge, stating his occupation as both lock keeper and shoemaker !

The 1881 census recorded Orton Staunch as Overton Staunch with James Tucker Treliving collecting tolls, a task that he was to continue until his death as a 76 year old in 1911.

Taking over from Treliving was Great Billing born Albert Edward Rose who stayed “on board” until 1922 when the last of Orton Staunch’s lock keepers, William Alletson, took over.

By 1930, the river was being reported as in a state of “unparalleled decay and dilapidation” with river levels so low in the Orton area that locals were able to casually walk from one side of the river to the other !

Engineer to the Nene Catchment Board, HW Clark, put forward a plan in 1930 to completely rebuild all the river’s locks and to move the tidal salt water barrier from Woodston Staunch back to a new lock and sluice at Dog In A Doublet. Once the new tidal lock had been completed in 1937, work moved upstream to Orton Staunch and the old wooden staunch, complete with lock keeper’s cottage, was dismantled in April 1938 in readiness for today’s concrete and metal structure which was completed in 1939.

Incidentally, the Alletson family were moved out and granted the meagre alternative of a houseboat moored at Alwalton! William Alletson – the last keeper – died in 1946.

Clark’s plans for a more navigable river included the removal of two “sticking” points where the river flow was being slowed down by sharp meanders. These two “s-bends”, one just north of the staunch and one further upstream, just south of the railway bridge were both replaced with newly cut straighter channels.

ORTON STAUNCH IMAGES

The Staunch and Cottage looking upstream in the 1890s

The Staunch and Cottage looking upstream in the 1890s

 

Lock Keeper's cottage in the early 1900s

Looking downstream to the Lock Keeper’s cottage in the early 1900s

 

The downstream area in the early 1900s, significantly wider than today's managed stretch

The downstream area in the early 1900s, significantly wider than today’s managed stretch

 

An Edwardian boat party downstream of the Staunch in the early 1900s

An Edwardian boat party downstream of the Staunch in the early 1900s

 

The Staunch and Cottage looking upstream

The Staunch and Cottage looking upstream. The building just in shot far left is the boathouse that used to sit just downstream of the staunch

 

The cottage c.1912

The cottage c.1912

 

The rebuild of Orton Staunch in early 1939

The rebuild of Orton Staunch in early 1939

 

Orton Staunch pictured in 1975

Orton Staunch pictured in 1975

 

MAP

2015 map showing the stretch of the Nene that was straightened in the late 1930s - former course shown by dots

2015 map showing the stretch of the Nene that was straightened in the late 1930s – former course shown by dots

 

The Watermill at Alwalton

Few people who take the scenic walk across the fields from the foot of Mill Lane, Alwalton to Castor will be aware that their journey starts on the site of what was once a large watermill.

As you walk through the gates at the foot of Mill Lane, you step onto the site of the mill and if you look around, you can still see a few pieces of evidence to support its existence (see images below) …… which is good because very little is otherwise known about it. Archival records in Peterborough and Huntingdon have next to nothing to shed any light on the mill so what DO we know about Alwalton Mill ?

We do know that the site hosted a watermill as far back as the eleventh century because it was mentioned in the Doomsday book along with more than 5,000 other watermills across the UK. Water power was being exploited well before the first windmills appeared more than 100 years later.

By 1128, three mills were reported on the site and this was still the case in 1649 when they were known as “The Town Mills”. The three mills were almost certainly on the same site, in the same building and all harnessing the same power source. At this time, two of the mills were believed to be traditional corn mills taking local corn and producing flour, the other being a fulling mill which used intriguing devices to clean and process wool based product.

The first nineteenth century census in 1841 showed the mill in the hands of Lincolnshire born “master miller” Chapman March who by 1845 carried the title of “miller and bonecrusher” ….. the latter in reference to the fact that one of the mills was now a bone mill which converted animal bones into fertilizer.

A newspaper report in 1850 announced that the mill had been leased to Chapman March for a further 21 years by the Dean & Chapter of Peterborough for the princely rent of just 20 shillings per annum !

The mill was thriving in 1851 with March now employing four men but his reign as master miller ended prematurely in 1857 when he died at the young age of 45. By November 1857, the mill was being offered for sale by the deceased’s brother Henry March, the sale particulars offering “corn and bone mills plus grounds and buildings over five acres”.

No buyers were forthcoming with the majority no doubt put off by the feared impact on local milling of the arrival of the railways and the repeal of the long standing Corn Laws in 1851 which had previously favoured local landowners and allowed them to dictate market prices. Now the market was open to bulk imports by river and rail which in turn dramatically slashed the profitability of corn mills in particular.

With no buyers in sight, the mill was auctioned to the highest bidder at Peterborough’s White Lion Inn in February 1858. The auction catalogue offered “bone & coal yards adjoining the river, dwelling house, gig house, stables, walled crew yards, other outbuildings, large garden, 5 acres of pasture land. Mills include five pairs of stones (four french, one gray) fitted with valuable dressing machines – nearly new – by Varley & Sedgewick of Leeds and other machinery of superior character and in good condition“.

The winning bidder was James Royce who had been miller for a short time just across the fields at Castor Mills. James came from a line of millers but had a past reputation for business failures so that combined with the precarious economic future of the mill probably didn’t serve up the ideal match !

At some point in the late 1850s, records suggest that one of the mills was being powered by a steam engine which was becoming increasingly common at other water mills and presumably provided a more reliable power source.

The 1861 census showed James Royce as “miller and corn merchant” but also with four young children living at the mill. In 1863, a fifth child was born to his wife Mary by the name of Frederick Henry Royce who in later life was to form one half of the Rolls Royce partnership.

Signs of problems started to arise later in 1863 as first James repeatedly advertised for “experienced millers” and was still doing so in August 1864 while, in between, wife Mary was advertising for a Governess to help bring up the five young children.

In February 1867, the Royce’s business failed and Alwalton Mill appeared in national newspapers as bankrupt with the Royce family having abandoned the business and moved briefly to Ickleton in Cambridgeshire and then on to London shortly after. Head of the family, James Royce, died in poverty at the Greenwich Workhouse in 1872, aged just 41.

Meanwhile, the mill was auctioned off in late 1867 although there are no records showing who, if anybody, purchased it. Whatever the outcome, the mill did not continue as a business and although the building appears to be present on an 1885 map, it was certainly gone shortly afterwards with the feeder waterway to the mill already being transformed into a boating location complete with waterside boathouses.

MAPS

An 1885 map which is the only map I have found that may show the mill building still standing (circled in red). Note the “head race” waterway that feeds the mill, the “tail race” is shown by faint hashed lines heading through the marsh area back to the river.

 

1927 map confirming the site of the mill. The boat house was where the lower left of “H” touches the waterway.

 

NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS

Sale particulars - November 1857

Sale particulars – November 1857

 

Auction details - February 1858

Auction details – February 1858

 

Advert for millers - November 1863

Advert for millers – November 1863

 

Advert for Governess - January 1864

Advert for Governess – January 1864

PHOTOS – APRIL 2015

The foot of Mill Lane looking onto the mill site behind the gate

The foot of Mill Lane looking onto the mill site behind the gate

 

The "head race" aka the "leat" which fed water to the mill. The feed to the water wheel was on the left of the central group of trees, the "spillway" to carry surplus water was to the immediate right of the trees.

The “head race” aka the “leat” which fed water to the mill. The feed to the water wheel was on the left of the central group of trees, the “spillway” to carry surplus water was to the immediate right of the trees.

 

Cobbled flooring from the mill with the arched entrance to the water wheel feed on the far right

 

The blocked and almost fully submerged arched entrance for the water flow to the wheel

 

Although not clear from the photo, this is the view directly behind the part submerged arch and is the steep drop that would have powered the water through the wheelway. It is likely the wheel was driven anti-clockwise by an undershot flow rather than from above. The drop would have been substantial enough to generate significant power from the wheel.

Although not clear from the photo, this is the view directly behind the part submerged arch and is the steep drop that would have powered the water through the wheelway. It is likely the wheel was driven anti-clockwise by an undershot flow rather than from above. The drop would have been substantial enough to generate significant power from the wheel. The top of the image shows the area that would have been the mill pond.

 

The "spillway" that would have taken excess water around the wheel in order to prevent flooding

The “spillway” that would have taken excess water around the wheel in order to prevent flooding

 

Looking down at the area that would have been the mill pond

Looking down at the area that would have been the mill pond

 

There are plenty of small remnants of the boat house and supporting structures on both sides of the waterway

There are plenty of small remnants of the boat house and supporting structures on both sides of the waterway

 

Looking back from the dam wall towards Mill Lane and the site of the mill buildings

Looking back from the dam wall towards Mill Lane and the site of the mill buildings

 

The watermill at nearby Waternewton which hints at how big Alwalton Mill may have been. The chimney in the foreground was built when a steam engine was incorporated at the mill and would have been replicated at Alwalton where a steam engine was also added by James Royce in the late 1850s

The watermill at nearby Waternewton which hints at how big Alwalton Mill may have been. The chimney in the foreground was built when a steam engine was incorporated at the mill and would have been replicated at Alwalton where a steam engine was also added by James Royce in the late 1850s

Orton Hall Stable Block

An undated image showing the old Stable Block at Orton Hall.

The Demise of the Central Park Bandstand (1965)

The end of the road for the Central Park bandstand which is pictured being demolished in 1965.

Paston Plans (1965)

Plans for the development of Paston as featured in the Peterborough Standard in 1965.

Cumbergate Demolition (1977)

The demolition of part of Cumbergate in 1977 showing, amongst the rubble, an old sign for the Greyhound pub that fronted onto Market place.

Town Bridge (1860s)

A very tired but very old photo of the wooden Town Bridge in the 1860s showing the wonderful but rather precarious looking wooden supports !

Barnwell Station building in Oundle (1977)

Superb photo showing the old station building from Barnwell Station being precariously manoeuvred in 1977 through the streets of Oundle on its way to the Nene Valley Railway headquarters at Stibbington where it is used today as the main platform waiting room.

Bowerings Garage (1977)

Mr Bowering standing outside his garage on St Leonards Street near to the railway station as the footpath over Bourges Boulevard is constructed in the background. Sadly, his determined resistance to the inevitable redevelopment was not to last much longer !

RAF Westwood Hangar Fire (1977)

The aftermath of a fire that damaged the old aircraft hangar at Westwood in 1977. The hangar was a survivor from the RAF Westwood site and had been earmarked for development as an indoor sports centre.

The fire, combined with a number of accidents involving children playing in the old buildings, eventually saw most of the surviving buildings levelled.