The Tomlins flour mill, Aberdovey: Melin Ardudwy (revised and updated)

From the moment I saw a photograph of Melin Ardudwy in Hugh M. Lewis’s book Aberdyfi, Portrait of a Village, I wanted to know all about it.  This is my second attempt to supply information about it.

Melin Ardudwy.  Source:  Hugh M. Lewis’s book Aberdyfi, Portrait of a Village.  It is also shown in C.C. Green’s The Coast Lines of the Cambrian Railways volume 2, p.80

When I first started to look around for information about the mill, to my immense frustration, there was remarkably little to be found in any of the resources I had to hand.  Melin Ardudwy is only mentioned in passing in local history accounts, almost forgotten by most histories of the village.  It is not even mentioned on the Coflein website, which is usually a reliable starting place, often providing a few helpful references to chase. A bit of pottering around in my books and files turned up only a little information.  The photograph in Hugh M. Lewis’s book is shown above right.  In the process of my searches online, I was excited to find, on the People’s Collection website, a superb sepia picture of the mill (below left) showing it behind a train pulled by the locomotive Seaham, ready to depart.  Next, I found that the mill was listed in Gwynedd Archaeological Trust’s document Ports and Harbours of Gwynedd: Aberdyfi under their “Buried Sites With Poor Archaeological Potential” category, which contributed a short paragraph on the subject.  However, the best source of information was one I didn’t have and to which my attention was drawn by Sierd Jan Tuinstra, who is an amazing source of information about anything railway-related in Aberdovey.  He pointed me to a book that I hadn’t come across:  The Coast Lines of the Cambrian Railways, Volume Two, by C.C. Green (Wild Swan Publications 1996), and found some news articles about the mill that also help to fill out the story of the mill.  I also found a number of useful short articles on The National Library of Wales website that added to the story.  With thanks to Sierd Jan, Green’s book and the newspaper articles, I have now revised the original post with the new information.  For the first time I now knew the name of the mill’s owner: Mr James Tomlins.

In the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard on 27th August 1880, tenders were requested for the proposed new flour mill at Aberdovey.  The advert was placed by Robert and Evans of Aberystwyth, solicitors to the trustees.  The tender was evidently granted to James Tomlins, and Green (p.64) gives more details:

Mr Tomlin of Warwick wished to erect a four mill, and Mr Humphreys-Owen [of the Cambrian and West Coast Railway] and the solicitor were instructed to look in to the company’s right to use the land.  That report was favourable, and Mr Tomlin proceeded with his building work.

Green’s book has the photograph at the top of this post, showing the very first delivery into the flour mill, by a 2-4-0 Sharp Stewart engine with timber-sided cab. Bankruptcy proceedings in 1897 give details of the set-up costs invested by Mr Tomlins and his investors:  “He built a mill at a cost of about £10,000 and £2,000 had been expended in alterations.  He was allowed an overdraft of £2,000 and to that was added £4,0000 he borrowed and £3,000 he was allowed by a flour firm.

Later, Green makes the following information about the expansion of railway facilities at the mill mill (p.65)

In 1883, there was much debate about providing a ‘Cover for Mr Tomlin’s trucks.’  at the end, it was suggested that the company would pay half the cost of £125 so long as Mr Tomlin provided the labour for the erection of the structure, and undertook to send all his traffic along those routes most favourable to the company.

In 1884, Mr Tomlin asked for a siding to be laid down out of the company’s empty wagon storage siding to a new warehouse he proposed to erect at the end of his mill.  He laid it in with his own labour to the engineer’s satisfaction, and paid 20 shillings per annum for the use of the company’s land, and a proportion of the cost of the interlocking apparatus in the signal box.

Splendid view of Melin Ardudwy, c.1896.  Source: People’s Collection.

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust publication, Ports and Harbours of Gwynedd: Aberdyfi says that Melin Ardydwy (GAT25065) was a steam roller mill, and the mill was known both as the Ardudwy Flour Mill and, more formally, as the Cambrian Roller Flour Mill.   By the 1870s roller milling was becoming widespread, and conventional wind-powered flour mills were being abandoned.  Roller mills enabled the mass-production of much greater volumes of flour, which could be consistently graded and were used to make newly fashionable white bread. Apparently this area beyond the village was known as Ardudwy, hence the mill’s name.

The mill used to stand where a little housing development stands just outside the village to the left on the way to Tywyn, near the golf course.  The mill was four storeys high, stone-built, with five bays on the main frontage, three on the side, and had a protruding extension one bay in width.  The brick-built chimney sits in the corner where the two parts of the building meet.  It is a substantial edifice.  A large shed-like structure stands at its side.

It is not clear quite where the water came from.  Steam mills required a reliable supply of water such as a river or canal. Failing this a reservoir was usually necessary with sufficient capacity to supply the mill with at least one day’s supply of the required water.  James Tomlins’s name occurs time and time again in debates in Tywyn concerning the supply of water to Aberdovey for sewerage, drainage and the supply of businesses dependent upon it, but it is completely opaque how the mill was supplied with water until he managed to secure agreement for an improved water supply.  That agreement was finally made on 13th February 1894, with the Montgomery County Times and Shropshire and Mid-Wales Advertiser reporting that

Mr. Tomlins has for years been agitating respecting the insufficient water supply and constructed drainage of the place, but he failed to make any tangible impression on the Board representatives until last summer’s drought proved his hypothesis. Penyroror Hill is the site fixed upon for the new reservoir. The result of the enquiry will soon be made public.

As an amusing aside, the author of the report finishes with a rather embittered rhetorical question:  “By the way, can anybody enlighten us why an enquiry closely pertaining to Aberdovey should be held Towyn?”

The traditional approach to flour production was to crush wheat grain between two circular millstones, an upper runner stone that rotated and a lower bed stone that was fixed into a stationary position.  The runner stone was powered either by wind or water.  In the 1850s the repeal of the Corn Laws meant that imported grain was affordable and Britain’s dependence on imported grain grew from 2% in the 1830s to  45% (and 65% for wheat alone) during the 1880s.  The arrival of the railway in Aberdovey seventeen years previously had resulted in an expansion of the deep water sea trade with imported cargoes from Ireland, South Wales, Newfoundland, the Baltic, South America and elsewhere, which in turn led to the expansion of the coastal and rail transport from the port.  Cargoes were trans-shipped, via rail or coastal vessels, to other parts of Wales and England.  Hugh M. Lewis says that wheat and barley were imported from the Mediterranean, Australia and Canada.  At a time when white bread was increasingly in demand, mill technology was changing and rollers began to replace millstones all over Britain  Rollers were cheaper to make than the skilled but arduous and time-consuming dressing of millstones.  The website From Quern to Computer has a useful overview of the reasons that steam-powered mills became so popular, and why they were often located, like Melin Ardudwy, at ports:

Henry Simon was one of the main manufacturers of roller machines for flour milling. Source: From Quern to Computer (full reference at end of post)

In 1878 The National Association of British and Irish Millers (nabim) was formed for ‘mutual advancement and protection’ in the light of the ‘great changes which are now in progress in the manufacture of flour, and in the machinery used for that purpose’.  These ‘great changes’ . . . were driven by two related factors:  the growing demand for white bread and the increased importation of hard wheats from North America, Russia and also Australia and India, to meet demand.  These hard wheats gave good quality flours, naturally higher in gluten than native soft wheats, which enabled the production of well-risen white bread.  The gradual reduction method employed by the new roller mills was not only better suited to milling hard wheats than traditional millstones, but also to extracting a greater proportion of fine white flour.  In addition, changes were taking place in the location of the milling industry, as large new mills were built at ports and on navigable rivers and canals, well-placed to receive deliveries of imported wheat.  Such changes were also facilitated by the use of steam power.

Melin Ardudwy was an outcome of this industrialization of flour production.  I can find no mention anywhere of exactly what internal machinery was installed or how many rollers it drove.  However, the basic operation can be cobbled together from general accounts of steam-driven roller mills.

Roller milling, as the name implies, replaced circular stones with rollers, c12 inches in diameter, not unlike a big mangle, through which the grain was gradually broken down through successive pairs of rollers.  These were set at a specific distance from each other, fixed by a technician, spinning towards each other at different speeds in incremental stages until the grain was sufficiently reduced.  Grain was fed in to the rollers and extracted via pneumatic pipes.  Flour was extracted at all stages of the process.

Green provides a fascinating plan of the railway showing the mill in the context of other structures serving or served by the railway c.1923.  It is marked on the plan as Tomlins Steam Mill, and has an accompanying warehouse.  I have scanned it, a pretty poor job that makes a complete pig’s breakfast of the part where the plan spans the page join.  You can click on it to get a better view of it.  It shows how Tomlins Steam Mill was integrated with the rest of Aberdovey’s railway infrastructure. I have highlighted the mill in red and the station in green.

Plan of the railway at Aberdovey, c.1923, showing the Tomlins Mill at Ardudwy. Source: C.C. Green 1996, The Coast Lines of the Cambrian Railways, Volume 2. Wild Swan Publications, p.74-5

The plan seems to show that the tracks in the photograph at the top of this post ran into Tomlins Mill, shown in red.  There is another siding shown running to the south of that track, terminating next to the mill, and others to the north. The two sidings to the north appear to relate to other activities, with one serving cattle pens and another relating to a proposed goods yard.  a total of four tracks seem to have served the mill itself, a fairly impressive operation.  All of the sidings eventually connect to the main line near the golf club’s club house.  This linkage to the main line meant that flour could be taken further afield by rail, or taken down to the port for loading on to vessels for transhipment along the coast to south Wales.

1884 was a good, profitable year for Mr Tomlins, although he was still in debt.  He had the best possible machinery and established a trade monopoly, but by 1893 he was in difficulties due to increasing competition and ongoing debt.  On 3rd November 1894, the Montgomery County Times and Shrophshire and Mid-Wales Advertiser reported that a wheat conditioning plant was installed at the mill, “giving every possible satisfaction,” but this was obviously not sufficient to rescue the business, which was obviously in trouble.  In 1897 a long report appeared in the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard, dated 10th December 1897, announcing that the mill had declared bankruptcy, with liabilities of £2,124, 8s 5d.  The public examination heard that “the cause of failure was stated to be the heavy outlay in building a flour mill at Aberdovey, the erection of expensive machinery, insufficient capital to work that business at a profit, heavy insurance and interest, bad debts, competition, and working at no profit for four years prior to 1895.”  A fairly comprehensive list of woes. The mill was sold at auction on 29th April 1897 to a Mr Powell of the Midlands for £1600, but it is unclear what happened to it between then and when the main building was pulled down.

A postcard that shows it in the distance (below) shows women in fashions that date to the 1910s, with the mill and its chimney still in tact.  The picture of the mill on the right, is a detail of the postcard on the left, visible in the distance.

The Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard on 4th December 1908 describes the dismantling of the mill itself, leaving the chimney behind:  “The old flour mill adjoining the railway is being rapidly dismantled, at the instance of the Cambrian Railway Company, its condition having of late become unsafe.  Mr J.P. Lewis undertook the contract, which up to the present has proceeded without incident.”  The chimney remained in place until 1920.

The demolition of the chimney was reported in The Cambrian News on 4th June 1920, as follows:

On Wednesday week, an exodus of men, women and children, 100s in no.s, was made for Ardudwy and the sea.  For on that night the giant chimney of the old mill, erected at about 1884, was to be rased to the ground.  Since that date, the old chimney had served as an excellent landmark for the Aberdovey fishermen, and they took this opportunity – the heat of its destruction – to organize a collection from the spectators for the Sailors Orphanage Fund, which was some solatium for the loss of their silent friend . . . . At exactly 10 minutes to eight, Mrs Richards, Ardudwy, applied the torch to the well-petrolled timber and in less time than it takes to write, the base was a mass of flames. . . . A neater job was never done.”

I don’t know when the rest of the mill was taken down, and it may have survived until the land was cleared for the modern housing estate that now sits on the land.

It would be rather nice to know more about James Tomlin other than his name.  He was a member of various boards in Tywyn and Aberdovey and, as mentioned above, was involved in a number of heated debates about improvements to Aberdovey’s water supply for drainage, sewerage and business operations, how it should be implemented.  A report of the marriage of his son Herbert in Chaddesley-Corbett in 1903 indicates that he was married with at least one child.  The bankruptcy proceedings recorded that he was very poor at keeping his books in order and he was, according to a report dating to 21st October 1887, a teetotaler!  I could probably find some more odds and ends by trawling through the newspapers online, but whatever I find, it’s not going to make up much of a biography.  If anyone knows of any more about him please get in touch.

Main sources for this post:

The National Library of Wales website (a fabulous resource):
https://newspapers.library.wales

The Coast Lines of the Cambrian Railways, volume 2, 1996 by C.C. Green.  Wild Swan Publications

Structural Engineering in the Lancashire Cotton Spinning Mills 1850-1914: the example of Stott & Sons by Roger N. Holden, 1993. Industrial Archaeology Review, Volume 15, 1993 – Issue 2

Technology and Transformation: The Diffusion of the Roller Mill in the British Flour Milling Industry, 1870-1907.  Jennifer Tann and R. Glyn Jones. Technology and Culture
Vol. 37, No. 1 (Jan., 1996), p. 36-69 (Available to read on JSTOR)

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2007.  Ports and Harbours of Gwynedd: Aberdyfi. A Threat Related Assessment.  GAT Project  No.1824, Report No.671.1, April 2007

Gwynedd Archaeological Trust 2011. Conservation Area Appraisal: Aberdyfi, Gwynedd.  GAT Project No. 2155. Report No. 956, June, 2011

Aberdyfi, Portrait of a Village by Hugh M. Lewis.

Aberdyfi, A Chronicle Through the Centuries by Hugh M. Lewis

From Quern to Computer: the history of flour milling. Roller Milling: A Gradual Takeover. September 06th 2016 by Martin and Sue Watts
https://millsarchive.org/explore/features-and-articles/entry/171161/from-quern-to-computer-the-history-of-flour-milling/11669

England 1870–1914. The Oxford history of England by R.C.K. Ensor.  (1936). Clarendon Press

 

2 thoughts on “The Tomlins flour mill, Aberdovey: Melin Ardudwy (revised and updated)

  1. John

    Fascinating and comprehensive, as usual. I have been a regular visitor to Aberdovey for 30 years and your posts make each trip more interesting as I often seek out the landmarks you mention. Many thanks and keep up the good work!

    Like

    Reply
    1. Andie Post author

      Hi John. Thanks so much! I’m really glad that you enjoy it. I have a long list of topics for next year, so I hope that some of them will hit the spot.

      Like

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s