Blyth’s steam mill in Guithavon Valley (left). The Mill House, still there, is right of centre, with Mrs Blyth, an evangelical teacher, in the window. The water mill is on the extreme right. The river is behind the buildings. Mr Blyth’s beehives are on the site now occupied by Podsbrook
The flour miller Edward Mark Blyth arrived in Witham in 1879, after an apprenticeship in Yarmouth. His premises beside the river Brain soon became known as “Blyth’s Mill” and “Blyth’s Meadow”.
As well as the water mill next to his Mill House, there was a steam mill, which he enlarged (now the site of the Valley Church). In 1881 he employed “eight men and a boy” altogether. He also had a shop in Newland Street, and in 1897 he had a personal telephone line installed on 30 foot poles, for sending customers’ orders from the shop to the mill. Witham had no telephone exchange until 1905 (with 12 subscribers).
Mrs Edith Raven (born in 1893) told me that “It was very pretty to see Blyth’s Mill working, really, you know. As you went through the meadows. Very pretty”. Her mother sent her gleaning with her brothers and sister, to pick up the fallen wheat after harvest. Then Mr Blyth would “take all these sacks of wheat down, and do it into flour for Mother. And Mother had to pay him, so he’d take one sack of flour. And Mother’d stack that all the way round the bake house, and that was her flour for the winter.”
Mrs Raven also remembered running through the meadows to school all the way from her home near the Victoria, then home at dinnertime for “a piece of bread and lard and salt”, then back to school, and then home again at night.
The National Schools were just up the road from the mill, in Guithavon Street. So the meadows were a busy school route for other children too. Mr Walter Peirce of Church Street (born in 1908) used to come “out by Blyth’s Mill and over the bridge and then up. Because the old school bell would be ringing.” At that time, the public footpath went right past the front door of the Mill House and the water mill.
Mrs Amy Taylor and Mrs Dorothy Ireland (born c 1904 and 1894) said “We used to pick lovely wild flowers on Blyth’s Meadows”, and “we played hours in those meadows, to pick the grass and then get it round and make cows’ feet. You had to do that sort of thing, there was nothing else to do.”
Mr Blyth died in 1925, and at about the same time, all the milling work moved to a new building near the station, next to the maltings. The old water mill was taken down in 1948. A smaller replica remains, together with the Mill House and the meadows. Mr Streeter, who owned the house after WW2, planted most of the trees near the river and the railway.
Now I’ll move forward in time. There were big changes around 1970. First, improvements were carried out to the river in Blyth’s Meadow. It had previously flowed through the grounds of the Mill House, but it was diverted to its present course, and the weir was installed. And most visibly to us today, the “Duck Pond” was made where Mrs Taylor used to pick wild flowers, just across the river from the Mill House. Many people are surprised to find that the pond has not been there for ever.
Also, the Witham Urban District Council had for some years been buying land for the Town Development Scheme, whereby people and jobs moved here from London. The property included four miles of river meadow along the Brain, including Blyth’s Meadow. This enabled them to create the River Walk, by making arrangements for access, laying down hard surfaces on the paths, and taking advice from various bodies about the treatment of the vegetation and the wild life.
So today we can enjoy the River Walk and the Pond in the same way that our predecessors enjoyed “Blyth’s Meadow”. A few years ago I heard a young man talking to his family in a supermarket; he smiled happily and said “The Pond is my favourite place”.
(for the earlier history of Witham’s meadows, see pages 97-99 of my “Witham 1500-1700: Making a Living”).
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in April 2014