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THE MAID OF TAVERHAM MILL

There were some beautiful hot summer days in 1786. The squire of Taverham, Miles Branthwayt, had recently taken over the running of the paper mill, with a former tenant, John Anstead, as his manager. Anstead had two grown-up sons, John junior and Thomas, and a beautiful daughter, Elizabeth, aged 21. In truth we cannot be sure that she was beautiful, but she was always very dear to her mother, and had recently become very close to a young man called John Burgess. By harvest time she was expecting his baby.
Her father cannot have been best pleased, and would not consent to a marriage. The child, Richard, was born early next February, and then, at last, when it was apparent that the infant was healthy and likely to survive, he agreed to the match. Elizabeth became Mrs Burgess in March 1787.
After this inauspicious start John Burgess's career went from strength to strength. His father-in-law died aged 77 early in the next century, and shortly afterwards the squire, Miles Branthwayt, died at a comparatively young 52. The mill was next leased by a partnership led by the ambitious editor of the Norwich Mercury, Richard Mackenzie Bacon, under whom it was among the first in the world to install one of the new papermaking machines. Burgess quickly became expert in operating the new equipment. After Bacon and his partner were made bankrupt in 1816, Burgess continued to operate the mill on behalf of the creditors, and when the business was acquired by Robert Hawkes, a wealthy Norwich merchant, Burgess became his partner. By 1820 he was himself wealthy enough to start buying property in Norwich and Costessey, where he bought several cottages and the White Hart pub. This he rebuilt ten years later.
At the time there was probably no one alive who knew more about making paper by machine than John Burgess, and during these years Taverham mill supplied paper to printers across East Anglia and as far away as Cambridge, where the University Press was a demanding customer. This prosperous period was brought to a close in 1830 when the mill was attacked one Saturday afternoon in December by machine-breakers who caused hundreds of pounds' worth of damage. One rioter was identified as having been present at Taverham on that afternoon, and was brought to trial, but was acquitted by a sympathetic jury.
This turn of events seems to have discouraged Robert Hawkes. Although his company was compensated for the damage, he decided to sell his share in the business and retire. The new partners with whom Burgess now found himself saddled were two young men from wealthy local families. Unlike Robert Hawkes, they had no other business interests, and no doubt they tried to meddle at the mill, where Burgess had previously been free to manage alone. Whatever the reason, he soon left the partnership, and instead took the lease on the vacant paper mill in Bungay. It was certainly a come-down in professional terms, since the Bungay mill was engaged in making brown wrapping paper by hand, instead of the machine-made white printing paper that he was experienced in, but, on the credit side, he was at last his own boss.
What about Elizabeth, the young lady who had brought him into her papermaking family and so started his career? After the birth, out of wedlock, of their first son Richard, the couple went on to have three more sons. Charles was a healthy boy like his elder brother, but the next son, George, did indeed die. Infant mortality was high in those days, and old John Anstead's cautious delay in giving his consent to his daughter's marriage had made sense from his point of view. It may seem hard-hearted to us, but, as he saw it, if his daughter were forced to marry an unsuitable lad merely to legitimate an unborn child, who later died, she would have missed her chance to make a better match, and all for nothing. Of course, had he known how successful young John Burgess was later to become, he might have had no objection to his daughter's choice.
Sadly, Elizabeth herself did not live to share in that success. Another son, again christened George, was born in 1795; the boy flourished, but this time it was the mother who did not survive. Elizabeth Burgess, nee Anstead, was buried in Taverham churchyard on the 7th of March, aged 30. On a cold spring day, it was a sad (but all too common) end to a love affair that had begun in that hot summer, nine years earlier.

WORDS ON PAPER - History of Taverham by Joseph Mason, published in a limited edition in 2005. Each copy includes a sample of genuine Taverham Mills paper from 1853. See Links page.


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