James Toller, the Eynesbury Giant

An engraving from 1817 of the dwarf Simon Papp next to James Toller

James Toller was born in Eynesbury, St Neots in 1798. His parents, who were both of average height and lived in a small cottage near the old Rectory.

By the age of ten James was already five feet or 153cm tall, and by the time he was eighteen years old he was said to be over eight feet or 244cm tall, his feet were fifteen inches in length.

As news of the young man from Huntingdonshire who had grown into a giant spread across the country, James became famous.

In 1815 he was exhibited in London and was presented to the Emperor of Russia and the King of Prussia. His great size was noted in various publications and in one drawing he was shown next to a Dutch dwarf called Simon Papp who was only twenty eight inches or 70cm tall. After touring the country in a show, he enlisted in the Life Guards, but his health was not good and he had to leave the army and return home to Eynesbury.

James Toller returned to Eynesbury to live with his mother in Rectory Lane, and the local Rector allowed him to walk in the rectory gardens to avoid being seen by the public.

He died on the 4 February 1818, when he was only 20 years of age. It was rumoured that a doctor had offered £20 (a year’s wages for an ordinary working person) for James’s body, so that it could be dissected, and his family feared that his body might be stolen by body-snatchers once he had been buried. For this reason he was buried inside Eynesbury church rather than in the churchyard.

Many stories have been told about James Toller since his death about how he could walk along the streets of St Neots and Eynesbury and chat with people through their bedroom windows or pass by the public houses along the high street and reach up and swing the signboards. A local shoemaker in Eynesbury was said to have a pair of Toller’s shoes that he displayed in his shop but these have never been found.

Sadly there is no mark or initials on the church floor to indicate the exact spot where Toller is buried in Eynesbury church and his fame has diminished over the last two hundred years but his story is still told to the children in local schools and who knows maybe one day we’ll get a donation of his shoes?

paines mill st neots

Paine’s Brewery and the history of brewing in St Neots

The first large-scale brewery in St Neots is thought to have been established by Samuel Emery. He purchased The Bull Inn on the Market Square and the public house next door and combined their two brew-houses to brew in larger quantities. A well sunk into the gravel terrace provided ‘clean’ water. Having a wharf on Hen Brook allowed the import of barley and hops by boat. When Samuel died his daughters took over the inn and his son, Samuel, the brewery. He sold it to William Foster in 1792 who owned three licensed houses.

In 1831 William Foster sold his brewery on the south side of the Market Square to James Paine (1789 – 1855). He too was an entrepreneur. Over the next few years Paine set up a Stone Flour Mill and an office. He invested his profits from selling beer to acquire three more ‘tied’ houses (they could only sell Paine’s beer). He set up a maltings in St Mary’s Street, Eynesbury, owned five houses on South Street, corn shops in Bell yard, a house and shop in Eaton Ford, 16 acres of farmland in Eynesbury, farmland in Great Paxton, brick kilns there, at Riseley and Gamlingay.

A beam steam engine was installed in 1840 which was there until 1935 when it was replaced by electricity. When James died in 1855 four of his sons took over the business. One of the sons, probably James, opened the Eynesbury brickyard on Potton Road.

In 1865 William expanded the business, buying a flour mill on Nutters Lane (Bedford Street) and as well as brewing, flour milling and sawing he was buying and selling malt, hops, coal, malt calms, linseed cake, slates, bricks, tiles, building stone, salt, tar, hair, whiting, lath (single and double fir), cement (Portland and Roman) lime (burnt, slack, and clunch), deals and battens (Petersburg, Wyberg and Memel). To help in his business he also hired a yard and wharf on the east side of Eynesbury bridge, where he put another saw mill. By 1869 he had bought St Neots Railway Tavern’.

Needing more capital he went into partnership with William Atkinson in 1872. A new malting was erected in Nutters Lane for £2,400 and the old one sold to George Taylor of the Chequers Inn who converted it into a mineral water factory. In 1877 Atkinson sold his share in the partnership and John McNish joined with the firm then trading as Paine & Co.

The building merchants side of the business was sold in 1879 to Charles Daintree and Fred Jewson. The yard behind the Dog and Duck Inn near Eynesbury Bridge was too small so they first hired, then bought, Navigation Wharf across the street.

In 1880 the Nutters Lane flour mill was pulled down and a new mill was built on the same site. A steam engine was used which worked until 1931 when a diesel engine was installed. When William Paine retired in 1882 the McNish brothers took it over until 1896 when the firm was launched as a public limited liability company as Paine and Co. Ltd.

The Bedford Street Nutters Mill was burnt down in 1903 causing damage valued at £15,000. It was rebuilt with more space. The brewery and Stone Flour Mill were burnt down in 1905 so the company bought the next-door premises and milling restarted. The brewery was rebuilt using more modern equipment.

In 1900 the Bedford Street maltings began production of malt extract (for example Bovril, OXO cubes) and it was traded worldwide. After the first World War (1914 – 1918) larger premises were needed so Paine & Co. Ltd bought and equipped the derelict Bower’s Gas Meter Works on Brook Street. These works were badly damaged by fire in 1947. They were rebuilt but burnt down again in 1955 so Paine’s used the Bedford Street premises again.

Sources: Young, R. (1996), ‘St Neots Past‘, Phillimore; Tebbutt, C.F. (1978), St Neots – History of a Huntingdonshire Town, Unwin Brothers
paper mill little paxton

History of the paper mill, Little Paxton

Okestubbe Mill was a water-powered medieval corn-grinding mill by the Great Ouse in Little Paxton and was owned by the monks of St Neots priory. It was acquired in 1799 by Owsley Rowley, who rebuilt and let the mill to Mr Hobson of Eaton Socon.

In 1804 it was leased to a firm of paper-makers, Henry and Sealy Fourdinier and John Gamble. They spent £60,000 on machinery to change it from producing flour to a paper mill. Instead of making single sheets Henry invented a process to make rolls of paper. Unfortunately they did not patent it and other entrepreneurs used their ideas and competed with them.

The mills was powered by the waterwheel turning a spindle which turned cogs to operate the machinery.

The Fourdinier brothers went bankrupt in 1808 and sold the company to Matthew Toogood who employed experienced paper makers and used sound business methods to make a success of the venture.

The 1823 flood left the machine room five feet (1.85m.) under water and four men were trapped for four days. Toogood, and then his sons after him operated the paper mill until the 1887 when the business closed down. Steam power units were introduced in 1851 and updated in 1861 to reduce the mill’s reliance on water power.

A raised footway, called the traps, was built to allow the workforce to get to work in the winter months when the river flooded.

The closure of the mill and the decline of the Vulcan Iron Works led to unemployment and distress among the poor. As the mill had provided employment to hundreds of local men and women some local business people (John McNish of Paine’s Brewery, Joseph Wilcox, W. Emery, James Paine and W. Bowyer) set up a consortium and reopened it in 1888 as St Neots Paper Mill Company Limited. They took no money from it themselves until the business became profitable again.

They were limited by out-of-date machinery but by 1903 new turbines and steam engines were installed.

Just under a decade later, in 1912 when 200 people were employed at the mill, many of the wooden buildings were destroyed in a fire, but rebuilding using brick and improving the equipment made the mill safer and more profitable. By 1913 the mill produced the finest grades of bank, writing, ledger, drawing, chart, cartridge, typing, loan and envelope papers, and cream and tinted typing and envelope papers.

However its fortunes declined during the economic depression after the 1920s and it closed down in 1939. During the Second World War, Wigmore Teape evacuated their paper mill at Dover and moved to the safer inland site in Little Paxton.

After the war there was a trade in paper to countries like India, Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon  and the Far East that had previously got their paper from Japan.

The mill was converted to manufacture nylon but had closed down by 1948 and the lease was sold in 1950 to Samuel Jones Limited.

Sources: Young, R. (1996), St Neots Past, Phillimore; Tebbutt, C.F. (1978), St Neots – History of a Huntingdonshire Town, Unwin Brothers.

The world’s oldest surviving quadruplets

In St Neots in Cambridgeshire in 1935 something rather unusual happened. In the upstairs bedroom of this council house four tiny babies were born. No quadruplets had ever lived for more than a few days before and the nation watched with baited breath as they battle to survive.

Against all the odds, here we are today at the eightieth birthday party of the quadruplets at the St Neots museum.

The doctor who delivered them, Ernest Harrison, made the extraordinary offer to take all four babies into his own home for the first six months to give them 24-hour care. Ernest Miles “Dr Ernest, yes, I am named after him. Through his knowledge and care, he protected us and made sure that we did survive.”

Ann, Ernest, Paul and Michael Miles were born November 28, 1935 and today the National Press would report on every minute detail of the quads development. They even charmed King George V who sent them £4 for their coffers. So you just became instant celebrities, the whole nation was waiting for you to survive?

The public even paid money to come and gaze at the little celebrities in their glass-fronted nursery bought by a well-known baby milk company.

Ernest Miles said, “Everyone was scrutinising us as we played and you felt it as a child, it made us very self-conscious.”

Michael Miles said, “I think they tend to think that we were somewhat unique, almost like animals in a zoo.”

Their parents had to take every opportunity to make ends meet. Money was always tight with their father on a lorry-drivers wage.

Ann Miles said “He (Mr Mile) only earned £3 a week, and it took £10 a week to look after us. When you went and bought a pair of shoes for one of us, the other three wanted a new pair as well. So you always had to have four of everything.”

Nowadays, quads are much more common in the UK, with up to four sets born every year. But, in 1935 the miracle of these quads was a boost to public morale at a time when the country was facing a threat from Germany. But, away from the cameras the quads have a bit of fun with their unique situation, especially the two identical brothers.

Michael Miles said, “He liked pulling jokes on other people and I always had to run along because nobody knew the difference between him and me.”

Ernest Miles said, “I got my brother into trouble a few times and he got spanked instead of me, but that was life.”

The newsreels followed them into their teens as the quads began to emerge as four separate individuals. The quads have clocked up more than 200 years of marriage, thirteen children, twenty-three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

All of the above information came from the BBC ‘One Show’ of 4th December 2015