Industrial developments in St Neots


Local historians, Charles Tebbutt and Rosa Young, have published extensive research into St Neots’ history. What follows has largely been gleaned from their work.


Bell Making


In 1735 Joseph Eayre bought one of the best sites in St Neots, on the banks of the Great Ouse by the old priory. He built a bell foundry in Priory Lane, workshops and a navigation wharf. Its entrance was in the shape of a bell!. Old bells were brought here and recast. Some of them still hang in the churches of Huntingdonshire and other counties. He was also engaged in watch and clock making.


His profits were invested in property, He built ‘The George’ in St Neots in 1740 which had the town’s Assembly Rooms on the first floor. He also owned all the houses between Huntingdon Street and the High Street corner, and along the High Street as far as the Congregational (United reform) Chapel. There were also properties in Eynesbury and Eaton Socon.


When he died in 1770 his son, Edward Arnold, the brewer as well as  clock and watchmaker, carried on his bell-making business. In 1778 he opened another factory in Leicester and sold the St Neots business to an apprentice, Robert Taylor. Arnold rented him the premises but, perhaps because Taylor married Arnold’s daughter, he turned him out in 1789. His new foundry was in a yard behind Cambridge Street where there were engineering workshops and a blacksmiths. He cast at least 29 bells before his Cambridge Street premises were destroyed by fire in 1821.



The Paper Mill


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


They became bankrupt in 1808 and sold the company to Matthew Toogood. He 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.  He and 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 brewey, 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. By 1903 new turbines and steam engines were installed.


Much of the wooden buildings were destroyed in a fire in 1912 when 200 people were employed. Rebuilding started in brick and improved equipment was used. 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.


Its fortunes declined during the economic depression after the 1920s and it closed down in 1939. However, 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, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) 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. The lease was sold in 1950 to Samuel Jones Limited.


Other mills


The River Mill in Eaton Socon was rebuilt in 1847 using better machinery. Duloe windmill burned down in 1815 and was rebuilt. Other mills were built next to the Paper Mill, in Cambridge Street and John Bull Mill on the Southwest corner of the Market Square.


Spa water


In 1895 St Neots Spa opened. A spring of mineral water was found by the Paper Mill Bridge. A company was formed to exploit it. Hoping to develop St Neots as a spa town, a tap was fixed and bottles of water, marketed as ‘Neotia’, were sold. A procession of decorated boats sailed from the bridge to St Neots to advertise the water. It was said to have a foul taste which may explain why the business did not take off. 




In the early-19th century George Bower opened an ironmonger’s business north of the Market Square. He already had a foundry in West Hartlepool. In his St Neots iron foundry he made farm machinery, gas making equipment, gas cooking stoves and boilers. He sold the ironmongery and concentrated on the foundry. He went out of business when he wasn’t paid for a shipment of gas appliances to South America.


Bower’s Gas Meter Works on Brook Street lay derelict until after the First World War when the site were converted for producing malt extract.


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







Industrial developments in St Neots





List the main industries in 18th and 19th century St Neots.






Try to put them in chronological order (or rank them earliest to latest)




What were the names of the main people involved in the industrial development of St Neots?