The Great Fire of Embrook

Chapter 1 - The Mill

May 16th 2017 by Ian Grainge

Sometime between 11.00pm and 1,00am on Thursday 3rd July 1884, flames were seen coming from windows of the paper mill owned by John and William Westcott in Emmbrook, near Wokingham.     By 4.00am, the mill was substantially destroyed and 50 people were out of work.     Estimated amounts vary as to the value of the claim, the ‘Mercury’ (see below) has the claim at ‘between £8,000 and £12,000’ but that’s for the machinery and stock only, the ‘Observer’ (see below) says the machinery alone was valued at £14,000, with buildings ‘for most part wrecked’, and stocks of paper and machinery in outlying buildings in addition to this figure.     Each newspaper notes that the premises were ‘fully insured’.    The insurance company probably paid around £25,000-£30,000 to settle the fire claim for buildings, machinery and stock (about £3-3.5m today).   

Those are the bare facts.   So, what is so different about this fire?      It’s the circumstantial parts of the story surrounding the main event that interest, so let’s look a little deeper.      The local press were naturally soon on the scene.     Reports appeared two days later, somewhat breathlessly in the Berkshire Chronicle (‘Chronicle’) and Reading Mercury (‘Mercury’), with a more considered view offered by the Reading Observer (‘Observer’).

First of all, where is Emmbrook (spellings have varied over the years, but this is the present spelling)?     It is a district of Wokingham, which is a town about 7 miles South East of Reading, with Emmbrook formerly a village to the North West of Wokingham, situated astride and around the Em Brook, on the Wokingham to Reading Road, but now wholly contained within the town itself.  

The Mill is shown in the top left hand corner of the map, and Broad Street to the bottom right (Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland)

Emmbrook comprised two pubs ('The Horse and Groom' now 'The Rifle Volunteer' and a second, the 'Dog and Duck'), several workers cottages (there was also a brickworks nearby), and a large water-powered mill.

Looking back to the time before the fire, the mill was known as Westcott Papermill and was sited alongside what is now the Woosehill roundabout  -Woosehill (formerly Woose Hill, being just that, - a hill) is a relatively recent modern housing development, with a supermarket, - with probably the larger part of the mill on the site of the present day car saleroom on the Reading Road.    A water powered mill had existed in Emmbrook certainly since 1644, milling corn.  A new mill was built on the site in the middle of the 18th century, and a dam constructed to control the flow of water.  

Part of the retaining wall to this dam can still be traced on the other side of the ‘new’ roundabout.    The mill had known various names during its life, until approximately 1800 it was known as ‘Little Mill’ and the miller also ran the nearby public house, the ‘Horse and Groom’ (q.v).      Small industrial properties opened in the area, no doubt boosting trade at the pub, but the mill remained the focal point of industry. 

The mill was sold to Thomas Westcott, the elder brother of John and William, in 1860.   Sometime around here, Thomas dropped the 't' from the middle of his name, but his brothers seem to have retained it or dropped it as it suited.      Westcott probably involved John Walter (owner of 'The Times' and a significant local philanthropist) as a business partner, and may have converted the mill into a paper mill around this time, but Thomas certainly retained overall control of the business, as by 1868, steam power had been introduced, and the mill extended in size and now known as Wokingham Mill.       In 1868, Thomas Westcott sold the mill to his brothers, as a paper mill, and they, in turn took a mortgage, probably for further extension and modernisation of plant.     There is the possibility, unproven, that John and William made the world’s first blotting paper here – good business or poor quality control?     Thomas himself went on to be Mayor of Wokingham, and there is a school still bearing his name in Easthamstead Road.

Let’s now look at Emmbrook (or Embrook, Em Brook or Emm Brook – all spelling options seem to be interchangeable in older records).     It was part of Wokingham Borough, but not part of Wokingham.    From the mill site, the modern road rises gradually for more than 500m until it reaches St Paul’s church, which is on the brow of the hill, and was in existence at the time of the fire. don cload [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Joel Park wood even today fills part of the land between the mill site and the brow of the hill, but where today there are houses on the roadside, in 1884 there were none, or at the most, the occasional cottage.     From St Paul’s the road descends for about 150m, before rising again to The Terrace (see picture below) which is one of the oldest parts of Wokingham town.

The Queen's Head is in the centre of The Terrace and is one of the oldest pubs in Wokingham and existed at the time of the fire.    The entrance to Broad Street is in the distance (200m) in the centre of the picture. (By Tom Bastin from Reading, UK (The Queen's Head Uploaded by BaldBoris) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Terrace and St Paul’s church are roughly the same height above sea level.    Immediately beyond The Terrace is Broad Street (see picture below), one of the old gates to the medieval town and approximately 900m from St Paul’s church.

Broad Street looking towards The Terrace. (Anthony Eden [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Fire Station was approximately a further 200m beyond the entrance to Broad Street, probably around the site of the building in the foreground on the right.

We now have the site of the mill, but what did it look like?     No pre-1884 photographs have been found, but there are images of the re-built mill from around the turn of the century, as shown earlier.   The ‘Observer’ is specific as to the dimensions, height and occupancy of the mill buildings, so, with a little crystal-ball gazing, let us try to establish what the mill complex may have looked like.      We know that the Em Brook ran through the mill, and that after the fire, the buildings and plant on one side of the brook were relatively undamaged.   These were the owner’s house, 30 yards away, according to Observer (we don’t know whether it was John or William who lived there), the boiler house, and the maintenance engineer’s workshop, plus some ‘offices’ on the site, although whether or not these offices were part of the mill complex is unclear.      The ‘Observer’ gives specific dimensions of each building that comprised the mill complex, and we also know that the mill had been ‘recently enlarged’ and new machinery bought.    So, common sense tells us that if one is trying to enlarge a property, you are constrained by the geography of the site, but there again, it is not usually cost-effective to add stories to existing structures.   We know from the ‘Observer’ that there was a 3 storey warehouse with a ground floor area of about 130m2 used for the storage of paper, off cuts, wood pulp etc, so let us assume that this is unlikely to have been extended.   It is more likely that the ‘machinery house’ a single storey building of 140m2 and closer to the brook, was the enlargement, as it probably contained the new machinery.     Other buildings on this side of the brook included a 2 storey ’beating’ room (35m2), and a three storey rag house (147m2).    Effectively, the working part of the mill itself was probably on one side of the brook, and the administration offices and heating plant a little detached, and the owner's house probably on the other side, a little distance further away.    This would be the logical way to plan the site, - a scale plan based on this imaginary scenario is shown .

As for machinery, paper making had recently undergone its ‘Damascene’ moment by the invention of the Foudrinier paper making machine in the early 19th century.    In simple terms, until the turn of the 19th century, paper was made from rags, cotton or other textile waste, or almost anything fibrous.   These would then be bashed around until all foreign matters (eg cellulose) were removed, and the resultant mush mixed with water into a slurry, which, in turn, was drained, pressed and laid out to dry.     That is about as simple a description as it gets, - there is, of course, much more to it than this, but it will suffice for the purposes of this exercise.  The Foudrinier machine enabled continuous rolling and pressing, thus enlarging the size of sheet that could be produced, and, more importantly, introducing wood pulp as a means of making paper. 

Paper-making machine c1820

Given the repeated reference to ‘costly machinery’, and recent enlargement of the mill, it is quite possible, therefore that one such machine, or a similar, had been acquired and was in use at the Mill at the time of the fire.   It is a large machine, and therefore is unlikely to have been used in an upper floor because of the weight.     We must also speculate as to how it was powered.       Electric motive power was known, but not in use until the 1880’s, so it is unlikely that such innovation had reached Wokingham, so the power for the machine must have come from water.   But would a simple waterwheel generate enough power to run what was considered in those days to be a heavy and complex machine?     It is quite possible that this was the case, but equally possible, is that it was steam driven from the boiler on the other side of the Em Brook.    So, let us assume that the ‘costly machine’ was in use on the ground floor of the two storey building known as the ‘machine room’.    This supposition is also based on the assumption that the machine was gravity fed from the floor above.    A reasonable guess, but we shall never know.

Other machinery included a ‘rag beating machine’ and, as anyone familiar with the Heavy Woollen industry in West Yorkshire will tell you, rag grinders/rag beaters are a renowned source of sparks and fires. 

Rag Grinder machine c 1880.  Rags, pulp, paper waste etc are fed into the top of the machine.    Inside is a large drum with metal spikes around the inside.   The drum rotates at high speed, and the shredded material exits via the conveyor belt

Again, how was this powered?     It is reasonable to assume that this machine and the paper making machine were powered from the same source, possibly via the same belt and pulley drive system if the machine were on the same floor level.     Rag grinders require some considerable force to generate the speed in the cylinder to rip apart articles of clothing.      However, records show that, around 1868, the mill was converted to steam power.   It is this, then, that was most probably the ‘engine house’.    

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