E) The Two Mills of Mill Road


There have been two famous Mills on Mill Road. The street was originally named because of the windmill that was for milling grain to bake bread and cakes. It was sold in 1844 by owner George Humphrey, before being redeveloped into shops and houses at number 56 and 56A which you see today. Years later the Headly Engineering Company Foundry (Mill Road Depot), which made railway parts for engines and tracks, ironmongery for railings, cattle troughs and garden ornaments, built a Coprolite Mill for grinding up Coprolites (dinosaur poo!) which were used as super charged fertilizer to increase the crop yields to feed the growing population.


This history trail is narrated by the poet Michael Rosen, with script researched by Helen Weinstein and the team at Historyworks. This recording is part of a series of Cambridge history trails which have lyrics inspired by 'history beneath our feat' performed by local schoolchildren, with poems by the top poet Michael Rosen and songs by the funny team at CBBC's songwriters commissioned by Historyworks. 

The Windmill for Grain

Mill Road was named after the windmill that once stood in this area, from the times that all the land was used for agriculture, and the only building on the town end of Mill Road was the Windmill. Early maps show the Mill set back slightly from Mill Road, positioned between what is now Mawson Road and Covent Garden. The exact location of the windmill was probably in what are now the back gardens of 56 and 56A Mill Road. When depicted in the background of pictures of Parker’s Piece from the Victorian period the Windmill dominates the landscape. There is a report in the news papers from the Great Storm of 1821 describing how the Miller and the Windmill sails were struck by lightening. The Miller survived but the sail canvases were burnt to nothing and the wooden structures reduced to splinters. Although repaired on that occasion, we do know that the windmill did not survive the coming of the railways do decades later when the last mill owner, George Humfrey, sold the windmill in 1844 he auctioned off not only the building, but the the fixtures and fittings. The land was subdivided into 4 plots to be redeveloped into shops and houses to service the nearby railway station which was opened in July 1845.

The Steam Mill for Coprolite

Whilst the Mill powered by wind was being sold off, a new Mill powered by steam was soon to be built on another Mill Road building plot. This was because the Headly Engineering Company bought the plot at the top of Mill Road by the railway line.

The Headly family was one of the major iron-founding families in Cambridge, and has a history of casting iron in the town longer than anyone else. The Headly iron works foundry called ‘The Eagle’ was located on Market Hill on the site that is currently occupied by Marks & Spencer, so facing the market square. By the 1840s, the foundry had passed through two generations to two brothers, James and Edward. During the 1840s, their business grew extensively, expanding backwards from the street to Trinity churchyard. A devastating fire struck the foundry on 28 February 1846 and destroyed part of the Market area and consequently they moved the foundry away from the market place to a site more appropriately situated for heavy industry, by the railway line on Mill Road. And although the brother’s partnership ended after an argument in 1852. James remained at the foundry teaming up with John Manning, an ironmonger from Mill Road.

With the move to Mill Road the Headly engineering company were well placed to service the needs of the newly opened railway line, making implements for the navvies such as spades and tracks and shunting wagons. Importantly, Headlys built the first and only steam engine to be made in Cambridge, which they called The Eagle but unfortunately it was too light to pull the heavy wagons on the main lines, so it was used instead as an inspection vehicle. However, the Headly works continued to thrive, building steam pumps for mills and tanneries and other heavy industries.

One such enterprise, close to home, was the Coprolite Mining industry. From the 1860s onwards, the Headlys invested heavily in the flourishing coprolite industry with the assistance of relatives in Coton whose land was dug for coprolite. Coprolite is fossilised faeces from the Jurassic period, and it became an important source of phosphate to be used as fertiliser. Local sources were found at Coldham’s Common and all along the geological area called the Cambridge Greensands which were extensively mined in the 1850s to 1870s. At the height of what became known as the coprolite ‘mining rush’ the Headly company was well placed to prosper. They manufactured the heavy machinery to not only help extract the fossils from deep in the ground by moving the heavy cargo in wagons along portable tracks pulled by small steam engines, but they also engineered water mills to wash the coprolites using river water for the next process and then for the last stage of the process Headlys built steam-powered grinding mills to crush the fossils into powder in order to mix it with acid and water to sell as fertiliser. As part of their coprolite enterprise, the Headlys built their own Coprolite Mill on their plot on Mill Road.

Facing Mill Road was their elegant residence called ‘The Limes’, and directly behind was the foundry for the works. And then by the 1860s a larger building at the back of the plot is clearly labelled on the Headly plot as a ‘Coprolite Mill’. The Headly business was not so dynamic after the end of the Coprolite mining rush in the 1880s, but they continued making weather vanes, railings, radiators, bridges, steam locomotives, and agricultural tools. By 1907, up until when the company folded in 1932, there were no longer any Headly family members involved in the company and by then the founder family members were dead and buried locally in Mill Road Cemetery, which is where you can see their grave plots today!

E) The Two Mills of Mill Road


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