The Two Mills of Mill Road

Nov 23, 02:40 PM

This history trail audio 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. To find more trails and further information, go to

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 Cam...

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