Sawmill 1899 rebuilding2

The above photo shows Edmund Cullimore in the bowler hat with a group of his employees from the Saw Mill following the fire which destroyed the place in 1899.  The sign says that they intend to re-build the  Saw Mill and they did!

Edmund Cullimore had embarked on his career as timber merchant at any early age whilst still living outside of Thornbury.  The earliest reference to this is when in 1879 he was named as a trustees in the will of his late brother-in-law, William Weekes in which Edmund was described as a timber merchant from Rockhampton.  The 1881 census shows Edmund was a timber merchant living in Yew Tree Farm, Newton just outside Thornbury.  He was employing 9 men and two boys.

Sawmill Abstract of TitleIn 1886 he acquired a large area of land on the edge of the built up area of the town behind St John Street with road access from St John Street and Gloucester Road.  He immediately set about developing parts of the land.  An indenture dated 6th July 1888 shows that Edmund was already using a small part of the property as a timber yard and saw mill and that he had already erected a carpenter’s shop, stables and other sheds on the land.  Click on the thumbnail to see a plan of Edmund’s property – the saw mill was coloured pink on the plan.

A steam engine was used for driving the saws and the 120 feet high chimney was a well known landmark around Thorn bury.  A photograph of the saw mill shows that there was a plaque on the chimney which read ‘Ebenezer E.C. 1888’.  This both confirms the date of the saw mill and suggests that the chimney actually had a name.  The naming of this chimney is significant.  In Hebrew the meaning of the name Ebenezer is ‘rock or stone of help’.  In the Old Testament Samuel gave the name Ebenezer to a stone set up in recognition of God’s assistance in defeating the Philistines. ‘Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.’ (1Samuel 7:10 -12).  Perhaps in choosing to use these names Edmund was publicly acknowledging that right up to that time he felt the Lord had helped him.

The 1889 Thornbury trade directory also confirms that the mill was in operation by this time.  It appears that Edmund was in partnership with William Rummings under the firm of ‘Cullimore and Rummings’ who operated as farmers, tinplate box manufacturers, and general timber merchants in Rockhampton and Thornbury.  On 28th October 1895, this partnership was dissolved.

We know from various articles in the Gazette that the saw mill had a series of fires.  In one article dated 12th September 1891 the fire appears to be in a hayrick adjoining the saw mill and it is suggested that the hay caught fire by spontaneous combustion.  It is interesting to note that Edmund made an insurance claim off the City of London Fire Office for the expense of extinguishing the fire as at that time the fire service charged for attending a fire.  The insurance company allowed each man who assisted six pence per hour whilst so employed.

Report of fire 23rd October 1899

Another more serious fire occurred in October 1899.  Click on the thumbnail on the left to read the full article.  The photo on the top of the page was taken outside of the Saw Mill following the fire.  The fire broke out in the large shed containing valuable machinery.  Although there was a large tank containing 25,000 gallons of water on the site, the fire was so close and burning so fiercely that the men who turned up to help could not dip their buckets into it.  The hose that had been brought to the scene with a hand engine was not long enough to be used.  Having decided that they could not extinguish the fire, they put their effort into saving as much machinery and timber as possible.  They managed to save some saws, a quantity of boxes, some timber wagons and a chaff cutter, but most of the things were lost.  The cause of the fire could not ascertained but it was believed to have started near the chimney stack in the centre of the buildings.

The saw mill specialised in producing wood from English elm and larch.  The timber was used for coffins and pit props.  We understand that they also produced boxes to hold tinplate metal sheets produced by the smelters at Avonmouth and South Wales.  Edmund’s grand-daughter, Sally Gordon, remembered that Edmund used to go to South Wales to obtain orders.  He used to cycle over from Thornbury to South Wales, crossing the Seven on the Aust Ferry,

The long wagons that brought the timber were famous in Thornbury.   We have seen a report of damage done to the corner of the Royal George as the wagon swung around precariously.  However the general impression was of the impressive precision of the manoeuvre.  The horses were said to know better than the drivers how this was to be done.

An anonymous description of the haulage process was found amongst the possessions of a former local historian, Mary Bruton.  This says that ‘the standing timber was bought from local land owners, felled by a two man gang and hauled to the mill.  Two teams of four shire horses per timber carriage were used.  On coming to a hill, one carriage and its shaft horse was left at the bottom and with the three trace horses hitched up to the other carriage, this was hauled up the hill – seven horse power.  Coming downhill also required horses to be hitched to the rear of the carriage and the use of brakes and wheel blocks to stop the carriage running away.  Thornbury Hill must have been quite a challenge!’

The horses were a great favourite with the young of Thornbury.  They were shod at Oliver Higgins’ forge on Pullins Green.  They were called Prince, Jubilee, Sammy and Captain when Arthur Neal knew them in the early 1940’s.  Arthur used to be allowed to feed them and on a Friday a great treat was to be allowed to ride them down the Gloucester Road to their field past the hospital for their weekend rest.

Horse & Timber Waggon

The work was hard both for men and horses.  In the Gazette of 5th July 1913 there is a report of a court case over two separate instances where the driver of a saw mill wagon and its two big horses was found asleep.  Frederick Hurn and Henry Rugman were the drivers brought to court for not having proper control over their horses and both drivers told the same tale that they had worked without rest for 24 hours.  The Chairman of the Court listened to both defendants and to their employer, Edmund Cullimore (who gave a rather different account from that of his men about what work was expected of them).  In the event the defendants were charged costs with the comment that “the Bench did not think that the defendant had wilfully offended.”  The Bench also hoped “that employers would take some steps which would prevent that kind of thing from ever occurring again.”

The accident rate at the saw mill was notorious even for a time when industrial injuries were all part of the job.  The comment was often made by people we have spoken to was that you could tell who worked there by counting their fingers.  A typical example is the case of Charles Reeves reported in the Bristol Mercury of 1890.  “On Monday Charles Reeves, 27 years of age living at the High Street Thornbury was working at a saw mill in Thornbury when in “squaring” a piece of timber his hand slipped underneath the saw and four of his fingers were cut off.  He was taken to the Bristol Royal Infirmary where his injuries necessitated his detention.”

Other accidents were a great deal more serious.  One happened to William Penduck on May 31st 1917 when he was crushed and killed by the drive on the lathe.  Another fire resulted from an explosion in the power plant in 1937.  Only gallant action by Frederick Walker prevented a larger fire.  Frederick dashed through the door of the power plant in an effort to reach the main switch in the far corner but was driven back by the flames.  He entered another door, reached the switch and turned it off, collapsing as he got outside.

The machinery was impressive.  Henry Smith has told us that when the saw mill began working at night in 1946, the noise was so great the houses in the terrace on Gloucester Road shook with it.

At the far end of the site was the place where the timber was stacked to dry.  The piles of timber seemed to have provided tempting if rather dangerous “dens” for young children to play.  The tar too which was the by-product of the process drained off the wood to form pools which had a fascination for the young.  Jack Pridham described them graphically “two wood tar ponds, inky black with hard, high gloss surfaces covering a deep oily liquid which spawned rivulets of tar which, like volcano lava, flowed menacingly towards the outside world.  The shiny surfaces of these ponds beckoned small boys to come nearer and show disapproval by hurling sticks and stones”.

The saw mill had an unexpected and very real advantage to Thornbury.  The burning of wood waste was used to create electricity using a gas powered engine.  This provided more electricity than was needed at the saw mill. Francis Grace, the son in law of Edmund Cullimore, seems to have realised its potential.  Properties neighbouring the saw mill were given the opportunity of receiving electric power from the saw mill.  It was later extended to the Cinema, the Workhouse and Morton Mill.

By 1927 Francis Grace had made an official application to supply and distribute electricity to an area in Thornbury “as lies within the circumference of a circle having radius of one and one-third miles and having its centre at the Saw mills Thornbury.”   Click here to read more about the introduction of electricity in Thornbury

The anonymous information found amongst Mary Bruton’s papers included information about the hooter on the saw mil. It explains that ‘the gas engine for generating the electricity was started by using compressed air, stored in high pressure bottles.  This air was also used for blowing a ‘hooter’ at starting and finishing time for the mill. It was also used for calling out the part time firemen – 6 blasts on the hooter and men were running from all directions towards the fire station.  The hooter was given its longest lot of blasts when the Thornbury candidate for the Liberal Party was elected.’

Harry White on saw at mill 1955

Harry White on saw at mill 1955

On July 10th 1937 the Gazette reported another fire at the saw mill which broke out early one evening.  Fred Walker of Gillingstool, the engineer, was passing the engine house when he realised that a fire had broken out.  He bravely dashed in and turned off the gas supply to the engine.  He had to force his way out of the flames before he collapsed and was looked after by Frank Biddle and P.C. Burtonshaw.  Shortly afterwards, there was an explosion and a metal cylinder weighing three or four hundred weight was thrown through the roof, two hundred feet into the air and crashed into a piece of garden adjoining the engine house.  The explosion knocked a hole in the brick wall two feet in diameter.  The local fire brigade under Captain A. H. Wilkins fought the blaze using a tank of water in the saw mill.  The newspaper mentions that it was ironic that the hooter to warn the firemen was one of the first things to be put out of action by the fire.

We are not sure when the saw mill closed.  In the 1940’s and early 1950’s it appears to have been managed by members of the Cullimore family and we know that Edmund Cullimore Grace, his grandson, and Dennis Haley, the husband of Edmund’s grand-daughter, Elizabeth, were both involved with the Mill.  We have been told that the Mill was allowed to run down under Edmund Cullimore Grace’s management and it was also heavily dependent on local elm which was becoming increasingly less useful.  In 1958 there was a major sale of property belonging to the estate of the late Edmund Cullimore.  Some of the properties were sold to the building firm, Voiseys, to allow them to build the houses in Hillcrest and thus this confirms that the saw mill was closed before that time.

We understand that Edmund Cullimore Grace continued to use the saw mill for a short time.  He had an interest in sailing  and he set up a business known as Severn Boatbuilders at the saw mill.  He built ten Dayboats there but had to give up his business he had also taken over the business of running The Anchor at Oldbury.