Victorian Poetess Eliza Cook and the 'Mill' of Mill Street

There is a road in Redhill that presents us with a small puzzle. The road is Mill Street, which today starts at the top of Whitepost Hill and ends at the Brighton Road, but which once continued down what is now Hooley Lane. The puzzle is that when the name 'Mill' is associated with a thoroughfare it would normally indicate that a mill of some kind, if not still there once existed very close by, and that the road or lane in question led directly to it and was therefore named after it. Mill Way, close to Shaws Corner, once led up to the Blackborough mill, and there is proof of the mill on maps of the period, but unfortunately this is not the case where Redhill's Mill Street is concerned, because not only is there not a mill in existence now but there never has been very much evidence that one was ever there.

Although documentary proof was always lacking a belief of the existence of a water mill beside the brook in Earlswood has always abounded, as has speculation that if it did indeed exist then its demise would have come about in 1840/41 when the London-Brighton railway was built across Hooley Lane. Dr Clair Grece, Redhill's first Town Clerk, contributed an article to the Surrey Mirror in 1897, the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, in which he wrote about the building of the railway. Hooley Lane and the brook under it, he said, underwent certain changes, the lane being straightened, the stream diverted and the old packhorse bridge over the brook being replaced by a new bridge at a different point.

Dr Grece also referred to a Victorian poetess, Eliza Cook, saying that one of two poems written by her about gypsies was inspired by the tented dwellers inhabiting the horse pound at the other end of Hooley Lane where the road divides between the present Philanthropic Road and Redstone Hollow. This would indicate that Eliza Cook knew the area well, seemingly confirmed in the 1897 article when Dr Grece refers to Eliza Cook getting this knowledge when she lived in Hooley. Eliza possibly lived at a house once called 'The Water House', later known as ‘Brook Glen’.  Corroboration for this comes from a one time editor of the Surrey Mirror, Mr Charles W. Preston, in whose collection of notes on local people he says that she lived there in 1845; and from an old resident of Hooley Lane who, when met once by Guy Bingham, a well-known local journalist who is sadly no longer with us, and also of the Surrey Mirror, said that her father had known Eliza Cook well.

Intriguingly Eliza Cook did not just write about gypies, she also wrote many other poems, two of them especially appropriate. In 'The Old Watermill', Eliza writes graphically of remembered school days: -

And is this the old millstream that ten years ago
Was so fast in its current, so pure in its flow,
Whose musical waters would ripple and shine,
With the glory and dash of a miniature Rhine?
.................................................................................................................................................................Eliza Cook

And she introduces the miller, who . . . . . .

Forgetting the grey hairs was as loud in his mirth
As the veriest youngster that circled the hearth.

And the mill . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .where we idled away
Our holiday hours on a clear summers day;
Where Roger, the Miller's dog, lolled on a sack
And chorused his song to the merry click-clack.

(of the mill machinery?)

And a rather sad part......

But lo! what sacrilege here has been done?
The streamlet no longer purls on in the sun;
Its course has been turned and its desolate edge
Is now mournfully covered with duckweed and sedge.
....as it would be if the stream had been diverted for part of its course or reduced in volume.

Another poem, 'The Old Mill Stream', refers to Eliza’s memories of the stream in her youth, of fishing for trout in it, of it being covered in ice in winter, and of the ford.......

Where mounted on Dobbin we youngsters would dash,
Both pony and rider enjoying the splash."............................................................................................................

Are these poems about a mill that is supposed to have existed on the banks of the nearby Redhill Brook?  It has been suggested that this is just what they are about, but if Eliza Cook had the memories portrayed in the poem she would have had to have seen the mill in its heyday and been familiar with the area from earlier than 1845, and at that latter date have been making a return visit, which is claimed to have been the case. Eliza was born in 1818, so this is quite possible, and in 1845 she would have been 26 or 27 years of age. She writes of the millstream being in decline, which it might well have been after the railway works, and by various associations more than suggests the existence of a mill during her childhood.

However enjoyable as this speculation in support of the reality of the mill is it seems that Eliza's father kept a shop in Southwark, and without evidence of relatives in Hooley where she could have spent some of her childhood and revisited later in life, the mill at this point will have to remain a possibility only. Perhaps Eliza’s desire to write poetry precluded absolute accuracy, and a stream in decline might have given rise to the notion of a mill in imagination only, poetic licence running, therefore, to fictionalisation.

At least one other author has made note of the poems of Eliza Cook in relation to defunct water mills. In 'On Surrey Hills’ written in 1892 by 'A Son of the Marshes', otherwise Mr Denham Jordan, the once well known author who finished his life in 1920 in obscurity in Dorking Union Infirmary, is written: ‘There are quiet and beautiful nooks beside the woodland Mole. Here and there are the ruins of some old mill which was once busy and full; and you can trace through the meadows the spot where a mill pond had its source. The meadow lies even now two, or sometimes even four feet, below the banks of what was once the pond.  Even the walls of the sluice gates remain, covered with ferns and mosses of varied tints. One of these it was that suggested Eliza Cook's poem, 'The Old Water Mill'. Although modern improvements have destroyed much of the picturesqueness of rural life, there is still plenty of it left, if one knows where to look for it. This was a favourite haunt, during her childhood, of the poetess who has so recently gone to her rest. She loved this old mill and wrote of it more than once.’ This passage is geographically and otherwise very general. On the one hand the described locations could be anywhere, on the other the reader gets the impression of a particular site. As this book and Eliza's poems are now over one hundred years behind us we cannot ask, so on these matters must continue to speculate.

Fortunately more speculation is possible, for the deeds of a house in Woodlands Road show that on 27th June, 1839, a section of land was sold to the Railway Company. This land was described as being the Hooley Park Estate, and was detailed in a number of schedules. The land in the first schedule was farmed by one Thomas Burt, and the land in the second schedule was to be used for the proposed railway. Other schedules dealt with land ownership. Details of the first schedule describes, 'a mansion called Hooley House with lawn, plantation, barns, outbuildings, yards and garden’, and goes on to list a number of fields, among which is 'Colmonger's Mill Field East’ and 'West Colmonger's Mill Field'. Other fields include 'Water Meadow' and 'Mill Street Mead'. This 1839 sale of land is exactly at the time of the supposed demise of the mill of which the speculation is all about, and the names do not seem those that would be given to fields that never saw a mill.  And certainly not a windmill at such a low location, for only a watermill would fit the bill with the brook so close and a field called Water Meadow.

In spite of the evidence discussed here we are still no nearer to the absolute proof that is required to site the mill somewhere nearby. What actually is happening is that a mill is wanted and all available evidence is being matched to it in a way that would make its existence as viable as possible, an interesting exercise, but what is really needed is a map with 'Mill' writ bold upon it.

On the other hand there are no doubt those romantics among us who might ask what more evidence is required than a road called Mill Street.

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