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Across the pond with Rex Wailes: Home again

The last entry in our series of blogs about Rex Wailes’ 1929 trip to the USA and Canada.

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1929 press cutting from Rex’s files, showing Canadian landscape

Unfortunately the last part of Rex’s diary is missing, so his account of his time in Canada is lost. Correspondence from the collection fills in some of the gaps:

I had a most enjoyable 4 weeks in Canada, of which the best was the week that I had in the Rockies, Unfortunately I couldn’t use my quarter plate camera, as I was riding all the time, and it was too cumbersome to carry about. The Kodak with its finder, is not as satisfactory, but even so, I got a fair number of successful snapshots

Letter to Percy Bentley, Vancouver, 22 July 1929

I had a most interesting time in French Canada, but unfortunately only three days there altogether. They have a number of derelict Tower Mills, all built on the French principle after the style of Nordasques Mill, but only one is a at work and I did not hear of it until the day before I sailed so was not able to see it. There is one derelict tower built in brick fairly tall and with a considerable batter, but that seems to be unique. The earliest known now was built in 1668 on the Island of Orleans, close to Quebec and I have full particulars of its history.

Letter to H O Clarke, Norwich, 16 July 1929

I had a very pleasant voyage across with a heavy swell which luckily did not affect me at all. I was very comfortable, but the Dining Room accommodation and the food were both very poor. I was put on the recommended list of passengers after much importunity at the White Star head quarters at Montreal and as a result was shown all over the ship except the bridge which of course, is only visited by invitation of the Captain.

Letter to Mrs Archibald, 9 October 1929

Another letter from this time is interesting in light of the direction Rex’s life was to take. While he was away the Daily Mail had run the following article, leading to several letters to the press about the fate of old windmills:

Artilce in Daily Mail, 17 June 1929

On his return Rex wrote the following letter to the secretary of the SPAB

The next chapter in the life of Rex Wailes was just beginning.


Here are Google’s suggestions for how to follow in Rex’s footsteps:

Boston to Nantucket

Nantucket to New York

New York to Philadelphia

Philadelphia to Seattle

Seattle to Quebec City

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International Women’s Day – Marjorie Isabel Batten 1903-1962

To celebrate International Women’s Day, today the 8th March, our Information Manager, Elizabeth, has been looking at the role of women in milling – who are not as few and far between as one might think!

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M. I. Batten[1] is the author of English Windmills Volume 1 which was published by the Architectural Press in 1930.  We have a copy in the Mills Archive Library available to visitors.  However, it is only through our work on the Rex Wailes Collection that we are understanding how significant this book is and the part Marjorie Batten played in the early days of the SPAB Mills Section.

This volume is important because it comes just a year after the SPAB Windmills Fund was launched in June 1929 to raise money for the preservation of windmills. 

The Windmill Campaign was launched when the Daily Mail asked Miss Batten to write an article about the plight of windmills in June 1929.  A copy of the Daily Mail press cutting was found recently in the Rex Wailes Collection.

The first report of the Windmill Fund was produced in the SPAB Annual Report 1930[2].  On the list of committee members and honorary positions is Hon. Secretary to the Windmill Fund Miss M. I. Batten.  In 1930, Miss Batten was one of a small number of pioneering women who were making their mark in the preservation of historic buildings and mills. 

Genealogical research has uncovered her name to be Marjorie Isabel Batten. She was born in Kensington in 1903, daughter of Holgate Batten, a land agent, and Jane Forbes of Scotland.  Marjorie had two older brothers, John Forbes Batten and Stephen Alexander Holgate Batten.  The family lived at Moorlands, Horsell, Woking but then moved to Folkestone, Kent by 1911.

Marjorie was an art historian by training and was elected to SPAB in 1928, possibly through her brother John Forbes Batten who was also a member.  In 1930, she was appointed Secretary of the Windmill Fund and was on the SPAB Windmill Committee from 1931 to 1934, serving as its Secretary until 1931 when Miss H. Lloyd took over.  

As a result of the Daily Mail item, SPAB was inundated with correspondence and mill photographs which must have taken up a lot of Marjorie’s time acknowledging them all.  The Press interest was such that she sent further letters appealing for funds to preserve windmills.  These appeared in many papers including The Times, Daily Telegraph, Morning Post, Manchester Guardian, Evening News, Country Life and The Field.  Two leading articles on windmills with photographs were also published in The Times

In the correspondence files of the Rex Wailes Collection there are several letters sent to Rex Wailes from Miss M. I.Batten in her capacity of Honorary Secretary.  At the time Rex was just an engineer interested in mills but very involved in the Windmill Campaign.  In a letter to Rex Wailes on 29 November 1929, Marjorie outlines a plan for the lecture which she had mentioned in a telephone call to him that day. 

In the letter she explains that the idea for a talk or lecture was suggested in a letter she received from Mr Jan den Tex, Secretary of the Dutch Windmill Preservation Society.  He was very keen to visit England to talk about the Dutch approach to windmill preservation.  Simultaneously, she received a letter from Mr Rupert Thompson, Chairman of the National Trust Publicity Committee who knew Jan den Tex and was keen for National Trust members to be invited to the lecture.

Marjorie formulated a plan, agreed with Mr Powys the Secretary of SPAB, took the initiative and provisionally booked the lecture room at the Society of Arts which held about 200 people on a date to be decided. 

She outlined her ideas to Rex of how the event would unfold, calling Jan den Tex ‘ the hero of the hour’.  She suggests that Rex show some slides on English windmills – Cranbrook, Brill, Bourn and Chesterton.  She signs off in her characteristically tiny writing.  In the margin, Rex has created an additional list of mills to be included.

Rex Wailes replied on 2 December 1929 and suggests some more mills to include in his slideshow and how long he might speak for – 10 slides in 15 minutes, speaking for a minute and a half on each slide!

He also suggested that he could display some 18th century Dutch milling books from his collection. 

The Science Museum also lent a fine scale model of Cranbrook windmill which Rex demonstrated[3].

In 1930, Marjorie wrote two letters to Rex in a more informal style which hint at her personality and life outside SPAB.  One gets the impression that she was an enthusiastic and intelligent woman. 

Marjorie’s catchphrase was “buzz” or “buzzing”.  She was very excited that she had found three illustrations of windmills earlier than the Lutteral Psalter.  The Architectural Press had also offered to publish her book. 

In the Foreward, she acknowledges the help of several eminent mill experts: William Coles-Finch who allowed her to reproduce his photographs in the book; Jack Holman (millwright of Canterbury) who sent photographs and information; Mr H P Vowles who sent a copy of his paper on the origin of windmills read at the Newcomen Society; Mr Rex Wailes, engineer and millwright who has advised the Society on the repair of mills and I am indebted for his invaluable advice and assistance.  Mr Wailes kindly wrote the second chapter of this book – Design and Development.

When the book was published, she asked Rex to approach The Sphere to publicise her book.  This magazine had a wide circulation.  Marjorie’s glamourous photograph (at the head of this article) appeared in the edition of March 21, 1931 on a page of other notable women including a Duchess, a Countess, the actress Fay Wray, and Fraulein Margarethe Guessow, Germany’s only female astronomer. 

This last letter relates to when Marjorie handed over the Honorary Secretary role to Miss Lloyd, although she continued to serve the SPAB Windmill Committee until her marriage in 1934 to Col. Geoffrey Fairbank Webb[4]. She obviously liked to live well, eating oysters for lunch at the Albemarle Club!  This club was unusual in being a private members club for men and women and progressive in supporting women’s rights.  Members were aesthetes, artists and intellectuals. [The Albemarle Club was absorbed into the ‘In and Out Club’ in 1939].

Little seems to be recorded of Marjorie after her marriage.  Volume 2 of English Windmills was written by Donald Smith and published in 1932.  Marjorie suffered declining health and passed away in 1962.  

The SPAB Windmill Committee in their 1961-62 report[5] expressed “deep regret of the death of Mrs Geoffrey Webb”.  Her book English Windmills volume 1 was described as “a pioneer work of the utmost interest and lasting value. It was through Mrs Webb that the Ministry of Works was approached by the Section and encouraged to take certain mills under their guardianship”. 

[1] Image of Marjorie Batten from The Sphere March 21, 1931

[2] Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings Fifty-Third Annual Report of the Committee, April 1930.

[3] Lantern slide image (KGFC-GPN-E-082) of the Model of Cranbrook Smock Windmill in the Science Museum.

[4] Col. Geoffrey Fairbank Webb (1898-1970) was an architectural historian, Slade Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge and head of the Monuments and Fine Arts Section of the Allied Control Commission during World War II.  His biography can be read here

[5] SPAB The Wind and Watermill Section Report of the Committee for the Thirtieth-Thirty-First Year 1961-1962

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Volunteer Spotlight: Milling Expressions

Mills have played a huge role in our lives for hundreds of years, from the primitive mill stone to more recent hydroelectric turbines. It is interesting to see how much of an impact mills have had in all areas of our lives, not least their impact on language across the world. Whilst reading through many journal articles I have found many commonly used idioms and expressions relating to mills and milling life, many contemporary users of which likely don’t know about their milling origins! Below I’ve listed some of my particular favourites – I hope you enjoy them. How many of these do you know? Do you know any that aren’t on this list? Let us know!

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  • Être au four et au moulin = (French) To be in the oven and in the mill. (i.e. being in two places at the same time)
  • To blow enough turn to turn a mill = to be severely out of breath
  • To fling one’s cap over the windmill = to fly in the face of convention, to act recklessly or defiantly
  • A new mill grinds corn well = something/ someone new will do a good job at first but it may not last
  • All’s grist that comes to my mill = everything that comes my way will be useful/ can be put to use (“It’s all grist to the mills” is a variation)
  • He who avoids the mill gets no flour = Effort is required to achieve an end (from the Latin proverb “Qui fugit molam farina non invenit”)
  • He who comes first to the mill grinds first = First come first served
  • I am loath to change my mill = I’ll stay with what I know
  • To be born in a mill = To be born deaf.
  • Mills and wives are never wanting
  • No mill no meal = you have to put something in to get anything out
  • Run of the mill = ordinary, not specially selected
  • The mill cannot grind with water that is past = one cannot look back to missed opportunities (similar to “it’s no good crying over spilt milk”)
  • The same water that drives the mill decayeth it = nothing is ever free
  • To bring grist to a mill = to bring profit/valuable supplies
  • To bring more sacks to the mill = to bring more ammunition to your side of the argument
  • To go through the mill = to grow through hardship/difficulties/hard training and experience
  • To grind to a halt = to come, gradually, to a standstill
  • To keep old mannie’s mill going = to continue without a break
  • To let the multure be taken by one’s own mill = to allow yourself to be deprived of your own rights
  • To mill about = to circle aimlessly around
  • We cannot go to one mill let him try another = let someone who has failed on one course of action try something else
  • Every honest miller has a thumb of gold = there are honest millers
  • Every miller draws water to his own mills = everyone looks after themselves first
  • Like a miller’s mare = sober and unassuming
  • Much water runs by the mill that the miller knows not of [More water glideth by the mill than wots the miller of – Shakespeare] = there are many things going on behind your back
  • To be behind hand like the miller’s filler = to be poor at keeping appointments
  • To drown the miller = to overdo water in spirits or other beverages
  • To give someone to the miller = to engage someone in conversation long enough for a crowd to gather and attack the victim, often with stones!
  • To put the miller’s eye out = to make a broth so thin or pudding so insubstantial that even a miller would find it difficult to see the flour
  • Too much water drowned the miller = one can have too much of a good thing
  • A millstone does not become moss grown = that which is kept rolling will not be burdened with unwanted loads
  • A rolling stone gathers no moss = someone who is always on the move will not be able to gather possessions or wealth
  • Hard as the nether millstone = unfeeling or callous
  • To rain millstones = to rain very hard (rain seems to be a popular theme in expressions and idioms)
  • To carry a millstone round one’s neck = to be burdened with an unwanted companion or obligation
  • To weep millstones = to not weep at all
  • His mill will go with all winds = he can cope with all situations that may arise
  • To have whittled a mill post to a pudding prick = to have allowed short term gain override long-term prosperity
  • To have windmills in your head = to be overtaken by fantasy
  • To tilt at windmills = to take on imaginary enemies (from Don Quixote who attacked windmills perceiving them to be giants)
  • You cannot make a windmill go with a pair of bellows = it’s pointless to attempt something without the required ability. 
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Cleaning, folding and fixing – a conservation training day

A recent training day at the Archive, run by conservator Victoria Stevens, saw volunteers try out conservation techniques including cleaning, repairing and housing documents.

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The course was funded by our recent grant from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust. Everyone who attended found the day a rewarding and enjoyable experience. We asked one of our volunteers, Kolja, for his view:

It was a fascinating course which aimed to provide methods and understanding for how to care for collections. The course outlined different types of material you would conserve in collections and different methods for cleaning and storing these items.

It began with explaining that risk assessment was key for cleaning. You have to look at the condition and fragility of any items, before considering how to clean and conserve them. We were given practical demonstrations of a range of cleaning methods, from as simple as using a brush, to latex sponges, to a specialised conservation vacuum – a conservac. This was followed on by looking at different methods of storage, and what was most appropriate for different objects, such as old books and photographs, through to larger old maps and designs.

Kolja, Nathanael and Noor folding archival packaging

Victoria demonstrating use of the conservation vacuum on a Rex Wailes drawing.

Cleaning with a latex sponge.

A Thomas Hennell drawing from the Rex Wailes collection, before and after cleaning

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Across the pond with Rex Wailes: Chicago to Minneapolis

Extracts from Rex Wailes’ 1929 diary of his trip to the USA and Canada. Part 23.

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4. 6. 29.

On Tuesday the 4th, I had tea with Miss Young at the E.S.U. This was my first introduction to cinnamon toast. Toast is made, buttered while warm after steam has come off and a mixture of equal parts of cinnamon and sugar is sprinkled on from a shaker. The whole is put back in the oven to warm just before serving, and served on a hot covered dish – excellent!

I left Chicago by the “Oriental Limited” at 11.30 p.m. standard time, going on board at 10.30. p.m. and turning in at midnight. I had a good berth in the centre of the coach. Ones “grip” and shoes go under the bed, on which one has to dress and undress – no easy matter. The attendant is supposed to shine the shoes overnight. Washing arrangements are three hand basins in the men’s smoking room – a small place about 6 x 12ft. There is also a small tooth-cleaning basin. Iced drinking water from a tank, and paper cone cups are provided outside in the passage.

I slept well until 5.45 when we stopped at Prairie du Chein. From the berth we appeared to be skirting a huge stone cliff running N.W. – about 150ft in height and increasing. It was well wooded. Below was flat country, well cultivated with black soil – the Mississippi Valley.

Lake Pepin

The railway follows the course of the river and the scenery constantly changes. In places the valley widens out so that one side or the other is unseen through the trees. At other times it narrows down to a bare ½ mile wide. The sides are broken with little re-entrant valleys, all thickly wooded. The Mississippi river here is not very wide, but is a slow sluggish stream bordered with swamps and shewing every sign of regular flooding. In one place it widens out into Lake Pepin where are scores of clam boats, which get fresh water clams – like coarse lare oysters. Rough pearls are occasionally obtained from them.

Wisconsin bluffs

After passing the Minnesota or Wisconsin Bluffs, we arrived at St. Paul. Here we had a 25 minute wait, so I went into the town to stretch my legs and get some Mistol and Ponds Cream – the first for my nose and the second for my face, which was getting sore. We were banked out of St. Paul by a locomotive.

The first things one noted about Minneapolis were the enormous concrete grain elevators and the storage dams on the Mississippi for power generation. A “gas-electric”, switching loco, was used to drag back the observation car, put on another sleeper, and bank the train out of the station. As we left we had a good view of the town. A tower known as the Foshay tower, and two other business buildings were very fine, but otherwise it was not very remarkable from what one could see.

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Across the pond with Rex Wailes: A trip to the “Talkies”

Extracts from Rex Wailes’ 1929 diary of his trip to the USA and Canada. Part 22.

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On Monday evening I went to the Youngs. They had an “apartment” – we call them flats – in a huge apartment building facing the lake just S. of Lincoln Park. The family consists of Mr. & Mrs. Young, Miss Jeanette Young, the E.S.U. Secretary and her sister. Mr. Young obviously thought me a bore, and seemed bored with his family too. He only cheered up when I admired his bath-room. He seemed to me to be regarded by the others as the gold bug necessary for the rearing and continued existence of the family, and therefore to be tolerated. Mrs. Young was grey-haired, medium height, pleasant faced, kind and talkative. Miss Young is tall – pale, like all these Americans – and about 28 I should judge. The younger sister is brunette, short, vivacious and attractive, though not pretty.

Everything here was the best, and the flat had a fine position looking East over the lake. To Mrs. Young’s great disgust the hoi polloi used the lake shore as a bathing beach and crowd it during any holiday and hot evenings. They certainly do leave a litter and since there are no tides, the only time the beach gets washed is when a storm blows up and makes large waves. We had a beautiful dinner, well served, and later Mr. Young, the eldest sister and I went to the “Talkies”, my first.

The main film was very poor. It starred Maurice Chevellier a Frenchman with an amazingly attractive personality and excellent diction, but all else was poor – acting and talking apart from him. The voices are magnified and reduced suddenly and frequently, and technically the photography we saw shocking. The best thing we saw was a news film, which included Segrave and Malcolm Campbell and the British attempt to break the seaplane speed record.

Henry Segrave attempting to break the water speed record in “Miss England”, May 1929. Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-07836 / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (]

Then there was a combined sound and silent film of swimming and diving taken with ordinary and underwater and slow motion cameras. The result was well worth seeing and hearing. To see a dive and hear the splash of the water and sound of the spring board makes it very much more realistic. To see the diver under the water is better still, and the (silent) slow-motion films were really a revelation. It made one wish that a satisfactory method of presenting colour and stereoscopy could be evolved and combined with what we already have.

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Across the pond with Rex Wailes: Chicago

Extracts from Rex Wailes’ 1929 diary of his trip to the USA and Canada. Part 21.

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I left Pittsburgh by the 11.22 p.m. (summer time) sleeping car, and arrived at Chicago at 8.55 a.m., gaining an extra hour in bed en route, as the result of the change from eastern to central time. The sleeper was quiet, in its regular system, compared with the hotel, and I slept well. May 30th was a bad day to arrive – Commemoration Day. Almost everything was shut, but at 9.30 a.m. Miss Young rang me up from the E.S.U. and told me that there was mail waiting for me. I went round there and was hospitably received. She took me in her car on a sightseeing trip first S. along the lake shore to Washington Park and the University and then back again, and N. to Lincoln Park, finally landing me back at the Hotel Sherman for lunch.

The hotel is a huge place, and has a number of shops etc. on the ground floor and in the basement. The eating places are four in number, the Celtic Cafe, the Old Coffee Shop, the Restaurant and the Coffee Room.

The old Coffee Shop has counters and tables and is served by waitresses. The walls are hung with old English prints and the ceiling is painted with a map of Chicago. There was a Scotch waitress here who was very pleased to serve a countryman – especially one who tipped her well – and who saw that I got plenty of the best of everything. One of the great drinks is milk and cream, it amounts to about the same as drinking good unseparated milk. All tea seems to be called Orange Pekoe, though I have my doubts about it – mostly blended I imagine. I have got to like it with lemon and sugar, but only a China tea in this way. Toast and rolls are served hot on a hot plate and paper doyley – toast gets very flabby served in this way. Pineapple is a favourite and is served with a cream dressing, or cream or lactic cheese. Water ices called sherberts, are also served with meat. One sees all sorts of curious types in these restaurants. Nearly all the ties are ghastly and so are the socks. The made-up bow tie is very popular.

Chicago River

The view from my window in the Sherman Hotel – 18th floor – was interesting. It faced west. In front was a huge white brick block of office buildings with gaping maw in the centre to light it. Below, street cars crawl in and out like caterpillars to and from the exits of one of the North and South street car river subways. A procession of fire engines clungs passed, seeming very slow when viewed from this height. Cars crawl along in fits and starts as the traffic lights permit, and antlike people scurry in and out of doorways and along pavements. In the distance, wharves along the river and factories and houses as far as one can see, blue and smoky. Overhead feathery clouds in pale blue sky, and a large 3-engined Ford Monoplane passes slowly across the line of vision, looking like a huge moth.

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Across the pond with Rex Wailes: To Pittsburgh

Extracts from Rex Wailes’ 1929 diary of his trip to the USA and Canada. Part 20.

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Observation platorm of a train on the Great Northern Railway, USA


On Monday the 27th. I took “The Metropolitan” leaving Philadelphia for Pittsburgh at 11.25 a.m. I sat in the parlour car, but the view through gauze was not satisfactory, and at Harrisburg I went to the platform of the observation car. This is a filthy dirty place as one rides in a sort of vacuum into which all the dust from the track is drawn up.

Bridge over the Susquehama, Harrisburg, Teresa Boardman from St. Paul MN, USA [CC BY (]

On leaving Harrisburg we crossed the Susquehama river by a long flat viaduct type of bridge and ran along the south side of the river. At Lewistown we passed the works of the Viscose Co. self styled “The Worlds largest manufacturers of Rayon”. Here too, were gloss sand quarries, where in one place, they were washing down the sand from the cliff face, with a water jet, and in another, they appeared to be cutting away a rock face along the lines of shear for the same purpose.

Dogwood trees in flower. Photo by and (c)2007 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) [CC BY-SA (]

It was in this locality, that I first noticed dogwood trees in flower. They have hanging bunches of white flowers and look very attractive indeed. We must try to get some seed for the garden and raise one or two.

On leaving Altoona, the train is double headed, and climbs up into the mountains by means of steep grades and the famous Horseshoe curve. Here it doubles right round and the scenery is very fine. Unfortunately a party of “Knights Templars” (a Masonic order) and their wives came out to see this, and spoilt the view by standing between me and it. They left at a tunnel which we came to soon afterwards. One has to retire inside for these, or get dirtier than ever. 

The “horseshoe curve”

We reached a peak just before Cresson and came thundering down the grade. The dust got worse, and we rocked more and more, and nearly everyone left the platform. Although we were high up, the country was fairly open, and the brown colour of the streams shewed that we were entering an ironstone district. The first mines came into view at South York. From here to Pittsburgh we are in a huge manufacturing area that grows thicker as we go on, and is not unlike Sheffield and district.

Johnstown is an airport on the transcontinental line, which is at present operating at 10 c per mile and 25 lbs. of free baggage. I went to the Fort Pitt Hotel, which is close to the station. It was a bad time. Knights Templars and their woman folk were pouring into Pittsburgh for a “Convention” from all over the U. S. They appeared to arrive at ½ hour intervals at the hotel, and each party was played from the station right into the hotel foyer by a large brass band, complete with saxophones, usually to the strains of “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Colonel Bogey”. My room on the 8th floor was hot, dark and noisy. One could not see to read without a light at any time. The main line to Chicago appeared to pass a few hundred feet away (they don’t use yards in the U. S. – in conversation at any rate) and the exhaust fan shaft, ventilating all the public rooms, passed up the wall just opposite. In addition, it was sweltering hot, with no breeze.

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Volunteer Spotlight: Forged French Assignats Part II: Britain’s and Charles X’s Roles

You may remember from a previous blog post the story of Albury Park Paper Mill, Guildford, Surrey and forged French assignats (a form of paper currency issued by the French Republic from 1789-1797).

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A recent discovery of an article in The Quarterly (the Journal of British paper historians, 106, April 2018) has provided us with an update on this story, by discovering that forged assignats were not exclusively produced by this Surrey paper mill, but also by Haughton Castle Paper Mill in Northumberland (pictured above).

However, the circumstances behind the forged assignats at Haughton were very different from those at Albury Paper Mill. In this situation, it was the British government rather than the French, and also some individual workers, who had commissioned the production, with the intention of destroying France’s economy or at the very least putting it under considerable pressure. And the plot was a success: France suffered inflation rates of 13000% which were the highest ever recorded, causing a massive economic collapse.

The article also gives us reason to believe that back at Albury Park Paper Mill, none other than King Charles X of France (then the Comte D’Artois) was playing a major role in the business of forged assignats. He was in exile in England when he became directly involved in the production of counterfeit assignats, with the intention of overthrowing the revolution (without luck).

On several occasions the Comte visited the paper maker Charles Ball at Albury Park Mill, Surrey, to order new paper, supervise the manufacture of new assignats and watermarks, and to take delivery of completed paper. An account written at the time shows he may have become more involved than he might have wished:

“On one occasion he (Artois/ Charles X) required various changes to be made in the watermarks. The form-maker [maker of paper moulds and watermarks] of the mill was sent for. He was a young man named Longhelt, a native of Germany…[it] was explained to him, the alteration he wanted to be made and (Artois/ Charles X) sat down by his side for the purpose of seeing him begin his labour. Longhelt, who had been drinking, resented the intrusion and getting impatient at this stranger’s interventions, he waxed furious and threw the mould at the visitor’s head.”

The background to the rise in forged assignats is fascinating. In November 1789, in order to raise finances and as part of its renunciation of the old feudal order, the National Assembly (the new government of France at the time) nationalised all church lands; a total of some 20,000 square miles, approx. 10% of the country. The idea was originally proposed by the then-Bishop of Autun, better known as Talleyrand, on 10th Oct 1789, the day Louis XVI became King of the French (rather than the King of France). This meant he was still on the throne, but only precariously; the French people were becoming more powerful.

The sale of these properties, the Domaines Nationaux, was to provide the financial base of the new regime, via the issue of interest-bearing bonds, or notes, called Assignats.

Despite warnings from some members of the National Assembly that the release of so much land on to the market would devalue all property prices and thus the assignats, men like Thomas Lidet, part of the regicide, considered it patriotic to use them. He wrote that
‘Assignats will soon be dispersed all over the country and, in spite of himself, every man who holds them will become a defender of the Revolution.’

Whilst it may have been the patriotic thing to do, those who used assignats incurred heavy losses. By May 1791 assignats had stopped bearing interest and by the time they were finally withdrawn in 1795 an assignat with a face value of 100 livre was worth a maximum of 15 sous.

John Gamble, an Englishman working in Paris throughout this period, who had many connections with paper making in France and Britain, wrote in his journal about the paper from the mill owned by his brother in Law, Leger Didot, at Essonnes near Paris. This was one of the paper-mills which supplied the government printing houses responsible for issuing assignats. He said:

“The paper was frequently sent in a damp state in covered carts drawn by post horses to the printing office in Paris, was immediately printed and signed by the proper authorities during the night and as soon as the paper as sufficiently dry it was issued in the morning to the public. I remember the numerous laughs and jokes that took place when Didot returned from Paris with a small bundle of assignats under his arm which was all that he had received in payment for all the cartloads of paper.

This was paper with which he had supplied the government; the only difference was that when they came back with Didot they had been printed and signed by some of the revolutionary demagogues then at the head of government. The fate of the assignats is well known, I recollect being in Paris at the time they were ordered to be burnt and I saw their fragments flying over the heads of thousands of persons who had been utterly ruined by their introduction.”

Printing the paper before the sheets were properly dry gives an idea of the urgency of the French authorities’ need for currency. Paper would normally have been dried and cured before leaving the mill.

Deliberate forgery of assignats was a perilous enterprise and occurred in France too. Many attempts were made by private individuals, who in many cases met the worst punishment: the guillotine. The assignats had ‘La Loi Punit de Mort le Contre facteur,’ (The Law Punishes the Counterfeiter with Death) printed on them as an attempt to dissuade people from attempting to produce forgeries.

However, in Britain, forging assignats where French law had no means of tracing, catching or punishing the counterfeiters, was very effective. Sir John Swinburne, who was an investigator of the forgery at this time, wrote in his journal:

“In the years 1973 and 1794, government, Mr Pitt being [Prime] Minister, caused an immense number of assignats of various values to be fabricated in England and a prodigious quantity was poured into France…from Flanders and from the coast of Brittany for the rebels in La Vendée.”

Paper for these assignats was produced for the British government by William Smith at Haughton Castle Mill, Northumberland and by John Finch in Dartford, Kent. Paper for the émigrés was made by Charles Ball at Albury Park Mill, Surrey.

One of the best sources of information for the British role in the forgery is a memorandum written in 1773 by Sir John Swinburne, particularly his notes from a meeting with the foreman at Haughton Mill. This account also gives information of Brook Watson, the then Director of the Bank of England’s role in the forgery. He also questions whether the government approached the Bank of England directly in order to put this plan together. It seems very likely that this was the case.

Swinburne’s notes show it was not easy to convict ministers of being involved in the ‘proceeding of so fatal an example in a commercial capacity whose existence depends on good faith. I believe little doubt does exist…of the share ministers had in this scandalous business.’ For many years, the British involvement was treated as a ‘blatant attempt of the defamation of the British character,’ and dismissed as heresy. Documents such as those found in this article go some way to show that the reality was very different.

You can read Susan’s blog about Albury Park Paper Mill here. 

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Across the pond with Rex Wailes: Sunday in Philadelphia

Extracts from Rex Wailes’ 1929 diary of his trip to the USA and Canada. Part 19.

Poster Image

Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church


On Sunday the 26th. I went out to Dr. Oberholtzer’s house by the 9.30 a. m. train. He met me at the station in a very old car full of rattles and shakes, which he drove very badly. After breakfast we went off in the car to Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church to hear some Professor of National Science from Edinburgh University (I quite forget his name) preach. The church was very modern and up to date and had a packed congregation. The hymns were chiefly Church of England ones, and thank Heaven they didn’t use the rhymed Psalms. All the congregation sang lustily and I upheld England with as good a bass, as I could muster. The Preacher was excellent, probably because he is a layman! The text was “Science and its relation to Religion” and the discourse was very well set out.

I had been invited to dine with a family of the name of Pierce, who gave me an excellent lunch. They know the Canadian Rockies well, and go there every two or three years. Mr. Pierce, who is now blind, told me to travel by day from Vancouver to Sicamous, stop the night there and then on to Field. From there to Lake Louise and to spend one night only at Banff. I have since altered my ticket, the wretched clerk at the C. P. R., New York, having made a thorough mess of things.

The Oberholtzers called for me, and took me to a Mr. Hoffmann’s place, nearer the town, for tea. The house stands in its own large grounds and small farm right on the edge of the town, and the land will be worth an enormous amount soon. Mr. Hoffmann bought it by wireless from an Oasis in the Sahara – said the green of the oasis made him long for it. He has made most of his money in “real estate” so Oberholtzer said. After going round the estate with a party of others, we had tea. Tea cup would be the best description, for it was a huge bowl of tea, with lemon and orange juice mixed in, and ice and fresh strawberries floating round in it, sweetened of course. Excellent on such a scorching day as this was. The heat started on the Thursday and was at its best on the Sunday.

At the Hoffmann’s, I met my first Westerner. A lady with a drawl t – h – a – t   l – o – n – g, who was very intense though drawling and obviously interested in the Britisher.

Tennis at the Philadelphia Cricket Club

The Hoffmanns were charming, and on leaving the Oberholtzers, took me to the Philadelphia Cricket Club for supper. Their “cricket clubs” have tennis, squash and five courts and golf courses and football fields. Cricket is going out they told me, killed by golf, tennis and the “ball game” (base-ball). But the clubs flourish. We had supper on the terrace outside the club house, drove back in the twilight and I got on the train just as the dusk fell. Philadelphia is a fine place, and I want to go there again one day. The people are nice too, and very proud of the English connection.

The Vendig Hotel is poor and noisy. It will be the Adelphia, if ever I go there again.