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The story of Bridgers Mill

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

Jenner and Higgs Centenary Year 1856-1956

From the Mid Sussex Times May 3rd 1985

Up to the 1950s, passengers on London bound trains were able, as they left Haywards Heath station, to enjoy the sight of the mill pond beside the mill and millhouse. In this Mid Sussex Times photograph, British Rail workmen are more concerned about the train coming their way than the sylvan setting behind them. The pond and building have now gone and the land in the back ground has made way for modern development...

In 1956 Jenner & Higgs celebrated 100 years in business; Charles Clarke produced the booklet below charting its history to that point......

The business was started in 1856 by a William Jenner and his son who traded primarily as flour and grist millers at Bridgers Mill. The mill, like so many of the small mills then scattered up-and-down the country, was driven by waterpower; water or wind still being almost the only source of power outside the big towns.

The water supply, however, being remarkably small for the purpose required of it, had induced its original owners to provide it with a timber built ‘overshot wheel’ 28 feet in diameter. This wheel was reputed to be the largest in the country, but even if this failed to supply the power required at the time and so later was supplemented with the steam engine.

In 1877 the business was sold to Samuel Jenner of Battle, a nephew of William Jenner, and to help finance his new venture, he took into partnership his cousin and brother-in-law, Caleb Higgs.

Caleb’s father had been a dairy farmer at Cheap, Malden and Kingston, employing over 100 men on his farm, but had died quite a young man (41 years) when Caleb was only seven years old. The widow carried on the farm for some years until she suffered the misfortune of losing a large part of her dairy herd through an attack of Rinder-Pest cattle disease2. (Caleb used to tell that when quite a small boy he remembered about 100 cows lying dead in one field). As there was no state compensation in those days, milk contracts and contracts for Wet Grains with the Brewery had to be fulfilled, the old lady had to dispose of the lease of the farms and retire.

Early 20th century photograph of mill showing high chimney shaft

So Caleb found himself at 23 years of age with a few thousand pounds capital but engaged in the milling trade instead of farming, which location his forbears had followed for over 300 years without a break.

In 1880 the firm of Jenner and Higgs gave up Bridgers Mill and rented for 21 years Deans Mill at Lindfield. The landlord completely rebuilt in the mill and the tenants equipped it with the latest types of milling machinery, including four pairs of stones, of which 3 pairs were French Burr Wheat Stones, elevators and worm conveyors for grain and meal and a steel breast shot water wheel. The Mill was of course, quite the most modern in the district, but unfortunately the advent of the “Roller Method” of milling followed almost immediately afterwards, with the result that Deans Mill became out of date all too soon; consequently, when the 21 years lease expired in 1901 it was not renewed and on vacating the machinery was taken over by the landlord at valuation.

After leaving Deans Mill, the firm no longer manufactured flour, but continued to supply their customers as factors. In 1880 too, the firm rented a commodious timber and slate building (part of which was four stories high) on the Railway Property of Haywards Heath station which had its own siding.

The power on this site was supplied by a Tangye gas fire, the first to be installed in the district, about 1887.

The business continued to be carried on under the two partners, and in 1899 Caleb Higgs’ eldest son, Walter came into the business as a junior until 1903, when he started ‘on his own’ at St Mary Cray in Kent; and eventually became the Managing Director of the well-known firm of Pattullo Higgs & Co. limited of Orpington, of which he was the chief founder.

Caleb Higgs was always recognised as having a very broad outlook on life, and on this account was made a ‘Justice of the Peace’ for the Haywards Heath Bench in the year 1907.

In 1910 Samuel Jenner died suddenly, and the ownership of the business completely passed to the surviving partner who consequently took his youngest son, Kenneth, into partnership. (Kenneth up to this time have been articled to the late Thomas Bannister, of Haywards Heath, and was duly qualified by exams as a surveyor).

In 1912 Bridgers Mill came back into the market again and this time was purchased by the firm. This afterwards proved to be most fortunate because in 1915 the store at the Railway Station was completely burned down.

It was though that has sparked from a passing railway engine ignited the hay store.This happened during the lunch hour so by the time the fire was discovered It had obtained so great a hold that all that could be done was to save the adjoining property.

Fortunately, some people, with great presence of mind were able to get into the blazing buildings and save all the accountancy and record books.As a result of this disaster, the headquarters of business were transferred again to Bridgers Mill,Where it remained until final closure.

When the mill was taken over, one of the first jobs was to pull down the high chimney shaft which had been erected in the days of the aforementioned steam engine. Later the remains of a large bakers oven were removed, the pantiles of which were disposed of for ornamental purposes.

Also in 1912 a depot was opened up at Balcombe; Tom Burchell, who had been with the firm for over 40 years, was put in charge.

By 1921 the old timber waterwheel had reached the stage of utter disrepair. Millwrighting of the sort of work required to recondition it had become a lost craft. The old steam engine has long since been discarded; and there was nothing for it but to install a suction gas plant.

While the change over from water to suction gas was being carried out, it was necessary to install some form of power to keep the plant going – or partially going. To do this, a Titan tractor was purchased. This was rather a rag-time affair as it consumed far more oil than it actually earned.

The gas engine, a single cylinder model, had a flywheel which weighed 55 hundredweight; took at least two men to start and often caused delay at that, on cold mornings.

One morning in 1942, it was discovered that the crankshaft of the engine had cracked. The risk of running late but its heavy flywheel was too great. As replacements during this war period were unobtainable the plant was sold for scrap. The power is now derived from numerous electric motors. At the end of 1932 Caleb Higgs died, having been a member of the firm for 55 years, and his son Kenneth carried on the business on his own.

In 1935 the firm suffered the loss of Fred Hills. He held the record of 56 years service with the firm and was loved by all who knew him.

Hills’ dry sense of humour might be instanced by reporting his visit one morning to Caleb Higgs to say that he had just completed 15 years service and come to sign on for another 50 years.

While on the subject of long service the following for members have been with the firm over 20 years K.A.Higgs (1910), P.G.Byatt (1921), A.G.Cooper (1930), B.G.Miller (1933), G.Taylor - Mill Foreman (1930-1953) . Additional difficulties were experienced as in other businesses during both great wars through members being called out in the forces.

In the last war in particular the firm was greatly indebted to the fairer sex who efficiently took on the different duties in the office while younger men had been called to the colours in the different parts of the world.

In 1944 Kenneth Giggs converted the business into a limited company appointing himself as governing director, with his wife and A. G. Cooper as co-directors and with P. G. Byatt as Secretary.

This is as the board exists today except that Patrick Higgs (Kenneth’s son) has been added. In 1947 the small but old established shop and premises in the High Street at Cuckfield were purchased from the owners Messrs F. Dann & Son.

In 1949 trade stand was taken at the Sussex County Agricultural Show and this has been continued at each county show ever since.

In 1952 a pair of swans was purchased to keep the Mill ponds free of weeds, this method appears to be more effective than the efforts by members of the staff going out in a punt to clear them.

A fox had one of the birds in 1954. Another pair was obtained at the end of the same year. We mentioned the Swans as these cause great interest to regular passengers on the railway who write to us about them.

In 1954 the mill was re-equipped for a greater grinding output.

The mill was finally demolished in the 1960s


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