20 March 2016

Britannia Flour Mills, Portslade

Judy Middleton 2001 (revised 2016)

 copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries
This historic photograph dating from around 1914 shows long-vanished parts of Portslade. The Britannia Flour Mills stand at the centre with a ship at the wharf, the Crown Inn is on the right, the Star Model Laundry is on the left while in the background the spire of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, and St Denis is visible.

The Britannia Flour Mills were built in 1853 and stood near the south end of Church Road, Portslade; in old Directories they are placed under Copperas Gap. John Borrer of Portslade Manor was the original owner of the mills and he also owned the Copperas Gap windmill.

However, by 1856 Charles Richard Smith was in charge of Britannia Mills and members of the Smith family were involved there for a period of almost 80 years. Charles Richard Smith was born at Stoke Newington and was previously at the Terminus Steam Mills, Trafalgar Road, Brighton. By 1861, when he was located at Portslade, he was the employer of six men.

When the Smiths took over at Portslade, they used a granary that stood back from Station Road; it later became known as Portslade Hall and was used as Portslade Council offices. There was a mushroom cellar underneath the granary.

The Smiths ran Britannia Mills using the latest technology. They were one of the first to introduce roller mills and by 1912 the mills were electrically driven, being only the second flour mill in England so powered. But obtaining a supply of electricity was not an easy task and their first application was made in July 1908. In October 1909 Portslade Council turned down their plans to have an electric cable installed with the power to be drawn from Brighton Corporation Electricity Department. Portslade Council considered that if they granted permission, if might prejudice their position should they decided to supply their own electricity but eventually they relented.

Alterations and additional offices were added in 1897, a further extension was built in 1920, and a new wheat store was erected in 1927.

Britannia Mills overlooked a reinforced concrete wharf with a 65-foot frontage to the canal. William Grinyer, who was born in 1909 in Wellington Road, remembered the barges full of corn moored at the wharf while the full sacks were swung up and aloft. He also used to watch the sailing barges being propelled out of the harbour by a man wielding a long pole that he pushed against the bottom of the canal. In fact, the last Thames sailing barges ever to use Shoreham Harbour unloaded grain and re-loaded flour at this wharf.

According to Bert Pierce a horse and cart would also deliver grain and sometimes grain came trundling along the road aboard a Foden steam wagon.

Britannia Mills covered an area of 31,000 square feet and the granary walls towered to a height of 75 feet. The Smiths, being public-spirited people, allowed members of Portslade Fire Brigade to stage exercises at the mills in order to test their ladder skills and their manipulation of the heavy canvas hosepipes.

Mrs May, who was born in 1900 at Crown Cottages, remembered that Britannia used to dump their cinders by the side of the Crown Inn and the local children came to collect it to take home for kindling.

The local populace also made use of the hot water that the mills discharged into the canal.

In around 1930 the Smiths sold the mills to Mark Mayhew Ltd., one of the largest milling firms in the world. But by 1933 the mills had ceased to function and were demolished in September/October 1936.

It is interesting to note that during demolition it was found that Britannia was not the first mill on the site because an old stone bearing the date 1725 was discovered. Old account books dating back to 1840 also came to light but it is not clear what happened to them afterwards.

The Smith Family of Portslade

Charles Richard Smith

copyright © J.Middleton
The Halfway House pub was photographed
 shortly before demolition in 2014.
In the 1861 census Charles R. Smith was recorded as a 48-year old miller living at Palatine House, near or next to Halfway House pub in Station Road. He lived with his 39-year old wife Ann and their children Frederick and Richard (both clerks) Charles aged 9, Jane aged 7 and 3-year old Wilhelmina plus two servants.

Eventually, his two sons Frederick and Richard took over the reins of the family business.

The Sussex Daily News (20 January 1887) carried a report that Charles Smith aged 75 of the Britannia Mills had been involved in an accident at the bottom of Trafalgar Road, Brighton; a cart driven by a boy knocked him down. He was much shaken and broke two ribs but it was hoped he would soon be up and about. At the time of the accident he had just left the residence of his brother, the Revd A.C. Smith, in Park Crescent.

Richard Smith (1843-1912)

He was born on 24 April 1843. He and his brother Frederick ran the family business at first but it was Richard who later became managing director of C.R. Smith & Sons of Britannia Mills. He was associated with the business for between 50 and 60 years. In his youth he was athletic and a fine sculler.  But he lost a hand at the age of 21 due to an accident at the mills and in a subsequent accident he lost three fingers from the remaining hand. He wore a hook where his hand used to be, which naturally fascinated local children. He rode around Portslade on a tricycle.

He was described as a gentleman of liberal religious views because although he was a member of the Church of England, he was keen to assist the work of the local Salvation Army. In fact he donated the site in North Street on which the second Portslade Citadel was built and he was one of six people who laid a memorial stone at a special ceremony on 27 August 1910. His name can still be seen there today but the building is no longer in use by the Salvation Army.

copyright © J.Middleton
The former Salvation Army citadel was photographed in 2003 when Grate Fireplaces occupied the premises.

Richard Smith was a well-known figure in Portslade but he was also a popular member of the London Corn Exchange.

His wife Mary Alice was born on 9 June 1850; she was said to have an exotic background because she was the result of an affair between a Scottish Earl and a Spanish dancer. Their children were baptised at St Andrew’s Church, Portslade as follows:

Frederica Edith 5 July 1878
Christabel Margaret Crommond 7 March 1880
Douglas Frederick Sundius 3 December 1882
Daisy Beatrice Sundius 6 January 1884

Richard Smith died on 22 November 1912 from heart failure following an attack of acute indigestion. He was buried in Hove Cemetery in the family vault and later on so was his wife after she died on 12 July 1920.

Their three daughters all married and Douglas Sundius Smith took over the family firm.

Frederick Sundius Smith

He was born in Finsbury Square, London and was the brother of Richard Smith with whom he ran Britannia Mills for a while. But Frederick soon immersed himself in local affairs at Portslade. He was a Shoreham Harbour Trustee for many years and a Portslade councillor from 1894 to 1908. It is interesting to note he was chairman of the finance committee of both bodies. He served as Overseer of the Poor at Portslade and during the 1890s he represented Portslade on East Sussex County Council. He was instrumental in establishing the first public day school at Portslade and he was foundation manager of St Nicolas School, Portslade.

 copyright © J.Middleton
Frederick Sundius Smith was a foundation manager of St Nicolas School, Portslade 
(originally the Brackenbury Schools).

He was a member of the Royal Clarence Lodge of Freemasons as well as being a member of Court Olive Branch (Brighton District) of the Ancient Order of Foresters. When the latter group held a dinner at the Crown Inn, Portslade he made a long speech. He talked about the Portslade Gas Works, Portslade Brewery, large flint works, considerable brick-fields and the market gardens. He said ‘No place of its size along this coast has such a pay night on Saturday.’ Unfortunately, there was one notorious drawback to this thriving community and that was the dreadful cesspool drainage system.

Frederick sported a droopy moustache and habitually wore a stiff wing-collar. By 1891 he was aged 49 and lived with his wife Emily Beatrice, aged 35, at 3 Courtenay Terrace, Station Road, Portslade; it was later called Courtenay House. The family employed a cook, housemaid, nurse and under-nurse. The couple went on to have a family of five sons and two daughters. They were:

Beatrice Muriel born 19 June 1881. In August 1908 she married Captain Frederick Roper Holbrooke of the Indian Army, son of Revd F.G. Holbrooke, vicar of St Nicolas Church Portslade. Her husband made a career in the Army and became a Lieutenant Colonel. Beatrice Muriel died on 18 April 1946.

  copyright © J.Middleton
St Andrew’s Church, Portslade, was where the Smith children were baptised.

copyright © J.Middleton
The beautiful stained glass window 
at St Andrew’s Church is in memory of 
2nd Lieut Ronald C. Sundius Smith.
Basil Knightley Sundius born 27 November 1887 and died aged 71 in1959.

Walter Frederick Sundius born 8 February 1889 and died 30 December 1969.

Gladys Dorothy Sundius born 31 May 1890 and died 24 March 1891

Donald Geoffrey Sundius Knightley born 20 April 1892. He became Colonel of 1/15th Punjab Regiment and died 10 April 1986

Ronald Christian Sundius born 31 May 1894. He became a 2nd Lieutenant Indian Army, attached to the 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment and he was killed in action at Neuve Chappelle on 12 March 1915. There is a stained-glass window to his memory created from the design of Sir Edward Burne-Jones in St Andrew’s Church, Portslade.

Brian Leslie Sundius born 4 October 1895. He became Lieutenant Colonel of the Baluch Regiment and was awarded the DSO. He died 20 December 1986.

Douglas Sundius Smith

Douglas was the third generation of his family to oversee Britannia Mills. He possessed an excellent grasp of what the business entailed because his father, Richard Smith, had made sure he had a proper grounding in all aspects of the work involved and sent him away to be apprenticed to a northern milling firm. This gave him an invaluable insight into the life of the ordinary working-man and he always had a great deal of sympathy with their situation.

Douglas was chairman of Portslade Council from 1922 to 1931 and he lived in a large house in Station Road that was later re-numbered as 21 Station Road. In his day the residence was called Zion Lodge and later on Merlin Lodge. The house had a greenhouse on either side.

  copyright © J.Middleton
When you see the bustling Station Road / Boundary Road shopping area today, it is difficult to realise that it was once home to some substantial private houses while shopping was concentrated in North Street, Portslade.

The Smith family owned nearly the whole of the area between Church Road, Portslade and Station Road, Portslade. 

Sources

Census Returns
Encyclopaedia
Local newspapers

Copyright © J.Middleton 2016
page layout by D.Sharp