The Oil and Cake Mill

Several years ago, while the author was showing some Scottish and Irish friends round the town, having rambled on about the town’s history and tales of Dunball’s Treacle Mine, the Jam Factory, the famous Bridgwater Manchip, and finally, while passing the old Cake Mill, one remarked; ‘is everything in this town geared towards dessert?’ Of course the latter has nothing to do with ‘cake’ in that sense, but rather the pumice left over from crushing grain.

The Linseed Oil and Cotton Cake Mill on the north-west corner of the docks was founded in 1869 and the core of the present buildings dates to about then. Previously part of the site had been utilised as part of a brickyard to supply materials for the canal construction, which had ceased operation around 1859. A fragment of wall, part of an up draught brick kiln, stands in the west of the site.

The ruins of the brick kiln.

The purpose of the mill was to crush flax in order to extract linseed oil, which had a range of uses, including as a component of oils paints or as a wood preservative. The leftover flax mush, called cake, was used as a fertiliser and as animal feed. Initially there were fifteen workmen employed, but at the mill’s height of prosperity there were over seventy. The company was initially referred to as either ‘the Bridgwater Oil and Cake Mills’ or referred to its proprietors ‘Messrs Croad and Brown’. Exactly who Croad was is currently obscure. Brown is probably Edwin Brown JP, who lived in Hamp Green House. He died in 1937, aged 91 and was buried in the Wembdon Road Cemetery.

The Mill on the 1888 OS Town Plan. The western extension towards the manager’s house had not yet been added

A huge fire engulfed the mill on 26 February 1892, although luckily no one was injured. Today most residents of the area will recall several occurrences of fire there over the last few decades, most recently in January 2018. In 1892 to 1895 Croad and Brown commissioned architect Basil Cottam to redesign the mill and in 1899 they asked for designs for new offices. They also commissioned new machinery from Rose Downs and Thompson Ltd of Hull, manufacturers of general engineering products, oil mill machinery and food processing equipment. The firm was taken over by the British Oils and Cake Mill Ltd in 1899.

The memorial to Edwin Brown in the Wembdon Road Cemetery. The Inscription reads: In Loving Memory of Edwin Brown JP of Hamp Green died 22nd March 1937 aged 91 years. Also Hilda Joyce Brown died 9th October 1900. In God’s keeping. Also Ethel Brown his widow died 19th March 1940.
The Mill site on the 1904 OS Map.

Mr Jon Bigwood kindly got in contact to share these documents relating to the building’s history:

This letterhead shows the mill as it was in about 1910. Note the train on the far right, and the horses and carts. Almost all of this survives today. The small building on the far left is gone except for one wall. The small cottage type building on the far right is completely gone. The section between the large block and the chimney has been built up. © by Jon Bigwood.
© by Jon Bigwood.
The Ketch Sarah, unloading at the landing stage by the mill in May 1920. This picture was taken to commemorate the first cargo of cotton seed discharged at the docks, after a dockers’ strike of eight weeks, in which they won their claim that captains and seamen should not do the work do discharging vessels.
The Mill Complex on the 1930 OS Map.
Oil and Cake Mill
The Mill in the 1930s, detail from a Valentine’s Postcard G.282. The cottage pre-dates the mill and appears in a photo by Robert Gillo taken in the 1860s.

Bridgwater historian Joyce Hurford’s mother worked in the mill when she was young: ‘they were not allowed to stop for lunch, so you took sandwiches with you but if you did not watch out the rats would run down and eat them’. The mill was taken over by Bowerings Provenders (animal feeds) by 1960, possibly soon after their mill in Moat Lane was destroyed by fire in August 1957.

Mr Evett, for some thirty years foreman at the Oil and Cake Mill, pictured in 1959 with his wife, on the occassion of their 57th wedding anniversary. Mr Evett was previously secretary of the Guy Fawkes Carnival Committee, and Mrs Evett lamented the end of the bonfire on the Cornhill in the 1930s, saying the carnival had never been the same since. Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser 28 February 1959
Image © Blake Museum 59265, showing the mill in operation in 1959, not long after the fire of a few years before. Part of the Douglas Allen Collection. It is interesting to see that the mill still displayed ‘The British Oil and Cake Mill Ltd: Croad and Brown’ at this time. Bowerings were certainly operating from there by at least 1960.

After this date the main block extended out to the great chimney. The little cottage to the east was still standing at that time. Bowerings, the current owners of the mill, started life as a bakery in North Street.

The east side of the mill on 20 August 1966, showing the east cottage still standing. This was gone by the time of the 1973 fire (see below).
A colour postcard of the docks, publisher not recorded, but serial number PT6512. Postmark 6 August 1973.

On 28 August 1973 there was another spectacular fire at the mill. The event was captured by Nigel Andrew Hunt (1947-2021), these pictures being kindly supplied by his brother Brian:

Picture taken by Nigel Andrew Hunt, kindly supplied by Brian Hunt.
Picture taken by Nigel Andrew Hunt, kindly supplied by Brian Hunt.
Picture taken by Nigel Andrew Hunt, kindly supplied by Brian Hunt.
The Mill in 2010.
The Mill in February 2017. Note that the right-hand gable has been altered since 1959 and most of the windows blocked in.
The buildings seen from the canal. The wall on the left is thought to pre-date the mill and be the remnant of an older brick and tile works.
Detail of the Chimney.

The memorial to the Bowering family, who founded the business, in the Wembdon Road Cemetery. The memorial was repaired for the Friends by Fine Memorials in 2016

For more information see:
Philip J. Squibbs and Jon F Lawrence, Squibb’s History of Bridgwater (Chichester, 1982)
Brian J Murless, Bridgwater Docks and the River Parrett (Bridgwater, 1983)
The Blake Museum, Bridgwater the Second Selection (Stroud, 2001)
Kelly’s Directory of Bridgwater and Neighbourhood, fourth edition (London, 1960)

SAVE Britian’s Heritage Building of the Month, July 2020.

M. Kerr-Peterson 7 February 2017, revised 30 October 2021.