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Uncovering York's industrial past

By Dr Jayne Rimmer
Archaeologist, York Archaeological Trust

Leethams Mill, circa 1912. Image reproduced courtesy of City of York Council, Archives and Local History Collection
Leetham and Sons' flour mill was at the forefront of milling technology in Britain

Recent excavation and research carried out by York Archaeological Trust in Hungate, York, as part of the re-development and provision for new homes being carried out by Hungate (York) Regeneration Ltd, has uncovered evidence for two Victorian mills on the bank of the river Foss.

William Bellerby's sawmill and Leetham and Sons' flour mill were in operation in the area across the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The story of York's industrial past is usually told in connection with the confectionery works or the railways, but firms such as these made an equally important contribution to the industrialisation of the city.

Leetham and Sons' flour mill was at the forefront of milling technology in Britain. Over the course of 70 years the firm developed the Hungate works from a small operation using steam-powered millstones to a much larger enterprise that replaced older milling techniques with innovative grinding machinery in the form of automatic steel rollers. In recognition of their achievements and expertise, Sidney Leetham, a partner in the company, was made president of the Incorporated National Association of British and Irish Millers in 1900.

Leetham's Flour Mill and Bellerby's Sawmill under excavation
Bellerby's sawmill was working during the late 19th and early 20th centuries

The excavation uncovered where old millstones once lay and where a massive steam engine that was used to power the new machinery once stood, enhancing our understanding of the development of the mill. Machine and engine settings, the remains of a sawpit and buildings relating to William Bellerby's sawmill, also revealed its previously unknown layout.

The two mills were in operation until the 1930s. The only surviving mill building is the grain warehouse on Foss Islands, which was once attached to the Hungate complex by a four-level bridge. This building is known locally as Rowntree's Wharf, after Rowntree and Co who took over the building after its closure.

Investigating these mills has revealed a fascinating part of York's industrial past. Our research has provided a lot of information about the mills themselves but we realise there are gaps in our knowledge, particularly in relation to their workforce. By 1911 Leethams' flour mill accounted for many of the estimated 600 jobs provided in York by the flour-milling industry.

York Archaeological Trust would love to hear from anyone who remembers either of the mills, who worked there, lived in the area, or knows somebody who did. There are records of complaints from local residents about the factory fumes, and we know that two fires destroyed part of the flour mill around 1930. Perhaps this can help jog a few memories?

Please contact York Archaeological Trust directly with your stories and memories of Hungate's industrial past on 01904 663000, or contact Dr Jayne Rimmer, historian to the Hungate excavations, on 01904 663010.

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