Milling is an ancient industry in this rich agricultural county of Norfolk and Roman and Saxon millstones can be seen preserved in our local museums. Windmills were a prominent feature in the landscape and in the last century could still be seen clustered around the city. The windmill gradually took the place of the watermill and these, in turn, gave way to the steam mill. With the introduction of roller milling many small steam mills ceased to manufacture flour and those that were left were enlarged.
Bread has always been an important register of social distinction. In medieval times when white flour demanded an expensive milling and sieving process, the poor ate brown bread and the rich ate white. As mechanisation and technology improved the processes white bread became cheaper. Today the trend has been reversed and more people are eating granary and wholemeal bread, but fine white flour is still much in demand for bread-making and baking.
The milling tradition in Norwich flourished at the firm of R.J. Read Ltd. at the City Flour Mills in King Street. The founder of the firm, Robert John Read, was born at Wrentham, Suffolk in 1851. He spent several years working in other flour mills before buying Ingate Mills, Beccles, in 1875. An honest, shrewd and hardworking man, a sportsman, Free Churchman and Councillor, he had to cope with gales and many other difficulties in his early years. By dint of hard work his business prospered and in 1889 it seemed prudent to expand the property,
The time was propitious. The development of roller milling meant that fine white flour could be produced in great quantities by steam or electric power. He therefore installed a four-sack capacity plant by Whitmore & Benyon of Wickham, in a new building at the Beccles mill. His troubles were not over, however, for in March, 1895, there was a great gale and the mill chimney was blown down, and just one year later the whole mill was completely destroyed by fire.
Faced with a run of disastrous circumstances which might have daunted a lesser man, Robert John persevered. He found alternative premises in Westwick Street, Norwich, near the site of New Mills, (the old mills that had straddled the River Wensum for 500 years, and which were used in medieval times for milling, and later for pumping water and sewage) where he purchased a flour mill, the property of John Lee Barber (who founded a business in Great Yarmouth, later owned by Reads).
Once settled in Norwich the trade again expanded and he found himself having to acquire other premises to house stables for the horses that pulled the mill wagons. The production of self-raising flour began in 1906.
The business suffered a setback in the great Norwich flood of 1912. Six inches of rain fell in twelve hours, accompanied by a violent gale. Within 24 hours the rainfall had reached 7.34 inches and the low-lying parts of the city were under threat. The quiet meandering River Wensum became a thundering, crashing torrent, taking all before it, bursting its banks, destroying bridges, and spreading over the streets. In factories and houses along the banks of the river work had to stop and thousands were thrown out of employment. Read‘s mill and boiler house were under nine feet of water, sacks of meal and flour were ruined, tools and implements floated about in the water and a model bakery which had been erected to supply bread to the Army on manoeuvres was partly washed into the river. Reads recovered from this and continued to develop the business - continuing milling throughout the First World War
Robert John Read died on 3rd October 1920, and the business became a Limited Liability Company on 28th June. 1921. The first Directors were his two sons, Robert John Read, junior (known as Jack), and Lewes Hector Read, together with F. G. Turner, who had been working in the business since 1901.
It was at this time that the company began looking for alternative premises Several factors led the directors to do this. For a start, seagoing coasters found their way to the New Mills site impeded by the bridges (look at the height of Bishopbridge and you will see why). At the same time there were opportunities for the import of grain by transhipment from the Continent in the newly developed motor coasters, rather than by transhipment into wherries or lighters at Great Yarmouth. They found what they wanted in King Street; a mill, with a large river frontage and wharves large enough to enable sea-going vessels to discharge their cargoes. The Albion Mills, as they were called, had started life as a yam mill in the l830s.Robert John Read purchased the now derelict buildings of the Albion Mills Estate for £5,750, the conveyance being dated 14th May, 1932.
Expansion now beckoned, as sea-going vessels could serve the mill and Reads could develop their trade with imported grain. New buildings and plant
were constructed, and a space on the wharf surplus to requirements was leased to R. Coller & Sons Ltd., coal and coke merchants. Amongst the new imports were cargoes of oyster shell, brought in for the chicken/hen trade, and maize from Argentina. A maize flaking plant was erected in June 1932 and soon their well-known brand of ‘Recero‘ flaked maize, advertised as ‘the best for milk production and feeding all kinds of stock‘, was known throughout the country. The plant soon doubled its production, and within two years it had quadrupled. A 1,000 ton silo was erected between the maize mill and the flour mill, and a new ten sack milling plant was installed in the main building. Another 1,000 ton wooden silo was erected to deal with English wheat.
Mr. F. G. Turner was succeeded by Richard Lee Barber, as Director in 1942. Interestingly it was his father who had sold the Westwick Street site to the first Robert John Read. The mill sustained only minor damage in the war, and they were able to continue working seven days a week in order to maintain the vital supplies of flour. The old mill in Westwick Street was not so fortunate. In 1942 that part of Norwich was heavily bombed. Huge blocks of property were destroyed by heavy explosive and incendiary bombs. An observer next morning described the mill as just a smouldering outline of the original three storey building, etched against the skyline, merely girders and tangled wreckage to show where it had stood.
Additional property was purchased after the war at Riverside and a new office block was erected. Owing to the marshy condition of this riverside site it was necessary to use sixteen reinforced concrete piles for the foundations.
The firm took on another family member in the shape of Bryan C. Read, only son of L. Hector Read, who had graduated from Cambridge with a B.A. in Engineering. He worked in mills in England and Ireland before joining the family business in 1947. He was a keen yachtsman and took part in the Olympic trials at Torbay in 1948.
The next forty years saw the development of the business in four directions: The Norwich grain importing business expanded with the growth of the animal feed compounding industry and the demand for imported maize. At one time they were importing 1,000 tons a week by coaster during peak periods. This trade ceased after Great Britain joined the Common Market and home-grown cereals such as wheat and barley became relatively cheaper. The John Lee Barber business at Great Yarmouth was expanded and became one of the first companies to handle soya bean meal in bulk. The seed and grain business of John Lee Bennett, Downham Market was purchased. In 1965 the Woodrow flour business was merged with Reads, and became R.J.Read (Holdings) Ltd. and Read Woodrow Ltd. From then onwards all production was concentrated at the City Flour Mills (the former Albion Mill).
Today wherries no longer ply along the rivers of Norfolk to service the trading industries of Norwich. Reads were one of the last firms to use river transport but later relied on a fleet of lorries and tankers to take their products all over the country. By the late 1980s no maize is imported and the maize trade had ended and the company concentrated entirely on flour milling. The mill in 1934 produced ten sacks an hour (one and a quarter tons). In 1988 the mill in the same building was producing five tons an hour.
The business closed in 1993 and the site stood vacant until late in 2004 when it was bought by P J Livesey Ltd who acquired adjoining properties and developed a large housing scheme incorporating the old Albion Mill converting it into flats.
Revised by Nick Williams March 2008