Thornbury and District Museum: History of the Saw Mill

March 29 2019
Thornbury and District Museum: History of the Saw Mill

THORNBURY Saw Mill was a noisy, dangerous place to work – but also brought benefits to the town.

In 1886 timber merchant Edmund Cullimore, of Yew Tree Farm, Newton, acquired a large area of land behind St John Street. By 1888 he already had a timber yard, saw mill, carpenter’s shop, stables and sheds on the site.

The saw mill specialised in producing timber from English elm and larch, for coffins, pit props and boxes to hold tinplate metal sheets produced by the smelters at Avonmouth and South Wales. The long horse-drawn wagons that brought the timber were famous in the town.

But the mill was dogged by fires. A Gazette article of September 1891 records a fire in a hayrick adjoining the mill, with a more serious fire following in October 1899, in a large shed containing valuable machinery. Although there was a tank containing 25,000 gallons of water on site, the fire was so close and burning so fiercely that the men could not dip their buckets into it. Edmund and his employees had to rebuild much of the mill.

In July 1937, another fire caused an explosion which threw a metal cylinder weighing up to 20 tons through the roof, 200ft into the air and into a garden adjoining the engine house.

The accident rate at the saw mill was notorious, even for a time when industrial injuries were all part of the job. It was said that you could tell who worked there by counting their fingers. In May 1917 one worker, William Penduck, was crushed and killed by the drive on the lathe.

Piles of timber, stacked to dry, provided tempting if rather dangerous dens for young children sneaking in to play, while the inky black tar pools also had a fascination for the young, who threw sticks and stones into them.

The saw mill had an unexpected advantage for Thornbury. Waste wood was burned to create electricity, using a gas powered engine, which provided more electricity than the mill needed. Neighbouring properties were given the opportunity of receiving electric power. It was later extended to the cinema, workhouse and Morton Mill.

We are not sure when the mill closed but, as local elm became less useful, it appears to have been run down and in 1958, properties on the site were sold to the building firm, Voiseys.