Suicide at Taverham Paper Mill

On Monday 10 March 1862, the Norfolk Chronicle reported a suicide at Taverham Paper Mill. Its opening lines stated:

“A millwright by the name of Walter Cudbard, who had been for some years in the employ of Mr. Smithdale, of King-street, Norwich, and had lately been at work at Messrs. Delane and Magnay’s paper-mills at Taverham, committed suicide on Friday last in a most horrible manner, and without any apparent motive……. The deceased, who was 40 years of age, was unmarried, but he leaves four children by a woman with whom he lived.”

Taverham Suicide (Painting_Norfolk Museum_Service)
Taverham Mill in the days before it became a fully mechanised paper enterprise. Photo: Norfolk Mills.

It should be explained at the outset that Taverham Paper Mill in 1862 was at its zenith with a full order book. To produce the demand for paper the mill employed three water-wheels, two of which were of 4 metre diameter and the other of 2 meters; in addition, eleven steam engines and two wells of clean water to produce the paper, plus three sluice gates. The number workers employed totalled 150 workers, the majority of whom were women; only men staffed the night shift. The company’s millwrights were kept busy!

One of those millwrights was 40 year-old Walter Cudbard who, in the opinion of most people who knew him, a very steady and trustworthy person, very attentive to detail, but with a reserved and silent manner in his dealings with all except his common-law wife, his four children and Mr. Smithdale his employer of some eight years past. With him, Cudbard would regularly describe the work he had been engaged on at Taverham Mill during those periods when he had been subcontracted to Messrs. Delane and Magnay, which amounted to weeks or even months at a time; in fact, whenever the Mill wanted him. During the time when Cudbard was employed at the Mill, he would lodge at the Red Lion public house in Drayton.

Taverham Suicide (Red Lion)
The Red Lion 54 years after Walter Cudbard lodged there with Fredrick Randall as the publican. Photo: Public Domain.

Unknown to those around him, Walter Cudbard was a troubled man; indeed, if anyone had been curious about what his problem was, they would never have been able to put their finger on it. Certainly, nothing would be plainly evident in the weeks and days leading up to his demise because he revealed little – the only clues may have lain in a few comments he did let slip; but these comments would only have come to the hearers’ mind with hindsight. Like the moment when Cudbard was back at his employers in Kings Street, Norwich, reporting on his activities at the mill, and maybe his concerns, with Mr. Smithdale, someone he had known for over thirty-years. Maybe, with such a long association, Cudbard would open up if anything personal was on his mind, as it did on one particular Saturday in February 1862 when Cudbard asked his employer if he could return permanently to his old job as he “was uncomfortable”. Without any further clarification of this comment Smithdale simply understood it to mean that Cudbard was unhappy about his being away from his family. That being the case, Smithdale advised Cudbard to “stay at the Mill for as long as the owners wanted him.”

Taverham Suicide 4
Taverham Paper Mill. Photo: Norfolk Mills.

Then there was the time when Fredrick Randall, the publican at the Red Lion, was chatting with Cudbard; that being only a few evenings before the latter’s death. He noticed that Cudbard was decidedly ‘down in the dumps’ about something or other, and heard him say that he would like to have the position of millwright at Taverham Mill, formerly held by the late Mr. Lumsden. When Randall, quite naturally, asked Cudbard if he had applied for it, Cudbard replied that he did not like to, in case he failed to get it. His other concern was the thought that his boss, Mr. Smithdale, might be angry and think that he, Cudbard, was unhappy with his present position back at King’s Street. Whatever else was exchanged during their chat that evening will never be known, but by the Wednesday of the same week, some 36 hours or so before Cudbard’s death on the Friday, the casualty arrived in the Red Lion saying – “Randall – they have taken on a Scotsman down at the mill to take my place.”

Taverham Suicide 2
Taverham Paper Mill. Photo: Norfolk Mills.

On the fateful day, John Wallace, a fellow millwright at Taverham Paper Mill, thought it strange when Walter Cudbard walked straight past him on his way to start the early morning shift at five o’clock. He could not fail to notice that Cudbard’s head was bowed – and he pointedly failed to exchange even a ‘good morning’ with Wallace who he would be working alongside in a short while; Cudbard “seemed to be full of thought.” It, therefore, may not have been a surprise when Cudbard failed to turn up for the breakfast break at 8 o’clock for, apart from ‘bottling things up’ and generally keeping himself to himself most times, he seemed always to be wandering around the mill on the lookout for possible ‘engineering’ problems; if found, he would set about resolving them at the earliest opportunity and at less cost to the company – ‘a stitch in time save nine’ so to speak – which showed that Cudbard was ‘scrupulously attentive’ and could be anywhere in the building working away!

Taverham Suicide (Millwright) 2
A Millwright at work.

Come the end of the break at 9 o’clock and moods began to change to that of concern, triggered by the fact that Cudbard was, at that moment, due to work with Wallace on the No.2 Fourdrinier paper making machine, one of the mainstays of the mill’s production and profits. A serious search was put in place and had been in progress for several hours when the pit wheel suddenly stopped, immediately affecting production! The problem was clearly at the waterwheel end of the mill and probably the pin wheel. One of the other millwrights was despatched in haste to establish the cause of the stoppage. Concerns had clearly switched from a search for a possible missing person to one which had commercial implications; in fact, both were one of the same; the millwright had found Walter Cudbard – or what was left of him! The details would come out at the Inquest.

Taverham Suicide (Inquest)
The Inquest. Image: Josh Nathan-Kazis.

On Saturday morning on 8 March 1862, the inevitable inquest took place. It was held in a room adjoining the mills before Mr. E. Press, Esq, the Norfolk County Coroner. His duty was to establish the facts of this case, as best he could from the evidence submitted from six principal deposed witnesses: Robert Beales, carpenter, John Wallace, millwright, Thomas Smithdale, Cudbard’s employer, Frederick Randall, proprietor of the Red Lion public house, William Avery, foreman to Messrs. Delane and Magnay, plus a unnamed juror. Their evidence is taken from the Norfolk Chronicle’s press report of the Inquest, which appeared on the following Monday, 10 March 1862:

Robert Beales, carpenter, employed at the Taverham Mills: “The deceased had been employed at the mills for the last five or six months. He had been at work at the mill on previous occasions and was well acquainted with all the parts of the machinery. It was his business to attend to any part of the machinery which required looking to. the machinery is very extensive and complicated. the deceased was missed yesterday a little after nine o’clock. I had not seen him at work at all in the morning. Enquiries were made of the workmen whether they had seen him, and he was looked for in every part of the mill, where it was thought he might probably be at work. It was his habit, if anything was wrong, to go about the mill and find out where it was and put it right without waiting for orders.”

Taverham Suicide (Carpenter)
Painting of a 19th century carpenter.

“The pit wheel where the deceased was found is fenced off by a shutter, but there is an open space at one side with an iron bar round it. It is large enough for a man to get in. A person who wanted to see the wheels at work could do so if he stood outside the bar, which is three feet from the wheels. The passage is lighted by gas, and lamps are used when any one has occasion to examine this part of the machinery. I have known the deceased about four years. He appeared to be a very steady man, and very attentive to his work. I saw him on Thursday night, and he spoke to me of some work he was on, but I did not observe anything peculiar in his manner. I was the first man who found the deceased. The wheel had stopped, and I was told to go and see what was the reason. The shutter was not in its proper position. I had passed the place about an hour before, and the shutter was then up, and the wheel going all right. I saw the body of the deceased lying under the wheel. No lamp has been found in the pit. If I had been sent there to do anything, I should have got a lamp, and should have previously gone to the engineer and asked him to stop the wheels. No one has any business to do anything to that part of the machinery without first going to the engineer, and getting him to shut off the wheels.”

John Wallace, millwright and engineer employed by Messrs. Delane and Magnay: “I have been in Messrs. Delane and Magnay’s employment eight or ten days as a millwright and engineer. I was working with deceased on Friday morning. We worked together from about five o’clock at the paper machine No.2 till half-past seven o’clock, when I was ordered to go to the beating engines. I left the deceased at work. I saw him at his breakfast when I left at twenty minutes past eight. On returning at nine o’clock, he was not there, and at ten o’clock not having seen him at his work at No.2 machine, where I had gone myself to work, I made some enquiries about him of the other workmen. He had been working under my instructions, and as it was a very pressing job, I was surprised at his absence. I asked the manager whether he had sent him to any other job, and he said not. After some time, as he did not make his appearance, some alarm was felt, and nothing having been seen of him in any part of the mill, some began to look about the river, and there was some talk of dragging it. I felt apprehensive that something might have happened to him as he left so urgent a job without saying anything about it. He was very reserved and silent in his manner, and was not like other men. I noticed when he was at breakfast that morning that he was very flushed in the face, as if he had been at a hard job, which was not the fact. I do not think that the deceased could have had any business with the pit wheel. I have examined the wheel since this occurrence, and find that the brackets which carry the wheel and the water-pumps are broken.”

Taverham Suicide (Millwright) 1
Millwrights at work.

“The stoppage of the wheel led me to examine that part of the machinery. It was supposed that some foreign substance had got in between the wheels – that perhaps a belt and fallen in between, and thus stopped the wheels. The discovery of the deceased’s body at once accounted for the stoppage. The feet were upwards, and the head away from the body, and the latter then dropped down below the wheel. The brains and part of the skull were on the floor. There was some of the deceased’s hair on the cogs of the wheel. I have no doubt that his death was immediate, and that his head was the first part that came in contact with the wheel, and that then the wheel stopped at once. The only way that I can account for the occurrence is that the deceased actually went and put his head between the wheels. I do not think that he could have fallen in, or that he could have been drawn it at that part. The place is too high up for that. If a man fell in, he would fall between the wheels and not on the cogs, and the nature of the accident would have been very different. The shutter was fast at the bottom, but the top part had sprung through the breakage of the machinery. It struck me when I first met him on Friday morning, about five o’clock, that there was something on his mind, for he crossed me, ongoing towards the mill, and merely bowed, without saying “good morning,” and passed on. I thought it very strange that he should not wait for me as he was within a few yards, and we were both on the same work. His mind appeared to be occupied with something; he seemed to be full of thought.”

Thomas Smithdale, millwright and employer, of King-street, Norwich: “The deceased has been in my employ about eight years, and at different periods he has been lent to Messrs. Delane and Magnay for weeks or months together, whenever they wanted him. He still remained in my employment and was paid by me. I considered him to be one of the most trustworthy men I had in my employ. He was a sober and steady man, and was thoroughly to be depended upon. I saw him last Saturday evening in Norwich, when he came for his wages. He would often stop on occasions for nearly half an hour, describing the work he had been engaged in at the mill during the week. He made particular mention to me of this very spot where he was killed. He considered that the water-wheel wanted some trifling repair, and he said that he had occasionally gone there to listen if he could learn what was the matter with that part of the machinery. I asked him if he had been sent there to examine the wheels, and he said no, but that he had frequently gone over the mill on his own account to see if there was anything wanted doing which might save a great deal of expense if done in time. He was that sort of man that if he thought there was anything wrong, he would not rest until he found out what it was. He was not the sort of man to leave his work. If I were going to examine the wheels myself, I should prefer going around at the back of the pumps to going through the door or shutter, as I should not consider it so dangerous while the wheels were at work. He never expressed and dissatisfaction at his employment; on the contrary, I have heard him speak in the highest terms of many of his workmen, and especially of the principals. Last Saturday night he asked my leave to come home to his old work, as he said he was uncomfortable. I understood him to refer to his being away from his family. I told him I though he had better stop as long as Messrs. Delane and Magnay had anything for him to do. I have never observed the least deviation in his temper all the time I have known him, which is nearly thirty years. His general habits were not indicative of the least mental unsoundness; he was a peculiarly even-tempered man, and not at all excitable.”

Frederick Randall, Publican: “I keep the Red Lion at Drayton, and the deceased has Taverham Suicide (Publican)lodged with me for the last three or four months. He was a very honest and sober man. For a few days before his death, I noticed that he looked very weary and out of spirits, particularly on Thursday evening. He used to read to me in the evening, but the last few evenings he had not done so. I asked him whether he was not well, and whether I could get him anything, but he merely replied that he was not as well as usual. He seemed full of thought and study. I have heard him say that he should like to have the position of millwright at the mill, formerly held by Mr. Lumsden, who died lately. I never heard him say that it was promised to him. I asked him why he did not apply for it, and he said he did not like to, lest he should not get it, and his master might be angry and think he was dissatisfied with his present place. Last Wednesday night, when he came in, he said to me – “Randall, they have got another Scotchman down at the mill to take my place.”

William Avery, foreman to Messrs. Delane and Magnay: “I have known the deceased for about four years. He had always found him to be a very steady, sober, and honest man, and never knew him to absent himself from work. He never expressed any dissatisfaction to witness.”

By a Juror: “I do not think that he felt any jealousy towards me. He never showed the slightest signs of unfriendliness – merely reserve. As he was a borrowed man, I do not think he could have considered himself superseded by me.”

THE CORONER: In summing up, Mr. E. Press, Esq observed that the jury had seen from the situation of the wheels that there could not be the slightest reflection upon the proprietors for not having their machinery not properly protected and fenced off. The questions for the consideration of the jury were – first, whether the fatality was the result of an accident or was a deliberate act on the part of the deceased; and secondly, if they came to the conclusion that he had committed suicide, what was the state of his mind at the time.

The Jury, after a short deliberation, returned a verdict to the effect that the deceased committed suicide, but that there was no evidence as to the state of his mind at the time.

THE END

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