Three Mills: House Mill on the left, Clock Mill on the right
The Huguenots are well known for their activities as silk weavers, tapestry makers, and bankers, but less for their industrial enterprises. Yet there are several extant sites where Huguenots engaged in industry. Bere Mill survives as a private house on the banks of the River Test in Hampshire, where in 1712 the Huguenot Portal family set up a paper making business to exploit the purity of the water, winning the contract in 1724 to make bank notes for the Bank of England.
There are also two extant industrial sites, now open to the public, where Huguenot entrepreneurs operated. In Faversham, Kent are the Chart, Oare and Marsh Gunpowder Mills, where among others the Huguenot refugee families Azire, Grueber and Pigou were active over several generations; and in Bromley-by-Bow in east London is the Three Mills site. The latter was powered by the River Lea, which is tidal this far upstream.
Both sites have been restored and maintained as tourist attractions thanks to the strenuous efforts of local volunteers of the Faversham Society and the River Lea Tidal Mill Trust respectively.
In 1728 Peter Lefevre, of Huguenot descent, bought the Three Mills estate. He was possibly descended from a Peter Lefevre who in 1633 applied with Melchior Goyvart for a patent to erect and run watermills. Their petition stated that they intended to come to England speedily. Other records suggest a more recent immigration from Rouen.
In 1734 Lefevre, describing himself as a mealman, went into partnership with John Grace, another mealman. Their commerce consisted of trading in flour as well as making it. John Debonnaire, a distiller, and Daniel Bisson, a malt distiller, both of Huguenot descent, joined the partnership, as did another distiller, Christopher Barton. The purpose of the partnership was to increase the capital and to diversify by acquiring the skills to distil alcohol and malt.
Bisson had a £4000 share in 1734 out of a total value of the business of £31,000, but eventually owned the whole business and rebuilt the grade 1 listed House Mill in 1776. The Bisson family crest still adorns the façade with the initials DSB, the S presumably for his wife Sarah. In fact Daniel’s will provided for his wife to to become a partner in the business on his death, which occurred in 1777. [TNA, PROB 11/1031/50]
There were Daniel Bissons through three generations. One married Elizabeth Josson in 1701 at St Dunstan’s Stepney. He can be assumed to be the Daniel Bisson naturalized in 1709 under an act of Queen Anne. At the time of his marriage he was described as a a weaver. In 1709 he was calling himself a merchant and his will describes him as a shopkeeper. The will survives, showing that he had a stake in the Spitalfields silk industry. If he was the same Daniel Bisson who had married Rachel Bourget in 1696, with a son Daniel born in 1697, then it seems the Bissons came from Normandy, as that province of origin is recorded in the baptism entry for the infant Daniel. This Daniel died in 1721 leaving a widow and three surviving children. In total seven had been baptised at the French Church in Threadneedle Street between 1702 and 1718. His will leaving £3900 enabled his son Daniel, the malt distiller and builder of House Mill, to prosper even more [TNA, Prob 11/582/381].
John Debonnaire’s father, Pierre, is recorded as a silk worker living in Mill End, Middlesex and as a native of St Quentin in northern France. One son, Peter, is recorded as a merchant in London and the other son, John, was the distiller partner of Lefevre in 1734, and also his brother-in-law. In 1827 the Debonnaires had memorials in the churches of St Mary le Bow and St Dunstan’s in the City of London, which point to their acquired affluence. These were recorded at that date by the sixth Lord Monson. The memorials no longer exist, with St Dunstan’s in any case reduced to a shell due to wartime bombing. But the Debonnaires had risen sufficiently on the social scale for John’s granddaughters to be eligible to marry a baronet and the heir to a barony. The Monsons have honoured the Huguenot ancestor by giving the name Debonnaire to children in the family.
The House Mill built by Daniel Bisson had four wheels driven by the tides with eight pairs of millstones driven by that power; four more pairs of millstones were added later. It was one of the biggest tidal mills in Europe, where there were once a great number, with a few still operating on the Continent.
Today no mill wheel turns at House Mill or the neighbouring Clock House. The blitz did for the working of the wheels of House Mill in 1941, though Clock House continued until 1951. But the interior of House Mill still has relics of the machinery that operated when it was in business. There are guided tours of the interior. The site is very picturesque, and one can walk through an interesting area past the “Cathedral of Sewage”, namely Abbey Mills Pumping Station, to the Olympic Park.
For more images of Three Mills and other Huguenot sites see https://www.flickr.com/photos/huguenotsocietyuk
For Three Mills, see
For Chart Gunpowder mills and the Faversham gunpowder trail, see
Back in 1996 House Mill was kind enough on the occasion of a Huguenot Society visit to give me articles about the Mill, and the material on the Bisson and Lefevre families is based on that. Emma, Lady Monson, past President of the Huguenot Society, kindly shared with me the results of her genealogical research into the Debonnaires.
All photographs © Tony Wilson