Doolittle Mill Redbourn
1939 to 1945 The War Years
By George Stuchbery
Doolittle Mill Redbourn
1939 to 1945 The War Years.
Theodore Stuchbery, my father, who lived in Colney Heath near St. Albans, was a competent draftsman, designer and tool maker. He spoke German and French having been taught these languages at Colfe’s Grammar School in south London.
In 1938 aged 27 he was informed that he was in a protected occupation and would in future be directed to where he should work, and what he would do.
In due time he was directed to work for a government department making experimental instruments and mechanisms. He was given the use of Doolittle Mill, a disused flour mill near Redbourn, to all intents and purposes derelict. There was no electricity, water or sewerage available on the site, and a number of the floors were rotten and too dangerous to walk on. Others were safe and one floor was strengthened to take the weight of tool room machines.
He was given all the machines he wanted, but they were all old belt driven. He installed a lathe, milling machine, shaper, mechanical saw, horizontal grinding machine and some others. He also installed a small blacksmiths forge and a twenty gallon tank full of whale oil which was used for case hardening steel.
He obtained a stationary steam engine and positioned it at the rear of the mill. A corrugated iron roof was erected over it with a hole for the chimney and another hole to allow the drive belt to reach the ceiling height of the first floor of the mill from the engine. On the outside of the mill wall was a pulley which drove a shaft which ran the whole length of the first floor. The machines were placed directly beneath the shaft, each with a belt drive from the shaft. The steam engine also had a generator mounted on the top of the boiler, again belt driven, which supplied electricity for lighting only.
If the day’s work did not require the use of any of the machines he did not start the steam engine; he had installed an Austin seven engine which drove a generator to supply electricity. On these days he would spend his time working at the drawing board or doing paper work.
On a normal day his first job was to drive straight past the mill and go to Redbourn station where he had in the siding a coal waggon of Yorkshire steam coal. This was a high calorific coal but it needed a good draft to get it to burn, which is why it was not stolen; it would not burn on a normal household hearth. Two bags were filled and loaded into the car, a Ford eight “Y” type saloon. On his return to the mill he started the Austin generator and lit the boiler. My father was knowledgeable about steam engines because his grandfather, John Burrow, had a contracting business in Leigh Sinton, Worcestershire, using steam engines for ploughing, thrashing and transporting heavy loads by road. He spent many holidays there and thoroughly enjoyed working with the engines.
It was not long before the drawings started to arrive and the various products went out, experimental artillery gun sights, release mechanisms, small machines for production work and special high tensile bolts for the Bristol Aircraft company. Sometimes the drawings he received were just a mere sketch on a piece of paper with a short explanation as to what it was required to do with the comment “make it work”.
He was friendly with the farmer opposite in Doolittle Farm who was growing watercress in what had been the old mill pond. During the war the farmer was given the use of a German prisoner of war to help him on the farm. Theo as he had known, made friends with the farmer and his wife and often took his sandwich lunch over to the farm and had a fresh cup of tea to go with his lunch. Here he met the German P.O.W. and was able to talk to him in his own language. The farmer said he had worked the watercress beds for years and did not really need additional help now, so they came to an agreement that the P.O.W. worked on the farm in the morning and in the mill cleaning the workshop and stoking the steam engine boiler in the afternoon.
I spent a lot of time at the mill, cleaning, making tea. My father taught me the finer parts of steam engine maintenance, how to lay a proper fire, keep the water level right, and what had to be lubricated at regular intervals, eg the Watts rotating regulator. I can hear my father saying “keep the engine running sweet as a nut” with just a gentle hiss of steam coming from the exhaust.
Doolittle Mill may not have been a great success as a water mill, but it certainly did great work during the 1939/1945 was.
When the war ended Theodore worked for De Havilland (Propellers) experimental department at Hatfield.