- Bradwell Mill
- Local History
The nineteenth century saw an unprecedented number of agricultural implement makers producing an increasingly diverse range of machines. One such company was Roberts of Deanshanger, a tiny village in South Northamptonshire. For over one hundred years the village, now less than ten miles from Milton Keynes, reverberated to the sound of the Brittania Ironworks, owned and managed by several generations of the Roberts family.
The business was founded in 1821 in Deanshanger by Richard Roberts, known with affection locally as "Pistol Dick", apparently because of his role as a gunsmith during the Napoleonic Wars. It is thought that the business started on the site of two cottages and a smithy in the village. Ploughs were made from the start and were to prove the impetus for later development.
The Roberts Dynasty
In 1843 the business was taken over by Richard's son, John, and then in 1857 by his grandson Edwin. By this time a foundry had been built and ten workmen were employed, enabling rapid expansion and the development of many new lines. From 1875 the business was managed as a partnership with Henry Roberts joining his elder brother, and in 1890 limited liability status was established. As the firm expanded towards its peak at the turn of the century, its workforce grew to over 100 men on the large well equipped site. Implements were often branded "Roberts - Stony Stratford", the name of the nearby local town being better known than the village where the machinery was made.
Despite being sited in a rural community the company took full advantage of available transport connections. Railway access was five miles away at Wolverton on the L&NWR, and for a short period the Wolverton and Stony Stratford Tramway provided a connection to Deanshanger, and into the works. At the rear of the Brittania Works a canalside wharf on the Buckingham Arm of the Grand Junction Canal was extensively used for the delivery of coal and other raw materials and the distribution of completed products. Road transport utilised the main Oxford to Stony Stratford highway (now the A422) which passed the front gates.
To many, the name of Roberts is synonymous with the manufacture of high quality ploughs. Over the years a number of patents were taken out relating to improvements in agricultural machinery, particularly ploughs, although the company also made significant improvements to horse rakes and implements for thinning turnips.
Supplying local farmers was one of the mainstays of the business, but was by no means the only outlet for the Roberts range. The Company regularly exhibited at Agricultural Shows around the country and at the Altrincham Agricultural Society's 1910 Show displayed 69 different ploughs. Over the years the company produced several hundred types of plough and the 1926 catalogue claimed that it had been making ploughs for over one hundred years and that they were "unrivalled for efficiency, wearing service, durability and general excellence in design, construction and finish". Early Roberts ploughs would have been the wooden beam type with iron fittings, such as the "Dane Plow" which was still being produced in the first years of the twentieth century. Roberts maintained an extensive advertising campaign to sell its ploughs, and catalogues were illustrated by beautifully engraved line drawings. The company also demonstrated ploughs in competition with other manufacturers and was remarkably successful, winning over 4950 first and other prizes throughout the country at agricultural shows, trade fairs and ploughing matches.
The majority of the Roberts ploughs were produced under the "Mephisto" trade name. One and two horse, balance, gang and tractor drawn variations were made in the Brittania Works but each was sold with different beams, coulters, mouldboards and fittings to suit varied soil types and requirements. More specialised types for tasks such as mole drainage were also made. A full range of spare parts was offered to provide an after sales service to farmers. As an illustration of the equipment advertised by Roberts, the following extract is taken from the 1926 plough list issued by the firm.
"Roberts' 'Mephisto' General Purpose Ploughs" - "The 'Mephisto' TR general purpose ploughs have become prime favourites throughout the United Kingdom. They can be fitted suitable for square work, high crested work, etc. and may be had with one or two wheels or as swing ploughs. They are made in three sizes for two, three and four horses, according to the nature of the soil, and, if desired, are fitted with breasts of different lengths to suit the requirements of the district. These ploughs are fitted with lever necks, so that the pitch of the share can be altered as required."
The two horse version weighed in at two and one quarter hundredweight and produced a furrow 8 inches deep and 10 inches wide. It sold for £8 14s 6d as a swing plough and for just over £9 as a wheeled model.
To complement the ploughs the company also produced a large selection of other implements. Hoes, scarifiers, rollers, clod crushers, harrows, cultivators, and horse rakes were advertised in profusion. Another of the main Roberts lines which greatly enhanced its reputation was the range of "Premier" and "Litelift" elevators. Selling for between £45 and £50, they were popular with local farmers. They could be purchased complete with horse and intermediate gearing ready for use in the field. Roberts advertised the "Premier" as the "most perfect elevator made" and "a strong and useful elevator, the movement being so simple, a labourer can raise and fold it with little trouble".
Hay, tip and water carts, flat bed wagons and delivery vans in a range of sizes appear in advertising literature from the 1880s onwards and were soon receiving many prizes. Like most other Roberts products they were available to order in a considerable number of variations to suit the specified requirements of the purchaser. A typical light "strongly made" farmers' wagon, with oak framing and plank sides, sold for about £35. Like many of its rivals Roberts included several hand powered barn machines in its range. Emphasis was given to chaff cutters, but there were also oil cake and grinding mills and turnip pulpers.
The Roberts name also came to prominence in the field of wind pumps or wind engines as they were commonly called. The prize medal winning model was called the "Hercules" and was featured on the Roberts letterhead. It was advertised "for supplying mansions with water from springs, wells, artesian bore holes for strength, safety and beauty". In 1902 three towers with 14 foot diameter vanes were erected for Lord Penryn at Wicken (about two mile from Deanshanger) to supply the 500 villagers with drinking water. His Lordship's agent reported in a testimonial in the company's catalogue that the mills "have given very great satisfaction". The mills could be bought for between £13 0s 0d and £30 10s 0d with the towers costing between £10 and £27, depending on the height (up to 60ft was available) and type required. All were available with a complementary range of pumps.
Waterwheels (the Museum's is pictured) also featured strongly in the Roberts output and overshot and breast fed varieties are known to have been installed all over the country. They were supplied with pump sets which could handle between 20 and 20,000 gallons per hour and were usually used to pump drinking water for country houses, dairies and breweries.
Roberts was more than the average local foundry cum agricultural machinery manufacturer so common in the nineteenth century. Products were exported from Deanshanger to many parts of the world as evidenced by a 1910 issue of the specialist magazine, Implement and Machinery Review. The magazine reported that the company was "doing a creditable amount of trade with foreign and colonial buyers" and had supplied merchants in France and North Africa with ploughs and elevators. Roberts' foreign agents were apparently very active and photographs exist showing elevators made in Deanshanger at work as far away as Argentina.
In 1912 the Roberts site was gutted by a disastrous fire which destroyed part of the carpenters' and wheelwrights' workshops, causing an estimated £5000 worth of damage. However, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the insurance company's compensation allowed the buildings to be reconstructed and modernised.
Slump and Decline
After the First World War there was a boom in business, although this was rapidly followed by a slump during the 1920s and the company soon became bankrupt. Despite a rescue attempt, Roberts finally went into liquidation in 1927.
The site was put up for sale, and the reputation of the company and the quality of its products aroused considerable interest. Many of the designs and patterns were bought by other agricultural manufacturers anxious to cash in on their rival's demise. Browns of Leighton Buzzard purchased many of the plough designs. Lainchbury and Ogle each acquired the elevators, and Godwins the windpumps.
Although most of the original Roberts buildings have now disappeared, the site became the home of a chemical plant for the manufacture of industrial pigments. After a series of ownership changes during the 1980s and 1990s the plant finally closed in 1999, bringing to an end almost two centuries of manufacturing on the site. The area is now being redeveloped to incorporate housing, employment and community facilities for the local community and it is hoped to preserve some of the historic buildings as a reminder of this unique piece of local heritage.
Roberts' implements in the museum's collection
Fortunately many Roberts products have been rescued from oblivion (or the scrapman) and have been restored at Milton Keynes Museum. Among the larger exhibits are a "Premier" elevator and a twelve foot diameter waterwheel. There is also a collection of ploughs, a root drill with "cotton reel" rollers for ridging, and several carts and wagons. Some examples of the company's barn machines and smaller products are also on view.
There are also many locations nearby where Roberts products remain in situ. In particular iron railings, gates and drain covers can still be found. Several other museums around the country also have preserved Roberts artefacts though they may not always be on display.