Victorians and industrialisation

Paines Brewery in St Neots, seen from the Henbrook side, 1900. Image courtesy of the Cambridgeshire Community Archive

The oldest forms of industry grew out of the needs of agriculture. Corn milling was practised at Duloe using a windmill and at Eaton Socon using water. Industrialisation properly began in St Neots as elsewhere in the 18th century.

The most notable contribution of St Neots was in the field of paper making. In 1808 the Fourdrinier brothers invented a process by which paper could be made in a continuous roll and it was at St Neots Mill (in Little Paxton) that the process was first put into action. The machines were at first powered by water but subsequently by steam turbines.

Brewing took on a more industrial character in the 18th century. James Paine acquired Foster’s brewery in the Market Square in 1831. The Priory Brewery, on the site of the old Priory, which was owned by the Fowler family, was sold to John Day of Bedford in 1814. Day it was who demolished the Priory Gatehouse in order to improve access for his brewery drays. He also provided St Neots with its first street lamps.

St Neots also became famous for gas appliances. George Bower built a foundry for making gas fires, light fittings and even gas cookers. Unfortunately though he sold his appliances as far afield as South America, he was a poor business man and went bankrupt.

(The town was, essentially, a market town for all that. Its industries continued to supply farming and its cattle market was in use until the late 1980s. Meanwhile, from the 1960s, newer industries arrived to accompany the over spill developments from London.)

By the late 20th century, the de-industrialisation which characterised much of Britain, affected St Neots with the loss of Courtaulds (formerly Kayser Bondor), Samuel Jones, Gates’ Hydraulics and several others. Paine’s Brewery was sold and closed. Meanwhile, the Market Place was refurbished (and the largest Millennium celebrations in the county outside Cambridge occurred in December 1999. The by-pass which had been opened in 1985 provided an envelope for new housing growth between it and the railway; the Eynesbury floodplain was also filled with housing towards the river. It is estimated that the population of the town will be 40,000 by 2020.