The Miller’s Apprentice

My Father’s Story

By Patricia Stephens

My father, William, was born in Somerset, the eldest of eight brothers, on a farm with a cider apple orchard. It was a time of great rural hardship and drudgery, from sun-up to sun-set, with never a penny to spare.

The boys were called on to do a man’s work while they were yet children. Making delicious cider in the cellar never did pay, and the small mixed farm hardly turned a profit for a growing family.

Then, at the age of twelve, William was plucked from the village school and “…sold for a sack of flour” as he said later. Money was owed to the local miller, who offered to write off the debt if he could have the eldest son as apprentice”. The deed was done. My father was carried off, weeping, in the miller’s cart, to a life of lonely brutality, working under a drunken and sadistic taskmaster.

Often beaten with a studded, buckled belt for the smallest error -or for no reason at all- he regularly cried himself to sleep on his makeshift bed of flour sacks out in the draughty barn.

“Even the horses had blankets”, he said bitterly later. “There was never a blanket for me, or a pillow to lay my head on.”

The miller’s wife did what she could for him, bringing food and a candle, but only daring to bring him into the house when she was alone. There he learned the skills of baking and cake decorating, which later he was able to use in building up his own business. In due course, with energy and endurance he created his own small empire.

In the meantime, his health was undermined by the conditions in which he was compelled to work, His lungs were affected and asthma developed, from which he suffered for the rest of his life.

Without his family for comfort or support, with only a few books which he could borrow from the miller’s wife, and reading by candlelight by night, his amazing spirit kept him living and learning.

Escape to London

When he was sixteen, he managed to escape with the help of the miller’s wife, who bribed a coach-and-horse to take him with them to London. She tucked food and clothes into a bundle for him, with a pouch of five gold sovereigns to see him on his way. They both wept bitterly and promised to keep in touch. Two years later, when he was settled in a good job, he wrote to her with ten crisp notes inside, but the letter was returned unopened by the postmaster, who sent a message that she had died soon after he had left. He could only imagine her lonely death, without him for company.

Ever more determined to be worthy of her trust and sacrifice for him, he worked like a beaver in increasingly lucrative and responsible jobs, saving his money and finally buying out an old boss who had befriended him and wanted to help him have his own business.

By the time he was twenty one, he had invented his own milk-loaf, calling it and patenting it as Lacta and entering it in the Paris Trade Exhibition in 1909. With his prize money, he bought out a run-down hotel and refurbished it completely, and very successfully.

From the on his drive and ambition took him onward and upward. He no longer had to do the heavy manual work, but had the fortunate luck in finding reliable and honest managers to undertake the work he could no longer do.

My Father meets my Mother

I discovered much later, when our great-uncle Frank dragged it out of him, the romantic story of William’s first meeting with my mother.

It was in the Highgate Cemetery, over the grave of his good friend Timothy, who had nursed another man to full recovery from typhoid fever, only to succumb to it himself. He has been mother’s young fiancé, engaged for two years, and hoping shortly to be married.

Now, even in grief, my mother raised her eyes to acknowledge my father as another mourner, when there was an instant rapport between them. In that first glance, they saw that they were meant for one another.

He walked her home and soon had her laughing again. He wasted no time before arranging a wedding date, complete with a cake made and decorated with his own artistic hands. Soon they were established in a lovely villa in Sudbury, just outside London, and away from the typhoid epidemic, which struck down so many families living in overcrowded and poverty-stricken conditions, lacking good water or hygiene.

The young survivors became aware that life was precious, and meant to be lived. My parents, in the course of time, must have had a full “baker’s dozen” of children, and brought up to adult life four sons and five daughters, some of whom inherited the dreaded asthma.

My mother was a devout Roman Catholic, born in Kilkenny, Ireland, whereas William was a Protestant Freemason of the Grand Lodge in London – a Tory down to his socks. They lived a very social high life in London and were a perfect foil for each other.


During the 1914-1918 War, my father was in a syndicate with one of the Rank brothers (the others went into films) and they had what they termed a “corner” in wheat and other grain, with storage in warehouses. With the onset of the Gallipoli Campaign, imports from Russia were closed down. When the reserves were finally sold, at great profit, fortunes were made and a hungry nation could eat again.

When I was growing up, interested always in social history, I asked my father how he came to be involved in what amounted to profiteering in war-time.

He said “It was either that, or go to the wall. I had a growing family and many others to support. If I hadn’t done it, others would have, so the end result would be the same”.

We both broke down and cried over it, but in time I have tried to understand just how difficult it was for him.

Always active in local affairs, at one time he was all set to become the next Lord Mayor of his region, but his health forced him to retire. He left the growing pollution of the city and moved his family to the seaside town of Bognor in Sussex. This was also the choice of the Royal Family for the convalescence of the King, George  V, after a similar illness. The town was honoured by a royal charter and thereafter became Bognor Regis.

William took an interest again in local government, bought a thriving restaurant and hotel, became a gentleman –farmer, with 32 acres leased from the Squire of Colworth, near Chichester, and my mother took up chicken farming.

Unfortunately for me, while I was away at the convent boarding school in which I had been incarcerated, I was appointed chief egg turner in my mother’s incubator room. She had four of these monstrous machines, each containing hundreds of eggs, all of which had to be marked “X” on one side and “O” on the other. Then they had to be turned carefully at due times of the day – by hand – one by one. One cannot imagine the extreme ennui this caused, or the extreme allergy caused by anything ovoid in the future.

But his is my father’s story. My sufferings may be recorded at another time. Suffice to say, he pampered her every whim, so that from 60 day old Black Leghorn chicks, my mother ended up with 600 head of poultry of various breeds, some of them quite rare – and soon prizes in local shows. The work was done by all her loyal slaves, as it always had been. My mother was a great organizer, whether it be for a charity ball in London, or a local poultry farmer’s gathering, while William smiled and approved, financing gladly all her extravagant schemes.

Disaster strikes

He always had time for us, stopped to play board games with us after a busy day, and was immensely proud of our achievements, whether in sport or music, skating or dancing. He would sit and tend to us when we were sick, and dab at us with Calamine Lotion when we were spotty with Chicken Pox or Measles: always cheerful, kind and witty. Generous to a fault, he helped many young people on their way - and never suspected that he would be stabbed in the back by some of the same people he had set up in their own business.

Against all the odds of ill-health and the great economic depression of the times, he battled on, only to be made to declare bankruptcy when his investments failed, and those he had helped to finance turned on him when he needed their support.

Suddenly, it seemed, the house was sold, priceless furniture was auctioned off, and our cars were taken to a salesroom. We all became used to public transport for the first time.

Those of us young enough to be still at boarding school did not go back after the holidays and were taken into the local grammar or elementary schools, to which we walked every day. I was sixteen going on seventeen, so I answered an advertisement for a nursery governess in Highgate Hill, and settled down there to earn a living.

My father never recovered from the shock, and gradually, yet suddenly seemed to have aged prematurely. He took a menial job as a catering manager to an organization in Sheffield, but his health was not up to the work or the climate. My mother was most resolute in her support and I never heard her utter a word of dismay or discomfort in their troubles. They came south again to London, where he managed a corner bakery again, after so many years, a corner bakery with living accommodation in South Shields.

William and Gregory Sage (grandson) about 1942

In spite of an older brother and I giving all the help we could, that project failed too, and my father’s will to live snapped. He had a fatal heart attack and died in Hammersmith Hospital, aged not yet 60.

The Second World War was going on by then and three of my brothers were serving overseas, so that only a small group of us gathered round his bedside to say goodbye. I think it nearly broke my mother’s heart that he could not be buried in the Catholic family plot. He had to be taken to the Highgate Cemetery, where my mother said she was also to be buried with him, in the very same grounds where they had first met, so many years before.

Agnes (wife) and John (son and father of Paul) 1947