William and Benjamin Harrison – Father & Son Millers of Duck Mill, Bedford
by Linda Ayres
Duck Mill Lane was a narrow street near the south end of Bedford Bridge. A thriving water mill had been in existence there for hundreds of years. In the 18th century it was known as ‘Buoy (or Boy and Oar) Lane’, named after the adjacent inn where bargees spent much of their time. Nearby, in a stream somewhere between the present-day Duck Mill Lane car park and the weir bridge, John Gifford baptized John Bunyan, in about the year 1653. A wall plaque marks the likely location today.
William Harrison was born in Luton in 1802. He took over the running of Duck Mill in the early 1840s. He lived in a house behind the Mill at 18 Potter Street (now Cardington Road), near St. Mary’s Abbey, and his house had a back way leading to the Mill. By 1861, he was employing five men, a boy, and a house servant.
William was elected to the Bedford Town Council in 1847. He was later elected an alderman and served in that office for many years, retiring in November 1862.
For a time, William lived at 33 Offa Street (now Tavistock Street), but later he went to live at Clarendon Villa, Brereton Road where he died in September 1877, aged 75.
His son Benjamin Harrison had been born in 1831 at Bicklington, Buckinghamshire. Benjamin married Eliza Ann Cope at Bedford in 1859. They went on to have two children. Sadly, their daughter, Helen, died on 30th December 1863 aged 5 months after an illness of 24 hours. On 2nd September 1864, their son, Frank Standen Harrison, was born. Frank was age eleven when his mother died on 23rd July 1975, aged 50 years. (The main picture above shows Benjamin and his son Frank).
On 30th July 1876, Benjamin married his second wife, 26-year-old Agnes Elizabeth Allen in St. Mary’s Church Bedford. Agnes was the daughter of Mr Albert Cranbrook Allen of Abbey Cottage, St Mary’s, Bedford. Albert was a printer for many years at the Bedfordshire Times and Independent. As a boy, Albert helped in printing the first sheet of The Bedford Times in October 1845.
Benjamin took control of the Mill when his father retired. By 1881, he was employing three men and two servants. He continued to live in the house in Potter Street that had once belonged to his father. Benjamin was also a farmer working land at Goldington and Eastcotts.
For many years, he was a member of the Town Council and of the Harpur Trust and was also one of the founders of the Bedford Musical Society.
Benjamin was a strong and robust man, of a kind-hearted nature, but he was strict in the home. His son Frank recalled the time when he assured his father that he could swim. Frank was then marched fully dressed to the nearby pool before the Mill and received the order by his father to jump in and swim across to demonstrate his skill. It’s not known how well Frank could swim or if he did actually jump in and swim across the pond but it is likely that Frank did carry out his father’s orders. It is doubtful that Benjamin would have set his son the challenge if he had not thought he could swim, knowing there is a risk of him drowning.
Frank Harrison was educated at Bedford Modern School and was a member of the sixth form when he left in 1881. Frank moved to Mitcham in Surrey where he became a varnish manufacturer. He died on 25th November 1925, aged 65.
On the 12th July 1883, Benjamin had a seizure while he was getting ready for the unveiling of the Sir William Harpur Window at St. Paul’s Church. He died eleven days later on Monday 23rd July, aged 53 years, at his home in Potter Street.
His young widow and three young children, Dora Agnes aged 4, Albert Benjamin aged 18 months, and Allen Ernest a few weeks old, survived him. Benjamin had left Agnes and the children well provided for.
Benjamin Harrison (1831-1833) was laid to rest close to the west wall in Foster Hill Road Cemetery.
Grave Ref: C7:12.
Bedfordshire Times & Independent, 5th August 1876.
Bedfordshire Times & Independent, 7th March 1891.
Bedfordshire Mercury, 5th June 1903.
Bedfordshire Times & Standard, 8th September 1944.
Duck Mill photo from Richard Wildman Bygone Bedford (1974)
Photo of Rustic Bridge, unknown source.
Photo of Duck Mill Weir 2017 by Malcolm Ayres.
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