Downham Market
Steam Mill


Drainage Windpumps
Steam Mills


Downham Market Steam Mill named Eagle Roller Mills, was often known as Bird's Mill as along with Kings Lynn Boal Mill, it was once owned by the Bird family. The mill stood beside the railway with a level crossing on the road beside the mill. The mill was later renamed as Heygate's Mill.


J. Bird threat to wife
J. Bird threat to wife


Downham steam mill c.1906

Jacob Bird was born in 1789 and ran Fincham_postmill for at least 20 years. His son, Jacob Mason Bird, was running Hilborough_watermill in the 1840s and in 1848, along with also Northwold Manby's_Turret_postmill,he in turn had a son, Frederick Augustus Bird, who went on to run what became known as Bird's mill at Downham Market.

An advertising plaque c.1890
An advertising plaque c.1890

My name is Peter Bird and I am the son of the late Algy Bird who was the last of the Birds to mill flour in Norfolk. I have been endebted to your website for some early history of my forbears and where they lived, and I would like to express my gratitude for the efforts you have made.
My father's father was Frederick Augustus Bird (the F.A. Bird of the Downham Mill) and he was born in 1848 in the Hilborough Mill which was run by his father, Jacob Mason Bird.
Jacob Mason's father was another Jacob and he ran the Fincham_Post_Mill. I had no idea of this until I looked at your website. This Jacob was born in 1789 and I have not managed to go any further back.
What I do not know, at time of writing, is whether Jacob Bird senior had any more sons that Jacob Mason, and if so, were they flour millers too?

Peter Bird, Cambridge - 16th May 2007

I have just been browsing through the internet of pictures of Downham Market. I was most interested to see pictures of Downham Mills. Especially so as my husband and I both worked there in the Office from 1957- 1962. We cannot remember the exact time of Peter Bird's father leaving work but we do remember that his brother Aubrey Bird moved to Wereham and took over running the Mill with the support of Frederick Mardell the General Manager  and Paddy ????  Mill Manager.  In about 1960 Aubrey sold the Mill to Heygates of Bugbrooke. Northampton, but he remained involved with the daily Management.
Joan Hall - 27th November 2007

Certificate September 1925
Certificate September 1925

Excerpt from
Algy Meets the Red Baron

The Birds had been millers in Norfolk for at least three generations and it was taken as read that Algy, born in 1896, would eventually take over the family concern which included the Downham Market steam mill founded by his grandfather, Jacob Mason Bird, in the 1840s. “I don’t think he would have had any choice in the matter,” says Peter Bird. “He was the eldest son and you did what you were told in those days.”

Despite a wispy moustache, there was no disguising his youthfulness when he arrived, as one of three new pilots, at La Gorgue aerodrome, a few miles behind the frontline. A fellow airman described him as “chubby and cheerful”, adding in his diary: “It’s amazing how young they come, and all now in RFC maternity jackets and split-ass caps…”

Monday, September 3, 1917, dawned fine enough for 46 Squadron to make its first offensive patrol since returning to the front, the honour falling to A flight whose five Pups included Second Lieut Algernon Frederick Bird, late of the Norfolk Regiment.

Some 10 years later, Algy Bird scribbled a candid account of the frantic fight that followed on the back of a 1927 calendar. Characteristically modest, it is the only known unofficial narrative he ever wrote of the day’s dramatic events. In it, he writes of climbing to 14,000ft before forging 10 miles into enemy territory. “Normally on these occasions,” he wrote, “we were treated to a liberal dose of Archie (anti-aircraft fire) but on the morning in question everything appeared more than usually calm - an ominous calm as it proved.”

From memory, he thought they had covered their patrol area once and had turned to repeat the exercise when an enemy aircraft was spotted some way below. It was some time around 7.15am and the flight commander signalled his intention to attack. Algy followed and, on sighting another enemy machine, made a line straight for it.

So far so good, but things soon went awry as more German fighters joined the “scrap”. In no time, the five Pups were heavily outnumbered and fighting for their lives. And an already dire situation was rapidly compounded by a case of mistaken identity that almost proved fatal for the 21-year-old Norfolk aviator.

“While chasing my particular opponent,” recorded Algy, “I took a glance over my shoulder to find myself being followed by two triplanes which I at once took to belong to an RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service) squadron with whom we occasionally co-operated. “The next thing that I knew was that I was under a fusillade from machine guns at very close quarters, my engine cut out and I got one under my right arm which momentarily knocked me out.”

Unbeknown to Algy, the pilot of one of the ‘tripes’ weaving in and out of his slipstream was von Richthofen himself and, like his intended victim, he was just feeling his way back into action following his own brush with disaster.

Having regained consciousness, Algy was doing his damnedest to throw off his pursuers as he powered towards the relative safety of British territory amid a hail of fire. “The two enemy triplanes were making wonderful shooting practice of me,” he wrote, “and my machine was being hit times without number, the splinters flying from the two small struts just in front of the cockpit, and from the instrument board.

“It was impossible to fly straight for more than a few moments at a time before they got their guns on me and my progress towards our lines was very slow compared with the height I was losing for my engine was a passenger only…”

Such was Algy’s handling of his mortally damaged aircraft that Richthofen was under the mistaken impression that the Pup was being flown not by a novice but an experienced opponent, and it has been suggested that it was out of respect for his adversary’s courageous struggle that he uncharacteristically abstained from delivering the coup de grace. though the encounter did have a final surprising twist. For having survived narrowly being lynched by German troops, Algy, his minor wound having dressed, found himself being greeted and filmed with Richthofen and the aircraft designer Anthony Fokker who happened to be visiting the front. Stills from the film show conqueror and victim both smiling, though probably with rather different thoughts in their minds. “Who could blame him?” says Algy’s son. “He was still alive, which was remarkable in itself.” Indeed it was. Out of the more than 80 airmen whose aircraft fell victim to the Red Baron’s guns only 29 lived to tell the tale.

And there was, of course, one final irony attached to the unequal combat between plucky rookie and the war’s top gun: whereas Algy Bird, having survived the war as a prisoner, went on to live another 40 years, most of it spent running the family business in Downham, Manfred von Richthofen had less than eight months to live. Such mischance served only to underline Algy Bird’s extraordinary good fortune that 90 years on seems fully deserving of that annual celebratory glass of champagne to mark the anniversary of his famous joust with the Red Baron.
Steve Snelling, Sunday EDP - Saturday 19th April 2008

Algy Bird after capture
Baron Manfred von Richthofen (left foreground)
and Algy Bird (right) after his capture
Monday 3rd September 1917

Was most interested to see the article yesterday regarding Algy Bird. I began working  in the office in 1942 and remember Mr Bird and Mr. Mardell the Secretary very well. I think it was in 1943 that the Steam  engine suffered a broken crankshaft and sadly as it was a German Lanz machine a replacement could not be found. A decision was then made to change over to electricity for power and the old steam engine was removed and after many months of having to buy-in flour from neighbouring millers production was resumed. After electricity was installed the first task for me each morning was to go into the meter house and read the meters and this was checked against production each day.The water meter also had to be checked as the mill was now using mains water and not from the reservoir near the small  river which was where the relief channel is now.The water for the steam engine had been drawn directly from this source. I left the mill in 1945 to join the RAF I am not sure when Mr. Bird died but his brother Aubrey who  had an engineering works in Grantham came and ran the business for some time and the business was eventually sold to Heygates.
I have many fond memories of my time at the mill and remember many of the characters who were working there at that time.

Ronald Stannard - 20th April 2008

I am now in a position to add a little to the narrative that you have already included on your website. Jacob Bird (Snr) was born in Sculthorpe, near Fakenham. He is mentioned in the Will of John Bird, a farmer of that parish, of which I have a copy. It would appear that Jacob was illegitimate and claimed by John Bird as his son for appearances sake as, by 1789, he was, by his own admission an old man. It is possible that Jacob was the illegitimate son of one of John Bird's real sons, Isaac, in true biblical fashion. Jacob's eldest brother was a butcher in Burnham Market, and his second oldest brother was a cabinet maker in King's Lynn.
Peter Bird - 21st April 2008

You might be aware that Bird's Mill in Downham Market is called the "Eagle Roller Mills". If anyone can enlighten me as to the significance of the eagle in milling I would be grateful. Clearly my great-grandfather, Jacob Mason Bird had a thing about eagles. Residents of Downham Market will know that the Conservative Club is at Eagle House, Bridge Street. This was the residence of Jacob Mason Bird when he moved from Hillingdon and where he died in 1894. Old flour bags from Bird's mill had an emblem of an eagle grasping a dolphin and the legend "Aquila non captat muscas" (eagles don't stoop to catch flies).
Peter Bird - 17th May 2008

The will of Mr. Jacob Mason Bird, of Downham Market, Norfolk, miller, who died on April 25th has been proved, the value of the personal estate amounting to upwards of £21,000.
Eastern Evening Mail - 25th August 1894

You may be interested in an advert I found in The Norwich Mercury dated 12 Aug 1848 referring to the Northwold_Post_Mill; at least it establishes that Jacob Mason Bird operated the Mill in 1848.
Also, I noticed that Mr Bird's name cropped up a few times in Court Reports.  In 1858, he had trouble with a young man called Frederick Youngs whom he employed as a miller in Northwold. Youngs was convicted of theft of some flour, bran and sacks from his master and sentenced to 6 month's imprisonment and hard labour (The Norfolk Chronicle, 30 Oct 1858).
In 1861, Mr Bird was sued for breach of contract to supply 5 tons of bran.  The contract price was £5/10/0 per ton, and Mr Bird insisted on cash up front.  The plaintiff, George Girling, Merchant of Great Dunham, gave Mr Bird enough sacks for the bran but no cash. When he chased up his order, the price of bran had risen to £7 per ton.  He paid up and duly received his bran, but was seeking to reclaim the extra £7/10/0 it had cost him.  The Court found in Mr Bird's favour with costs as reported by the Norfolk Chronicle on 20th April, 1861.
More trouble with an employee in 1863: a clerk whom he employed in Downham Market called Frederick Woodmancey was convicted on four counts of embezzlement, all in the month of June that year, totalling a few pence over £50 (!!) - Goodness knows how he thought he would get away with it! - and was sentenced to nine months hard labour (The Norfolk Chronicle, 8 Aug 1863).
Bird blamed his manager at Downham, Richard Curtis, for not spotting Woodmancey's shenanigans and for not keeping the books accurately; their relationship broke down completely by 3 Jul 1863.  Curtis thought he was going to be replaced, so he enquired after a position in Westacre ... Mr Bird found out about this and on 23 Jul gave Curtis written notice to leave at the end of the that quarter of his yearly contract.  Curtis protested that his contract required his employer to give him 3 month's notice.  Mr Bird seemed to acquiesce: he directed Curtis to report for work daily at Downham from 6 Aug 1863 onwards (but he repossessed the horse and gig that Curtis normally used).  Curtis did not report for work at all from 6 Aug onwards, but claimed a quarter's salary in lieu of notice (£47/10/0).  Mr Bird opted for the case to be judged by a jury - which was composed of men of similar status as himself: four farmers and an inn keeper.  The jury decided in his favour.  The judge endorsed their finding and certified costs against Curtis (The Norfolk News, 19 Dec 1863).
Bird took some road contractors to court in 1876 for failing to maintain the Nordelph to Downham road (The Norfolk Chronicle, 12 Feb 1876) presumably what is now Silt Road.  The case was adjourned and there is no further mention of it. (I presume that the contractors fixed the road and compensated Mr. Bird for whatever damage his wagon/cart had sustained).
But Bird caused the greatest sensation in 1865: on Mon 15 May, he was charged at the local Magistates Court with using threatening language towards his wife.  Early that morning, he had a row with his wife.  The commotion drew the attention of their neighbours who protested at his behaviour; apparently he was threatening to shoot his wife.   He skedaddled out the back door and took a train to Kings Lynn.  A warrant was issued for his arrest.  He took the first train back to Downham and was taken to the police station until the Magistrates Court opened at midday.  To the frustration of the crowd, his hearing was held in private by one magistrate only.  He was bound over himself for £300  with a further bond of £300 to keep his peace towards his wife.  To avoid meeting the angry crowd at front of the Courthouse as he left, a couple of "limbs of the law" hoisted him over the back wall to escape across the fields back home.  (Full report in The Norfolk Chronicle, 20 May 1865).
Jacob Mason Bird died in 1894.  His estate amounted to £21,000 (The Eastern Evening News, 25 Aug 1894). That amounts to £2.194 millions in today's money in terms of comparative Retail Price indices, 1894 and 2016 but a lot more if you factor in relative property prices.

Anthony Coker - 3rd August 2017

Ref. the row that Jacob Mason Bird had with his wife Mary in 1865 . . ..
I regret to say that my great, great grandfather had been a naughty boy and fathered a son out of wedlock. Clearly Mrs Bird took a dim view of this the the extent that a Deed of Separation was drawn up on 31st of March 1866. She moved to Cambridge after this deed came into effect and died there in the 1890s.
JMB acknowledged the son and supported his mother and educated the lad, who subsequently emigrated to Australia.
The original of this Deed is in my possession.
Born in 1848 he probably knew men who had fought at Waterloo. Not many people can claim that for their grandfathers.
He married late in life and sired my father when he was 48.
Regarding the memories of working in the Mill around the time of my father’s death in 1957, I believe the mill manager at that time might have been Mr Lake, but as a boy, I was not party to his Christian name! Mr Mardell was my godfather.

Peter Bird - 14th April 2023

Heygates Mill used to be known as Bird's Mill as it was owned by the Bird family. An eagle, which was used to represent the Bird name, can be found over the main door of the mill and an eagle can also be found on the Conservative Club on Bridge Street, where Mr. Bird lived. The mill was originally steam driven and converted to electricity in 1943.
Eastern Daily Press - 20th September 2019

I have always speculated that the money to build the mill at Downham would have been beyond the means of a tenant miller and that the investors were the people who funded the construction of the railway from Ely to King’s Lynn in 1845. It would very much have been in their interests. I think that the investment vehicle was F. A. Bird (Downham Mills) which I think was founded in 1846, before the mill was built.
Peter Bird - 17th April 2023


1851: Mill built

1863: Jacob Mason Bird, miller

1865: Jacob Mason Bird, miller

25th April 1894: Jacob Mason Bird died leaving an estate of £21,000

Kelly's 1925: F. A. Bird Downham Mills Ltd., Eagle roller mills, Downham

Kelly's 1929: F. A. Bird Downham Mills Ltd., Eagle roller mills, Downham

1943: The German Lanz steam engine crankshaft broke and due to the war was replaced by electricity

August 1957: Algy Bird died

c.1960 Aubrey Bird sold the mill to Heygates of Bugbrooke, Northampton

1966: Aubrey Bird died

If you have any memories, anecdotes or photos please let us know and we may be able to use them to update the site. By all means telephone 07836 675369 or

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Copyright © Jonathan Neville 2002