Henry Hewitt, Clifton on Dunsmore Poisoner?

Notorious Victorian miller

Clifton Mill Farm c. 1900
Courtesy of Warwickshire CC, Rugby Library Local Studies Collection; Warwickshire County Record Office reference PH827/5/30; photographer Rev. E. Dew

Henry Hewitt owned Clifton Mill from 1848 to 1869. During that time he may have poisoned his wife, himself and a large number of the local villagers. This was done not by wicked intent but by incompetence. The noxious substance was probably a mycotoxin made by fungi that infect mouldy grain. The grain would have been ground into flour and made into bread, which affected those who ate it. Among other things, mycotoxins cause infertility and David Collins ascribes the reduced fertility found in Clifton on Dunsmore during that period to the poor quality of the local flour.

Hewitt’s character

Mr Hewitt was a cantankerous man who fell foul of his neighbours, his employees, the local vicar and the law on numerous occasions. He inherited the mill from his father at the age of 21 and although he was appointed as a churchwarden he proceeded to lose the goodwill of almost all he dealt with. He married Mary Whitnell of Barby but they had no children; however he was almost certainly the father of a child born to a widow, which died in mysterious circumstances at an early age. He fired a gun at a ‘trespasser’ in 1856 and shot a neighbour’s dog in 1864. He was involved in a fight in a bar in 1863 and accused others of assaulting him. He threatened a neighbour with a pistol in 1862 and fired a revolver when evicting a tenant in 1865, being bound over to keep the peace in both cases. He fell out with the local Church, complaining about the rates and the upkeep of the church, finally making a scene and being evicted from a Good Friday service.

How did the grain become contaminated?

Hewitt was enterprising in many ways: around 1850 he commissioned a new mill building with a steam engine (the building with the chimney in the photo). Grain stored in a damp atmosphere could readily become infested with mould invisible to the naked eye. Good practice in milling should eliminate such poor quality grain, but Hewitt was old-fashioned and obstinate in his ways. There is no forensic evidence that this is what happened, but David Collins makes a convincing case for it.

A sad and untimely end

Henry waged war on local lads who trespassed on his land in order to visit the nearby rifle butts created for Rugby School. He was chasing a group of such boys one day when he slipped from a plank bridge into a stream and drowned. The coroner recorded a verdict of death from a fit and drowning: Henry suffered from late-onset epilepsy – possibly caused by mycotoxins. However David Collins makes out a case for Henry suffering a stroke (as his father had done before him).

What happened to the mill?

Henry’s widow Mary continued the business for a few years after his death, but suffered a further tragedy when her manager and wagoner drowned in floods in 1875. She passed on control of the mill to her nephew Thomas Whitnell Vann but the mill was never very profitable:  in 1884 miller George Knight went bankrupt and by 1900 the mill was only being used to make animal feed. In 1914 the machinery was scrapped to help make munitions; the 19th-century mill building crumbled away and was finally demolished in 1980. More about the history of the mill and the adjacent farm, which still survives, can be found in Clifton on Dunsmore Mill.

This fascinating story is told in the book ‘Hewitt: the Biography of a dissolute Victorian Miller’ by David Collins, Rugby 2002.

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