The Builder Done It

PUBLISHED: 15:12 08 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:17 20 February 2013

Jill Ming is a true house detective... invite her into your home and she'll reconstruct its history

Jill Ming is a true house detective... invite her into your home and she'll reconstruct its history

The Riddle of the Old Mill - another case for Jill Ming, is a mystery every bit as captivating as those solved by Miss Marple. Our favourite super sleuth, Jill Ming, uses all her skill and patience to find the truth where others have been left baffled. Her trademark attention to detail and gritty determination once again come to the fore as she eliminates suspect information and homes in on reliable documentation.
"This is Jill Ming at her consummate best and not to be missed" - Shropshire Life.
"Thrilling from start to finish" - Sleuth Monthly.

Once upon a time, Jill traced her ancestral heritage (the posh word is genealogy) - learning, among other things, that her surname is Anglo-Saxon, despite sounding Chinese. She enjoyed it so much, she decided to pursue researching the past as a hobby. A few years ago, Jill had the opportunity to give up working in IT. She explains: "You work hard on a project but never meet the end user, never see your customers. It's quite impersonal."
Instead, she trained to trace the history of houses and set up her own company - Building Beginnings. Appropriately, she is based at the Old Rectory. Most of her customers have been in Shropshire and Herefordshire but Jill is now spreading further afield to Worcestershire and Staffordshire.
She says: "Often people move into an old house and want to know more about its history. They may do some initial investigation and discover it's quite hard researching buildings. That's when they call me in."
'Quite hard researching buildings'? Surely not, thanks to the Internet, I queried. Jill supported her assertion. "The Internet is great for genealogy," she says, "but you need access to different documents and records when researching buildings."
Not only do you need to know what you're looking for and where you might find it, you need an expert eye to interpret it. Legalese can be misleading to the amateur sleuth - stating that a property had features it did not.
Jill says: "Just deciphering the handwriting on old documents can be hard. Early documents may be in Latin, many contain bygone terminology and some are in legalese."
Bizarrely, some documents can be ambiguous. For the purposes of legal definitions, a property may be described as having adjoining fields and a stream - even though it never did! That's where Jill's sleuthing skills set her apart from amateur investigators.
So, what did Jill discover about the old mill - actually, Ercall Mill House, beside the River Roden on the B5062 Shrewsbury to Newport road? First, she learned that it is owned by Chris and Judy Yates who bought it in 1984 as an inhabitable house with an adjoining, Grade II listed, derelict mill. They restored it over many years and when the owners of a bed and breakfast establishment in the village moved to France, Chris and Judy inherited their guests. They subsequently converted the guest rooms to en-suite and now run Ercall Mill House as a thriving B&B. Jill found out all this when she met Chris at a Homestyle Exhibition. She was subsequently commissioned by Chris to research the history of the house but without Judy knowing - as the results were to be a surprise birthday present. Chris was on safe ground because he and Judy had discussed digging into the history of the old mill but had neither the time nor the expertise to do it themselves. To maintain the subterfuge, Jill could only visit the house when Judy was out. Her unexpectedly late departure on one occasion prompted a quick-thinking Chris to thrust a box of eggs in Jill's arms and send her on her way!
Fortunately for Jill, the mill has always been a notable building and is located away from the village of High Ercall. This means it is invariably identified by name in documents and is relatively easy to locate on old maps. In the past, few houses had specific addresses as we know them now and most records are catalogued by the names of inhabitants. Tracing the history of a worker's cottage of little significance can be very difficult.
Jill uses information from original sources and tries to verify material from different types of document wherever possible, for example, maps, surveys, deeds, wills and many others.
For most commissions, Jill works to an agreed budget - her time is split between conducting research, analysing and interpreting the results, and writing the house history report. She says: "The skill is knowing what to look for and when to stop. I don't waste time reading long documents that I don't think will yield anything useful, I try to home in on the information I'm looking for from the most productive sources."
Of course, wealthy landowners once owned much of the country. This can present a problem, as their records are not always accessible. Jill discovered that Ercall Mill was part of the manor of Ercall, which was owned by the Ferrers of Groby from 1338 to 1602. It was then owned by the Newport family, a member of which was created Earl of Bradford in 1694. In 1783, it passed to William Pulteney, Earl of Bath, and in 1808 to William Harry Vane, Earl of Darlington (made Duke of Cleveland in 1833). The Vane family sold Ercall Mill to Ebenezer Evans in 1930. The estate records for the Vane family are lodged at their nearest public records office - Cleveland. For Jill to travel there would have taken a large chunk out of the research budget.
Don't get the idea that Jill only uncovers names and dates. Interesting stories surface too. According to one of the sources she researched, William Harry Vane 'always had his wine glasses made without a foot, so that they would not stand, and you were obliged to drink off the whole glass when you dined with him'.
Jill was able to confirm that there had been a mill at Ercall for centuries and that in medieval times, the lord of the manor held a feudal monopoly (a millsoke), which obliged his tenants to grind their corn at his mill on payment of a toll. The present building was thought to be late 18th century but Jill found it on a survey of Ercall commissioned in 1746. At this time, it had 68 acres of land, a mill house and outbuildings and was tenanted by Thomas and William Rodenhurst. Jill says: "I found the names of tenant millers going back to 1621 although some of these would have been in an earlier building. There was probably more than one family here because there are different surnames listed at the same place. One family, the Robinsons, lived at the mill for more than 100 years in the 18th and early 19th centuries."
A now demolished mill cottage in the grounds of Ercall Mill was used as a toll-keeper's cottage in the 19th century. In the 1851 census, Jane Kilvert was described as a 'turnpike gate keeper', while her husband, George, worked at the mill. Called The Mill Cottage by 1881, it had become Mill Old Gate House a decade later. The Mill itself ceased operation sometime between 1930 and 1954 after Ebenezer Evans had bought it.
Needless to say, when Judy unwrapped her birthday present which contained Jill's comprehensive 42-page report, complete with copies of maps, old documents and photographs she was thrilled. She says: "Chris and I have looked at it time and time again. Living in an old property is only half the fun, knowing its history is the other half. Our guests also like the fact we can tell them about the place."
Once again, Jill Ming has solved the mystery, everybody is happy and nobody goes to jail - not this time. In her next case, super sleuth Ming researches a property which was involved in an historical court case. The proceedings involved members of the family who lived there in a dispute over an unpaid legacy. The lawsuit provides a great deal of fascinating evidence about the family and their quarrel, including witness statements alleging they saw purses of money changing hands.
Jill says: "That took some detective work to uncover and work out who all the players were, but it's all in a day's work..."

Building Beginnings, tel: 01694 722261.

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