‘‘The Militia soldiers from Norman Cross prisoner of war camp, used to march down to the fen for target practice at the old mill.’’
As told by Yaxley Farmers Tony and John Mears, to Roy Butters in 2015.
The story of militia on Yaxley Fen has been handed down by word of mouth through generations of Yaxley families for more than two centuries. Some believed that an old drainage mill was used by the soldiers from the Norman Cross depot for target practice but a lack of any historical records left these claims unsubstantiated. Inspired by this mystery, local historian Roy Butters and archaeologist Gary Rossin decided to investigate and see what evidence they could unearth from the site of the old mill.
The following words are written by Roy Butters–
Permission to use a metal detector was kindly given by Tony and John Mears.
At that time, the understanding was that the soldiers had been shooting at the old mill itself, i.e. the old mill was the target. Consequently, I started to search the area of the mill mound, in the north-east corner of the field, adjacent to the bank of Yaxley Lode.
A search in autumn 2015 and another after harvest of 2016 produced only half a dozen musket balls but lots of odd shaped pieces of lead, amongst many other indications of the old mill having once been there. It was not looking promising.
John had told me that, over many years, he had picked up enough musket balls to fill a cigar tin, from the surface of the field, following ploughing. I decided to ask John where he had found them. The answer was along the southern boundary adjacent to the modern pump drain, which was quite a surprise, as it didn’t fit with the story.
I began a systematic search along the southern boundary and immediately started to recover musket balls. I marked the location of each ball and used marker poles and flags for each search sweep. I soon had sixty finds marked.
A happy coincidence put me in touch with my subsequent project partner, Gary Rossin, an archaeological enthusiast and resident of Yaxley. Gary immediately shared my enthusiasm for the project and came on board. He plotted all the musket ball find spots, using GIS and subsequently produced plans of the site. His plans have proven pivotal to our interpretation and understanding. He got infected with the bug and bought a metal detector too!
More than 200 musket balls were recovered from the field and duly plotted.
The developing pattern seemed to indicate that the direction of fire, was not towards the old mill at all, but towards the south, which would be in the general direction of the modern-day Pretoria Farm.
In October 2016, we were given permission to search the field to the south of the pump drain, where a further 200 plus musket balls were discovered. Gary also started to make finds with his new metal detector in addition to his ‘day job’ of plotting the finds.
More than 400 musket balls had been recovered. The size of the balls matches that of those fired by the military flintlock musket, known as ‘Brown Bess’ so there was clearly something going on!
A considerable amount of scrap lead was found, much of it in small pieces having the appearance of having been molten. At first, I thought this to be building debris from the old mill as it was particularly heavily distributed in the general area of the mill mound. However, Gary thought it could be evidence of casting.
As the project developed we realised that some of the finds were of miss-cast musket balls and some had evidence of the casting tab or sprue remaining intact. Numerous pieces of lead consistent with being the cut-off casting sprue have also been recovered. Perhaps they were indeed casting their own musket balls on site?
About seventy metal buttons were found, many of which are of a distinctive material, construction and type used on military uniforms of the Napoleonic period.
Two hundred years in the plough soil has worn and corroded most of them to the degree that positive identification is no longer possible. Several have faint remnants of regimental markings but one is positively identifiable as the North York Militia.
The history of the North York Militia tells us that they were part of the garrison of Norman Cross in 1797 and 1812.
WHAT DO WE THINK WE KNOW SO FAR?
• The story is mainly true
• There was a musket shooting range in Yaxley Fen.
• It was on the field(s) where the old drainage mill stood.
• It was militia soldiers doing the shooting.
• They were not using the mill as a target, ‘at the old mill’ meant the location.
• They were shooting to the south, at targets located in front of or on the old fen bank, known as South Bank.
• The musket balls that overshot the bank, travelled on for a further two hundred metres or so, falling onto undrained fen, where they have lain unnoticed, in a dense cluster, ever since.
This is a work in progress. Who knows what we will find once the 2017 harvest has been gathered in? Watch this space.