ceased working around 1933 and was purchased by Benjamin Britten
in September 1937 for the grand sum of £450 using a £2000
legacy from his Mother who had died earlier in the year. The sails,
buck and working gear had already been removed and the three foot
six inch diameter runner (upper revolving stone) was taken to Saxtead
Green Mill to replace the four foot four inch diameter stone there
in order to lighten the load.
Britten's sister's future Father-in-Law was an Architect, Arthur
Welford who lived at nearby Peasenhall Hall and he offered to design
the conversion free of charge to assist the young composer. The
main requirement was for a large working studio which was accommodated
on the ground floor of the existing roundhouse. With the prominent
position on the hill and magnificent southerly aspect over the village,
the tidal river and the working maltings, the roof was raised to
provide a bedroom with a recessed balcony and window traversing
one third of the circumference to take advantage of the view. The
existing single storey cottage formed a kitchen, living room and
two further bedrooms whilst the adjoining granary was converted
into another studio for Britten's fellow composer Lennox Berkeley
(1903-1989). The two had become firm friends since meeting in Barcelona
in 1936. The rent from Berkeley assisted with the finances. The
roundhouse and cottages were linked by a timber framed single storey
extension housing a boiler room, fuel store, bathroom and shower
open fires were constructed in the principal rooms, the Architect
advised central heating also be installed throughout and the original
cast iron radiators have been refitted in the recent refurbishment.
Britten was certainly ahead of his time in having a shower installed
in 1937 in England. Works were complete at the end of April 1938
and the composer moved in to "this quaint old village"
as he described Snape in a letter to a friend.
A feature on the conversion of The Old Mill appeared in the December
1947 edition of Ideal Homes magazine, setting aside the journalistic
inaccuracies regarding the building, there are some fascinating
photographs showing the rooms with the original furnishings including
"an unadorned chaff sieve mounted on a pedestal could hardly
be bettered as a letter tray".
in his new home Britten entertained many of his artistic friends
including Peter Pears, Wystan Auden and the American composer Aaron
Copland who describes his visit in the book "Tribute to Benjamin
Britten on his Fiftieth Birthday" published by Faber in 1963.
Britten's sister Beth had married Kit Welford, a medical student
in January 1938 and they also made their home at The Old Mill when
not in London.
In May 1939
Britten and Peter Pears followed the example of W H Auden and left
England for America where he continued composing, spending most
of his time in Amityville. The Norwich Union insurance policy for
the Old Mill and contents dated 1940 is endorsed "The Insured
is at present residing in the United States of America". In
late 1941 the decision was made to return to England but, being
wartime, a passage across the Atlantic could not be obtained until
March 1942 in a small Swedish cargo ship. Britten used the month
long crossing to compose "Hymn to St Cecilia" and "A
Ceremony of Carols" (the current CD cover of the latter shows
Britten on the balcony at The Old Mill).
to England Britten was accepted as a conscientious objector and
appeared at wartime concerts as a pianist all over Britain and continued
composing. He had been considering basing an opera on George Crabbe's
poem "The Borough" but the complexity of the composition
would rule out any other work and therefore income for a considerable
length of time. The conductor Serge Koussevitzky was sufficiently
interested in the project to donate $1000 from his Music Foundation
for the opera. Thus "Peter Grimes" was begun in January
1944, completed in February 1945 and was first performed on 7th
June 1945 in the newly re-opened Sadler's Wells Theatre with Peter
Pears in the lead role.
works composed during Britten's time at The Old Mill include:
"The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra";
"The Rape of Lucretia", opera;
"Albert Herring", comic opera.
Britten moved from The Old Mill Snape to Crag House Crabbe Street
Aldeburgh from where he, with other friends, established the Aldeburgh
Festival in 1948. He continued to own The Old Mill, letting to tenants
until 1955 when it was sold to Mr and Mrs Philip Terry as a holiday
home. During his residence at The Old Mill Britten's success was
demonstrated by his transport, the second hand Morris Eight that
he and friends used to trundle around the Suffolk countryside when
he first moved in had been exchanged for a Rolls Royce (left).
latter part of it's working life the mill had been known as Hudson's
Mill after Harry Hudson who purchased in 1897. By coincidence Britten's
housekeeper at the Red House in Aldeburgh was a Miss Hudson who
was Harry Hudson's niece.
after his departure from The Old Mill Britten saw the opening of
the new concert hall home for the Aldeburgh Festival in the maltings
complex that he used to look out on from his bedroom. As with his
former home, changing economic and commercial circumstances had
forced the maltings to cease operating, but the lovely old building
had been found a new use, in this case as a world famous musical
Benjamin Britten his life and operas, Eric Walter White,
Faber 2nd Edition 1983
Letters From A Life, Edited by Donald Mitchell and Philip
Reed, Faber 1991
My Brother Benjamin, Beth Britten (Welford) Bourne End/Kensal
The Beloved Coast and Suffolk Sandlings, R A Whitehead, Terence
with thanks to the staff at the Britten-Pears Library
other history files
- A brief history of the mill
- Historic documents