The Wild West
You may have seen the ‘James gang’ in Hollywood films about the Wild West, but have you heard of the Mills gang of our very own wild west, just north of Yate? The November gathering of Thornbury History and Archaeological Society were treated to the thrilling story about the exploits of a group of ‘banditts’ led by the Mills family who lived on what was then Yate Common. Reported by local press in 1826 as the ‘Wickwar gang’, the story of how they had terrorized South Gloucestershire for 7 years went viral, hitting the national news in London and as far afield as the Inverness Chronicle.
Rose Wallis, a senior lecturer in history at UWE, explained how the gang had exploited the lawless area of Yate Common for more than 7 years before 1826, raiding as far as Wotton, Rangeworthy and Sodbury. Farmers would wake up in the morning to find their homes devoid of furniture and effects. The booty was hidden in an underground ‘cave’ at the Mills cottage on Yate Common. In the 18th century this area was one of several leftover patches of common land and woodland after the gradual development of the huge forest, commonly known as ‘Kingswood’, which covered most of medieval South Glos.
The years after the Napoleonic war were tough, labourers’ wages fell as soldiers returned from the war, poor relief was meagre. Squatters and itinerants tended to migrate towards common land such as that north of Yate, isolated areas not subject to the social order of regular communities. In those days there was no police force, only voluntary parish constables. Justice was served by gentleman magistrates who often were only interested in the status the title would bring them. In fact in 1826 only half of all magistrates were qualified to action the law. Yate was served by just such a man, so there was little law enforcement in the area and the gang carried on its nefarious business for 7 years, growing to 50 members strong.
Finally in 1826 the justice of the peace for Wickwar, a clergyman, decided that he had to act. 31 people were arrested and 21 were held in the county gaol in Gloucester. At the Gloucester assizes of that year 6 of the gang were tried for burglary. This being an heinous offence, committed at night against a person’s home and property, the ultimate penalty was death. Four of the gang were found guilty. Of these, one Thomas Mills turned King’s Evidence, informed against his brothers and was released. Two of the Mills gang were hanged in Gloucester in front of an ‘enormous concourse of spectators’. The youngest Mills brother (16) was transported to Australia, where he eventually ended up as a wealthy publican. Two gang members who subsequently attempted to shoot Thomas were arrested, tried and hanged. So ended the Mills gang!
Events such as these had a galvanizing effect on the public consciousness and on government policy as the 19th century moved on. Lawlessness and revolution were enveloping large parts of Europe and the government realised it had to act if Britain were not to go the same way. Major reforms were made, such as those to the Poor Law, so perhaps events at Yate Common had a real impact on the development of social reform in Britain.
The research that Rose has been doing is part of the ‘Victoria County History of Gloucestershire’ project, which has already published a volume on the history of Yate. Other parts of the county, such as Thornbury, will be researched and published subject to the availability of funding.
The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.