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Kent Millers’ Tales

The Council Officer’s Tale

Kent County Council has been actively involved in the preservation of its mills  for half a century. Peter Cobley is an architect and planner who worked as Principal  Conservation Officer for Kent County Council. Here he provides an introduction  to the history and some of the conservation issues related to the Kent windmills.


Kent County Council's former Conservation Architect, Peter Cobley, looks on as painter John Newman sands down one of the sweeps of Stocks Mill, Wittersham, in 1996
Kent County Council’s former Conservation Architect, Peter Cobley, looks on as painter John Newman sands down one of the sweeps of Stocks Mill, Wittersham, in 1996

After a career as an architect and town planner in various local  authorities, in 1990 I became Kent County Council’s Conservation Architect.  Amongst other roles, I was responsible for advice on the care and repair of the  sixty or so listed buildings in County ownership. Of these, eight are  windmills, three being Grade 1, three Grade II* and two Grade II. It was in  1998 that I entered this world of sprattle beams, cant posts, damsels, sheers,  cogs and breast beams, when I was asked, on behalf of the Planning Department,  to take over care of the windmills in the Council’s ownership.

On taking over, I visited the windmills. All were suffering from  varying degrees of structural and/or maintenance problems, as might be expected  with structures which are really sensitive machines first and historic  buildings second. Indeed mills work for a living and have a limited life  expectancy. In 1933, William Coles Finch, in his book, Watermills and  Windmills, quotes the life expectancy of a post mill at 200 years and a smock  as 100 years – but this assumes the continuous care of an on-site miller. Mills  nowadays do not have this luxury and repairs can be piecemeal and fail to  address longer-term issues. We cannot therefore treat them as other listed  buildings and in fact working mills may require more invasive change than in  (for want of a better phrase), the normal listed building. I surveyed each mill  and assessed the costs involved for repair and restoration at something under £1 million.

Because of the costs involved, it was agreed that an  application should be submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund. The special needs of windmills were recognised  in the submission and this approach also fitted the HLF criteria of funding  high quality work. Overall the work consisted of sensitive repair to the mill  structures and work to improve the potential for tourism and for educational  purposes.

Another important issue related to the seven volunteer groups who  look after the mills for the County Council on a day to day basis and open them  to the public. They perform an excellent service and it is obviously necessary  to maintain their interest and morale, something which is less easy to do if  the mills are not in good shape. There is also a further problem since the  numbers of volunteers are dwindling and the existing members are ageing. (I’m  sure they would not object to me stating the obvious). Without new blood, there  is a danger that the mills will not be able to open as at present. This seems  to be a difficulty not unique to Kent – maybe a national effort is needed to  resolve the problem.


The Heritage Lottery bid was for £523,000 with matching funding  from KCC and others of £120,000. Included in the bid was a commitment to spend  money promoting the windmills for tourist and educational purposes. This  included improving facilities for volunteers where possible. The bid was  submitted in June 1998. Approval of a grant of £400,000 for work on seven of  the eight windmills was given in September 1999. As well as repair work to the  mills themselves, the grant covers the production of measured drawings,  volunteer training, site work, interpretation, school education packs,  leaflets, disabled facilities where practical and professional fees. Of these  longer-term items, volunteer training has taken on a wider dimension than  originally envisaged due to health and safety issues.

Work on Herne Mill, Draper’s mill at Margate and Chillenden Mill was  begun as a first phase. The inevitable lead time before work started was a  little frustrating for everyone, particularly the volunteer groups who realised  they would have to close the mills during repairs and could lose volunteers as  a result. The repairs at Draper’s and later at Chillenden illustrated the hidden extras (and additional costs) likely in buildings of this type and caused a halt to some work. At Chillenden we concentrated initially on making the mill  body watertight and structurally sound for the winter. Because of the cost  increases at Chillenden and Draper’s mills, however, a further grant application  was made to the Heritage Lottery Fund. This was a much more straightforward  process since it involved topping up an existing approved grant. As a result  the total grant was increased by £326,000 to a total of £726,000. A condition  of this increase was a commitment from KCC to implement a 10-year programme of  planned maintenance involving an estimated annual expenditure of approximately  £35,000. There was recognition here that funding capital repairs without  considering the costs of longer-term care can easily be a wasted resource.  After agreeing with the HLF, we were able to initiate repair work on the  remaining mills and complete the work on Chillenden windmill.


Windmills were for a long time an economically essential feature  of the Kent countryside. The historian William Coles-Finch, found evidence of  over 400 windmills in the County. Many villages had two and Deal and Sandwich  had six each! In spite of inevitable losses and demolition over the last 50  years, there are still about twelve windmills in Kent in near original  condition. The windmills owned by the County form the largest group in near  complete or working condition in Kent. Unlike many other historic buildings, they have a multiple value.

Two types of windmill survive in Kent in near complete form, the  post mill and the smock mill. Of the eight KCC mills, Chillenden and Stocks  mill at Wittersham are post mills, whilst Draper’s mill at Margate,Stelling Minnis Mill, Meopham Mill, Herne Mill, the Union mill at Cranbrook and West Kingsdown Mill are smock mills. (Can it really be true that it is so called  because of its similarity in shape to a farm worker’s smock – five of ours were  always coated in coal tar?) A few brick tower mills remain, but none are  complete and all disused or in residential use.

All the windmills owned by the County still look like real mills  inside and out. None have been subject to any changes of use and most have the  majority of machinery in place. Some are capable or with minimum effort could  be made capable of grinding. The County between 1958 and 1985 acquired the  eight mills. The first one we accepted was Chillenden post mill, dating from  1868. This is situated in open country. Up until 1958, it had a barn and engine  house adjoining. When acquired by KCC, the mill was only valued as a landscape  feature so the barn with its machinery was demolished and the interior fittings  of the mill were burnt. How attitudes have changed! The last mill to be  acquired was Herne in 1985. Built in 1789, it was acquired from the miller’s  family and was therefore complete with machinery and capable of producing flour.

Restoration work begins, summer 2001. The two remaining sweeps are prepared for removal.
Restoration work begins, summer 2001. The two remaining sweeps are prepared for removal.

Summary of the recent restoration work, 2002 – Peter Cobley

The mill remained in private hands until 1958, when KCC acquired it. Unfortunately the adjoining barn was demolished and the milling furniture removed.

The mill stands in an exposed position amongst fields and lanes and forms an important and distinctive local landmark, the original reason for its purchase.

The mill had suffered over many years from superficial repairs, sometimes carried out by local builders rather than a millwright. As a result, repairs were done without dealing with the basic problems. The most important alteration and one of which compromised the mill’s structural continuity, was to wedge the post to the cross trees below and secure the tail pole to the ground with a steel post. This prevented the body moving independently on its trestle. As a result, the mill body suffered further and with beetle and water damage the mill frame was becoming dangerous.

The repairs have now been completed. This includes re boarding and extensive repairs to the frame, trestle repairs, replacing the stocks, rebuilding sweeps and replacing shutter frames and shutter furniture. As part of an ongoing experiment comparing alternative coatings and materials, the mill body has been painted with a white lead paint, whilst the stocks and sweeps have been painted using a natural pigment made up of titanium dioxide, zinc oxide and chalk, suspended in raw linseed oil.

The mill under repair by Dutch millwrights, 1959
The mill under repair by Dutch millwrights, 1959

The Mill was restored to working order in 2002 – 2004 as part of a countywide project using funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Kent County Council. 

The work was carried out by millwrights from IJP Building Conservation Ltd of Henley on Thames. First the metal stocks, erected in the late 1950s by the Dutch millwrights, were removed, together with the fantail. Then, the cap of the mill was removed by a giant crane, placed on the trailer of a large lorry and transported back to Henley. On site, the mill was scaffolded to allow the framing to be repaired and the weatherboarding to be renewed.

The cap was repaired at the millwrights’ yard. New sheers and a new fan stage were fitted, and the rest of the framing repaired. New timber sweeps and midlings, to a traditional design, were manufactured. The whole was then transported back to Kent, re-erected and tested.

The mill under repair
The mill under repair

The photograph above, by Mildred Cookson, shows the mill under repair. The sweeps of the mill were removed first, and stand on trestles in front of the scaffolded smock tower. The cap has been removed to ground level, and the iron poll end, together with a steel midling to which the sails attached, can be seen in the right foreground. Peter Cobley, left, discusses elements of the proposed repairs with the millwrights responsible for the project, from Dorothea Restorations Ltd.

Summary of the recent restoration work, 2002 – Peter Cobley

The mill was in a dilapidated condition when acquired by KCC in 1968 and a programme of restoration was then carried out under the Draper’s Windmill Trust. Draper’s windmill is now completely restored. The location of Draper’s mill was once completely rural but it is now part of Margate. However, open land still exists to the south (a school site) and to the north (a field owned by the County Council). The initiative for preservation of the Mill came from Mr R. M. Towes, the then Headmaster of the school who opposed redevelopment of the site for housing. Since then, local support has ensured that the mill is open to the public and well used.

The enthusiastic group of volunteers is restoring internal shafts, gears and bearings and has acquired a gas engine to enable the mill to be run on windless days. Funding is being raised for this restoration work. The volunteers are also, with KCC’s help, laying out and planting a miller’s garden. It is intended to grow seed for milling demonstrations, particularly for school visits.

Work on the repair of the mill is complete and included repairs to smock frame, cap, reboarding, tarring and repainting, rebuilding the sweeps, replacing shutters and stocks.

The mill during the course of restoration
The mill during the course of restoration

The photograph above shows the mill during the course of restoration work. The cap has been removed and the curb is being inspected by Mildred Cookson, Heritage Lottery Fund monitor. The millwright in charge of the repairs, Anthony Hole, looks on.

An account of the restoration – Peter Cobley

Listed Grade II*. This smock mill was built in 1821 by the Killick brothers, a well-known Kentish milling family and is the last in a line of mills serving Meopham. It was built as a ‘model’ mill to demonstrate milling and was consequently very well constructed. John Norton and his nephew took over the mill from Thomas Killick in 1889, and in 1959 the Nortons transferred the mill to KCC. The machinery is complete and capable of grinding if the surrounding screen trees are removed. The mill is situated within the Green Conservation Area in the centre of Meopham and forms a highly distinctive feature in the village. The original engine house is used as the parish office and the ground floor of the mill for parish meetings.

When surveyed, the mill was found to be in reasonable condition. The weatherboarding, though not tarred for many years, only needed replacing on the cap and minor repairs were needed to the structure. I took the decision to remove the cap in any case and as a result the cap frame and smock curb and curb cogs could be properly assessed. This exposed structural problems that had to be dealt with because the cap is unlikely to be removed again for many years. The breast beam and one failed rib has been replaced and one other rib part- replaced with a wedged scarf matching the other ribs. All the timber cogs have been replaced in the smock curb. The fact that the mill continued to turn satisfactorily for many years is very much to the credit of the original builders particularly since some of the replacement cogs were made from mahogany furniture legs.

The opportunity has been taken to improve the weathering details of the fan stage frame and modify the weatherboarding at the cap ridge, the latter being a weak point for water ingress in all our mills. Late in the contract, removing oak slats on the reefing stage exposed wet rot in the supports. Replacement of these and all the slats was considered essential. In order to extend their life, the supports have been tarred and new oak slats bedded in wet tar.

As with all the mills, I commissioned a millwright knowledgeable in Kentish mill detailing to produce a drawing enabling the restoration of the original sweep design to be reproduced.

Discussions with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) Wind and Watermills Section and the HLF monitor are closely maintained on this and all the other mills. The award of a Hanson Land Fill Tax grant and a grant from Gravesham Council means that three funding bodies are involved and this complicates the administrative process. Mature trees are a problem since they block wind and prevent the mill turning and restoring its setting should also be a priority.

New sweeps being erected in the spring of 2004
New sweeps being erected in the spring of 2004

New sweeps were made for the mill early in 2004, and placed in position in time for National Mills Day in May. The photograph shows the third sweep being fitted. The men in the cherry-picker basket are fitting the bolts that secure the sweep frame to the midling. One pair of sweeps were made from solid logs, and the other pair from laminated baulks of timber. This will allow the durability of each form to be compared.

Summary of the recent restoration work, 2002 – Peter Cobley

The HLF grant application identified this mill as the top priority due to the imminent danger of structural failure. This was therefore the first mill to be repaired, although the HLF only contributed a small amount due the emergency help of an English Heritage grant of £20,000 and £2,000 from Canterbury City Council.

The opportunity was taken to convert the engine house into a Parish Office and add a meeting room, toilets and a volunteers’ store. The involvement of the Friends of the Herne Mill throughout was encouraged. I commissioned a member, a local architect, to design and supervise the work. Existing rights of way across the site were removed, the site was landscaped and on site car parking was provided. The mill has been extensively repaired, including replacing the steel stocks with lighter laminated timber, much more suitable for the delicately constructed Kentish smock and cap. The EH-funded work involved the repair and replacement of the failing smock curb and timber cogs. Bretts Waste Management, through the Landfill Tax and Canterbury City Council funded other work and the Parish paid for their Parish Office. The volunteers have organised money-raising events and a keen volunteer gardener has beautifully planted and maintains the site.

Recent widening of Thanet Way (A299), the route to Margate from the west means a wonderful view of the mill has been created when travelling east. The black smock and white painted sweeps [sails are called “sweeps” in Kent], is a sight to remember, even though the mill is surrounded by a housing estate. If the sweeps are turning, this makes a major difference to visitor numbers. As a result of the work and the enthusiasm of the volunteers, the number of visitors has increased and over 1,500, a record, were shown round during the summer weekends in 2002. The provision of toilet accommodation has proved essential for school visits.

The mill at the start of repair work by millwrights Lennard and Pargeter in the 1970s
The mill at the start of repair work by millwrights Lennard and Pargeter in the 1970s.

Davison’s mill at Stelling Minnis was built in 1866, replacing an earlier windmill which stood on the same site. The new smock mill operated for more than 100 years and became the last mill in the county to operate by wind power, ceasing in 1970 on the death of its miller, Alec Davison.

Since then it has been cared for by its present owners, Kent County Council, assisted by a group of local volunteers. It has recently been comprehensively restored by millwrights from IJP Building Conservation Ltd as part of the KCC and HLF-funded restoration programme. 

Members of the restoration team together with volunteers from the Friends of Stocks Mill
The photograph above shows some members of the restoration team together with volunteers from the Friends of Stocks Mill. Left to right: Peter Cobley, KCC Conservation Architect; Mildred Cookson, HLF Monitor; Anthony Hole, millwright; two members of the Friends of Stocks Mill; and a lady involved in a survey of the mill to establish whether it provided a nesting place for bats.

Summary of the recent restoration work, 2002 – Peter Cobley

In 1980, the mill was transferred to KCC and a local ‘Friends of Stocks Mill’ group established to help preserve the mill and open it to the public. The mill is at Wittersham on the Isle of Oxney, and is surrounded by the private gardens of Stocks Mill House, the original, now extended C16 mill house, listed Grade II.

Work is now under way; the mill has been coated with traditional lead and linseed oil paint. The previous lead coating has lasted very well and once the powdering top coat had been removed, further protective coats have been easily applied. Two new sweeps are under construction. The original mill floor, badly damaged by wet rot will be revealed under a modern timber floor. It will be recorded before removal and replacement by sound boarding. Internal furniture will be replaced and the spindle beam relocated in its correct position to properly align with the stones below. It is also hoped to thin and prune trees that are overhanging the mill and damaging the paint finish.


The project is now finished, and the mills’ future has again been secured for several years to come. Maintaining mills is akin to painting the Forth Bridge, however!

The complete rebuilding of Chillenden mill, following storm damage shortly after restoration, was an unexpected element of the project, but has neverthess had a successful outcome. Through the complete rebuilding of the mill, it was possible to correct inherent structural defects and the result was that the mill is now as strong as it was when it was built in 1868-9.