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Millwrighting Tradition

Mike Beacham writes about traditional millwrighting practices and how they vary to meet specific regional needs. Examples from Schleswig-Holstein, Eire, Turkey and Britain are mentioned. The full article follows:Almost without exception, detailed studies of milling and its history will at some point refer to ‘millwrighting tradition’ to account for deviations from general practice, rather like ‘vernacular architecture’ in the building world. Like that, too, it carries with it ideas of quaintness, or of being old-fashioned or behind the times – even, perhaps, of deliberate ignorance where fashionable advances are concerned.
Some traditional practices were adopted to meet a specific regional requirement:

As the wind on the west coast of Scleswig-Holstein is very strong, the all-wooden sails of the mills built here are usually only nineteen metres long. The further away you get from the coast, the longer the sails of the windmills become. [TIMS VII, 1989, 179]

For some authors, the evidence of numbers alone is taken to indicate a common practice among local groups of millwrights:

In Somerset and adjacent south western counties [small tower mills] take on the appearance of a tradition because of their numbers; elsewhere, where it is doubtful if a well-formulated millwrighting tradition ever existed, they can only be grouped by similarities in the form of the towers themselves [Turner & Watts, TIMS IV, 1977, 55]


In Eire, Tacumshin belongs to the County Wexford type, which clearly indicates a local millwrighting tradition, which was owing to distance, and the local population being of English descent, [and] is unconnected with the main Irish windmill area…
The Irish South European type mills, from their number, must represent a millwrighting tradition also. [R.Hawksley, TIMS IV, 1977, 68]


[On Rhodes, Vation Mill and] the nearby Gennadi mills appear identical in many respects and this suggests that the mills were all constructed in the same tradition perhaps even by the same group of craftsmen. [R.Crumbleholme, IM 56, 1998, 13]

Custom and habit have offered a degree of comfort to groups in all societies, and millwrights and their customers have been no exceptions:

[In Turkey,]Despite the availability of modern engineering materials and construction techniques, traditional designs, which have worked well over the centuries, meeting the milling requirements, have been retained, and only the materials of those components which rot and wear out have been changed…to give a longer working life. [T.Hay, IM54, 1997, 17-18]

In Britain,

By 1820 iron castings were widely available from small foundries that were opening up thoughout the countryside. Many millwrights continued to work in timber, however, and the survival of wooden gearing in some areas is probably due to the persistence of local millwrighting traditions as well as the cost of castings and their transport. [M.Watts, ‘Water & Wind Power’, 2000, 70]

Such traditions can result in design transfers between otherwise disparate forms. Dulas watermill on Anglesey, for example, was built overdrive because it is in a predominantly windmill area and for no other discernible reason [see D.Jones, TIMS IV, 1977, 95]. In Hungary, 

Horse-mill owners had to meet the demand for better means of production [so] they took to the building of windmills. In the process…they transferred the traditional way of mounting their horsewheel [at floor level] into the new windmill building…The loss of storage room by their construction was outweighed by the familiarity with the approved tradition. [D & A Nijhof, TIMS VII, 1989, 302]

As Wailes noted [‘Lincolnshire Windmills’, 1991 reprint, 110] the tower corn mills at Hibaldstow, Croft, and Long Sutton had their curbs mounted on hexagonal wooden frames on top of the brickwork, a practice he thought “derived from the construction of smock mills used for drainage.” This type of construction is noted, however, in France, where there were no smock mills.
One or two regional traditions seem to be of questionable validity. In Suffolk, mills had fantails turning the opposite way from the sails

A tradition based on the deflection of the wind from the upper sail [causing] the mill to turn slightly out of wind unless the upper blade of the fly presented its edge to the deflected airflow. This may have been the case with postmills, but not nearly so much with towers, but the tradition of counter-rotation has persisted with only infrequent exceptions. [R. de Little, ‘The Windmills of England’, 1997, 94]

The same author asks [ibid, 55] why there was a tradition of clockwise sails in Cambridgeshire and west Suffolk, and admits that it is not easily explained

other than that there was apparently an unusually large number of left-handed people in the area.

Including all the millwrights, one assumes.
Longest-standing traditions in English windmills appear to relate to cap shapes and types.
Had windmilling continued for much longer than it did, it might have been that the design innovations of Smeaton, Fairburn, or Karl Kuhl would have been considered ‘traditions’; but, of course, we know their origins from the publications of their originators. In that respect, they were better placed than their anonymous predecessors. Perhaps, too, traditions of a sort were stimulated during the nineteenth century by the various pattern books like that of Thomas Tegg in 1828, and mill-founders’ catalogues, which perhaps deserve more rigorous study than they have received hitherto.
It appears, then, that ‘millwrighting tradition’ can be defined as a pattern of working of unknown origin, local or regional in extent, which uses particular materials or forms which persist even after improvements are possible, but which are either not readily practicable or not compatible with the training of the craftsmen or the habits of their clients.

MJA Beacham