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Frank W. Gregory (1917-1998)

Postcards, pictures & mill models

Frank found things of interest wherever he went and was interested in a wide range of subjects. As a result of his research, mill surveys, visits and tours, he built up a vast collection of milling images and artefacts.

Frank with a model of a small tower mill - provenance unknown - displayed on his patio in May 1986
Frank with a model of a small tower mill – provenance unknown – displayed on his patio in May 1986

Frank was a keen photographer with a good eye. Over the course of his life, he took an estimated 10,000 photographs of mills in Sussex, the UK and world-wide. He used a Kodak Box Brownie in the early days, but over the years he owned several cameras, only replacing them once they had become extremely old and battered. John Mullett also took some very good mill photographs for Frank. Peter Hill of the Sussex Mills Group owned a pharmacy with a sideline of film processing; many of Frank’s films were developed by Peter in a standard size of 6in x 4in.

He recorded the photographs he took between 1931 and the 1970s in small A6 notebooks, sometimes specifying the camera and film number. Each book lists the date each photograph and a brief one line description of the place, subject or people. It is clear that the majority of his photographs were of Sussex mills. Frank made repeat visits to many mills, to record the state they were in, photograph the remaining machinery, or record the progress of restoration. He had an unerring ability to visit a mill just as these important moments in their history took place. From his photographic collection, one can trace the history and fate of many mills, especially in Sussex.

Many of his photographs were taken on holidays and short breaks with his family or on walks with the Brighton Rambling Club and later the Sussex Pathfinders. Frank travelled widely in the UK and abroad. It is possible to identify his favourite holiday destinations from photographs recorded. There are a lot of mill photographs but he also took many of landscapes, archaeology and geology, churches, castles, vernacular buildings, flora and fauna, and family photographs with his parents, Frank’s sister Eileen, Betty and Joy. An unidentified photograph of Betty and Joy with a very dusty miller was identified from these photographic lists as a visit to the late Jesse Wightman, the miller at Wickham Market Watermill, on 20th April 1960.

There are some unusual and rare photographic items in his collection: antique photographs, glass plates and magic lantern slides. He also had a number of original photographs of individuals and landscapes of rural England by Barclay Wills. Some of Frank’s images are unique and the last record of mills before their collapse or demolition.

He often sought permission from local museums and art galleries to take photographs of their collections of mill pictures, for example at the Marlipins Museum at Shoreham, the Ditchling Gallery, and Worthing Museum. For the purpose of copying images from mill owners and at museums, he converted an old Kodak 620 bellows camera into a copying frame for this purpose so that he could look straight down through a convex spectacle lens onto the item fixed to the wooden baseboard. In return for being allowed to make copies, Frank was always willing to loan his own photographs and other material for museum exhibitions, SPAB and TIMS displays, and to illustrate articles in professional publications and magazines. Frank was a genial man but the one thing that would raise his ire was if one of his photographs was not properly acknowledged.

Part of the pleasure of a hobby is to exchange information with fellow enthusiasts. Frank was sent a huge number of photographs, slides and postcards of mills for his interest. Throughout his travels, he bought hundreds of postcards; mostly multiple copies of mills to pass on to friends. Many of the postcards are of mills but a lot are landscape scenes, churches, castles, vernacular buildings, flora and fauna.

He collected just about anything that had a mill on it, no matter how tiny the image might be, for example on stamps or in an old children’s comic from 1917. Frank would cut out anything that caught his eye from newspapers or magazines if it was to do with a mill, even advertisements, and especially if it showed a mill in the context of the surrounding buildings and landscape. Many newspaper illustrations were from the 19th century. He often received greetings cards with mills on them and collected, or was given, a sizeable number of amateur paintings, etchings, prints and engravings of mills. As an artist, he liked to study the depiction of mills in art and pictures as they could provide clues as to the location of lost mills. Raymond Duthy, a Hampshire amateur artist became friends with Frank and gave him a lot of his mill pictures.

Frank’s technical skills enabled him to make his own block-printed greetings cards; these were always well received. Model making was a popular, albeit time-consuming hobby in the 1960s and Frank made several scale models of mills and mill workings. These he used to demonstrate to mill visitors how various parts of a mill worked; many of these are now on display at West Blatchington Windmill. Frank’s daughter, Joy, remembers that his model of Nutley Post Mill took two years to make on the dining table. Frank also collected physical artefacts and mill memorabilia including machinery, millers’ billheads, and flour bags, the latter often purloined surreptitiously whilst on mill visits. One of his prized possessions was a traditional Pyecombe Crook made from musket barrels.

This wide-ranging collection, or perhaps mini-collections, comprising of mill images and artefacts from around the world, has been described by his friends as “unequalled” (Peter Hill, Friends of West Blatchington Windmill), of “national importance” (Bob Bonnett, Uckfield & District Preservation Trust) and “an internationally important collection” (John Blackwell, SIAS). John Sass of the Lincolnshire Mills Group nicely sums up Frank’s collection:

“His enthusiasm for the subject was unbounded. He was one of those rare people who are both practical and studious and his collection reflected these many facets and disciplines.”