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Holman Bros., Millwrights of Canterbury: A history

The Holman mills and their characteristics



Holmans built 12 windmills and rumour has it they also built a watermill somewhere, but so far it has not been possible to trace this.

Mostly smock mills were built, but occasionally mills with brick towers. Much of the work in building a mill would be carried out in the works by a number of men. The actual erection would be carried out by two or three men with occasional extra hands for some of the heavier lifts. There was no sub-contracting except for foundry work supplying castings from the firm’s patterns.

There are many records of work done on mills – both wind and water in the area of East Kent and also work done at mills further away such as Delce Mill at Rochester, Vale Mill on Guernsey for Mr Hucart, Coleshill Mill at Amersham, and Sutton Valence Mill for Sir Edmund Filmer. It is difficult to imagine nowadays, the extent to which windmills dominated the countryside. Until steam power and the internal combustion engine arrived, windmills and watermills were the only source of power apart from animal power. Holmans’ records show work done to more than 120 mills within 20 miles of Canterbury and there were doubtless other millwrights doing work at other mills which do not figure in the firm’s records.

Jerusalem has had permission granted for restoration. In 2007, the organisation ‘Christians for Israel’ decided that the mill, being a landmark of Jerusalem, should be restored to its original state and began to raise funds. Three members of the organisation came to Kent to see existing Holman windmills to give them an idea of their construction. Together with millwright, Vincent Pargeter, and myself, we arranged access to Drapers, Stelling Minnis and Sarre mills and Canterbury Cathedral Archives; they were also shown the site of the Holman firm in Canterbury. Since then visits have been made to Jerusalem, including one by Vincent Pargeter who has produced working drawings and given estimates for the restoration.

No two mills were exactly alike, each being individually made. Windmills were always known as ‘she’ by the miller. The mill usually took the name of the place it was in, but sometimes the name of the miller was used. Building the mill was carefully planned but until it was operating, no-one could tell how effective it would be. For example, two mills built close together could set up wind turbulence which would affect both mills.

The design and operation of a windmill depended on various characteristics of the wind such as wind speed and changes in direction, turbulence, and the height of the wind above the ground. An average wind speed of 15 to 25mph was needed for the operation of a mill

Holmans built only wooden smock mills in Kent. When they were built, timber was much cheaper than brick and as there was little local stone quarried, fewer tower and more smock mills were built. A lot of pine was being imported from the Baltic for building warehouses. This was also used as a source for wood, in addition to that locally grown, for building windmills. Baltic pine was slow growing and had a high resin content which helped it withstand the elements. A lot of Baltic pine was imported through the ports of Dover and Folkestone which were both easily accessible from Canterbury.

Their mills were built with a tapering fixed wooden tower, on the top of which was the cap which carried the sweeps.  The cap is turned automatically so that the sweeps will face into the wind by the fantail which revolves whenever the wind comes to it at an angle. It then turns the whole cap via a series of gears. However they did build a mill with a stone tower in Jerusalem and possibly another in Buckinghamshire with a brick tower at Coleshill.

Windmills were often built on an earth mound or a hill to help them catch the wind. They could also be built on a flat surface but had to be away from buildings or trees which would create turbulence. Very often there was little in the way of foundations. They were built either on a few courses of bricks or perhaps a wall 8 to 10 feet tall which gave additional storage room, and enabled the mill to catch the wind more easily.

The tower was bolted to a wooden cill on top of the brickwork, relying on the weight of the mill to keep it in place. Holman mills were medium sized and octagonal. As the strength of the mill is partly dependent on the number of cant, or corner posts, eight were thought sufficient to give it the necessary rigidity. These continued upwards to the full height of the tower. At the top they supported a circular wooden curb on which was a cast iron toothed ring on which the cap rotates. Further strength was given by the addition of diagonal bracing, transoms and uprights. The beams which support the flooring and machinery rest on the horizontal framing between the cant posts. The weatherboard covering was usually of pine as it was cheap to install and replace. It was either painted or sealed with pitch helping keep flour dry which was essential when it was being handled and bagged. Tarring was apparently preferred as it was cheaper to do initially and was then cheaper to maintain. It was fitted with sash windows, and sometimes a weatherboarded porch was added. The stage which gave the miller access to adjust the sweeps was normally situated at the top of the base.

The cap was boat shaped with a straight ridge. The frame of the cap carried the front and rear bearings for the windshaft and the supports for the fantail. The base of the frame was made of oak with metal plates underneath which slid round on the cast iron curb at the top of the tower. It was centred using guide wheels which ran round the inside of the curb. The cast iron windshaft extended through the front of the cap ending with 2 large iron sockets at right angles – the canisters – into which fit the main timbers or midlings of the sweeps.

The fantail was high set with a six blades. This was connected to a drive, via a shaft and gears, to the teeth on the curb which turned the sweeps to face the wind.

With the invention of the shuttered sweep by Sir William Cubitt, the shutters in the sweep could be opened or closed while the mill was running to regulate the speed. Sweeps always had shutters on the driving side but on the lead side were either shutters or lead boards, or some of each. The weather, or twist, on the sweeps was usually about 1in – 11/2in at the point and about 4in at the heel. Each sweep was divided into bays by the sweep bars morticed through to the sweep rod with generally two or three shutters in each bay either solid wood or a wood frame covered with canvas. These were one of the parts most liable to wear and damage and in the Holman records are details of many midlings and sweeps which had to be repaired or replaced. Sited just below the cap were the grain bins in which could be stored corn ready for milling.

The brake wheel on the wind shaft is a large bevel wheel which meshes with a smaller cast iron cogged bevel wheel, made either all of wood or of cast iron with wooden cogs. The smaller wheel is called a wallower and turns the cast iron upright shaft that extends down through the centre of the tower. The mesh of the gears remains constant whichever way the cap faces. The brake wheel is so called from the brake band, usually of iron, which surrounds it and is used to stop the mill. The wallower also had a wooden friction rim for the sack hoist.

Lower down the upright shaft is a large cast iron spur wheel 6ft or so in diameter which drives wood cogged gears, called the stone nuts, which turn the upper or runner millstones. The spur wheel is also used to take a drive for any auxiliary machinery such as a flour dresser. The cast iron upright shaft was in two pieces, joined with a bolted coupling. There was a system of pulleys and belts which drove a governor which regulated the running of the mill, with further levers tentering, or regulating, the gap between the millstones.

Holman mills were built with two pairs of stones; some mills added much later. Grain was ground between a pair of flat millstones, sized between 4 and 4 1/2ft diameter, and, when new, around 9” thick. Two types of stones were installed. Peak stones were made from one piece of sandstone quarried in Derbyshire and French Burrstones from several blocks of hard quartz, mined in France, cemented together and held together with iron bands round their circumference. Peak stones were used mainly for grinding animal feed such as barley, while French Burr were prized for grinding grain because they left the bran in large flakes which were more easily removed by sieving and didn’t produce much grit.

The preparation of the face of the millstone is most important and must be done accurately. It consists basically of 8 or 10 furrows of a triangular section extending from the outside of the stone and tangential to a circle at the centre of the stone. This circle can be perhaps 8in diameter for a Peak stone and less for a French burr stone. Between these main furrows are 3 or 4 short furrows parallel to the main ones but not extending to the centre. The furrows guide the grain from the centre of the stone where the grain is fed towards the outside. The actual grinding is done by the bands between the furrows, which are roughened by stitching – a succession of cracks cut with a mill bill at about 16 to the inch. This was called dressing the millstone and was done either in the workshop before delivery, by the miller himself or by a travelling dresser. As they were used, the stones wore down and had to be redressed at intervals, sometimes a spare set was kept to avoid loss of milling time.

The lower stone is stationary whilst the upper one rotates on top of a spindle which comes up through the centre of the lower stone. Grain is fed through the centre hole of the upper stone; it then enters the small gap between the stones and gets crushed and ground as it works its way to the edge where it emerges as finely ground meal. It is swept into a chute which delivers it to a bin or a sack. This is wholemeal flour.

The sack hoist comprised a wooden cylinder with a chain round it which was turned from a friction drive on the wallower gear onto which it was engaged by a lever system. It was used to lift sacks of corn from the ground up to the bins on the top floor.

A dressing machine sifted the meal emerging from the millstones. It was fed into a stationary inclined cylinder covered with a silk, linen or wire gauze, inside which revolved strips or brushes which separated the bran from the flour. The gauze usually has several meshes with varying size holes, along the length of the drum to enable the separation of several grades of flour.

The iron parts would be made using wrought or cast iron. The wrought iron parts were made in the forge in Dover Street. They were worked into shape by the blacksmith.

Cast iron was used for items such as gear wheels which were made using wooden patterns held by the firm and cast in a foundry. Bigglestones in Canterbury was the main foundry used by the Holmans.  Moulds were made of damp sand, with some clay added to bind it together. It was sufficiently porous to allow steam and gas to escape. The sand is packed round the wooden pattern which is then removed, leaving the shape to be filled with molten metal. After casting the iron could be shaped but not bent. It always contained impurities, mainly bits of the coke used to heat it up before being poured into the mould, which made it brittle. The finished product was suitable for mill work as it did not corrode and was hard wearing.

Much of the construction of a windmill was carried out in the works by a number of men. The actual erection was carried out by two or three men with occasional extra hands for some of the heavier lifts. It took the firm around 6 months to build Preston mill. As this was typical of the windmills built, it can be assumed that this was the average time taken to build a mill.

There are records of windmills having been moved. Sometimes this was done to find a site with more wind. When a mill was sold, the new owners would sometimes change its location because moving an existing mill was cheaper than building a new one. Post and smock mills were never considered permanent structures because they were made largely of wood. Post mills were moved by placing rollers under the outer structure after all the machinery inside had been removed and pulling them using animals or traction engines. Smock mills were simply dismantled and reassembled in a new location.


  • Octagonal smock.
  • One storey brick base.
  • Stage at top of base.
  • Weatherboard porch at wagon loading height.
  • Tarred weatherboarded tower.
  • Sliding sash windows.
  • Tarred and weatherboarded OG cap.
  • High set six blade fan.
  • Four fairly narrow double shuttered patent sweeps.
  • All wood brakewheel bar cast iron spokes.
  • Cast iron windshaft.
  • Iron wallower with wood friction rim for sack hoist.
  • Iron upright shaft in two bits with coupling.
  • Two pairs overdriven stones.
  • Iron great spur wheel.
  • Wood cogged iron stone nuts.
  • Iron tentering gear controlled by iron governors.
  • Wire cylinder dresser driven by belt from layshaft via cast iron and wood cogged gears from great spur wheel.
  • Meal bins in group in centre of spout floor.
  • Grain bins below cap round upright shaft with walkway to access cap.


The millwrights had their own workshop where they made and assembled elements of new windmills and made parts to repair existing ones. A millwright took great offence if addressed as a carpenter in spite of the fact that a lot of his work was working with wood. His skills extended beyond mere carpentry, he also had to plan how to construct the various elements of a mill which would incorporate metal work as well. He worked in conjunction with the forge and carpenter’s workshop to plan and produce such diverse work as shafting, pulleys, brackets, couplings, elevators, worm drives, gearwheels as well as the main structural parts of the mill.

The erection of a windmill must have been quite an undertaking as all the lifting of the comparatively heavy gear to the top of the mill had to be done with poles, shear legs and blocks and tackle as no cranes were available then. The carriage of tackle to the site would have been done with wagons drawn by horses. Hours were long, basically 6am to 5.30pm with 1/2 hour for breakfast and 1 hour for lunch. When working on complex repairs to mills which took several days or weeks, it was usual for the millwrights to lodge with the miller. Harry Branford was doing this on 18 January 1881 when there was a snow storm which left him snowbound and isolated for more than a week.

When not in use for drying hops, the upper floor of the oast in Dover Street which used to stand opposite the junction with Vernon Place, was rented to make sweeps, as it provided a large open floor space.

Within 20 miles of Canterbury, Holmans worked on more than 120 mills. Of course, there were other millwrights doing work at other mills. Records show that the firm worked on mills outside East Kent including Delce Mill in Rochester, Vale Mill in Guernsey, Coleshill Mill in Amersham, Bucks and the mill at Sutton Valence. They also built a mill in Jerusalem and supplied the parts to erect one in Haifa.


DateBuilderOccupied or BuiltMill NameClient/Miller
1793WilliamOccupiedBoughton MillWilliam Holman
Pre1819JohnBuiltBlean Old MillThomas Glover
1820JohnBuiltSarre Mill 
1820JohnBuiltStaple Mill 
1830JohnBuiltNewington Mill, Ramsgate 
1845JohnBuiltDrapers Mill, MargateJohn Holman
1848John, J.J. and T.R.BuiltNew Mill, Northbourne Richard Fuller
1852John, J.J. and T.R.BuiltNew Mill, PrestonStephen Solly, Stephen R and Charles Solly
1854Thomas RichardBuiltBlack Mill, Barham 
1857J.J. and T.R.BuiltJerusalem MillSir Moses Montefiore
1860Thomas RichardMachineryHaifa MillGebruder Kaitenbach
1866Thomas RichardBuiltStelling Minnis MillGeorge Goble
1868Thomas RichardBuiltBlean New MillThomas Glover
1869Thomas RichardBuiltLittle Drapers Mill, MargateMessrs. Darby
1885Thomas Richard & WilliamBuiltSwingfield MillMr. Prebble
1928Harry BranfordBuiltSt. Margaret’s Bay MillWilliam Beardswell


There are many records of work done on mills – both wind and water in the area of East Kent and also work done at mills further away such as Delce Mill at Rochester, Vale Mill on Guernsey for Mr Hucart, Coleshill Mill at Amersham, and Sutton Valence Mill for Sir Edmund Filmer. It is difficult to imagine nowadays, the extent to which windmills dominated the countryside. Until steam power and the internal combustion engine arrived, windmills and watermills were the only source of power apart from animal power. Holmans’ records show work done to more than 120 mills within 20 miles of Canterbury and there were doubtless other millwrights doing work at other mills which do not figure in the firm’s records.

Further afield they built and worked on the mill in Jerusalem also the mill at Haifa.

Today, we are still fortunate to be able to see six mills built by the Holman family which are still standing. In recent years, many volunteers have kept the mills in good condition, and Kent County Council, who own two of them have obtained grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund to put their mills back into full working order with authentic Kentish sweeps.

Mills still standing:

Drapers Mill, Margate

Owned by Kent County Council and maintained by voluntary group who run the mill for demonstration purposes.

Eight Mile Mill, Sarre

Privately owned and still grinds wheat for local bakeries. Today’s visitors can still explore the mills upper two floors, whilst the ground floor is a holiday cottage for two. It can run by wind and current owner hopes to restore the whole mill to full working order.

St. Margaret’s Bay Mill, St. Margaret’s at Cliffe

The mill is privately owned and current owner hopes to restore it to full working order.

Davison’s Mill, Stelling Minnis

Owned and maintained by Kent County Council and opened regularly for guided tours.  

New Mill, Northbourne

Has only the tower left, is now residential.

Montefiore Mill, Jerusalem

Repaired in 2007.


A talk by Geoff Holman, to the Kent Mills Society, 2010

Geoff Holman on his visit to India
Geoff Holman on his visit to India. Photo: Geoff Holman

Looking for mills in India – when you’re not really supposed to:-

On a cultural tour in India it was difficult to investigate any milling activity. Guides had no knowledge of milling and often the locals did not speak enough English to offer any guidance. I noticed a treadmill on top of a fort, used to power a system of buckets to raise water from below, and later saw an oxen driven example. Seeing that chappatis were served with every meal, and that the infrastructure did not allow much of an organised distribution system for flour, I realised that flour had to be milled locally. When visiting a village I looked around some of the mud and 

Ox raising water, India
Ox raising water, India. Photo: Geoff Holman

wattle huts and found a hand quern with an attractive pattern carved on the runner stone. In the small towns, I suspected that there would be some powered mills somewhere. By looking round the back streets I found several small flour mills. These were small electrically driven with stones of between 2 and 3 feet diameter, some horizontal, others vertical. On visiting a large temple, I heard that they served up to 10,000 meals a day to pilgrims – surely they included chappatis. Some exploration ‘behind the scenes’ revealed a large kitchen complete with a human chappati production line. After further investigation I found the source of their flour supply, a room housing several mills of varying sizes. In addition to grinding flour, I also found mills similar to the flour mills, but used for grinding spices. Indeed one could recognise what the miller was grinding by his colour – the one producing tumeric was yellow!