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The Decline of Wind and Water Mills

The heyday of mills

In their heyday, mills were used for a wide variety of purposes. The most common use was grinding corn, but there were plenty of others. Perhaps one of the most obscure uses was to crush coprolite – fossilized dung. This is the coprolite mill complex at Bassingbourn, Cambridgeshire, used for crushing fish coprolites for fertiliser from the 1850s:

Old postcards of this sort can be a valuable source of information on old mills, as they may be the only evidence of what a mill looked like at a particular time, or perhaps the only evidence of its existence. They can therefore tell us a lot: Where exactly did the mill stand? Was it a stone or brick tower mill, like the ones on the right and left in this picture, or perhaps a wooden post mill like the one in the middle? How many sails did it have? Was it working at the time of the picture? (of course we will need to be able to date the image for this information to be useful). Postcards like this give us a glimpse into the days when mills thrived.

Another form of evidence comes from the records of millwrighting firms. This is one of a set of five fine architectural drawings from 1890 held by the archive showing a proposed drainage mill to be constructed on Beacon Hill, West Cholderton in Wiltshire for H C Stephens, MP for Finchley. Drainage is perhaps the most common function for windmills after grinding corn – hence the large numbers of windmills in low lying areas near the sea, such as Norfolk or the Netherlands. In this case the planned mill was never commissioned, for what reason we don’t know. Perhaps a different millwright got the job, or maybe they decided to use a more new-fangled form of drainage. The existence of the drawings, however, shows that in 1890 people could still contemplate building a new windmill.

This drawing is similar – more basic, perhaps, lacking colour – more of a practical working drawing than the previous one, but like it a plan for a drainage mill. This drawing dates from 1884 and shows a windmill intended for the Whitstable waterworks, again never commissioned. Being a cross section, it shows us how this type of mill worked – instead of being transferred to rotating stones the rotation of the sails is transferred down the central shaft to the horizontal shaft exiting from the rear of the mill, which would have attached to a wheel that scooped up the water.

This drawing is by the Holmans, a millwrighting firm from Canterbury. Their archive is preserved in various places – part at Canterbury Cathedral, part at the University of Kent and part at the Mills Archive, and it allows us to see the decline of traditional mills through the late 19th and early 20th century. In their case, the Holmans survived by diversifying, moving from millwrighting to agricultural machinery.

This array of business cards shows the change. On the first, dating from T R Holman’s days as head of the firm in the late 19th century, ‘millwright’ comes first after his name, to be followed by ‘engineer’ and ‘wheelwright’. After T R Holman’s death his two sons took over the firm, which became ‘Holman Bros.’ We can see that by this time millwrighting had lost first place, being relegated to second after ‘engineer’ or disappearing altogether.

The impression we get from the business cards is substantiated from the rest of the Holman archive, including the ledgers and the photographs. In the 19th century they were active millwrights, even being commissioned to build mills overseas. This picture is a cap for a tower mill waiting in their workshop for transport to Haifa, then in Syria, now Israel, in 1874:

Later images in the collection are mostly of agricultural machinery, although the odd millwrighting image still crops up:

This early or mid-twentieth century picture shows a sail for a mill being constructed in the workshop. Of course, by this point few new mills were being created (Holmans built their last mill at St Margaret’s Bay, Kent in 1928), but those old ones still in use needed maintenance and repair.

So the changing fortunes of this family firm give us a glimpse of the way traditional mills ceased to be an important part of the industry of the nation. Why did this happen? The answer is of course the competition from the newer forms of technology which were becoming common.