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The Decline of Wind and Water Mills

Mill preservation

As traditional mills fell out of use people began, for the first time, to see mills as historic buildings – survivors from a bygone age, relics from a dying way of life. The idea emerged that they ought to be preserved – or if the buildings themselves could not be saved, that they should be recorded, photographed and described.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was formed in 1877 by William Morris to counter the prevailing tendency to ‘restore’ old buildings in a way which amounted to redesigning and rebuilding them. The Society’s aim was to preserve as much as possible of the historic structure of an ancient building. In the 1920s the society was engaged in a nationwide survey of ancient bridges in response to the threat posed to these by the widening of roads for motor vehicles. By 1929 this was nearing completion and the Society was preparing to begin a similar survey of medieval barns, when they happened to run a short article on windmills in the Daily Mail. It provoked large numbers of people to write or send photos of windmills to the Society, and laying aside the barn survey they began to survey the country’s windmills. By May 1930 a separate windmill fund had been established and the surveys of Cambridgeshire and Warwickshire were complete, with Sussex, Surrey and Kent in progress. The intent was to record all the mills in the country, and then ideally to save typical examples.

The survey sheets survive in the collections of the Mills Archive; by looking through them one gets a glimpse of the state of windmills in the country at that time.

This is a typical example of a survey sheet from the Kent survey. As you can see, the amount of information recorded is relatively minimal, consisting of Place, Type, Age, Occupier, a note on condition and any further remarks. Most survey sheets include a photo or two. The surveys were retained by the Society and continued to be added to sporadically over the years – in this case you can see a long handwritten note has been added in the 1950s.

Most of the mills recorded were, like this one, falling into ruin. Some were still working, although many of these had been converted to run on gas. The surveys continued over the next few years, leading to the establishment of a more permanent windmill section of the society.

A key figure in the surveys and the establishment of the windmill section was the technical advisor Rex Wailes.

Rex was from a family of engineers and worked for the family firm George Wailes & Co. He was also keenly interested in the history of technology. His interest in mills stemmed from a visit to a mill in his youth – as he later described it:

One day, while I was photographing the big six-sailed tower mill at Coleby Heath, now demolished on account of the nearby aerodrome, the miller asked me if I would like to have a look inside. He showed me over from bottom to top and we finally ended up just under the fantail, looking out over a stretch of country that is said to have been settled by the ex-service men of Roman times. Here in the mechanism of the mill was part of the history of mechanical engineering in the solid, just the thing to whet the appetite of a budding engineer with a taste for the historical side of the profession. Since that day I have tried to look inside every mill I have come across, both at home and abroad.

For Wailes, then, the preservation of mills was about technology – the inner workings of a mill were of value for the evidence they gave of the development of engineering in this country. His views were shared by many, and remain fundamental to the SPAB Mills Section’s mission today.

Others took a more romantic view, seeing the decaying windmills as picturesque, poetic, sad but beautiful. One such was the artist Karl Wood. An art teacher at Gainsborough grammar school, he spent his spare time cycling across the country painting, and his big project – the goal of his life – was to paint every windmill in Britain. From the 1930s to the 1950s he cycled right across the country, painting up to 12 mills per day. His romantic perception of windmills is evident from the name he gave his cycling tours, the Mühlendämmerungs – German for ‘twilight of the mills’ after Wagner’s opera Götterdämmerung  – the ‘twilight of the gods’. ‘Twilight of the mills’ was also intended as the name for the book his drawings were intended to become part of.

The book was never produced – but the 1300 pen and ink sketches he drew for it, copied from the watercolours he did on site – are held by the Mills Archive. Many have brief notes by Wood. Some merely describe his experiences:

Caretaker woman positively refused my painting this from her field and we had to do it looking through a hole in the hedge. This was the most flagrant rudeness I’ve ever experienced, save once, in painting mills. Mrs Bailey was the name!

Most, however, say whether the mill was working and how, or if not, what it was used for. Wood’s drawings are therefore in some ways parallel to the SPAB surveys, giving us another, slightly later view of the state of mills in the country.

Many of the mills are simply noted as “working”. For others Wood notes that they have ceased working – as these pen and ink drawings were copied from his original watercolours of the 30s at a later date, he sometimes notes that the condition of the mill had changed in that time – almost always that it had ceased working or been demolished..

In some cases Wood notes that the mill is working by oil – clearly the miller was adapting to changing times, still using their old machinery but powering it by a more efficient power source.

This is an interesting example – Wood states that “although there is no fantail, when the wind is in a suitable direction it can be worked. It is at other times worked by oil.” The fantail is the small set of sails on the back of a windmill – its function is to turn the cap of the mill towards the wind so the sails will turn. In this picture the pieces of woodwork with what appear to be ropes hanging down from then are the remains of the fantail. Without this, the mill will only work when the wind happens to blow from the right angle – once this would have been a major fault and the miller would have need to get a millwright as soon as possible to repair his mill so he could continue grinding corn. In this case, however, he has an oil engine installed, and so can use this regardless of the changing wind, though he still made use of the older technology when it was possible. One would imagine however that when eventually the sails also fell into disrepair he would have little incentive to repair them, and would continue working by oil alone. This image, then, shows a working windmill at the very end of its life.

Most of Wood’s mills are not working. Some are ruined; in other cases the building has been converted into something else. Houses are the most common form of conversion, but some mills he drew had been converted to a wide range of other uses, including a water tower, cattle sheds, a recreation hut, garage, coal store, egg store, powerhouse for a lead works, landmark for pilots at a nearby aerodrome, cheese factory and golf club!

In the cases we have looked at, it is windmills rather than watermills which attracted attention – perhaps just because of the obvious visual appeal of a windmill, compared with which a watermill looks a lot like any other building. Eventually, however, a movement to save watermills also emerged, connected with an individual named E M Gardner, and watermills were added to the SPAB Mills Section’s remit in 1946, with a series of surveys similar to the windmill surveys of 1929 onwards.

The work of the enthusiasts we have studied laid the foundations for the mill conservation movement which is still going strong today. It is thanks to them that the mills which still exist survive, and that the records that make up the Mills Archive exist to enable us to tell the story of how this form of industry came to an end.