Windmills and watermills: Preservation and restoration
The corn milling industry in Britain underwent profound changes in the last quarter of the 19th century with the development of roller milling and in the focus of the industry’s location, as new mills were built at ports and at urban centres on navigable rivers and canals. As a result the number of traditional wind- and water-powered corn mills began to decline, as many were reduced to grinding animal feed and eventually closure, a process that was to gather apace in the 20th century.
Yet in the final decades of the 19th century windmills and watermills were still being built, the tower mill at Much Hadham, Hertfordshire in 1893 being one of the last in the country. And, at the same time the first mills were being preserved. One of the earliest was the unusual hollow-post windmill on Wimbledon Common, which is also an early example of a house conversion. The base of the mill was converted into six small cottages following its closure and the removal of its machinery in the 1860s and, after a public appeal, the building was repaired by the millwrights Saundersons of Louth in 1893.
Several windmills were also preserved as landmarks. Bidston Mill on the Wirral peninsula was restored by Birkenhead Corporation in the late 19th-early 20th century as part of an open-space memorial to Edmund Taylor and Halnaker Mill, West Sussex was restored in 1934 by Sir William Bird as a memorial to his wife.
In 1929 the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) which had been founded by William Morris in 1877, was asked about the future of windmills in England. It was overwhelmed by the public response to articles in the national press with the result that in 1931 a separate Windmill Committee was formed.
The engineer and windmill enthusiast Rex Wailes (1901-1986) became the new Windmill Section’s technical advisor. The Section actively encouraged the repair and upkeep of windmills. Amongst the first mills that their support enabled repair work to be carried out on were Arkley in Hertfordshire, Outwood in Surrey and Lacey Green, Buckinghamshire and it is also recorded that £10 was lent to the miller of Metheringham Mill, Lincolnshire to enable him to complete ‘extensive repairs’. Certificates were presented in ‘appreciation of zeal’ in such work, the first being given in 1935 to John Russell at Union Mill, Cranbrook, Kent. By the end of 1937, thirteen certificates had been awarded, number thirteen going to Thomas Harris of Denver Mills, Norfolk. That same year, public outrage persuaded Essex County Council to reverse its decision to demolish Upminster Windmill. In 1939 the Section supported repairs at Stanton Upthorpe windmill in Suffolk. The windmill preservation movement was now well underway.
By comparison, watermill preservation was much slower to gain momentum. In the first years of the 20th century, antiquarian interest spurred Gilbert Goudie to restore a small horizontal-wheeled mill at Troswick, Shetland. The mill, the lowest of a line of nine on the Clumlie Burn, then continued to be used by the farmer for grinding bere and is still in workable order today.
In the early 1930s, Shalford Mill near Guildford, Surrey was saved from demolition by Ferguson’s Gang, an idiosyncratic conservation group. They persuaded the mill’s owner to donate the building to the National Trust, promising to raise money for its restoration. The National Trust, founded in 1895, was to play an increasingly significant role in mill preservation. Other early acquisitions include Winchester City Mill in 1929, Bourne Mill, Colchester, Essex in 1936 and Houghton Mill, Cambridgeshire in 1939. Today the National Trust owns more than 50 mills, many of which have been restored and are open to the public.
But it was not to be until 1946, following the removal of iron machinery for scrap during the Second World War and the rapidly increasing rate of closure, that the remit of the Windmill Section was extended to include watermills, becoming the Wind and Watermill Section. Watermill certificates, however, were not introduced until 1979, the first being awarded to Mrs Monica Dance, the long-serving secretary of the SPAB and Section.
The damage and destruction of historic buildings during the Second World War also led to the development of the List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest, whereby such buildings were given statutory protection. Woodbridge Tide Mill, Suffolk, for example, was listed Grade I in 1951. Stevens’ Windmill at Burwell, Cambridgeshire was also listed (Grade II*) in 1951, as was Oldland Mill, Keymer, West Sussex and it was their listing status coupled with public opposition that subsequently saved both mills from demolition.
Also in 1951 the Wind and Watermill Section, recognising that ‘for reasons not always appreciated, the working windmill is doomed’, approached the Ancient Monuments department of the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works (now Historic England) for support. As a result Saxtead Green post mill, Suffolk and the drainage mill at Berney Arms, Norfolk were taken into care, followed by Sibsey Trader Mill, Lincolnshire not long afterwards.
The conservation and repair of watermills and, in particular, windmills gathered momentum in the late 1950s. The importance of the generosity of public response to appeals, the role of volunteers and the input, including financial, from local authorities in the programmes of work that followed should not be underestimated. It was just this combination that enabled Shipley Windmill to be restored in the late 1950s as a memorial to Hilaire Belloc, who owned the mill from 1906 until his death in 1953.
In 1960 a fund for the restoration of windmills was set up by Norfolk County Council and in 1963 the Norfolk Windmills Trust was formed, initially taking on 18 windmills and wind pumps in a major restoration and maintenance programme. Today the Norfolk Windmills Trust cares for 21 buildings, 13 of which are owned or leased by Norfolk County Council.
The first regional mills group, based in the West Midlands, was founded by Derek Ogden in 1965 and that same year The International Molinological Society (TIMS) was also formed to foster worldwide interest and understanding in mills. Today there are nine active regional mill groups whose members are often involved in restoration work on mills, while the Mills Research Group, founded in 1979, encourages research on many aspects of traditional mills.
As research has shown, it was not uncommon in the 18th and 19th centuries for post mills to be moved to more favourable locations. In more recent times both windmills and watermills have been moved as a means of preserving them. The post mill at Danzey Green near Tamworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire was demolished in 1969 and rebuilt at Avoncroft Museum, Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, while three watermills, Lurgashall Mill, West Sussex, Melin Brompren, Dyfed and Alton Mill, Stutton in Suffolk, were re-erected in the 1970s at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, Welsh Folk Museum, Cardiff and Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket respectively.
The development of the health food industry and the corresponding interest in natural sources of food and power in the 1970s and 1980s further encouraged the restoration of corn mills to working order. In 1987 the Traditional Corn Millers’ Guild (TCMG) was set up to promote the production of stone ground products using wind and water power.
The vulnerability of both windmills and watermills to damage from the elements, in particular storms and fires, is ever present and has resulted in some ambitious rebuilding projects. Redbournbury Mill, Hertfordshire and Stotfold Mill, Bedfordshire were both restored to working order after being damaged by fires in 1987 and 1992 respectively and Chillenden post mill, Kent was rebuilt after being blown down in 2003.
Since 1994 grant funding by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has also enabled the restoration of many mills including Cromer Windmill in Hertfordshire, Stotfold Mill, Bedfordshire, Coleshill Mill, Oxfordshire, Stevens’ Mill, Burwell, Cambridgeshire, Sacrewell Mill near Peterborough and Eling Tide Mill near Southampton.
Preservation and restoration to working order, however, are not the only solutions. Many mill buildings owe their survival through conversion to alternative uses such as hotels, restaurants or private dwellings. Some, such as Moor Mill, near St Albans, Hertfordshire, retain their machinery as a feature. As intimated above, conversion is not a new phenomenon: Portishead Windmill near Bristol was turned into a house in 1848, its working life cut short by the construction of a steam mill in the town.
Wimbledon Common Windmill was converted in the 1860s, East Knoyle Windmill became a summer residence after suffering fire damage in 1912 and half of Shalford Mill became domestic accommodation in the 1930s. In the early 20th century some mills also became popular locations for tourists. A tea room opened in the roundhouse of High Salvington post mill, West Sussex, in 1912 and the ground and first floors of Marsh Mill, Thornton, Lancashire became a café in 1928. Similarly, Whitpot Mill, Kingskerswell, Devon, which ceased working in 1919, was in use as a tea room by the late 1920s and Woods Mill, West Sussex served as a tea garden for a short time in the 1930s.
Whatever their current status, most if not all corn mills may be considered as heritage assets, that is they have a significance that merits consideration in planning decisions. This significance may be archaeological, architectural, artistic or historic and may derive not only from the building itself but also from its setting or from its associations. Some mills have added importance though their connection with historic personalities, such as Shipley Mill, West Sussex with Hilaire Belloc, Flatford Mill, Suffolk with John Constable and Sarehole Mill, near Birmingham with J.R.R. Tolkien.
It is not only traditional wind and watermills that may be considered to have significance, however, but also 19th and early 20th century steam and roller mills. These important survivals of our industrial and milling heritage are increasingly at risk of conversion or demolition and redevelopment. As important as the surviving standing buildings are the sites of earlier corn mills which now survive only as earthworks or buried features. Amongst the first such sites to be afforded statutory protection were the earthwork remains of watermills within the medieval abbey complexes at Reading and Shap in Cumbria, both sites being scheduled as ancient monuments in 1915. Similarly the surviving remains of related features such as weirs and leats are also important even if the mills they served are no longer functioning as such.
Today some 450 wind and water mills, many of them corn mills in working order, are open to the public. Some of these are in the care of official bodies such as English Heritage, the National Trust and local authorities, but many are owned and run by private trusts and individuals. Some are open on a daily basis, others on particular days and special occasions such as National Mills Weekend, an annual ‘festival of milling heritage’ held in May.
The work of caring for and preserving our mills continues; it is not just the initial restoration that is important but also their ongoing maintenance and repair. Research and fieldwork, including detailed recording of both buildings and machinery, are also necessary, not only to increase our understanding of milling history, but also to inform repairs and to help ensure the future of ‘these magnificent buildings’. The Mills Archive, which was established in Reading in 2002 as a national repository for documentary and photographic records of traditional and contemporary mills and milling, has a vital role to play in furthering this research, and understanding and encouraging public interest in mills.