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Michael Harverson (1937-2017)


West Herts Crematorium, Monday 27 March 2017

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to say a few words. It was a privilege to know Michael and always a great pleasure both to see him and to work with him.

I first met him in about 1994 when we were both acting as volunteer guides at my local windmill at Cromer not far from Stevenage. By this time, Michael was retired while I was a slightly awkward teenager with bad hair and even worse dress sense. A common interest quickly united us, however. I often refer to being ‘bitten by the mill bug’. This can happen to you at any age, and there’s not much you can do about it. Michael understood this implicitly, as it had happened to him when he was a young man.

Michael’s main characteristics were immediately obvious. He was calm and considered, extremely knowledgeable and very good at communicating his thoughts to others. This meant he could easily share his enthusiasm, knowledge and ideas with the visitors he was talking to. Michael’s interest was not just in mills as buildings or machines but also in the people who once owned and operated them – ordinary  members of the Hertfordshire community like himself, but from a century or two in the past.

It was easy to get to know Michael quickly because he was so friendly, open and kind. During the course of his research, he was clearly pleased to have identified a milling connection in my own family history, in the guise of a 19th century Sussex miller named Bonwick. He wrote this triumphantly on a postcard. It was always a pleasure to receive something through the post in Michael’s elegant, distinctive handwriting.

The world really was Michael’s oyster when it came to pursuing his interest in mills. As a younger man, Michael had toured the Middle East extensively, and was able to visit first hand some of the places on earth in which the power of water, wind and the muscles of humans and animals was first harnessed and converted into useful sources of power. He inspected and recorded the archaeology, talked to the local people and travelled many miles on the back of various unsafe forms of transport. Later on, some of this research was brought together and published following a well received lecture Michael gave to his peers entitled Mills of the Muslim World. I regret not asking Michael more about this fascinating period of his life.

Because of Michael’s interest in mills across the globe, he was an obvious choice to become President of the International Mills Society (acronym TIMS), a post he held for several years. Though it must have entailed a great deal of hard work, this role undoubtedly played to several of Michael’s strengths, as it would have required very specific people and language skills, particularly when having to mediate between enthusiasts from different countries and cultures, all with very strong opinions on the minutest of technical details.

Some of Michael’s work involved interpreting technical and historical documents written in other languages and then translating them into English. Working with Michael gave the increasing sense that he was someone with abilities and skills that the vast majority of people did not share. He had tremendous research abilities combined with meticulous attention to detail. I was sensible enough to ask him to comment on my early writings which were complete with various bald assertions and unsubstantiated historical claims. Michael would respond thoughtfully, saying things like “Yes – but can we be sure of that?”.

From 2002 onwards, we worked together a lot on various projects on behalf of the Mills Archive, the national repository for information about mills. Michael was a Trustee from the start. A particularly memorable occasion was in 2006 when I hired a van and we drove to Lambeth to ‘rescue’ the collection of Stephen Buckland, who had recently died. Michael appeared at our house early that rather cold morning, quite unrecognisable in numerous layers and a black beanie hat. Stephen had been Michael’s friend for many years and was rather an unusual man, unmarried and intense with a scattergun approach to research that must have caused Michael to raise his eyebrows. Stephen’s little terraced house was in a run down condition but Michael had encouraged him to donate his collection to the Archive in its entirety.

I think Michael had been itching to have a look inside the house for a long while. It did not disappoint, with boxes and books piled high everywhere, everything covered in a 2” thick layer of dust and pet hair which in many cases could be lifted off like a sheet. After a very short glance around the kitchen, which does not bear describing, we had a lot of fun separating Stephen’s collection from assorted household junk and squeezing the boxes into the van… We were pleased to return to Reading without having inhaled too much dust and relieved that the task of sorting out the contents of the boxes did not fall to us. The image below reflects a small part of Stephen’s collection, now catalogued.

I will always remember Michael as friendly, kind, patient, encouraging and positive. On behalf of my friends and colleagues in the mill community, we are exceptionally fortunate to have had him in our midst for so long. Michael made his research, and the research of others, accessible for people to benefit from in the future. But what people who knew him will remember most clearly is the careful, considerate way in which he communicated his thoughts and ideas. I think we could all do with being a bit more like him.