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James Venn Collection

The Windmills and Watermills of Buckinghamshire

For a book that has still not been published in its entirety, Stanley Freese’s work on Buckinghamshire wind and watermills has a long history, which can be traced through the various versions found in the James Venn Collection at the Mills Archive.


A typed note produced by Stanley Freese, c 1939 gives an outline of his intentions for the work he planned on calling A topographical and historical survey of the windmills and watermills of Buckinghamshire. It was to ‘cover every windmill and watermill ever known to have existed in the county, giving an outline of its ownership from earliest times’ along with information on location and period of existence, ‘what alterations, fires, riots, disasters etc have happened to them, when and how the non existant mills met their end’.

The book was to be illustrated by photographs of most of the mills, and enlivened with details of mill history gleaned from interviews with ‘old-time wind and watermillers’.

The note ends by saying that ‘unless the political situation intervenes, it is hoped announce the book during the present year’. Unfortunately, the ‘political situation’ referred to was to lead within a few months to the outbreak of World War II, and Freese’s hopes for his book, along with his love of photography and career as a commercial artist all had to be put on hold.

A letter of 12 December 1945 in the collection gives a glimpse of Freese’s renewed attempts at publication after the war was over. In it he further details his hopes for the book – ‘I anticipate the book will run to between 400 and 500 pages, at an average of one mill per page … there are a large number of my own photographs, illustrating about 150 wind and watermills … I proposed getting these onto 64 art pages, printed back to back on the paper; and there will be sectional line-drawings… I do not anticipate a large sale – possibly 500 copies at two guineas, or something on those lines.’ Sadly, this was not to be.


Freese was clearly an opinionated individual, harbouring feelings of resentment towards the authorities and a sense that England was no longer the country it had been, and those in power were responsible. These views make their way into his manuscript in several places, particularly the introductory chapters, where he laments the loss of wind and water power and the advent of a ‘Dark Age of Fuel-burning’, laying the blame on ‘conservative old men’ and numerous other classes of people who he saw as ‘illiterate middle-men’ who ‘thrive upon the inefficiencies of the twentieth century “system”’.

The page below, clearly written before the war and edited after, gives a flavour of his attitudes. Perhaps it’s not surprising that no publishers were forthcoming!


According to Farley and Legg (Freese, 2007, p. viii), Freese deposited a copy of his manuscript with the Buckinghamshire County Museum in the 1950s. From the page they reproduce, this would seem to be an intermediary between the two typescript drafts now at the Mills Archive, as the handwritten additions and corrections it contains were incorporated into the text in the second typescript draft.

Freese also gave a copy to his old friend H E S Simmons. In a letter to James Venn written shortly after Freese’s death (of which the first page is reproduced below), Simmons states that, in view of the fact that both men were suffering from heart conditions, they returned each other’s manuscripts in the early 1970s. Having no other binding, Simmons returned Freese’s Buckinghamshire manuscript in the same folders in which Freese had returned Simmons Sussex manuscript. This would explain why the first typescript draft in the Mills Archive collection is contained in four manila folders labelled ‘Sussex Windmills Survey’.

James Venn met Stanley Freese while still a teenager in the 1930s, and remained friends with him, buying his house ‘The Kraal’ in Buckinghamshire in 1964 and inheriting his papers and photos on his death in 1972. It was his intention to publish the windmill section of Freese’s manuscript, with such corrections and additional information as he could find. The Mills Archive collection contains a book with Venn’s unfinished handwritten revision of Freese’s manuscript, along with numerous folders of research.

Venn’s intentions appear to have altered over time. His preface to the handwritten volume states:

Much additional information has indeed come to light in the forty years since the completion of the original manuscript and in some cases errors have become apparent necessitating the re-writing of some parts. However, where appropriate the original text has been left unaltered.

(Venn stated earlier that the original manuscript was completed in 1939, putting this version at c 1979). A later version of his preface, however, states that revising the manuscript

…proved to be a task considerably beyond what had been at first anticipated … by now it was becoming apparent that it would be impossible to insert so much extra into the original text, which in any case required numerous corrections and alterations and so it was decided that the only satisfactory solution was to produce a completely new version, incorporating the Freese contributions wherever appropriate.

However this planned new version never got beyond the stage of gathering information in note form.

The watermill section of the manuscript was published in 2007 by the Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society. This version presented Freese’s text without alteration, based on the copy deposited with the Buckinghamshire County Museum, edited by Michael Farley, Edward Legg and James Venn, with a contribution by Martin Watts. It is available in the Mills Archive library and bookshop.


Freese’s writing may not meet today’s standards for research – he failed to provide references for much of the information he presented, leaving it unclear what his sources were. However the value of his work lies in the information it contains which is now no longer available anywhere else. According to James Venn:

…he began systematic research into both wind and watermill history just in time to record the final generation of Buckinghamshire millers and many other old people whose personal recollections went back as far as the 1850s. Within a decade, this unique and irreplaceable source of information had gone forever, thereby making Stanley Freese’s manuscript the only reasonably complete and definitive record now existing of this industry in Buckinghamshire.

(Freese, 2007, p. vii)

As such, Freese’s work deserves its place in the Mills Archive as an important contribution to milling history.