On Friday 20th July, Liz, Nathanael, Paul and I went on an exciting visit to one of the Mills Archive’s valued Heritage Partners: Upminster Windmill in Essex. Most of us had never visited Upminster before, so it was an excellent opportunity to build our relationship with them by discovering new ways of working together, and for me to get some more insights into the workings of mills and millwrights.
The Friends of Upminster Windmill are a very active and progressive organisation, with a wealth of varied talents between them. Each person contributes important knowledge and skills, whether they be on milling, gardening, IT, archaeology, running a community project or any other aspect of the many activities going on at Upminster Windmill.
We were greeted by Dennis and Paul, who were keen to show us around the mill and their new visitor centre, an attractive and efficient building which has been recently erected with the help of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Veolia, as part of the current restoration project. They demonstrated the impressive software they use for both modelling images of the mill, and for keeping records and memorabilia of Upminster’s history. I was particularly interested in their digital reconstruction of a bird’s eye view of the mill and surrounding buildings and grounds, as it would have looked in the 1920s. Putting the mill into the context of a working site really brought it to life, showcasing the important role it played in its heyday.
The mill was built in 1803 by James Nokes, a local farmer. It’s had a somewhat tumultuous past, changing hands numerous times and weathering several great storms which have caused damage to the sails, and even a lightning strike. Throughout its history, the windmill has held a special place in the hearts of the local community, who have intervened on more than one occasion to save this cherished part of their heritage – even placing a preservation order on the mill to stop it being demolished.
The Friends organisation was set up in 2003 to manage the mill on a day to day basis, and help with the restoration so that it could open to the public. It is now considered to be one of the very best remaining smock mills in England in terms of quality, completeness and significance, and to keep it that way, the mill is currently undergoing a large repair project.
It was strange to see the mill in its state of repair: when we first arrived, I wasn’t sure if the sail-less, polythene-wrapped tower was actually a mill at all! However, once we went inside I was stunned by the beautiful old bricks and timber of the original structure, which despite the metal scaffolding and construction planks, emanated a majestic air of importance and nostalgia. They are currently at the stage of rebuilding the cap frame, and the work is likely to be completed in 2019.
During our visit we were fortunate to be shown around by the millwright himself, Willem Dijkstra from Holland, and his assistant Douwe. Talking to Willem was fascinating: as well as explaining about the restoration of Upminster Windmill, he talked to us about the life of a millwright. Something that I found particularly interesting was the amount of time that Willem says he spends researching the previous construction, repair and maintenance of mills that he is working on, in addition to doing the physical work. The ratio is almost 50:50, putting a great deal of time constraints on the already-busy millwright. This emphasised to me how useful historical millwrighting records can be to modern millwrights – and reinforced the necessity of the job we do here at the Mills Archive, of preserving these important documents.
This information is especially poignant at the moment, as I’m currently working on submitting a grant application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, for a grant to help us to catalogue, digitise and preserve the collections on millwrighting that we hold in the Archive. Our visit showed me how helpful historic millwrighting records could be to projects like the repair of Upminster Windmill, and we hope that our collections will be able to help with such ventures in the future.
Thank you to the Upminster team for a great visit, and we look forward to returning soon to see the mill once the repairs are finished!
If you’re interested in finding out more about Upminster Windmill and their exciting progress, or upcoming events, you can visit their website: www.upminsterwindmill.org. You can also view some of their historic records, including wonderful black and white and coloured photos, on the Mills Archive website.