On Saturday 9th March, Ron, Mildred and I travelled to London for one of the big events in the Mills Archive calendar: The SPAB Mills Section Spring Meeting. The theme of the day was ‘Pioneers of the Milling World’: slightly different from the usual theme which is more focused on the technical structures and functions of mills. This angle was particularly interesting for me, as somebody who is not quite an expert in the technicalities of mill machinery quite yet!
After an hour of the guests arriving, greeting each other, catching up, generally milling around (pun intended!) and browsing the bookstall, Mildred, Chairman of the Mills Section, greeted everybody and officially opening the meeting. The talks began with Gareth Hughes giving a presentation on Blind Alleys and Broad Avenues: 18th Century windmill pioneers. He told us about the people who helped to make windmills more efficient, with their labour-saving inventions that improved the windmill so that it continued to be a viable economic enterprise in an increasingly steam-driven age.
Next came Steve Temple with his talk, The Machine of Marly, on two important water pumps of the ancient world. Steve raised the questions “Where were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and how were they watered?” presenting the theory that the gardens were actually located at Nineveh, rather than the present-day Babylon, and the water was pumped by an Archimedean screw from a canal that formed part of a 90km long irrigation system. He also spoke about The Machine de Marly, the water engine that used 14 waterwheels to pump water from the Seine, across 6 miles and over a 300ft hill, all the way to the fountains at the Palace of Versailles.
Steve was followed by Jim Bailey, Vice chairman of the Section, with a recount of the New Era of Milling, led by John Pocklington, the owner of Heckington Windmill from 1892 – 1941. A proud and complex character, Mr Pocklington was undeterred by his difficult childhood and compromising family circumstances, and rose to success, building himself a prosperous business. His mill was very important to him, and in 1936 he was awarded the first certificate by the SPAB Windmill Section (presented by Rex Wailes) for his “Zeal in the maintenance of these beautiful structures”, after carrying out a major restoration on the mill including four new sails and painting the cap and tower.
After Jim’s talk we paused for lunch, and were refuelled with delicious sandwiches, snacks, tea, coffee and cake. Attendees also had a chance to browse the almost-overflowing Mills Archive bookstall, manned by Ron, Tom and Margaret Derbyshire, and myself. I was really pleased to have this opportunity to meet some of the Friends of the Archive who I’ve conversed with over email, and to be able to finally put faces to names (and names to mills!). Everybody was very welcoming.
The afternoon began with an Open Forum, where the audience asked poignant questions about topics such as the conservation of mills and the worrying situation in Lincolnshire where the council were to sell off a lot of their assets, including 3 windmills.
Then Luke Bonwick spoke on the fascinating life of Arthur Carlton Smith, a windmill enthusiast who ardently and indefatigably bicycled around the country, meticulously plotting, photographing and recording over 750 windmills, across a dozen counties. A plucky and determined man, Luke also told us about Arthur’s career and exploits as an RAF pilot! The Archive is proud to hold his collection, which can be viewed on our catalogue here: https://catalogue.millsarchive.org/smith-arthur-c, and visited at Watlington House, by appointment.
The final talk was by Mildred, who gave a very interesting presentation on the Merchants, Millers and Millwrights of Mark Lane. Mark Lane was at the heart of the mercantile city, close to the Thames. When the corn exchange was open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, millers and millwrights could be seen there, wheeling, dealing and haggling over the price of grain that had come in by ships to the nearby London docks. Mark Lane had its own bank, and even a Mark Lane musical quartet, made up of millers. Sadly nothing is now left of the Lane, except the name “Corn Exchange” on No 55. Mildred went on to talk about all the past millwrights & engineers known to many who would have seen their names on machines in mills, and the millstone makers who supplied mills with French stones.
More tea and cake was followed by members’ contributions, in which Peter Hill updated everyone on the current state of mills in Sussex, and Jim Bailey finished off by talking through the process following the unfortunate accident at Heckington Windmill.
The meeting wrapped up with Mildred thanking everyone who had gone to make the day such a success. It was a very enjoyable event and great to catch up with old Friends and make new acquaintances. The next SPAB event we’re looking forward to is National Mills Weekend, on the 11th-12th May. An annual celebration of our milling heritage, hundreds of mills across the UK will be taking part and welcoming visitors to come and see pictures of their mill over the years. Have a look on their website to find a participating mill near you:https://www.spab.org.uk/mills/national-mills-weekend.