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Gems of the Archive: Of War and Waterwheels

You may be familiar with the artist Sir Alfred Munnings, known for his impressive oil paintings of everything equine: from elegant race horses, to majestic hunting steeds, to quaint pastoral scenes featuring portly ponies blending into an idyllic, English landscape. But have you ever heard of John Munnings, lesser-known nephew of the great artist?

Poster Image

John Munnings was born in 1916, and like his uncle before him, was brought up at Mendham Mill on the River Waveney in Mendham, Suffolk. John’s father was the miller there, and thus Munnings grew up surrounded by the activity of a busy working water mill (on which more information is available in our catalogue).

Whilst Alfred found artistic inspiration from further afield, influenced by bohemian Cornish artists’ circles, gypsies, dancing girls and the battle-torn Western Front of the First World War, John was inspired by the lifestyle on his doorstep. As well as learning the ins and outs of operating the mill, which he wrote about in his book of fascinating memoirs, (an insight into which is available here), John developed a passion for sketching watermills. This passion turned into an ambition to publish a book full of sketches of England’s watermills, for which he travelled around the country, visiting and drawing as many mills as he could. Unfortunately he didn’t manage to publish the book before he died, but the Mills Archive is fortunate to hold copies of 143 of the drawings he did manage to do, accompanied by written anecdotes.

John’s interest in the workings of mills, combined with his passion for drawing them, is evident in the enthusiasm and love which emanates from the sketches and anecdotes in his book. In a distinct black and white style, John’s ink drawings are accurate yet characterful, capturing the essence – almost the personality – of the mills he drew.

One sketch with a particularly interesting back story is that of Chesapeake Watermill, situated on the River Meon in the tiny village of Wickham, in Hampshire. If you think the name ‘Chesapeake’ seems rather incongruous with the quintessentially English village in which it stands, you’d be right: it takes its name from the historic ship the USS Chesapeake, which was named in turn from Chesapeake Bay, situated on the east coast of America between the states of Virginia and Maryland.

It is a tale of unusual events that brought the name from its origins in America to its new home in Hampshire. The year was 1813; the United States Congress had declared war on the United Kingdom, and the two were engaged in mutual hostilities in what was to become known as the War of 1812 (fought from 1812-1815, but that name doesn’t have as good a ring to it).

The USS Chesapeake, commanded by Captain James Lawrence, sailed out of Boston Harbour on June 1st to meet the waiting HMS Shannon, a British frigate. Then ensued a battle which lasted only ten to fifteen minutes, in which time the Chesapeake lost her wheel and fore topsail halyard and Captain Lawrence was mortally wounded. Totally overpowered and with a loss of steering, the British were able to capture the ship, sailing her to Nova Scotia before re-commissioning her for the Royal Navy.

The Chesapeake served in the Royal Navy for a further 7 years. Once decommissioned, the ship’s timbers were taken to the village of Wickham in Hampshire, and used to build the mill which was constructed on the banks of the River Meon in 1820. It was a working corn mill until finishing commercial production in 1976, and is now a vintage homeware store and cafe. Munnings mentions that marks caused by HMS Shannon’s grapeshot can still be seen in the timber of the building to this day, as well as, supposedly, the blood of American soldiers.

I wonder whether this tale of war and plunder particularly inspired John Munnings as he drew Chesapeake Mill. After his boyhood at Mendham Mill, John was swept into the tumult of World War II and enlisted in the army, at one point being captured by the Japanese. After the war John returned to a more peaceful way of life, where he married and became the manager of an agricultural firm. He continued to paint mills, as well as English countryside scenes, for the rest of his life, completing his sketchbook from 1980 until his death in 1987. The Mills Archive is very fortunate to hold Munnings’ collection of sketches, with fascinating and entertaining anecdotes that give an insight into his lively personality and genuine passion and care for mills and the milling industry.

Read the Gems of the Archive article on Munnings’ sketch of Chesapeake Mill here.

John Munnings’ collection can be viewed on our catalogue here.  

A fascinating article from 1912 about the USS Chesapeake can be read here:

Some information in this article taken from