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Up to snuff

A Pandora’s box that contained toxic tobacco.

This Gem is a miller’s snuff-box, inlaid with a beautiful and intricate windmill design, as well as some mother of pearl. Snuff boxes such as this could be highly detailed and would require the skilled work of silversmiths, jewellers and enamelers. According to the engraving, this one comes from the Jura region of France: an area known for its fine small-scale woodwork. Workshops in the area produced many snuff boxes like this one with a huge variety of inlaid designs such as flowers, clovers and rural scenes including mills.  

Snuff is ground tobacco that you inhale rather than smoke. It was popular from its introduction in the 18th Century through to the 19th both with the upper classes and those whose jobs would make lighting a cigarette or pipe an extremely bad idea. This included deckhands on the wooden sailing ships of the time, miners and millers working in their highly flammable mills.

Snuff boxes were popular from the 17th to the 19th century, and they remain a popular collector’s item today. They come in various shapes and sizes; most were small for personal use, and some were even integrated into jewellery. There are also larger designs for communal use – one example being the snuff box at the door of the House of Commons which continues to provide free snuff to MP’s, a practice dating to the 17th Century where smoking was banned from the Commons.

Snuff itself was produced in both windmills and water mills. To make snuff, tobacco leaves are bound together, dried and matured, then ground into a fine powder by the mills, either using traditional millstones or by driving a large pestle and mortar like the one in the drawing to the right. 

Gem from the Mildred Cookson Foundation Collection

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Artist, soldier, criminal, monk

This sketch was drawn by the eccentric and enigmatic Karl Wood, only two years before he was sent to prison.

This sketch is from the Karl Wood Collection: it forms part of a project which he called Mühlendämmerungs, or Twilight of the Mills. It was a series of attractive ink sketches capturing the twilight era of Britain’s mills, from the 1920s to the 1950s. Wood’s aim was to publish a book of paintings of all 1,650 windmills that were still standing, with a foreword and introduction by Rex Wailes and Frank Brangwyn.

Wood’s ambitious mission to compile this book took him across the country, a project that spanned from 1926 until 1956, two years before his death. Impressively, he did almost all of his travelling by bicycle: by 1933, when he had drawn and recorded his first 450 windmills, Wood had already cycled 28,000 miles. After tracing his route on one occasion, he found that he had cycled 30 miles, visiting 13 mills in one day!

We can imagine that a large part of Wood’s journey was straightforward enough – sometimes he even took his art students with him on the easier trips (he was an art teacher at Gainsborough Grammar School). However, the exhibition that resulted in this particular Gem turned into a far more complex journey than he could have expected.

South Havra is a tiny isolated island off the West Coast of the Shetland Isles, which, by 1949, had lain abandoned and uninhabited for twenty years. Due to its remote location and lack of amenities it was not exactly a popular visitor destination – yet Wood was determined to succeed in his quest of visiting each and every windmill, and his stoic determination was to pay off. Catching the train from Gainsborough in the Midlands, he travelled to Aberdeen where he managed to catch a ship to Lerwick. From here, he was fortunate to find some locals, who agreed to take him in their small boat to South Havra and the mill. The Gem – the picture to the left that Woods drew of the mill on his arrival – is proof of his success!

This intrepid journey and successful completion of a difficult quest shows the extent of Karl Wood’s tenacity and dedication, and gives a taste of what a fascinating individual he was. Prior to this trip, he served with the Third Seaforth Highlanders in the First World War, suffering shrapnel wounds to the ankle whilst in France. He was promoted to the position of Corporal, but was then demoted back to Private under rather mysterious circumstances! 

Wood remained rightly very proud of his war service, despite this potential unknown scandal. After the war he moved to Gainsborough, where his name became synonymous with windmills due to his passion for painting them. He lived a comfortable life working as both a hospital secretary and as an art teacher at Gainsborough Grammar School.  He was widely liked and respected, with his eccentric nature and flambuoyant dress sense making him quite an unforgettable character. Wood’s homosexuality was an ‘open secret’; he had several relationships with men over the years (his diaries from his windmill expeditions hint at two ‘encounters’ during his visits – we can only imagine how they came about!). Whereas his sexuality would widely be accepted these days, unjustly and unfortunately for Wood, it was not the case in his lifetime: homosexuality being considered a criminal offense up until 1967. Regrettably, scandal seemed to follow Wood, and in a harrowing and unfortunate indident in 1951, Wood was charged with six accounts of what was then termed ‘gross indecency’ with three men, and was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. We can only imagine how difficult and unjust it must have felt for him for his sexuality to cause him to be classed as a criminal, and sadly he never truly recovered from the ordeal of prison.

Following his imprisonment, Wood moved to a Benedictine Priory near Moray, north-east Scotland. There he converted to Catholicism and remained devout throughout his life, serving at various times as organist, choirmaster and pageboy. At the priory he found solace: he became an Oblate (someone associated with a monastery, a bit like an honourary monk) and set up a stained glass workshop – both actions earning him great respect from the community.

Karl Wood passed away on the 10th January 1958, buried in the habits of a monk. The cause was tuberculosis, of which he had been suffering for some time. The Master of Oblates, recognising that Karl didn’t have much time left, served him his final communion – after which Wood passed peacefully away. 

It is sad that Wood was never to achieve his dream of publishing a book of windmills, but the Mills Archive is very lucky to have all 1,385 (so close to the final goal of 1,650) of his completed sketches, depicting mills right across the country from the Shetlands to Cornwall. We are very pleased to be able to allow people to view these drawings – one of the most comprehensive collections of windmill documentation – and appreciate a lifetime’s worth of such dedicated work.

Gem from the Karl Wood Collection in our catalogue.

Related links

  • Further Reading: Mills have inspired artists for hundreds of years. Whether in sketches, prints or watercolours you can learn all about the artistic soul of milling here.
  • By Trawler from Aberdeen: Karl Wood isn’t our only Intrepid Explorer who has explored a mill on an isolated island. Click here to find out about David Jones’ expedition to the Faroe Islands.
  • Detective Work at the Archive: Sometimes an archivist must be a detective to uncover the hidden stories behind the collections in their care. Learn all about how we uncovered the mysteries behind the Karl Wood Collection here.

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Theatre of machines

One of the oldest books in our collection, a guide for centuries of millwrights.

This fascinating Gem is an enormous folio-sized book called the Theatrum Machinarum Universale of Groot Algemeen Moolen Boek, which translates as the Universal Theatre of Machines or Large General Mills Book. It was produced by Johannis van Zyl and Jan Schenk as a reference book for millwrights and mill owners, and it contains highly detailed designs of mills for driving a variety of different functions. The copy that we hold in the Archive dates back to 1734, making it one of the oldest books in our library. What makes it such a Gem is its truly collosal size: it measures almost two foot high, making it by far the largest book in our collection, as well as one of the oldest. Its size means that the drawings inside it are very large, too: making it easier to properly see them and appreciate the scale and detail of work. 

The designs are truly magnificent: they are a combination of impressive feats of engineering and beautiful works of art. For example, one of the Netherland’s famous drainage mills is drawn with a geometric star-like wheel, which was as complex in its technicality as its aesthetics. It’s amazing to think that these extremely neat and precise drawings were all done by hand – these days we are used to technical drawings of this type being done on a computer. Drainage mills such as this were very common in the low, flat Netherlands as they were used to move water from one level to another, creating large lakes and reclaiming the land, making the Netherlands as we now know it.

The book also contains examples of different types of sawmills. One uses the rotation of the sails translated through the shaft to drive circular saw blades. A different sawmill design shows a series of cams that transferred the rotation of the sails into a linear motion, driving sets of very large band saws.

One common theme between the mills is the large protruding pole from the caps of the mills. This design was down to the lack of fantails on Dutch Mills; instead, the caps would be turned by hand.

Every one of these illustrations is a work of art, whilst also representing the transferring of lifetimes of millwork. It is amazing to think of all those skilled millwrights who have used this book to create such a fantastic Theatre of Machines. 

Gem from the Mills Archive Special Collections

Related links

  • Further Reading: Without a design it would be impossible to build a mill. As the needs of milling have changed so too have the mills themselves. You can learn more about this here. 

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Mill of old age

Some mills have miraculous powers.

This postcard was produced by the Belgium publisher Marco Marchovici in the early 20th century. The illustration is of elderly women entering the ‘Mill of Old Age’ on the right. On leaving the mill they have been transformed into glamorous young ladies. In the middle of the mill there is a chute for some poor women who have been rejected in the process!

The postcard plays on a common theme of the transformative power of mills – another example being the German reservist mill, another one of our Gems. However unlike other examples, this portcard is less serious and far more charming: the more you explore the image, the more you are treated to humorous episodes. For instance, the rather despondent donkey, the elderly lady falling into the mill in a rather alarming position, or the young lady admiring herself upon emerging.

Marco Marcovici was a Belgium publisher specialising in the tourism industry, which produced a large number of postcards from 1901 to the 1930s. This postcard is unlike the company’s standard works, which were more likely to be collotype views or guidebooks than miraculous mills.

Gem from the Mildred Cookson Foundation Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: Throughout history mills have been used as a symbol of rebirth, due to their destructive and constructive nature. Learn more about the origins of this symbolism here.
  • Germans Reborn: Not only can a mill grant you youth, they can turn you into a soldier, as this gem shows.

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Appreciative penmanship

After a lifetime of milling, William Cornwell was presented with this attractive certificate.

This attractive certificate was presented to William Cornwell in 1926 on his retirement, as a mark of appreciation for his work. By the time of his retirement in 1926, Cornwell had become Managing Director of Sun Flour Mills in Bromley by Bow, East London, and had advised Lloyd George on flour production during the Great War.

William Cornwell’s first recorded employment was as a pupil with the miller at Ickenham, West London. Following this, Cornwell was employed by the Sun Flour Mills Company from its inception in December 1887. He was appointed a manager of both the Bromley by Bow site and Stanley Bridge Mills at a rate of £208 per annum with accommodation at Waltham Abbey.

The buildings of The Sun Flour Mills Company in Bromley by Bow was originally a rice mill. Purchased by the company following a destructive fire at their Waltham site, it was converted into a steam-powered flour mill in 1889.  In 1921 Sun Flour Mills combined with five other milling companies to make the Associated London Flour Millers.

Gem from the Cornwell Family Collection

Related links

  • William Cornwell: In his lifetime of service William Cornwell was influential in the modern milling industry. Explore our Modern Milling pages here to discover more about the Cornwell’s.
  • Sun Flour Mills Index: Our Mills Index contains information on thousands of mills, including the Sun Flour Mills. 
  • Cornwell Collection: Want to find out more about Cornwell’s involvement in milling. Click here to explore his collection.
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Your fate is like that of man

“You worked blindly and towards an unknown end; but your end was certain.”

This beautiful watercolour is from a collection by Frank Brangwyn and Hayter Preston. The collection consists of a number of watercolours of different windmills, each with poetic anecdotes, which make up a beautiful and moving series exploring the state of milling and the decline of windmills. This watercolour is of St Leonard’s post mill in Winchelsea, East Sussex. Brangwyn describes it as:

‘built on frail, feminine lines. It reminded me of a respectable old woman whose dress has been patched and mended until very little of the original material is left.’

The poetic way in which Brangwyn talks about this derelict mill is an excellent example of the sense of attachment found across the collection:

‘O Mill, I thought, your fate is very like that of man. You worked blindly and towards an unknown end; but your end was certain. We also work on blindly, knowing next to nothing, guessing much, hoping that we may be respited even as the darkness closes round us…’

St Leonard’s Mill was a wind-powered corn mill built around 1760, and was in operation until the late 19th Century. It fell into disrepair and despite a number of restoration attempts, it ultimately collapsed during the storm of 1987 – leaving behind only a millstone, which was salvaged and used in the restoration of Lowfield Heath Windmill. According to Brangwyn, the mill has a somewhat macabre past:

‘As we walked over to the Mill, he told me an interminable story of a dead body being found near the place, and how a furious dispute between the coroners of Winchelsea and St. Leonards as to which of them should conduct the inquest, for half of the Mill is in one parish and half in the other’.

Whilst there is no other evidence of this specific story, it could well relate to an account given in the Sussex Agricultural Express on the 24th August 1861. According to this account the mill was undergoing repairs when, whilst hauling a new midding, the rope snapped – falling and killing the millwright. As there were no available witnesses from Winchelsea, jurors had to be summoned from Hastings and the inquest was held in the open air next to the mill.

Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) was an internationally renowned artist, the first to have a retrospective exhibition in the Royal Academy during his lifetime. Whilst he had no formal schooling in art, he did work for a short period of time under the famous textile designer, poet and social activist William Morris, which perhaps influenced both his passion for painting rural scenes. He is wonderfully poetic in the explanation of his love for windmills:

‘a spirit of something about Windmills, wholly indefinable. A sailing ship crossing the ocean is to some people as wonderful as a meteor crossing the heavens… and the majesty of Windmill sails revolving against the blue and green of quiet lands arouse in one sentiments as deep and mystical as one feels when gazing at the remote and whirling stars.’

As his wartime art would demonstrate, Brangwyn also had a passion for depicting simple labourers going about their work in his rural scenes. Whilst not an official war artist, he became heavily associated with war art as he completed many relevant commissions. Not all of them were appreciated, however – one particularly graphic painting depicting a British Tommy bayoneting a German soldier caused so much offence that it supposedly prompted the German Kaiser to put a price on his head!

This was not the only example of Brangwyn’s paintings causing controversy. In 1926, Brangwyn was commissioned to paint a pair of large murals as a war memorial to hang in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords, commemorating the peers who were killed in the war. Upon completion the paintings were rejected, due to their overly grim, bloody and somewhat disturbing nature, and Brangwyn was instead commissioned to paint a further series of more lighthearted work. These 16 huge panels took five years for Brangwyn to paint, but when finished, the Lords decided that they did not ‘harmonise’ with the Royal Gallery as they were “too colourful and lively” – and they were also rejected.

These rejections hit Brangwyn hard and sent him into a deep depression from which he never truly recovered. However, despite this rejection that he so strongly felt, Brangwyn’s artworks continue to be celebrated to this day, particularly amongst mill enthusiasts. His beautiful and touching collection of windmill watercolours expresses a passion for the mills and the generations of millers that worked them and conveys a haunting sense of longing for a bygone way of life that many can associate with.

Gem from Brangwyn, F. and Preston, H. Windmills, John Lane, The Bodley Head, London (1923)

Related links

  • Further Reading: Mills have inspired artists for hundreds of years. Whether in sketches, prints or watercolours you can learn all about the artistic soul of milling here.
  • Water and Wind: You can read about another of these beautiful watercolours on our blog here.
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A direct hit

‘By a piece of singular good fortune, no one was killed.’

This book called A Train Errant shines a light on a little-known aspect of the First World War. The book contains a bound collection of newsletters called The Orderly Review, which were published on board Great War Ambulance Train No.16, which was donated to the war effort by the UK Flour MillersThe Orderly Review was quite a varied publication, describing itself as ‘Illustrative, critical and literary’, with handwritten contributions ranging from essays on Gothic architecture, adverts mocking pastries and reports of the nature that could be seen from the train windows.

The Gem itself is a sketch from one of the newsletters of an incident that occurred on the 21st March 1918, when two bombs landed squarely on the ambulance train whilst it was boarding wounded soldiers at Agnez. The trains were painted with red crosses on the outside to show that they were carrying the injured and should be exempt from shelling, but the enemy were not always merciful, and there were reports of trains having to hide in tunnels to escape the bombs. This train didn’t make it to shelter in time, but the article describes how although the whole side of the coach was wrecked, miraculously nobody was killed and only two people sustained very slight injuries. The incident must have been quite a shock to those on board, but luckily they lived to write about it in the paper! The report states:

‘A couple of terrific explosions, followed by the crash of falling glass announced the arrival of two bombs opposite “H” kitchen. They fell in a shed, which took off some of their force, but the whole side of the coach was wrecked. By a piece of singular good fortune no one was killed. The mess-room was crammed with patients and every part of the train filled up, yet the only casualties were Gibson, who was cut about the head, and Stanley, who was hit in the back by a piece of wreckage.’

Those on the train were not from the British Army, but from the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU), a Quaker organisation for those who wanted to serve but due to their pacifist beliefs were not able to undertake armed combat. Despite their pacifist nature, the members of the FAU witnessed all the horrors and risks of war and saved many thousands of lives. One such FAU member was an individual called J.W. Major, who is shown in the adjacent picture stnading second on the left in the back row. This gentleman was the father of Ken Major, one of the founding members of the Mills Archive who was also heavily involved in the SPAB. His extensive collection is one of our founding collections and can be viewed on our catalogue here.

Gem from the J. Kenneth Major Foundation Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: These trains and those who worked on them save many thousands of lives during one of the most destructive wars in history. You can discover more about the courage and bravery shown on these trains here.
  • From Flour to France and Back Again: These trains wouldn’t even have existed without the remarkable generosity of millers across the United Kingdom. Learn more about the story of how these trains came to exist and view another one of our Gems here.
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A brush with death

“It was then that she heard the bloodcurdling screams of her stricken husband.”

This contemporary sketch was sold following a miller’s brush with death. The caption describes what is happening in the picture, as well as the reason for the sketch:

Toot Hill Windmill
In the Parish of Stanford Rivers, Essex,
Shattered by Lightning, June 18 1829,
This sketch sold for the benefit of the sufferer Joseph Knight and his family consisting of a Wife and seven children one of whom is deaf and dumb

On Thursday 18th June 1829, a vicious thunderstorm spread its way across the East of England. With rain lashing down, wind whipping across the landscape and the sky filled with the bellow of thunder, all it took was one bolt of pure electricity to cause immense damage. Joseph Knight, the miller of Toot Hill Windmill in Essex, was unfortunate enough to be in his mill at the time of the storm, when a lightening bolt caused a catastrophic accident. The miller’s wife recalled hearing a ‘hissing noise and a sound like artillery as the lightning struck the mill, and then an overwhelming smell of sulphur. Suddenly she heard the bloodcurdling screams of her stricken husband, and running out to the mill, she found him in a horrific state.

The poor miller had been caught in the destruction, and his wife found him with his right leg almost completely detached from his body.

His family immediately called for Mr Potter, the local surgeon, and his leg was amputated straight away. The surgery must have been performed on the floor of the mill!  His hair had also been badly singed and he had multiple injuries to his face, though luckily he survived. The second victim of the strike, the mill itself, was not so lucky. The lightning hit the mills sails, cutting two of them off in the process. It then travelled down into the interior of the mill, completely demolishing it from the inside. Its roof and weatherboarding were blown clean off.

The Toothill engraving above contains a lot more detail of the explosion and injuries. Windmills in exposed places were often the victim of lightning strikes, many of which resulted in a fire consuming the mill.

Related links

  • Further Reading: Over the years mills have suffered many catastrophic and lethal disasters. From lightning strikes to fires and explosions, you can find out more about the risks of milling here.

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Tales in timber

An American frigate lost and found.

This sketch of Chesapeake Mill is by John Munnings, the nephew of Sir Alfred Munnings, the controversial President of the Royal Academy who was famous for his paintings of horses. However, as these sketches show it was not just Sir Alfred with an artist’s eye. John was born the son of a miller and grew up at Mendham Mill in Harleston, Norfolk, where Sir Alfred also spent part of his life.

John Munning’s sketch of Chesapeake Mill, with his annotations about the mill’s historic importance, is a fine example of the unique histories that often lie beneath the surface of mills. Chesapeake Mill has a very unusual back story: it takes its name from a United States Navy frigate, the USS Chesapeake, which was captured by the crew of HMS Shannon during the War of 1812, following a naval battle that took less than quarter of an hour. The ship was taken on by the Royal Navy, and in service 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.

Munnings explored the country sketching watermills, with the intention of publishing a book of his sketches. The majority of his sketches were done towards the end of his life, and unfornately he died before his project reached completion. Despite this, we are fortunate to hold copies of his original sketchbooks, containing 143 drawings and written annotations and anecdotes, which beautifully capture his passion for drawing, and demonstrate his love and enthusiasm for the mills and milling families of the country.

Gem from the John Munnings Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: Mills have inspired artists for hundreds of years. Whether in sketches, prints or watercolours you can learn all about the artistic soul of milling here. 
  • Munnings Collection: Thanks to the work of Laura, one of our invaluable volunteers, you can view each one of these beautiful sketches in our catalogue.
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Napoleon’s folly

A supposed French invasion craft designed to cross the channel during the Napoleonic Wars.

In the late 1790s, Britain was gripped by the scare of an invasion by the infamous French warlord Napoleon Bonaparte. Over the channel he was amassing his forces; rumours of his conquests were rife and everyone knew he had set his sights on England as his next planned invasion. Indeed, a small French force even landed in Wales in 1797 (as part of a very brief and unsuccessful attempt at a diversion).

As it is wont to do (and was, even in the 18th century), the press took hold of the nation’s anxieties and began publishing satire about the supposed rafts full of military troops which would land on British soil. A variety of cartoons and reports were produced: the depicted rafts were all were impractically large and capable of carrying a very large number of soldiers, had some form of fortification in the middle and used wind-powered paddles as propulsion. These reports were all said to be supposedly from either ‘a prisoner of war’ or ‘a visitor recently from France’ to give them some form of credibility. The rafts quickly entered the public imagination and became a way of depicting the invasion threat in a comical manner, fuelled by Britain’s love of poking fun at the French (and perhaps also as a defiant stand against what must have been a very real and imposing threat). In the end, however, this invasion never came – Napoleon’s hopes dashed by Nelson at Trafalgar.

The Gem, an etching by Robert Dighton, was produced around 1798. Dighton was born in 1751 and entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1772, after which he set up as a drawing designer and miniature painter. He specialised in “dross”, caricatures of a more gentle nature than those by the likes of his main contemporaries, Gillray and Cruickshank.  Dighton was a particularly colourful character: as well as working as a caricaturist and performing on the West End stage, in 1806 he was caught for stealing prints from the British Museum and selling them on. It was quite a scandal, but luckily for him he avoided prosecution by fully cooperating with the investigation. Robert Dighton died in 1814, leaving behind his children who also became caricaturists.

Remarkably, whilst these depictions of rafts are clearly absurd, there have been some attempts at creating boats powered by windmills. Some are less direct and have used them to produce electricity which is then used to drive the underwater propeller; but others have been directly linked through a drive shaft to the propeller. Indeed, with growing concerns over the environmental impact of international shipping and with new designs such as the use of windmills, large kites and solid sails, we may yet see a ship that resembles Napoleon’s folly.

Gem from Wheeler, HFB and Broadley, AM, Napoleon and the Invasion of England: The Story of the Great Terror, John Lane, The Bodley Head, London, Volumes 1 & 2 (1907)

Related links

  • Further Reading: This cartoon is a piece of satire. You can learn more about this centuries old art form that stretches all the way back to the Ancient Greeks here.
  • Anglo-French Trade during the Napoleonic War: The archive has a folder of research papers showing that despite the invasion fleet trade did continue to cross the English Channel.