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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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By trawler from Aberdeen

This photo is an important reminder that without a range of extraordinary enthusiasts these collections would not exist.

This Gem is a black and white glass plate negative, from a series taken by David H Jones, a specialist in watermills.

During his research, David came across an account written by a soldier stationed on the Faroe Islands during the Second World War, who wrote about Norse mills on the island which were still in working order. Norse mills are a very basic form of mill, which use a small horizontal waterwheel and rely on controlling the flow of the water stream for precise grinding rather than using gears. They are the earliest surviving type of watermill in Britain, found only on the Northern Scottish Isles and in the Western Highlands. The chance of seeing this watermill for himself sparked David’s enthusiasm, and he decided to set off his own on a trip to the Faroe Islands.

This inspired David to set off on his own trip to the Faroe Islands to discover these mills for himself. However, this turned out not to be an easy task! He writes in his book: “I began planning the journey to visit them, but found it was not easy. The local travel agent had never even heard of the Faeroe Islands”. It transpired that there was no direct service taking visitors across the Norwegian Sea; the only port where he could find a ship was Copenhagen, and the only transport he could find were trawler vessels, the captains of which could occasionally be persuaded to take a passenger along, if they had the room. This was looking like it would be David’s best bet – until thankfully, his travel agent found a Faroese service that had added a few stops at the Shetland Islands. This meant that all he needed to do was get to Lerwick, the main port of the Shetlands. Sounds easy enough? Not so much in the 1950s…

“That was before the days of mass air travel and the BEA aircraft used in northern Scotland had two radial piston engines and seated 36. It was not pressurised, so as it took off the steward came round with a tray of barley sugar.”

And thus the expedition began! David describes leaving work in west London on the Friday evening, taking a steam train to Paddington, the underground to King cross and then finally catching an overnight train to Edinburgh. Here he caught a train to Glasgow, then a bus, a tram and finally walked to Renfrew airport. He hadn’t even left the British mainland and already he faced a trek worthy on an intrepid explorer! This much effort to travel is in stark contrast to today, where you can catch a flight from London straight to the Shetlands or even the Faroe Islands themselves. David described Inverness airport, today a modern, sprawling airport, as a “pair of Nissen huts”, Kirkwall airport as a “collection of improvised wooden huts” and Sumburgh as “a tiny kiosk with a signpost beside a bus shelter”. It is hard to envisage this, being used to the highly secure and modern airports of today!

Upon arrival at the Faroes, visitors were immediately faced with a major culture shock. David recalls that he was the only English traveller who knew what language was spoken there! Faroese is a North Germanic language descended from the language of the Middle Ages, Old West Norse. Danish is spoken as a second language and fortunately, David could speak a little Danish and was not completely stuck. However, due to issues in differing accents, David would have to communicate with the Grandfather of the family he was lodging with entirely through written Danish.

This barrier overcome, the journey was still not over quite yet: David still faced the task of actually getting to the mill.

“The nearest workable watermill was in the village of Kvìvìk, on the same island we were on. There was no road to that part, so I would have to take a boat. Next morning I went down to the quay and found a fishing boat. There was no special provision for passengers, not even seats; we just stood on the deck”

As the boat began pitching and rolling with the waves, Jones and his fellow local passenger found it harder and harder to remain on their feet – crashing into a metal frame that was the beginnings of a roof to shelter the passengers. David writes that the captain began to put the frame back into position, comparing it to “resetting a mousetrap ready for the next victim”. The boat arrived in Vestmanhavn, where he was to be picked up and driven by car on to Kvívík.

Upon arrival, he met the Bærentsen family, who he would be lodging with. Throughout the house David was staying there was evidence of Faroese traditions and a simple lifestyle; for example they had a bowl of family photos in the kitchen, which David explained was a Faroe custom available for any visitors to look through. The grandfather of the family even wore Faroese national dress!

The next day, after all this adventure and hard work, David finally set out to reach his final goal, and was rewarded by the discovery of a fully functioning Norse Mill.

He describes it as only being “slightly bigger than a large dog kennel”, anyone working it would have to “hunker down in front of the hurst”, while the millstones he claimed were about the size of a hand quern. Upon closer inspection he discovered that its tentering system was rare or unique, where a pair of wedges adjusted the bedstone by lifting front edge of the hurst.  He questioned why it had not been used elsewhere being so “simple and obvious”, perhaps this is due to the isolation of the islands, so ideas did not travel outside to the wider world? The mill was not used by the family but it was still functional, so David brought some barley to grind at the local shop. After a bit of trial and error, David managed to grind meal of the coarsest and finest variety, with the fine meal taking seven times longer. After presenting his work to the grandfather, he was told the coarsest could be good food for the chickens while the finest was of high enough quality to be used for cooking. Not bad for a tiny watermill!

After his successful visit to the mill, David took the opportunity to learn about the culture of the Faroe Islands and swap stories of everyday life with his host family before beginning the long journey back home – but not before dropping by Copenhagen to visit some Danish mills on the way!

It’s truly remarkable to read about the lengths that the intrepid David Jones went to to find these elusive Norse Mills, and it’s fascinating to read about what the Faroe Islands was like in the 1950s – a land lost in time.

Gem from the David H. Jones Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: Glass Plate Negatives have captured thousands of moments. However these photographs are very fragile. You can learn more about them here.
  • Losing your Marbles: Horizontal Waterwheels aren’t just used for grinding corn, but also for making marbles. Learn more about the industry behind many a childhood memory here.
  • Faroe Islands: Follow this link to the full set of catalogued pictures from Jones’ trip to the Faroes. They show off the beauty of the Islands and the uniqueness of the horizontal mills there.
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Milling for votes

The experience of a national suffrage campaigner which led to the saving of the nation’s watermills.

Miss Emilie Montgomery Gardner, known to most as E. M. Gardner, was an avid watermill enthusiast. It was through her diligent campaigning that in 1946, the SPAB agreed to expand their windmills section to include watermills. The SPAB were initially deeply resistant, but Miss Gardner’s determination and resilience managed to persuade the society of the importance of Britain’s watermills and the crucial need to preserve them for the good of posterity.  

Miss Gardner was born in America, but in 1892 her father moved the family to England in order to set up a company which manufactured steel and iron chains. She did well at school, winning a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge, a women’s’-only college founded in 1871. Miss Gardner continued to thrive and became a civil servant, eventually receiving an OBE for her services upon her retirement.

Miss Gardener led an exciting life, rather atypical for a woman of the age. She became a member of the women’s suffrage movement, and was involved in two caravan tours to promote the campaign. The first tour, in July 1908, involved Miss Gardner and some fellow Newnham students taking a train to Glasgow, from where they worked their way down the country to Oxford in a horse-drawn caravan. The journey was a huge undertaking, covering a distance of approximately 1380.29 miles.

The second tour, only a month later, took her a bit closer to home, travelling around Yorkshire for the duration of August. The picture to the left was taken on this tour: Miss Gardner is the one standing in the left of the picture, proudly advertising a women’s suffrage meeting.

These tours helped to pave the way for E. M. Gardner’s later travels, in which she visited and documented watermills. Her work was instrumental in raising awareness of this key area of the nation’s heritage, which up until then had been virtually ignored.

A report in the Lakes Herald gives an indication of her determination and oratory skills that would persuade SPAB to include the preservation of watermills under the remit of the windmill section.

‘Their powers of eloquence were such as would put to shame many a male speaker who has figured on a local political platform.’

Miss Gardner passed away on the 8th April 1959. At the time she was working on booklet seven for the Watermills and Horizontal Wheel series, alongside Paul Wilson. His memorial foreword gives a touching account, describing her as 

‘a woman of great character, humour and charm … how much better this work would have been had she written it’.

It’s incredible to see the determination and energy that Emilie Gardner brought to the preservation of watermills, along with her pioneering spirit and sense of adventure. It is thanks to her that the watermills of our country still continue to be preserved, documented and enjoyed today.

Gem from the E.M. Gardner Collection
Photograph of the Caravan tour used with the kind permission of the Women’s Library at LSE.

Related links

  • Further Reading: Miss Gardner’s campaign tours were huge undertakings. Her passion and tenacity shaped this crucial part of the suffrage movement. You can learn more about this here. 
  • Trailblazing the way for Women’s Votes: Read the story about how we discovered Miss Gardner’s caravan tours here.
  • Gardner Collection: Here you can view the fantastic Gardner Collection containing more than 2.000 images and documents. Make sure to check out her passion by browsing her photographs of watermills.