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Birth of a millwright

This Apprenticeship Indenture marks the birth of a millwright.

This Gem is an indenture between the millwright and engineer Thomas Pilbeam, and his new apprentice, Charles William Dew. Dated to the 14th October 1865, it agrees that Charles Dew will work for five years, and promises his good and lawful behaviour. In return he will be taught ‘The Art of the Millwright and Engineer’. It also agrees to an increasing rate of pay as his skills and abilities develop throughout the apprenticeship. He begins on six shillings a week and ends on fourteen shillings a week in his fifth year of employment.

Based on the subsequent letter of reference from Thomas Pilbeam, Charles Dew had a successful apprenticeship. His first reference is dated to the end of his apprenticeship in 1870. In it Thomas describes Charles as his late apprentice and that

‘I am sorry to say that I have not work enough at present to keep him employed.’

His second letter of reference shows that Charles was able to gain employment. It explains that he worked as a millwright and engineer at West Medina Mills for six months, leaving to work on another mill under construction. It was written by the foreman at Medina Mills, in it Charles is described as having ‘given full satisfaction’.

Gem from the Small Donations Collection

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The Wing Major

‘It consists of a windmill, but one totally different in appearance and principle from all windmills known hitherto.’

This is a Ventimotor, designed by an Artillery Officer to save the German Milling Industry. It is a very early version of an electricity-producing wind turbine. Designed by Major Kurt Bilau, it makes use of principals from aeroplane design to produce greater centrifugal force, improving its efficiency and output. By placing the dynamo in the egg-shaped front of the turbine, he also minimised interference in airflow. When the sails of his Ventimotor were turned by the wind, in turn, they drove this dynamo which produced electricity.

Major Kurt Bilau was himself an interesting individual. Serving as an artillery officer for the German Army during World War I, he was awarded the Iron Cross. It is likely from his time in the army that his interest in windmills was peaked, as they were often used as observation posts and landmarks for targeting. Following the war he worked in Göttingen Aerodynamic Institute where a newspaper report in the Mirror 1924 states that “while working one day in his laboratory at Göttingen he saw in a flash that windmill construction had for thousands of years been all wrong”.

Bilau was concerned both with German post-war coal shortages and with the decline of traditional milling. His membership of the Prussian Officer Class had given him a paternal outlook, and he hoped that improvements in windmill design would improve output, thus guaranteeing livelihoods and traditional skills into the future. As such his sails were originally designed as modifications to windmills, whilst the Ventimotor itself was to provide an additional source of income to millers. His passion and tenacity for this pet project earnt him the nickname of ‘The Wing Major’.

An eccentric individual, alongside his sail designs Major Bilau also wrote and lectured on topics such as astrology and Atlantis.

Gem from the Mildred Cookson Foundation Collection

Related links

Trading Wind: New wind turbines such as this were treated with excitement and expectation. For many they were seen to herald the future of electricity production. See how this excitement was captured in advertising here.

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Ink is thicker than water

Using the power of wind to bring water to Wiltshire.

This Gem is a series of designs which were drawn for a proposed windmill that would have driven pumps for water as part of the country’s smallest water company. The designs were for H.C. Stephens Esq, a highly successful businessman, M.P. and well-loved philanthropist. His father, Dr Henry Stephens, invented an indelible ink, and upon his death, H.C. Stephens took over production and turned it into a highly lucrative business for which he was given the nickname ‘Inky Stevens’. This ink remains today the only ink you are allowed to use for legal documents and ships logs and was used to sign the Treaty of Versailles.

With profits from the company, Henry Stephens bought Cholderton Estate. On arrival, he found the area lacked a reliable water supply. As a Conservative M.P. he was able to push through an act of Parliment in 1904, setting up the Cholderton and District Water Company to rectify this. Until privatisation, this was the only private water supply company and it remains the smallest water supply company in the country. It covers an area of only twenty-one square kilometres, almost a quarter of which is the Stephens Estate.

If this windmill had been built, it would have played a role in bringing water into this area. As it is, this beautiful design remains as a fitting tribute to the much loved Inky Stephens.

As you can see from these pictures, the particularly remarkable thing about this Gem is how large it is!

Gem from the Large Mill Drawings Collection

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. 
  • The Life-Giving Camel: Wind isn’t the only way mills have moved water. Learn more about how camels have been used for irrigation here.

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An explosive business

These tools of war enabled centuries of explosive bloodshed.

This Gem is an adjustable copper measure for gunpowder and shot. Without these, it would once have been impossible for riflemen and sportsmen to reliably measure the correct amount of powder for their weapon and launch projectiles. To work it, one would twist the bottom of the copper cup to adjust the size based on markings along the side of this cup. One would then fill it up and scrape off any excess grains, giving a precise and repeatable amount of powder for reliable shooting.

Black powder was invented in ancient China, and travelled through the Islamic World along the Silk Roads. It arrived in Europe with the early Crusades and the Spanish Reconquista. Mills were crucial to its mass production as they drove a number of processes in its production. Often these were water-powered mills, through wind and horses were also used.

This centuries-old form of warfare was replaced in the late 19th century with developments in smokeless powder. However, Black Powder enthusiasts and the fireworks industry continue to use this potent mix for making a bang. 

Gem from the Mildred Cookson Foundation Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: Black Powder was used in warfare for centuries. Learn more about how milling drove this lethal industry here.

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Small scale

This curious contraption is a chondrometer and is used for measuring the quality of grain.

This unusual Gem is a chondrometer: a measuring instrument designed to determine the bulk density of grain. It is essentially a specialised set of scales, with a small pot for the grain on one side, and a counterweight that slides along a scale on the other side. It was used by millers and grain merchants to tell the quality of the grain: they would take a small sample of grain and from it measure out a bushel, using the chondrometer to determine the density, which is what denotes the quality of the grain as if some of the grains were withered, the density would produce a lower weight. They were made to be small and portable so the miller or merchant could take it with them wherever their business was; as such they usually came in a built-in box like this one.

The way a chondrometer works is that that the grain would be put in the small tub called called the ‘known volume’. Excess grain would be scraped off the top using a ‘strickle’, and the known volume then placed on the scale. The counterweight on the other side would be slid along the scale until it balanced against the known volume, at which point you would read the test weight from the scale, based on where the counterweight is. The miller would then be able to tell the quality of the grain.

Later versions of chondrometers such as this one would have a conical funnel or charging volume, allowing you to fill the known volume in a more controlled manner.

This specific chondrometer belonged to the miller at Crayford Mills in Kent, and was used all the way up to the 1980s. It was made by the firm Corcoran and Son, established by Bryan Corcoran in 1805. The firm gave evidence for a petition relating to the Weights and Measurements Act and following its imposition, they were one of several companies to develop chondrometers. 

Gem from the Small Donations Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: Learn more about the hundreds of measurements required to successfully work a mill. 
  • Grain Measure: Chrondrometers were not the only method of measuring grain. Click here to find out about another.

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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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Measure for measure

‘Safe as a thief in a mill.’

Millers have historically had a terrible reputation. Old sayings such as ‘honest millers have hairy palms’ and ‘safe as a thief in a mill’, show how unpopular they were in their local communities. They were accused of stealing more than was due to them, as well as having ideas above their station. In general, they were seen as untrustworthy and selfish, enriching themselves at the expense of others. A fine example of this can be seen in Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale. This is a modern translation of an excerpt describing a miller:

‘He was a quarrelsome swaggerer to the full.
No man dared a hand on him to lay,
Because he swore he’d make the beggar pay.
A thief he was, it’s true, of corn and meal,
And sly at that, accustomed to steal.
His name was known as arrogant Simpkin.’

This Gem is a wooden grain measure. Ones like this were used in the 19th and 20th centuries to standardise grain measurements, combatting any chance of unscrupulous dealings. They were handmade out of wood and had to be officially verified as matching the official measurements; once verified, marks would be burnt into the wood to clearly show the measurements. This included a mark at the outside top of the measure so that the rim couldn’t be shaved off to make it smaller, and a mark on the inside bottom so a false bottom couldn’t be inserted. As well as this they were marked with their capacity, the initials of the reigning monarch and the Royal Cypher. The lengths gone to to ensure that a measurement of grain couldn’t be falsified show how regular an occurrence it must have been before such measures were made!

Gem from the Mildred Cookson Foundation Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: Learn more about the story of measurement in the United Kingdom here. 
  • Small Scale: Grain measures were not the only method of measuring grain. Click here to find out about another.