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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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A handy mill

Feeding an army in the depths of a Russian winter requires some handy ideas.

Handmills like this one were carried by thousands of Swedish soldiers during the Great Northern Wars of the 18th Century. They were used by the Caroleans, the highly professional soldiers of the Swedish Empire.

Grain both lasts longer than flour, and is far easier to store and transport. As a result, many armies throughout history have granted its soldiers rations in grain rather than finished food, a practice that dates back to the armies of Imperial Rome. Napoleon’s Grande Armée brought hand-cranked mills with them on the Russian Campaign, but these were heavy and cumbersome. In comparison, this simple Swedish mill could be carried by each individual soldier. Made out of wood, it was light and could be easily dismantled into three parts, and was easy to repair. As the mill was made out of wood, the grains would have to be very soft: when we tried to grind modern grains in it, they were too hard.

It is a very simple mill to work: the grain would go into the trough, then the soldier, using his own strength, ran the large wheel over the grains. From here the flour could be turned into bread, biscuits and flat cakes depending on the needs and desires of the soldier as well as marching conditions and the other ingredients available. Indeed this was another advantage with soldiers grinding their own flour as it is more adaptable to the variable conditions of warfare.

 Gem from the Mildred Cookson Foundation Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: Before steam-driven mills, wind-powered tower mills or horizontal waterwheels the strength of people and animals were used to produce our daily bread. Learn more about the earliest form of milling here. 
  • Curious Quern: Muscle-powered mills have been used for thousands of years. However, some, such as this rotary quern, would have been far more difficult to carry. Click here to find out more.

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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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Tilting at windmills

“Those over there are not giants but windmills.”

You’ve probably heard the common phrase ’tilting at windmills’, which, as the well-read amongst you might know, originates in the misadventures of Don Quixote – the influential novel written by the Spanish writer Cervantes in the early 17th century. As an idiom it refers to wasting time, fighting imaginary enemies, or pursuing an imagined but impossible goal – as did the hero of the story, the Don himself.

During the First World War, this phrase was often visually represented by artists in order to make symbolic remarks about the futility of war. This postcard from 1915 is titled ‘The New Don Quixote: The Adventure of the Mills’. It depicts a countryside scene showing six windmills, each one labelled as a country that made up the Triple Entente and its allies – with the largest windmill in the scene symbolising France. The windmill is being charged at by a knight on horseback: the knight, with his Prussian moustache and helmet, on a saddle marked with the German Imperial flag representes Germany, whilst the horse he rides symbolising Austria. The postcard mocks Germany and Austria, showing them as wasting their efforts by pursuing an imagined impossible goal, that of defeating the French and their allies.

What is particularly fascinating is the universality of the symbol of tilting at windmills: it was also used by the Triple Entente’s rivals, the Triple Alliance (the secret agreement between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy). The bottom picture shows a cartoon from the German satirical magazine Kladderadatsch, which was also published in 1915. In this version, the mill represents the monarchies of the Triple Alliance defeating England, France and Russia, which are symbolised by Asquith the British Prime Minister riding a lion, Marianne of the French Republic riding a rooster and Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevich Romanov riding a bear.

The fact that both sides sought to represent the other as delusional, wasting time and fighting an impossible battle, tells us a lot. It shows both sides’ determination to win and their belief that they were the stronger side – but more than that, it indicates the necessity of keeping the nation’s morale high by broadcasting these opinions through art. These postcards are fine examples of war propaganda decrying the opposition’s futile fight, whereas in retrospect we can now appreciate the futility of war in general.

Gem from the Mildred Cookson Foundation Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: Tilting at windmills is a very common idiom, but how much do you know about its origins? Did you know it comes from a jousting match with giants, but not the kind you were expecting? Click here to read more. 
  • Germans Reborn: Windmills appeared on other First World War postcards as well. Click here to see the mill that turned recruits into soldiers.
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Feeding the nation

This flour was Hitler’s secret weapon.

This Gem is a photograph of two flour bags, which were produced under Government regulations during the Second World War.

At the start of the war Britain was importing around 70% of its grain, but with the demands of war and the risk posed by U-Boats to imported supplies, the government sought ways to make limited grain supplies go further.

Thus, National Flour was introduced in 1942. Its extraction rate was around 85%, which was much higher that the white bread that was almost universally eaten before the war: a similar rate to today’s brown bread. Extraction rate refers to the amount of flour produced compared to grain – for example, at an extraction rate of 85% per 100kg of grain, 85kg of National Flour would be produced. White bread in comparison is more heavily milled and processed, with a rate of around 70%. In 1941, calcium fortification was also introduced as Rickets was found to be common amongst those joining the Women’s Land Army. Fortification of bread continues today in all bread aside from wholemeal. Fortification of bread continues today in all bread aside from wholemeal.

Bread was never rationed during the war, but it would come under rationing from 1946 till 1948. Commercial white bread, however, was banned altogether on the 6th April 1942, and sliced white bread wouldn’t be reintroduced until 1950, with the National Loaf abolished six years later. The National Loaf was unpopular and was dubbed ‘Hitler’s Secret Weapon’. It apparently had an unappealing colour and texture, but was much less wasteful than the more popular white bread and saved on limited supplies, as well as being healthier. Furthermore – at least according to the Minister of Food at the time – it acted as an aphrodisiac!

In today’s health-conscious world, with a backlash against white bread, it is interesting to see the unpopularity of the introduction of what effectively was brown bread. Indeed, the National Loaf didn’t appear to have any lasting effect, and as soon as it was reintroduced people started buying white bread again.

Gem from the Martin Watts Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: Without a reliable supply of food Britain would have lost the Second World War, however getting your daily bread was far more difficult during wartime. Learn all about the demands of war on the milling industry here. 
  • Gingham Girl: Flour bags, whilst at first unassuming have a rich and varied history. For instance, an enterprising company would turn them into dresses. 
  • 20th-Century Milling: Interested in the twists and turns of the modern milling industry? You can find out all about milling in the 20th century here.

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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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Germans reborn

Mills are often used as a symbol of rebirth.

This intriguing Gem is a pre-First World War postcard entitled ‘The Reservist Mill’. It depicts German recruits going into the mill and coming out as reservists – the image explained by a poem underneath the mill:

‘Just as the finely-milled corn
Comes out as flour
The Recruit goes into the barracks
And goes home as a reservist.’

The postcard was produced at a high point of German, particularly Prussian, militaristic nationalism, following their victory in the Franco-Prussion War of 1870-1871. This victory had lead to the creation of Germany as a more unified state, combining provinces such as Saxony and Prussia. By 1914 Germany had the most efficient army in Europe, and implemented universal mass conscription. Men were recruited into compulsory military service which lasted for three years, followed by four years as a reservist.

‘Mailing cards’ such as this were introduced in Germany in 1865 by Heinrich von Stephan, the Postmaster General of the German Empire. The first legally printed postcard carried a similar Prussian militaristic theme, with a picture of a German Artillery man loading a cannon. From these origins, Germany would become the leader of the postcard printing industry, with a particular boom of ‘postcard mania’ in 1903. 

Uniquely interactive postcards such as this one were used by military service recruits to send home to their families: there is a little space over the mill’s doorway which allowed the sender to fill in the number of days they had left to go – in this case, 190. Unfortunately, the writing on the reverse is illegible, but we can only imagine that it could have been an update on military training life by an enthusiastic young recruit, or a promise that a homesick reservist would soon be coming home to his loved ones.

This postcard demonstrates the extent mills are part of the communal psyche as they have become a popular motif beyond the milling world.

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.
  • Mill of Old Age: Mills weren’t just able to turn men into soldiers but made old women young again. Learn more about this miraculous power of mills here.
  • Hidden Messages: Postcards sometimes contained secret signals as in a 1910 item found by a volunteer, click here to learn the secret language behind postcards.
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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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From flour to France and back again

A lifesaving link between milling and The First World War.

These two identical oval plaques once decorated two railway carriages of a First World War Ambulance Train. The two carriages (numbers 16 and 17) from which the plaques come were on one of the earliest ambulance trains, which played a crucial role in the support of troops on the front line. The trains, which transported wounded soldiers from the trenches to nearby hospitals where they could be properly cared for, were equipped with bunks for casualties and treatment rooms where nurses could provide vital immediate care from life-threatening injuries sustained during battle. The lifesaving railway carriages which bore these specific plaques were donated to the war effort by the United Kingdom Flour Millers, whose considerable fundraising effort paid for the carriages to be converted and fitted out.

Carriages 16 and 17 were part of the first British trains to operate on the continent. They were far more suited to their role than the French equivalent (converted rolling stock trains), and their success convinced the British Government to organise the construction of standard ambulance trains, which by the end of the war had transported over two million wounded.

The Mills Archive is very grateful for the kind donation of these plaques by Stephen Cannons, from the collection of his father, John Cannons, a lifelong railway enthusiast. Stephen also provided an account of a relative, Arthur England, who travelled on an ambulance train. Arthur was stationed in what became known as Death Valley, due to the heavy shelling of the area. On the 1st June 1916 he reported:

“I was hit about 11, a nice little machine gun bullet in my left thigh which went straight through – no great damage.”

He would go on to spend a fortnight in a hospital near the front line while his leg healed, and was then sent home by a sympathetic doctor so he could get some leave, having been in Europe for a year. To help his journey, the kind doctor marked him as a stretcher case – but on arrival at the station, the authorities informed the wounded that only walking cases would be allowed on the train. At this point Arthur decided he was no longer a stretcher case, got up and boarded the train back to Britain! His remarkable story, however, does not finish there. Arthur would later return to France where he would be more seriously injured. On returning once again to England, the hospital ship he was on was hit and the wounded were transferred onto fishing boats to make the rest of the crossing.

Ultimately by the end of the war, it is estimated that close to 2.7 million wounded soldiers had travelled on the ambulance trains. They were responsible for saving hundreds of thousands of lives – some of which were saved on the very trains from which these plaques came. 

See the Gem ‘A Direct Hit’ to read an account of an incident that happened on one of these ambulance trains.

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.
  • A Train Errant: Here at the Mills Archive we have another, more personal link to these trains. Click here to uncover the stories of the men and women who worked on these trains, and view a unique Gem in our collection. 
  • Milling and Railways: As milling became more industrialised and developed on a large scale, transport links became increasingly important to the industry. Learn more about this here.