The Craft of Millwrighting
Welcome to our exhibition on the craft of Millwrighting. You can find the different sections of the exhibition below. We have videos introducing the exhibition and millwrighting at the beginning, followed by the educational text and images.
Navigate the Exhibition
The Development of Millwrighting
The Millwright's Materials
The Millwrights of the Past and Present
Who are the Millwrights?
Millwrighting is the traditional craft skill of building, repairing and maintaining a mill. It is a highly specialized skill that incorporates carpentry, engineering and metalwork. Physical evidence of millwrighting in Britain dates back to the Roman era, however it did not receive its name until around the 15th century. Over time, what was a thriving skill has now become endangered. As of 2019, millwrighting features on the Heritage Crafts Association Red List of Endangered Skills.
The Mills Archive is a permanent repository for the records of traditional and contemporary mills and milling, as well as similar structures dependent on traditional power sources. It makes that material freely available for public inspection and use in research and learning.
We would like to thank the The Swire Charitable Trust for providing funding for an intern to examine and promote our millwrighting records. The Swire Charitable Trust is an independent UK grant making trust. Since 1975 they have been supporting charities that share their commitment to delivering positive and lasting change to UK society. They fund charities that are working hard to protect and cultivate the skills and knowledge underpinning the UK’s heritage sector.
We would also like to thank our intern Hayden Francis-Legg who has been working on the millwrighting project. Without his work, this exhibition would not have been possible.
Since mills first appeared in Britain the craft of millwrighting has been practised in different forms. Mills were a huge part of British society, feeding communities for centuries. However, as technology advanced and milling became more efficient, fewer traditional mills were needed to provide flour for consumption. Although some wind and watermills are still maintained to working order to produce flour, most millwrighting work today is carried out to preserve old mills as a reminder of Britain's milling heritage.
However, as the interest in preserving milling heritage has slowly decreased, the number of millwrights also decreased. This is reflected by the difference in the number of millwrights in Britain today compared to the 1851 census. The census records around 10,000 millwrights, ranging from the traditional craftsmen to those attached to larger engineering firms. In comparison, today, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) names only 15 millwrighting contacts in their Millwrights Directory. This serves as a stark reminder of the decline of the craft.
Since the foundation of the Mills Archive in 2002, we have accumulated a vast amount of millwrighting material. This ranges from detailed drawings of mills to photographs and millwrighting ledgers that detail the price of millwrighting work. Together, all of this material tells an important story of a once-thriving craft. We can learn a vast amount from these records, such as the prices of work in the nineteenth century and the attention to detail that the craft required. Using media and text, this exhibition will tell the story of the past and present state of millwrighting. It will cover the development of the craft, the materials that a millwright would use, the contrasts between past and present millwrights and the biographies of key millwrights. Technical language is used where necessary as an educational tool to familiarise the public with the terms millwrights used. These will be linked to the glossary, which you can find here. Overall, we hope to present an easily accessible introduction to the history of millwrighting that can be enjoyed by the public and mill enthusiasts alike.
The word millwright did not originate until around the 15th century when the words ‘mill’ and ‘wright’, meaning worker, were combined to describe those who worked on mills. Until this point, millwork had been completed by the carpenter and the two skills shared similar traits, to such a degree that the phrase ‘carpenter’ was synonymous with ‘millwright’.
In this pre-industrial period, mills were mainly built of timber, though there were wind tower mills that were built out of stone where it was readily available. The first type of mill recorded in Britain was the watermill. Watermills had been in use in Roman times, and many are listed in the Domesday Book of 1086. These mills were similar in structure to houses, but containing milling machinery including millstones. A watermill was listed in Mapledurham, Berkshire in the book of 1086. There is still a watermill there today, however it is a rebuild of a mill that stood there in the 15th-century, with the oldest timber used in the mill dating from 1646. To power a watermill the millwright originally constructed a horizontal waterwheel that would directly power the millstones. This later developed into the vertical waterwheel, which would turn the pit wheel and power the millstones. The waterwheel would be designed to suit the water supply, usually following an undershot or overshot type. This is what we see today. In all, the millwright needed a significant amount of craftsmanship to construct a watermill in this period.
Millwrights also saw the potential to use wind as a source of power to produce flour in areas where water was not readily available. The earliest written reference to a windmill in Britain was in the 12th century. The windmills that millwrights built in the medieval period, and up until the industrial revolution, usually followed the simple design of a post mill. This was a mill whose body, which contained all the machinery, was mounted on an open vertical post. It had four cloth-covered sails and a long tailpole which was used to turn the structure into the wind so it could begin working.
This type of mill was relatively simple in structure compared to the later tower and smock mills. However, this does not take away from the early millwright’s skill. Though simple, the post mill demonstrates that the millwright of the pre-industrial period had an instinctive understanding of mechanics and power transmission. The post mill proved to be a reliable structure, and there are post mills that still stand today. An example of this is the post mill at Bourn, which was standing in 1636. Unlike some post mills from this period, Bourn still has an open trestle without a roundhouse. Although the mill is now on the Heritage at Risk Register, there are plans in place to restore the mill by Historic England, with funding from the SPAB.
As Britain became increasingly industrialized from the mid-18th century, the role of the millwright also changed. The main type of mill being built developed from the traditional wind- and watermill to the more industrial factory mill, which was powered first by water, through the waterwheel or turbine, and later by steam. Around this time there was also a shift away from the millstone as the main means for grinding grain. This was deemed inefficient, and the introduction of newer technology led to the rise of the roller mill in Britain and the decline of the millstone for the mass production of flour. This mill at Westminster Bridge replaced 11 of its 20 pairs of millstones with a roller plant and this meant it could produce flour more efficiently.
The traditional millwright assisted with the transition to the factory mill as they had the skills necessary to install the gearing. But as technology advanced, and the ability to cast iron became easier, mills became more complex to build. Iron began featuring heavily within the construction and gearing. This development brought a new set of skills to learn for the millwright, and the profession became highly specialised.
Not all the mills built in this period were factory mills; newly built wind- and watermills still appeared. Some mills in this period took on the newer innovations of the industrial period, such as a steam motor to power them or a small roller mill. This meant they could mill consistently without relying on wind or water and they could survive against competition from larger milling companies. However, not all mills could afford or adapt to this technology, and they were therefore left behind. There was also a change in the type of traditional windmill, with the smock mill becoming increasingly common. These mills had no tail pole, instead they used a fantail. This was a small wind-wheel set at a right angle to the sails to turn just the cap of the windmill to face the direction of the wind. This replaced the manual tailpole that was previously used to turn the whole mill into the wind. The introduction of newer technology for traditional mills is further detailed here.
Millwrights had the chance to increase their skills during this period and many did, and this may have led them down a more specialised career path. Some millwrights became ‘Millwright Engineers’ or even just ‘Engineers’. Despite this, they were likely to continue their work on traditional mills in urban and rural areas, even if they could expand their work.
During the 19th and early-20th centuries, the number of mills that could facilitate mass production increased, in line with increases in the population of Britain. This caused a decline in the number of traditional mills; in turn, the number of practising millwrights reduced. Many of those mills which were once important parts of the community became derelict or disused. Over time, a number of these mills would cease to exist due to a lack of care for their structure.
War could also be blamed in part for the decline in both the number of traditional millwrights and mills during the twentieth century. Not only were many millwrights conscripted to fight in both the First and Second World Wars, but the war destroyed many mills. Though the supply of food or gunpowder was of importance to the war effort, some mills were used for training soldiers and target practice and were therefore either damaged or destroyed. Other mills were destroyed if they were in a position of strategic importance. This caused many mills to be lost, and in most cases, there was no attempt to rebuild them. The Holman Bros. millwrighting firm was just one of many firms affected by the outbreak of war. Here is an insight into how they were affected.
Not all mills were lost, a good number were rescued. A movement to save these mills ensued from the mid-20th century and those remaining traditional millwrights had a key part to play in the repair of these structures. This would all add to traditional milling history. The SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) set up its Mills Section in 1929 following a call from the public to save what was left of our milling heritage. It later changed its brief to include watermills in 1946. As the main organisation for mill repair in Britain, they funded the work to be done through appeals. This provided work for the few millwrighting firms who still existed, maintaining their trade by travelling across the country to repair wind and watermills. Though this declined following the Second World War, the focus for the millwright remained on repairing and maintaining traditional mills as part of our national heritage.
The profession of millwrighting has slowly been in decline as the number of traditional mills has slowly reduced, due to factors such as a decreased interest in mills and the retirement of working millwrights. Those professional millwrights who are still practising focus solely on the traditional wind- and watermills that are still standing. In the late 20th century, the interest in preserving historic mills by local authorities began to decrease, likely due to the issue of funding. In 1994 the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), now known as the National Heritage Lottery Fund, was established. This awarded funding to those mills that needed repairing. However, only a small number of millwrights were in the position to take on this work. Before the Heritage Lottery Fund, mills had not always been repaired according to regional designs. Funding from the HLF allowed this to be corrected, specifically on Kent windmill sweeps (sails).
As of 2021, there are 15 millwrighting contacts, including both millwrighting firms and lone millwrights, on the SPAB Millwrights Directory. Though there are also many competent volunteer millwrights, the craft was placed on the Heritage Craft Association’s Red List for Endangered Crafts in 2019. The HCA has predicted that for the craft to survive, at least 20+ professional millwrights are needed. Steps towards this have been made by the SPAB through their Millwrighting Fellowship. This Fellowship offers a one-year training opportunity for an experienced craftsperson to learn the additional skills of millwrighting. In the long term, the society hopes to establish a more comprehensive training programme for those wishing to enter the sector from a more junior starting point.
Though there are hopes to address the current state of the millwrighting profession, there are barriers that currently stop it from progressing. The sector is currently poorly funded. Acquiring funding for projects typically requires an application process, and the funding is not always guaranteed. On top of that, the wage that the profession of millwrighting is currently earning is not high relative to the time or skill it takes to complete high-quality repairs. This often means that a millwright may have to turn to restore other heritage structures to maintain a steady income, and in some cases, these individuals may even leave the profession altogether. Apprenticeships are also difficult to come by, and usually an apprentice would have to have experience within a trade, like carpentry, before becoming a millwright. Hopefully, the issues with training and funding can be addressed and a healthy number of millwrights can be trained. This would reinvigorate the profession and in turn maintain the preservation of our national milling heritage.
Millwright Vincent Pargeter fixing new sails on Upminster Mill. Photo by Cliff Featherston.
The millwright’s original choice of material for the building of traditional wind and watermills was wood. Wood has featured in the construction of mills since they were first recorded and it still features as an important material in millwrighting today, especially in the repair process. The choice of wood for the main parts of a mill was very important, and these may also differ depending on the type of mill. The wood would always have to be durable as it would need to last a significant amount of time. In addition the millwright would need to know the ‘needs’ of the mill, as mills can be compared to living entities in the way that they adapt to weather conditions by swelling and shrinking. Therefore, the use of wood in the building or repair of a mill would need a carefully considered approach by the millwright.
The traditional millwright would in most cases use English oak when building or repairing the structure of the mill due to its hardwood characteristics and its resistance to rot. This would provide the best chance for the structure to last. The machinery would be crafted from oak, applewood, beech or hornbeam - these woods were durable and easy to replace if the cogs broke. Waterwheels were originally crafted from wood before they could be cast. The millwright would construct the rim out of oak and the paddles of elm. This would be less susceptible to rot and prolong the life of a waterwheel. Wood was therefore the traditional choice of material for the millwright, and it still features heavily to this day. Not only is it important to the authenticity of the repairs, but wood is also easier to replace and more cost-effective than other materials. A more in-depth look into the use of wood is available here.
Millwright Malcom Cooper re-wedging the wooden waterwheel onto its shaft, Mapledurham 2010. Mildred Cookson Collection.
Iron has been used by millwrights for smaller parts of mills, such as bearings or nails made from wrought iron, for centuries. As the ability to cast developed, the use of iron by millwrights in mills increased. Though the millwright would not cast the iron themselves, they would design and create wooden patterns for the foundry workers to cast the iron into. It became increasingly advantageous for the millwright to incorporate iron into their work as it would be less likely to break or rot than wood. However, it was realized that iron could not be used for all machinery as iron-on-iron gearing was likely to cause sparks, putting the mill at risk of fire. Instead, the millwright began to use wood and iron in tandem. It would be cost-effective to use both materials together as iron would last a considerable time and wood could be replaced much easier.
Another key material for the millwright in their work is stone, especially in the case of the millstone. Millstones come in two main types. One type is the English Derbyshire Peak which was made from one piece of stone. These stones were rarely used to grind grain for human consumption as they would grind a coarse flour and could leave small pieces of stone in the flour. The other type is the French Burr. These are made from pieces of quartz that are cemented together and bound with iron bands. French Burrs produce a more consumable flour for humans, but cost considerably more.
In the past, millwrighting firms were known to craft French stones by purchasing blocks of quartz and dressing them to sell directly to the millers. However, over time, the task of preparing and maintaining the millstone became largely the responsibility of the millwright. The millwright would have to cut the furrows into the stones so that they could grind the flour, these are found on both the bedstone and the runner stone and work together in a scissoring motion to grind the flour. The stones would need re-sharpening, depending on the use of the millstone, so that they could continue to produce high-quality flour. This preparation is known as ‘dressing the millstone’ and in total it could take the millwright up to three days to complete this task.
Picture of the French Burr millstone at Wimbledon Common Windmill. Photo courtesy of Mildred Cookson
The millwright of the past was a multitalented craftsperson who could construct, repair and maintain a mill using a multitude of skills. The millwright would have to be an expert carpenter and able to dress a millstone correctly, as well as versed in ironwork to some degree and the engineering skills needed to understand the basics of power transmission. To produce woodwork, the millwright would use traditional carpentry tools. These would include hand tools such as the saw, different types of planes and the adze. The adze was a particularly favoured woodworking tool of the millwright as it allowed them to shape pieces of wood to suit their needs.
When dressing the millstones, the millwright would have their techniques to ensure they were sharp enough to grind grain. The millwright would have to identify the high spots that were causing the stones to not grind properly. This would be done by taking a paint staff with a mixture of red iron oxide and water across the face of the stone. The millwright would then sharpen the stones, using tools that were specific to the task.
The tools used by millwrights to dress millstones included a mill pick, which was a sharpened piece of iron in the shape of a pickaxe blade, and which would be held in the mill thrift so it can be used to chip away at the high spots of the millstone. The millwright would use a furrowing bill to ensure that the furrows of the millstone were sharpened. Over time, millers also began to learn how to dress stones. This ensured that they could regularly maintain their stones, so they didn’t have to stop milling for a prolonged period. As some women were millers, they also learned the skill of dressing millstones.
Corcoran catalogue for Millstone Tools and Appliances, early 19th century. Courtesy of Mildred Cookson
The millwright of the past was also a daring character. They would complete the repairs on any mill by any means necessary, and this would include taking risks for their safety. A millwright would not wear any protective equipment and would rely on ropes and a cradle to save them from falling. This would be the only type of protection that was available to the millwright. Many repairs would have to be completed with minimal safety precautions and in the case of repairing the sails, a millwright may not even take safety precautions when climbing them.
‘His position seems decidedly precarious. 'Mind you don't fall Tom' calls Mrs Cattell. But Tom only smiles. He is standing on the sail buck which has been rotated into the horizontal position.’
Millwrights today have many similarities as well as differences to the millwrights of the past. They share similar skills, with today’s millwright also an exceptional craftsperson. They can work with wood and iron, and they are competent engineers, who understand the science behind the craft of the mill. Like their earlier counterparts, they can also dress millstones to a high-quality standard. However, the tools they use to complete their work differ in some ways because of technological differences. Though they still use similar tools to the millwrights of the past, such as the adze, the millwrights of today also use power tools. For example, electric-powered saws and drills became a key part of the millwright’s toolbox and would feature in the workshop of the millwright. This aids them in their repairs as it improves the speed at which they can complete their work without compromising its accuracy.
SPAB Millwright Fellow Toby Slater cutting mortice holes in the stocks for Kibworth Harcout, 2021. Image courtesy of Dorothea Restorations.
Millwrights who complete extensive repairs today have taken to recording them via the medium of drawing. Whether this was a small repair on a cog or a complete replacement of a cap or waterwheel, millwrights now produce drawings that provide the measurements of their repairs for future millwrights to refer to. These drawings are done in different types of media. The drawing shown here was done by hand and gives a highly detailed insight into the workings of the sails and fantail of a tower mill. Drawings can also be done virtually on the computer; this can offer a more accessible drawing as it can be examined remotely. This will allow mills to be repaired correctly in the future, and in some cases repaired to accommodate their regional differences, by millwrights who may not know a certain mill. Though millwrights of the past would have likely recorded their repairs through mill drawings, it would not have been as common a practice as it is today. Millwrights of the past passed their knowledge on through word of mouth to their apprentices and other millwrights. By doing this, knowledge has been lost over the years. It is therefore a key part of everyday practice for a millwright today so that these mills can continue to be repaired accurately.
Following the introduction of health and safety laws for the construction industry, the outfit of the millwright has changed. The millwright of the past would don his suit, flat cap and boots when carrying out repairs with little to protect him if he fell or a piece of the mill fell on him. However, today’s millwright has a very different look. The introduction of safety equipment on-site means that the high-vis and the hardhat are now a common sight. This offers increased protection for the millwrights and allows them to be seen. In addition, newer technology such as cranes and cherry pickers are used by the millwrights of today to assist with repairs. A cherry picker makes it safer and easier for the millwright to complete the repairs on the mill that they would struggle to reach. In comparison to the use of a cradle by the millwright of the past, it is deemed quite safe. A crane would also allow the millwright to safely remove parts of the mill, like the cap or sails, so they could be worked on. This is a much safer and more logistical way of completing the repairs and replacing parts of the mill that would have been hoisted with ropes in the past.
John Rennie was born in 1761 in East Lothian in Scotland. In his younger years Rennie trained in the workshop of the famous Scottish millwright Andrew Meikle on his dad’s farm in East Lothian without a formal apprenticeship. In search of millwrighting work, Rennie journeyed south towards London in 1784, briefly stopping at Soho in Staffordshire to work for James Watt. After this he took charge of works at the Albion Flour Mills in Blackfriars. Rennie designed the machinery for the mill, and he used iron to withstand the strain of the powerful Watt engines.
By 1788 Rennie had installed two of Watt’s engines, but he then left Albion Mills to set up his own millwrighting workshop and civil engineering consultancy. Rennie’s career then ventured into many different branches of mechanical and civil engineering before his death in 1821. In his millwrighting years Rennie achieved significant innovations by pioneering the use of cast iron for the machinery of a mill. These skills he developed through his training and work at Albion Mills allowed him to branch into civil and mechanical engineering in his later career.
Rennie’s millwrighting achievements at Albion Mill have been highlighted for us here by Dr Jim Moher and in his research publication The London Millwrights: Masters and Journeymen in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Cyril T.G Boucher also offers a more in-depth look at Rennie’s life in his biography John Rennie – The life and work of a Great Engineer 1761-1821.
John Smeaton was not a millwright but a ‘civil engineer’ by his definition. However, his contributions to millwrighting are too influential to ignore. Smeaton was born in Leeds in 1721. He attended the Leeds Grammar School before becoming a mathematical instrument maker. Smeaton released his influential paper in 1759: An Experimental Enquiry Concerning the Natural Powers of Water and Wind to Turn Mills and Other Machines Depending on Circular Motion. Smeaton addressed the relationship between pressure and velocity for objects moving in the air.
Smeaton designed 54 watermills, 6 windmills, and 2 horse-powered mills. The most famous of his contributions were to the waterwheel. Smeaton’s waterwheels were overshot, which meant that water was fed to the top of the vertical waterwheel, and this was deemed to be the most efficient type of wheel compared to the breastshot or undershot wheels. He also pioneered the use of iron in the construction of a waterwheel, choosing to use cast iron axles to strengthen the waterwheel.
Smeaton’s other work has been detailed extensively in A.W. Skempton’s biography John Smeaton FRS. In addition to millwork, Smeaton designed a substantial number of bridges and harbours, and, in arguably his most famous feat of engineering, he was responsible for designing the third Eddystone Lighthouse between 1755 and 1759. Though an engineer by trade, Smeaton’s millwrighting contributions were extremely important in the development of the craft, especially in the development of watermills.
Vincent Pargeter was an influential millwright who began his career as a volunteer before becoming one of the most recognised millwrights of the twentieth century. Vincent was born in 1943. After attending school, Vincent worked at Westminster Bank from 1961 until 1969; in this time he volunteered to work on mills. At the age of 27 Vincent decided to take on millwrighting as his full-time profession. In 1969 Vincent started a millwrighting firm alongside fellow millwright Phillip Barrett-Lennard called Lennard and Pargeter Millwrighting. The firm lasted 3 years and in this time the pair built a cap for White Roding and two sails for Mountnessing Mill.
In 1972 Vincent began trading as V.G. Pargeter Millwright & Mill Restoration Consultant. Following his fine work as a self-employed millwright, Vincent joined Essex County Council (ECC) in 1975 as their County Millwright. The ECC had five mills in their care at the time of Vincent’s appointment with the plan to bring all of them to working order and open them to the public, which he completed. In 2000 Vincent resigned from the ECC and became the sole trader of his millwrighting firm. From 2000 until his death in 2015 Vincent continued to restore and repair various mills across England and even travelled to Jerusalem in 2009 to assist with the repair of the famous Montefiore Windmill, which was built by the Holman brothers in 1857. There is a more in-depth description of Vincent’s life and work here.
Christopher Wallis was born in 1935 in Effingham, Surrey. After beginning his career as a railway engineer, Christopher took a serious interest in civil engineering, and this included an interest in mills. After hearing that Lacey Green Windmill had been declared ‘impossible to restore’, Christopher convinced a colleague to visit the windmill with him to see if this was true. Because of his engineering experience, he was able to produce a report, accompanied by diagrams and a model, to show how the mill could be repaired. He then committed himself to working on the windmill, running a team of volunteers whilst volunteering himself every Sunday from 1971 for 15 years.
A few years into the restoration, Christopher decided that he should dedicate his working life to restorative work. Following this, he worked on more than 20 windmills, winning the Europa Nostra Award in 1986 for his work on Bourn Windmill in Cambridge. Christopher also worked on many watermills, including crafting a new waterwheel for the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth in Wales. Mills were not his only interest and Christopher also completed other engineering feats in his career, such as barns and bridges. Christopher sadly passed away in 2006.
Christopher Wallis setting the sail cloths on Lacey Green Windmill in 1978
This exhibition has tried to present an overview of the history of millwrighting. Though this is a general overview of the history of millwrighting, it is by no means a complete history and there are many questions about the history and development of the craft left unexplored. Some of these include:
- Was the millwright an engineer? Or did they lay the foundations for the engineer?
- Were they as uneducated as once thought?
- How did the millwright differentiate from the carpenter in the Middle Ages?
We have a wide range of millwrighting records that could further shed light on the history of the craft. Our Holman, Vincent Pargeter, and Derek Ogden collections have many records including drawings, workbooks, and correspondence about millwrighting. You can access those here. We encourage interest in these collections and still need to digitise and catalogue some. If you would like to be involved with the process of digitising these records in a voluntary role, please contact us here. If you would like to read further on the subject there is an introductory reading list on the next slide.
Intern Hayden Francis-Legg looking at some of the millwrighting material we hold in the archive.
Development of the craft
- Mills and Millwrighting, Martin Watts, 2004
- The ‘engineers’ of Mills in the Later Middle Ages, John Langdon, 2007
- The London Millwrights: Masters and Journeymen in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Jim Moher, 2018
- Windmills and Millwrighting, Stanley Freese, 1971
- Millwrighting, James F Hobart, 1909
Millwrights of the Past and Present
- Mills and Millwrighting, Martin Watts, 2004
- Windmills of England, R J Brown, 1976
- Essex windmills, millers and millwrights, vol 2: a technical review, K Farries, 1982
Who are the Millwrights?
- John Rennie, 1761-1821: the life and work of a great engineer, C Boucher, 1963
- John Smeaton FRS, A W Skempton, 1981
- Vincent Pargeter’s CV