DEVELOPMENT OF THE WINDMILL

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TRADITIONAL WINDMILLS: ENGLAND, HOLLAND and the USA

 

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Europe was the heart of Windmill development and fortunately many fine examples are preserved, some, especially in Holland where Windmills are present in large numbers in a small area.  Even more remarkable is the fact that many of these windmills are in very reasonable, many of them even in excellent, condition and a considerable number of them are working regularly. Moreover, there are windmills of the many varied types: drainage mills, corn mills, and industrial mills for all sorts of purposes.

 

 

 

Stones Cross - East Sussex

 

 

Standing tall against the horizon, their sails whirling in the air, the windmill has often captured man's fancy. From Cervantes who wrote of Don Quixote's famous attack on the windmill giants to the paintings of the East Anglian countryside of John Constable, whose family owned mills, the windmill has played a part in the historic and artistic, as well as economic, development of western civilization. Holland comes to mind first as the windmill capital of the world, but England's windmills were equally plentiful and important to the economy of the country.

 

Windmills have had a long and varied history since their development in Europe in the twelfth century. There is speculation that windmills may have existed in Europe at the time of the First Crusade in 1096, however, the earliest written record of a windmill's existence in England is a rental note for a mill in Weedly, Yorkshire dated 1185. It wasn't until 1270 that an illustration of a windmill appeared and that was found in the Windmill Psalter which had its origin in Canterbury. The Domesday Book makes no mention of windmills, but there are records of a mill in Bury St. Edmunds built in 1191 in defiance of the local abbot who forbid its construction. Consequently, it was destroyed.

 

 

 

Patchham - East Sussex

 

 

The windmill was designed to replace animal power in the grinding of grain--usually wheat or corn. A mill could grind up to 1,000 bushels of grain a week, six bushels per hour if the wind was steady. The popularity of this energy source spread throughout the ensuing centuries until in 1400 there were 10,000 windmills in England, mostly in the South and the East where massive wheat fields are located, particularly in East Anglia, Kent, and Sussex. Once windmills were located in London as well, but the only evidence of their existence that remains today may be found in street names such as Great Windmill Street and Millbank.

 

During the medieval period, mills were governed by "milling soke"-- part of each manor's charter. The mill was the property of the the lord of the manor who, as a result, had a monoploy over milling no matter who originally built the mill. It was, however, the manor lord's responsibility to have enough mills to meet the needs of his people and to handle major repairs on the mills. The church was also involved in the windmill business. Pope Celestine III claimed that the air used by windmills was owned by the church and that consequently they must be built with the church's consent and a papal tithe paid for their operation.

 

Tenants on the manor were obliged to grind their corn at the lord's mill at a fixed rate of toll in kind--usually 1.16 of the corn ground for estate-grown corn. The lord's corn, of course, was ground free and given priority. Only if the mill fell into disrepair could tenants have their corn ground elsewhere.

 

By the nineteenth century, the English iron founding industry improved the mechanical operation of the mills and influenced mills being built in Europe. At this time, the windmill was also being used to drain marsh lands and to pump irrigation water. The nineteenth century was the high point in the history of the windmill, and they were commonplace in towns and villages. William Cobbett of Ipswich commented in 1830:

 

 

 

Cross in Hand - East Sussex

 

 

The windmills on the hills in the area are so numerous that I counted whilst standing in one place, no less than seventeen. They are all painted of washed white, the sails are black...and their twirling together added greatlly to the beauty of the scene, which having the broad and beautiful arm of the sea on the one hand and the fields and meadow studded with farm houses on the other appeared to make the most beautiful sight of th the kind that I ever beheld.

 

However, the growth of towns in the late nineteenth century led to the depopulation of rural area. This coupled with the establishment of large mills at the seaports and the the advent of steam power, electricity, and the internal combustion engine led to the windmill's decline.

 

During World War I, millers were forced by government regulations to grind only animal feed thus liminting their usefulness. At the end of the war, there were only 350 working mills. By the end of World War II, only 50 working mils remained. After 1945, the shortage of skilled labor and the higher price and shortage of materials coupled with the flow of cheap American flour into Britain sealed the windmill's fate. By 1950, all mills used for drainage purposes had ceased work and were replaced by electric power. Since then, the elements have destroyed many windmills. The post and smock mills were the most vulnerable because of their wooden construction. Many brick and stone tower mills were torn down after World War II because of the need for these scarce building materials. Some mills were converted into homes. One, near Reigate, is used as a church. It has monthly services.

 

Today only 90 windmills are still in existence. The first mill to be restored was the mill on Wimbeldon Common, a project financed by public subscription and completed in 1883. However, it wasn't until 1965-70 that there was a real resurgance of interest in the restoration of windmills. This interest was encouraged by the National Trust and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Local councils and societies also participate in the restoration work. However, restoration is a costly and maintenance even more so. Consequently, some mills which were restored during the last several decades have since fallen once again into disrepair such as the mill at West Kingsdown, Kent. Very few working mills may be seen today. Perhaps the renewed interest in wind as an alternative energy source will further encourage efforts to preserve this rapidly fading part of the British national heritage.

 

 

 

Rye - East Sussex

 

 

If you want to learn more about Windmills in Sussex, Europe or the USA, tune in soon.

 

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