Tilting at windmills
PUBLISHED: 12:20 30 September 2014 | UPDATED: 12:20 30 September 2014
Windmills were once a commmon site in the Hertfordshire countryside, testimony to the village production of grain and bread. Today, only one working survivor remains. Liz Hamilton, Campaign to Protect Rural England Hertfordshire chairman, looks at the deep history of milling in the county
Early farmers arriving in Britain around 6,500 years ago almost certainly brought wheat and barley seeds with them. In Hertfordshire, permanent settlements from this period were established in the main river valleys and on light soils on chalk hills. The farmers needed to grind the grains they cultivated to make them palatable. So began the history of milling in the county.
A quern, or grinding stone, perhaps 5,500 years old and made from puddingstone was found in 2005 during excavations for the new A10 road near Puckeridge. This, and fragments of what are thought to be later Roman beehive or rotary puddingstone quern stones, also found near Puckeridge, are on display at Hertford Museum. Bread made from wheat or other grains was a staple food by the Roman period, and it was at this time that watermills were established in England. By 1086 and the Domesday Book, mill numbers had exploded in the county, with 132 mills recorded in the survey. Some of these may have been driven by oxen or horses, but most were watermills powered by the county’s fast-flowing chalk streams. . Changing technology. Technology to harness wind for grinding arrived in England in the 12th century, and must have been especially welcomed in areas of Hertfordshire distant from water courses. Eight of the 10 windmills built in the county in the 13th century were located on the higher plateau lands in the north-east. Mills at Sandon and Cromer were the earliest to be documented, in 1222. Thirty windmills were recorded in the county by 1400. The earliest type of English windmill was the post mill, where the whole body of the mill, with the sails, rotated around a central wooden post, moved by a long ‘tail pole’ projecting from the back of the mill. This allowed the sails to face the wind.
Milling remained an essential village industry until the 19th century. Output from traditional mills, which included flour and other products such as animal feed, peaked between 1750 and 1850 alongside growth in agricultural production. Many mills were rebuilt and innovations introduced in this period. Wooden-built smock mills and brick tower mills became more common in the 18th and especially 19th centuries. In these, only the topmost cap carrying the sails moved, which made the mills more stable, and they could be taller. Another innovation was the fantail mechanism, which automatically headed the sails into the wind, while ‘patent’ sails consisting of controllable shutters replaced cloth sails. In 1862, there were 46 working windmills in the county including two at Great Hormead, a post mill and smock mill, that stood side-by-side.
By 1870, steam had begun to take over the industry while volumes of grain imports grew. These factors meant milling moved to larger and more efficient processing plants, often close to ports. By 1875, the county’s working windmills were reduced to 35 and by 1905 there were just nine. Today, while some tower mills have been converted to homes, little or nothing remains of the rest, apart from Cromer Mill.
The mill at Cromer, a hamlet north-east of Stevenage, has been rebuilt or restored a number of times. In 1374, it was described as ‘in ruins’, possibly as the local population had declined following the Black Death. The mill was recorded again in 1576, but may have succumbed to a great storm in February 1661 which destroyed more than 400 windmills in England. Cromer Mill’s current oak main post was cut from a tree which grew from 1568 until 1679, revealed by analysis of its growth rings, and carries the building date of 1681.
The mill may have been reconstructed around this main post several times, not least sometime around 1860 when the mill is known to have blown over: high winds were a particular problem for post mills. After this, the mill was improved again with the addition of iron parts, patent sails and a fantail.
Around 1910, flour milling at Cromer Mill ceased, although animal feed was still produced. Petrol engines replaced the sails in the 1920s. Within another decade, the mill was abandoned. By the 1960s, the potential loss of the county’s last surviving post mill led to its acquisition by the Hertfordshire Building Preservation Trust. In the years since, several phases of work have been needed to restore the mill to full working order, achieved in 1998. Now more repairs are needed, with work due to be carried out later this year, for which an appeal has been launched.