Taking a tour of Essex’s historic windmills
PUBLISHED: 16:56 02 October 2018 | UPDATED: 16:56 02 October 2018
Our county’s remaining windmills stand the test of time as a tribute to a bygone era. Mica Bale highlights some of the best examples in Essex
John Constable painted them, Max Bygraves sang about them and Don Quixote fought with them. Yes, windmills have certainly had a long and interesting history.
Indeed, if you were to travel back to 13th century Essex, windmills would be a delightful addition to an already stunning landscape, with almost 300 working mills energetically spinning in the heights above the county.
Windmills have been an important part of human existence since as early as the first century and the earliest known example of harnessing the mighty powers of the wind originates in Greece, where Heron of Alexandria, a prolific experimenter, used the wind to operate an organ.
Windmills have certainly been a part of Britain’s heritage for centuries, providing both practical benefit for the community and a charming structure standing proud for miles around. Although now a fading era, there are still some majestic windmills in the county standing the test of time and continuing to delight Essex residents.
One such windmill is Finchingfield Post Mill, incidentally the smallest remaining post mill in Essex, standing magnificently on a hill over the pretty settlement of Finchingfield, famously the most photographed village in the country.
Built in 1756, this fine example of a post mill is characterised by the whole body of the mill housing the machinery mounted on a sole vertical post.
This is an example of the earliest type of European mill and is one of several models in the county. Amazingly, Finchingfield used to accommodate eight or nine different mills, although the post mill is the only one that still survives today.
The mill is unable to be a working mill due to its proximity to houses and nearby trees, although it has been restored and is open to visit on select dates throughout the year.
Another beautiful example of this heritage is Mountnessing Windmill and the current structure dates back to 1807, although there is evidence to suggest a mill was working on the site from 1477. The mill stretches four storeys and is the nearest mill in Essex to London.
What makes this windmill extra special is the fact that the mill is in full working order and still occasionally mills grain. Mountnessing Windmill also tells a tale of Essex family history. From 1807 to its eventual demise in 1933, the mill was in the capable hands of the Agnis family. Interestingly, the last member of the Agnis family to run the mill was a woman, Emily Agnis.
Stock Mill is a Grade II listed mill and was built in 1816, it was built at the very height of wheat farming when corn prices were also very high. Stock Mill is the only surviving mill in the area, one of three which were run by the local village baker.
Over the years, the mill has undergone many restorations and updates, testament to its success, with the most notable of these the addition of a steam engine added in 1902, and then later an internal combustion engine in the 1930s.
John Webb’s Mill is the only remaining mill in Thaxted and is an increasingly rare example of a tower mill. Also known as Lowe Mill, it was built for John Webb, a local landowner, to accommodate the ever-expanding demand for grain in London and was built with local Essex materials.
Even the windmill’s characteristic pretty red bricks were fired less than half a mile away at the nearby Chelmer Valley. Amusingly, the mill was consistently run by millers named either Lowe or Webb. Today, the mill is admired by 10,000 visitors every year, who come to view the artefacts and enjoy refreshments in the windmill or within the beautiful surrounding countryside.
Although a quintessential heritage trade, working in a mill was a dangerous occupation. There were all sorts of mechanical elements that required careful maintenance and work practice. Also mill workers were often elderly millers who had been taught by their father and their father before them.
One windmill to fall foul of such dangers was the now demolished windmill at Toot Hill, where lightning once struck the mill and endangered the life of the miller. In the June of 1829, a ferocious thunderstorm struck Essex with reports of a, ‘hissing noise and sounds like artillery’ followed by the smell of sulphur.
The miller’s wife, who was in the nearby cottage at the time, heard her husband’s scream and rushed out to see the mill had been struck by lightning. Her husband’s hair was singed, his face was badly injured and his leg was practically detached leading to a later amputation.
The mill sustained damage too, breaking off two of its sails, ripping the roof off, demolishing the interiors and creating a huge hole in the side of the mill.
Fryerning Mill, a Grade II listed building dating back to 1759, was one mill that seemed to endure an never-ending run of accidents. The mill was built by Robert Baker, a millwright from Chelmsford a few yards from the original site.
In the summer of 1777, a farmer was struck and sadly later died after he was hit by one of the windmill’s sails. Then in 1852, after the sails were all replaced, a worker was again struck by a passing sail and badly fractured his thigh.
In perhaps the most ironic of all the incidents, and looking like a scene straight out of a Laurel and Hardy film, the owner of the mill once managed to somehow end up on one of the spinning sails and was taken for a ride that lasted 11 or so revolutions before he was rescued!
Windmills have always played a huge part in the county’s history and although there is but a remnant left of a bygone era, those special few windmills that have stood the test of time are wonderfully majestic reminders of an important Essex heritage that should never be forgotten.