PUBLISHED: 17:05 22 May 2013 | UPDATED: 17:05 22 May 2013
It is a fact that when the sails of Thaxted's windmill are turning, visitors are drawn to this ancient Essex market town. Indeed, Thaxted is known for its three major landmarks - the church, the guildhall and the windmill, which can be seen from all the approach roads.
However, the sails of the Grade II listed John Webb’s Windmill – one of only a few such tower mills across the country that still remain – have not turned since they fell off the mill on Easter Monday in 2010. Work has been ongoing ever since to raise enough money to replace the sails and finally they have been made and re-installed, ready to turn again this summer.
Even without its sails, John Webb’s Mill is still an impressive site. This 48-foot, five-storey redbrick tower is a beacon of the Essex countryside in perhaps one of our county’s most picturesque rural towns.
Named for the owner of the land on which it stood, John Webb’s Windmill was built in 1804 to satisfy a growing demand for flour at a time of agricultural expansion and was the only brick tower mill in Thaxted at the time – the other four were the more common post or smock mills. The mill was constructed from local materials, with the bricks being made and fired half a mile away in the Chelmer Valley.
A gallery on the first floor level ran around the mill and was used to help the local millers – members of the Lowe family – with the task of loading and unloading from carts and wagons. It was also from this gallery that the so-called spring sails could be individually adjusted to suit the wind. Later these sails were replaced with patent sails and all four could then be adjusted using a centrally controlled system of levers, known as a spider.
The mill busily ground flour for more than 100 years, but with the dawn of the 20th century the process of milling became uneconomic.
‘New technology in the form of steam power took on the work and there was no longer the reliance on wind power to produce flour,’ explains Len Farren, of John Webb’s Windmill Trust. ‘The Webb family were no longer involved and the mill ceased to mill flour around 1905.’
Sadly, the mill fell into disuse and in 1937 its then owner Philip Andrews, a farmer who owned the land on which the windmill stood, sold it to the parish council for the princely sum of 10 shillings (50 pence in today’s money). The parish council then entered into a lease in 1976 with the specially formed John Webb’s Windmill Trust for 50 years at a peppercorn rent that continues today. Current chairman of the trust, Gerald Lowe, is descended from the millers who made their livelihood from the mill in the 19th century.
The trust aimed to restore the building with the intention of opening it to the public as a rural museum. Duly, in 2004, the cap and sails were taken off so that repairs could be made to the brickwork at the top of the tower and the mill was officially reopened in 2005 by Lord Petre. But on Easter Monday, 2010, the stock of one pair of sails broke and the sail crashed to the ground, damaging the stage as it fell. Half a dozen visitors were inside the mill at the time but fortunately there were no injuries.
The good news is that the sails have now been repaired and will soon be back in action. ‘The new sails are back on again after the disaster in 2010,’ says Len, ‘and hopefully they will be turning in the wind again in the coming season.’
But there is still work to do. ‘A few new cogs are required to enable the mill to grind flour again,’ explains Len. ‘We are always fundraising to keep the mill in a good state of repair – it constantly requires maintenance and upkeep.’
Although the mill is owned by the parish, restoration has been made possible through the enthusiasm of many volunteers and by the support of visitors and bodies such as the CPRE, which recently donated £1,000 to the mill’s restoration fund.
‘Thaxted’s windmill is a fine monument to our county’s agricultural heritage,’ said Tricia Moxey, vice-chairman of the Essex branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. ‘It’s very important that local people are able to find out about the way local land was farmed in the 1800s and the restored mill is a focal point for this.’
Today – even immobile – the museum is a successful tourist attraction, welcoming up to 10,000 visitors every year who wander the artefacts the mill now houses and bring a picnic to enjoy in its shade.
‘The museum has developed greatly in recent years, with a wide range of exhibits, and is an added attraction for visitors to the mill,’ adds Len. ‘Inside, visitors can see the original town fire engine, horse driven and hand pumped, and many interesting photographs of Thaxted.’
School parties always particularly enjoy their visits to the mill and Len reports that he receives many thank you letters from the children afterwards. ‘There are so few windmills left in the country, especially working ones,’ adds Len. ‘It is important to maintain our county’s historic agricultural heritage for future generations to learn from and appreciate.’