The circle of life
PUBLISHED: 10:56 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 15:09 20 February 2013
Upminster is home to one of the finest octagonal smock mills in the country. Now being carefully restored, this month it reopens to the public. Nicky Adams reports
THE view from Upminster Windmill is breathtaking. Perched high above the community of Upminster, where Essex melds with Greater London, a vista of the capital's eastern suburbs spreads out all around, punctuated in the middle distance by the intermittent flashing of the beacon atop Canary Wharf and, breaking the hazy skyline, the transmitter at Crystal Palace. No wonder the Friends of Upminster Windmill work so hard to preserve this structure for the enjoyment of all who care to climb it.
Although today the windmill is an historic monument, set in the aptly-named Windmill Field on St Mary's Lane and visited by schoolchildren and tourists, throughout the 1800s its function was purely practical as the heart of a local milling business.
Upminster's landmark smock mill, with its characteristic weather-boarded octagonal tower, white sails, cap and fantail, was built by a local farmer called James Noakes in 1803 to harness the power of the wind for the essential work of grinding grain.
With business booming, in 1811 Noakes added a steam mill, but this extra expenditure forced the farmer to take on a large mortgage and by 1849 the mill estate was being auctioned off by James' son, Thomas. The mill then passed through several hands before, in 1857, Thomas Abraham, who had worked as a mill foreman for Thomas Noakes, purchased it and the surrounding land for £1,100.
After running the mill successfully for the rest of his life, Abraham passed it on through the generations of his family. His younger son, John Arkell Abraham, took over upon his father's death in 1882 and then bequeathed it to his two nephews, Alfred and Clement, in 1912. After 22 years, though, the mill became uneconomic and the pair put it up for auction, where it was bought by a Mr WH Simmons, whose intention it was to develop the mill field. In 1937, Simmons sold the mill itself to Essex County Council, which intended simply to demolish it.
However, Hornchurch Urban District Council had other plans. It launched a fund for the mill's preservation and, although no work could be carried out throughout the war years, a restoration committee was established in 1948. Despite the council's best efforts, though, little work was done over the next decade and the mill deteriorated.
Fortunately, by the 1960s Essex County Council had realised that the mill would soon fall into an irreparable state, and set to work on making the building safe for visitors. This policy was continued by the London Borough of Havering on the creation of Greater London in 1965 and, two years later, the Hornchurch & District Historical Society were able to open the mill to the public as part of the Havering Arts Festival.
Since then, the Historical Society, through the Windmill Sub-Committee and its group of more than 100 'Friends', has welcomed visitors to the mill on a regular basis and overseen its further restoration.
In 2000 this work was given a boost by funding from Havering Cleanaway Riverside Trust as well as a grant from English Heritage towards repair of the reefing stage of the mill, and the results of a report by the London Borough of Havering, which concluded that the mill should be restored to working condition and be open to the public more often. To that end, the Upminster Windmill Preservation Trust is soon to sign a 35-year lease of the mill from Havering Council and will then approach the Heritage Lottery Fund and other similar bodies in an effort to secure the estimated funding of £460,000 needed to complete the restoration.
If this bid is successful, then hopefully the sails of Upminster Windmill will turn again, to the delight of those who work to preserve it as well as all those who admire it as a local landmark.