When Harry Steer gets his initiation into the smuggling band in Coldharbour Gentlemen, a windmill is used as the instrument of his hazing. Straddling the shaft that turns the mill’s sails, more than thirty feet up in the air, he is nearly spun off to drop to his death when the smugglers turn the windmill so that it catches the wind. To understand this scene, it helps to know a little about this particular mill and its construction.
Most of the mills around Darking Hundred were watermills, powered by channelling a stream into a fall that struck against a wheel, causing it to turn. But Holmwood Common had no water source suitable for driving such a mechanism. Even after the construction of the turnpike in the 1750s, it was difficult for farmers to transport their grain all the way to one of the watermills clustered around Darking town. The savvy Quaker Henry Swan understood this problem and sought a permit to build a different kind of mill on the high ground of Holmwood Common, closer to the farmers’ fields.
Built in the 1770s, Swan’s mill was what is known as a post mill. The body of the structure was set on a sturdy triangular base, rising some way above ground level. At the apex of the triangle was a stout centre post that was key to the mill’s function. When the centre post was rotated, the entire structure of the mill could be turned.
How was this done? What follows is my best understanding of the mechanism, though no doubt mill enthusiasts will find points to cavil at. A long pole projecting out from the centre post on an angle, called the tail pole, could be pushed sideways to force the mill to rotate. This must have required a lot of muscle power. In Coldharbour Gentlemen I ask a group of men to do it, but I have not been able to discover how it was done in real life—perhaps by a team of horses or oxen harnessed to the tail pole?
Once the prevailing direction of the wind was ascertained, the mill only needed to be turned to take advantage of the breeze, and wind power did the rest. In the topmost chamber of the mill, there was an opening through which the windshaft projected, supported at the base of the opening by the breast beam. Outside the mill, wooden blades were attached to the windshaft and lined with tough fabric—the sails. When the mill was turned into the wind, the sails caught the air and the blades turned, rotating the windshaft. This in turn activated a mechanism inside the mill called the governor, which caused the millstones to grind against each other, reducing the grain fed between them to flour. To stop the millstones, the mill could be turned away from the wind so that the blades no longer rotated.
The interior of the mill had three levels. The miller climbed up steps to enter the mill above the triangular base; at this bottom level was a meal bin that caught the ground flour as it dropped from the millstones above. The middle level held the millstones, sitting atop a strong beam known as the crown tree. I have given Swan’s mill an opening at this level and a winch outside so that heavy sacks of grain could be hoisted up from the ground to the millstones, instead of those sacks having to be lugged up the stairs; the miller is justifiably resentful when the smugglers break his winch chain because it means a lot more back-breaking labour for him. The broken winch also means that the smugglers have to find a different means to get their tubs of contraband spirits back down to the ground—which is why their leader dubs Harry ‘Monkey’ and sends him swarming up to the top level of the mill with a rope.
Harry would have had to climb past the millstones and the governor mechanism, up to the top level where the horizontal windshaft sticks out. He had to sprawl awkwardly atop the beam that supports this shaft, work his way out along the shaft outside the building towards the blades, and secure the rope to the shaft. Then the tubs of spirits could be attached to the rope through the opening one level down, and let down to the ground.
All this would be precarious enough under the best of circumstances, when the mill is turned away from the wind and idle. But some of the smugglers think it would be a good joke to turn the mill so that the breeze catches the sails and turns the blades, and the windshaft Harry is lying on starts to rotate. If he hadn’t caught on quickly to their trick and scrambled back onto the breast beam, he would have fallen off the shaft to his death. Life most types of hazing, it offered a real threat to life and limb.
If you are still a little confused about this scene, I recommend that you take a look at an excellent schematic drawing of a post mill very like Swan’s, at www.sussexmillsgroup.org.uk./postmill2.htm. You can see the exterior appearance of the real mill in the illustrations that accompany this post. They give an impression of the mill’s high, exposed situation, ideal for catching the wind, on a common that was far more open than the area is today. (For more on Holmwood Common as it was in 1800, see the post ‘Of Bogs and Banditti’.) The mill was a landmark that could be seen from miles around.
Kathy Atherton offers a description of the mill enterprise in the mid-nineteenth century. She tells us, ‘The mill was a substantial business with orchards, a dairy and a brewhouse. There were also clay pits and kilns for brick-making, a well-stocked haberdashery and, possibly, a laundry’ (The Lost Villages, p. 23). My story takes place half a century earlier, when the mill was relatively new, so I have envisioned a simpler establishment.
The Swan family did not live at the site; their base was at Bregsells Farm nearby, and they hired a miller who lived in a cottage beside the mill. Henry Swan died not long before my stories begin, in 1797; one of his daughters, Lucy, and her husband William Bishopp assumed management of the mill. The mill remained in the family until Henry’s great-grandson emigrated to the United States in 1867.
The thriving business described at mid-century did not last. Probably better roads allowed farmers to transport their grain to the watermills farther away: they were more reliable because their power supply was perpetual, whereas Swan’s mill was dependent on the wind blowing. In 1873 the mill was torn down. In a development emblematic of the suburbanising trend so prevalent across Holmwood Common, it was replaced with a large house owned by a London barrister.
2 November 2021
Kathy Atherton, The Lost Villages: A History of the Holmwoods (n.p., 2008).
F. E. Green, The Surrey Hills (London, 1915).
Sussex Mills Group, http://www.sussexmillsgroup.org.uk/postmills2.htm.
Bernard Thistlethwaite, The Bax Family (London, 1936).