GONE WITH THE WIND

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CHAPTER VIII.


GOLDFIELD TOWER MILL (TRING)


Fig. 8.1: the tower mill at the top of what was once Windmill Lane, Tring.


THE NAME ‘GOLDFIELD’


Local folklore assumes that the windmill acquired its name from the surrounding fields of yellow buttercups, which in Victorian times stretched from Western Road to Icknield Way.  However, the area where the mill was built is shown on old maps by its medieval field name of Goole Field, which over the years may have become corrupted to Goldfield.  The mill stood, and continues to stand, at the top of a steep and narrow lane that crossed the Icknield Way and then led down to the long-forgotten hamlet of Miswell.  This lane became known as Windmill Lane; later, after the road was widened and surfaced, it became Miswell Lane.


 
THE GROVER FAMILY


The first miller was James Grover, a member of a family of wharfingers and millers who worked the windmill at Gamnel Wharf beside the Wendover Arm of the Grand Junction Canal.  At some time c.1830  James left Gamnel Wharf to live at and work the new windmill that he, presumably, had erected at Goldfield, probably by John Hillsdon. [6]

Goldfield mill is a medium-sized tower mill of four storeys, built of red brick.  Old photographs show that it was fitted with four double-shuttered patent sails, a fantail and a cap of rounded pepper-pot shape surmounted with a ball finial.  No information survives about the mill’s machinery, but some remnants remain in place: the great spur wheel (wood on an iron centre) and an auxiliary shaft (iron — plate 21 — possibly a drive shaft from the steam engine) make attractive features over what is now a first floor sitting room, while some of the iron aligning wheels remain in the cap, the rollers being obscured from view.  The complex around the mill includes two cottages c.1789 and a large granary barn put up c.1840.  Although the elevated site must have been chosen with care, the wind currents never proved entirely satisfactory for driving the mill, being unreliable during the summer months.

The 1841 Census lists those at the mill as James Grover, then a widower of 50, his two sons, Jabez and William, two daughters and one William Cartwright, a carter.  There was possibly another helper, Osborn Hooker (believed to be Rooker), a journeyman miller who lodged at a beer house at Frogmore End.  Charles Grover, described as a ‘journeyman miller’, and his family occupied a separate dwelling, but they do not appear in later Census records.

The windmill probably did the job for which it was designed without incident, thereby supporting the miller and his dependants, for nothing is known of it during the first 20 years of its life.  However, in later years there are occasional reports of the mill and its millers, and of the declining prosperity that typified windmill operations increasingly during the second half of the 19th century.

In 1862 James Grover died and the partnership between father and sons was dissolved, Jabez and William parting company, with William remaining as miller.  The reason for this parting — which long persisted in local folklore — was that the brothers quarrelled violently, which led to William murdering Jabez with a coal shovel; thereafter his ghost was said to haunt the staircase of the Mill House.  But although William might well have crowned Jabez with a shovel, there are no reports of this allegedly grisly event in newspapers of the time and it is likely that Jabez died peacefully in his bed, for the grave of a Jabez Grover, dated 1889, can be seen in New Mill Chapel burial ground.

In 1869, a local news report tells of William Grover entering into dispute with the authorities in Tring over the non-payment of rates.  He was duly summoned to appear before the magistrates at Berkhamsted Petty Sessions, where he claimed that he had settled a rate demand for £1. 2s. 6d. on his land, but was later charged again for the mill unjustly.  His case was not viewed sympathetically by the bench, for he was assessed for a further £3 with £1. 5s. 6d. costs.


Fig. 8.2: in this view, the cap has rotated to the north-west showing the mill’s fantail,
which projects from what is now a sitting room (plates 19 and 20).


 
THE LIDDINGTON FAMILY


About this time William took as his assistant a nephew, 16-year old Thomas Liddington, who by the mid-1870s had moved his family into Mill House and had also acquired sufficient experience to be classed as a ‘master miller’.  Thomas worked the mill assisted by Henry Liddington and Harry Robinson, who lived next door.  By then milling was not Thomas’s sole business activity; dealing in corn and retailing flour and other foodstuffs had also become important.

In 1876 the mill was put up for sale by auction, being described in the particulars as a complex covering a three-acre site . . . .
 

Fig. 8.3: auctioneer’s particulars of Goldfield Mill in 1876.


Although not recorded, it appears that Thomas Liddington bought the property.  In retrospect, this proved to be a poor investment, for by then milling was becoming a more highly mechanised trade and as the years passed Goldfield windmill could not compete favourably in the flour trade with Thomas Mead’s increasingly modern steam mill at Gamnel Wharf.  In 1888 Thomas Liddington was forced to file for bankruptcy, the application being heard in Aylesbury County Court where it was recorded that his liabilities amounted to £1,176. 3s. 3d. with a deficiency of £269. 11s. 7d.  Described as a miller and farmer, Thomas claimed that the causes of his failure were a decline in trade, bad debts and other losses incurred due to his horse and cattle dying.  But this was not the only disaster to befall the Liddington family, for Henry’s dealings with customers were not always scrupulously honest (see Liddington in Chapter IV).


 
JAMES WRIGHT, THE LAST MILLER


Who held the mill during the next few years is unknown, but after 1888 it was worked by White & Putnam, a partnership that operated several local mills.  At some stage — the records of exactly when are conflicting — James Wright, the miller at Hastoe steam mill, about a mile and a half from Tring, took over at Goldfield.  He is shown as being miller at both sites until about 1902 by which time he had moved to Goldfield.

Being familiar with steam milling it was natural that James should use auxiliary power at Goldfield and a 6 hp steam engine was duly installed to work a pair of grinding stones, the windmill driving an oat crusher to provide animal feed when the wind was favourable.  James Wright’s son, Herbert, born in the Mill House in 1897, is quoted as saying . . . .


“. . . . when I was ten years of age I was strong enough to stoke the engine boiler and maintain the water pressure as well as help the miller dress the stones when they had to be sharpened.”


Herbert Wright goes on relate that during his father’s tenure at Goldfield, the mill was owned by Thomas Butcher & Son, bankers, of Tring High Street.  How Butcher’s Bank [13] came to own the mill is unknown, but it seems possible that they acquired it following Thomas Liddington’s bankruptcy, perhaps as a foreclosure on an outstanding mortgage.

The two systems of wind and steam power ran in tandem until around 1904 when the sails of the windmill were removed.  Even so, it could be that the milling business was still not yielding sufficient profit, for two years later the Bucks Advertiser reported that over an acre of grazing land at Goldfield had been sold for the sum of £9. 2s. 6d.

The viability of the mill at this time appears to have depended largely upon a contact with the Rothschild Tring Park estate for crushing oats as for animal feed on its many farms.  The contract ending in 1908, James left Goldfield to take over the tenancy of Brook End water and steam mill situated some three miles away on the border of Ivinghoe and Pitstone, taking its water supply from the Whistle Brook.  He is recorded here in 1911 as ‘miller, baker and confectioner’, but  Herbert Wright records that after his father took over Brook End watermill, [14] “he was forced to give up” in 1913, being unable to compete with the large milling firms.


 
THE WINDMILL ABANDONED


Goldfield mill was then put up for auction by William Brown & Co., The Bucks Herald reporting that . . . .


“Considerable interest was manifested in Tring and the surrounding district regarding the sale of Goldfield Windmill, one of the most well known landmarks in the neighbourhood.  The property comprised the windmill; two dwelling houses; numerous outbuildings; and a valuable meadow of about two acres, with a long frontage to Miswell Lane.  The property stands at a high and healthy elevation and commands most perfect scenery of the Vale of Aylesbury and the Chiltern Hills, and the downs and woodlands of the Ashridge estate.  Messrs. W. Brown & Co. submitted the whole property by auction on October 30th but the bidding did not reach the reserve figure and is now to be dealt with privately.”


In 1911 Brown & Co. again advertised the complex, but the outcome is unknown.  It is likely that milling had ceased following James Wright’s departure, for by this time small milling concerns saw their business dwindling in the face of competition from much larger and more efficient roller mills.  However, the living accommodation at Goldfield continued to be used and Miriam Wright, who in the period 1916-21 lived with her parents in one of the cottages, remembered that during WW I soldiers used the top windows of the mill for signal practice.


Fig. 8.4: Myril Smith, a land army girl, ploughing during WWI.  Goldfields Mill is in the background.
Myril lived at the ‘Hollies’ in Brook Street, now long demolished.


 
RESTORATION OF THE GRANARY AND COTTAGE


In 1919, the entire complex was eventually sold — it is believed for £1,000 — to a Mrs Cunningham from Rhodesia.  This lady then constructed a dwelling for herself and her family in the granary and attached cottage, later turning the barn into a bungalow for her daughter.  When Mrs Cunningham died in 1955, the house passed to Peter Bell, a journalist for the British Farmer and Stockbreeder magazine, but the windmill continued in its state of dereliction.

In 1946 the tenancy of the adjacent Mill House cottage was acquired by a well-known local lady, Phyllis Thomas, librarian at the Akeman Street Zoological Museum, who lived there for many years until forced to leave by her increasing frailty (she died in 1990 aged 102).  In 1973 she wrote a letter to Hertfordshire Countryside magazine in which she said . . . .


“. . . . I remember Herbert Wright as a small boy helping his father . . . . My sisters and I would frequently walk up Miswell Lane (in very truth a country lane in those days where one could gather primroses and blue and white violets) to purchase eggs and other farm produce from Mrs Wright.  It was a great treat to be allowed to climb the ladder-staircase of the mill, all white with flour dust, and gaze through one of the little windows, at the lovely, unspoilt Chiltern countryside . . . . [15] All around were meadows and farm land and, directly in front, the famous ‘goldfields’, a sheet of yellow buttercups.”


The Mill House and its adjoining granary now form a single dwelling, one that has been sympathetically restored and modernised by its present owners.  Some of the original fittings have been incorporated, including internal doors (complete with their latches), cupboard doors, wooden beams, iron brackets and a brick-lined cellar.  The cast iron pump from the granary remains, while the old well it tapped into is hidden beneath the kitchen floor.  Outside, old bricks have been re-used in some of the paved areas and two of the windmill’s grinding stones now make attractive garden features.


Fig. 8.5: the miller’s cottage.


During the 1960s, when new housing was being built in the Icknield Way area, Tring Council ensured that the sad-looking old windmill would not be forgotten entirely by naming three new roads Windmill Way, Mill View Road, and Fantail Lane.


 
RESTORATION OF THE WINDMILL TOWER

Fig. 8.6: the mill prior to restoration.


The windmill’s fortunes improved some years later when an American artist applied for permission to convert both the windmill and adjacent barn to a dwelling and to add an extension to form guest accommodation.  But conversion of an old building is not a simple matter, and this was explained in one of a series of articles featuring unusual homes that appeared in the Post Echo of September 1979 . . . .


“. . . . the previous owner gathered in the barns and milking sheds which huddle around the old mill and made the whole thing into a place of rambling spaciousness.  There’s a good reason for this.  A windmill may be very stout — walls start at two and a half feet thick at the bottom and taper to one and one and a half at the top — and snug, but it’s a problem to put water pipes in.  On outside walls they disfigure the place: same goes for the inside walls.

So the builder left them out, which ruled out a kitchen and bathroom in the tower . . . . The original lead cap is now an ornament in the back garden.  The man who converted the mill was so concerned with retaining the original effect, and so unconcerned with the expense, that he put in a glass fibre replacement, impregnated with copper crystals. . . .”


When the windmill was again offered for sale in 2004, the sales particulars described five circular rooms, some with the old beams and timber cog wheels, and a tower room with spectacular views.  Goldfield windmill now claims the distinction of Grade II listing, as well as being the only remaining tower mill in Dacorum.


Fig. 8.7: aerial view of Goldfield Mill.


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CHAPTER IX.
 


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