GONE WITH THE WIND

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CHAPTER X.


WENDOVER TOWER MILL

A MASSIVE STRUCTURE

 

Fig. 10.1: Wendover tower mill — a massive structure.

What photographs there are of Wendover tower mill do little to prepare visitors for the imposing bastion that confronts them when they first turn into the footpath between Aylesbury Road and Dobbins Lane.  Although long shorn of its sails and fantail, this tower mill retains sufficient majesty to convey the clear impression that, in its heyday, it must have been an emperor among windmills.  The windmill writer Stanley Freese had this to say about it . . . .


“. .  . with its massive walls and broad outline, and its colossal cap — possibly the heaviest in England — Wendover Mill might have been converted from an old fortress or castle keep.”


An apt description.


 
CONSTRUCTION


Wendover mill was built by John Phillips (1776-1843), but it is possible that his father, Zachariah (1745-97), a prominent local landowner, commenced the work.  It is not known exactly when the mill was erected for although the date “AD 1796” appears on a stone plaque above the front entrance, milling did not commence until 1804.  It is recorded that the initials “J.S. & J.T. 1804” are carved into one of the massive internal beams on the second floor, probably by its millwrights, but these are no longer visible.  The mill’s situation was possibly chosen for close proximity to the wharf of the recently opened Wendover Arm of the Grand Junction Canal.

The structure, an octagonal 5-storey tower mill, is among the largest in Britain—it is said to have been built from 500 tons of bricks carried down in panniers by donkeys from a kiln in the locality of Cholesbury, possibly along the ancient packway now called Hogtrough Lane (Freese MSS., 1939).  The mill stands approximately 66ft high (floor plan).  The base is 26ft in diameter and 3ft thick, the latter dimension being plainly apparent when looking through the lower windows from within the mill.  The walls taper to about 2ft in thickness and 20ft in diameter at the top, their corners being nicely chamfered just below the cap to lead up to the curb. [16]


Fig. 10.2: Wendover tower mill, showing its double-shuttered patent sails and fantail.
The engine chimney is on the left.


Although the fan-stage and fantail are long gone, the worm-gear that the fantail drove remains in place together with cross-bars to permit hand-winding (fig. 10.3), necessary when there was a very sudden change in wind direction.  This gearing connects via a vertical spindle with an iron rack of some 300 iron teeth.  Set into the cill, the rack extends around the circumference of the cap (plate 24).  The 30 iron rollers upon which the cap revolved also remain in place, some being just visible above the rack.

 

Fig. 10.3: hand winding gear in the cap.


The cap is of wood and much larger than those at Quainton, Goldfield and Hawridge tower mills.  Its base consists of four cross members that are mortised at each end into two massive beams that extend across the mill.  Above this, 24 substantial rafters arch upwards to a pinnacle, forming the frame that supports the roof — quite spectacular as one looks up at its apex (plate 23).  The roof’s interior is clad with wooden boarding, its exterior with zinc sheeting.

Notable among the mill’s former machinery were its upright shaft — reported to have been a ship’s mast — and its 4-ton, 18ft iron windshaft, which remains in place and which the millwright Derek Ogden, who worked on the mill in the 1960s, claimed to be the biggest that he had ever seen (plate 25).  Also remaining and clearly visible from behind the mill, is the iron centre cross on which the stocks that carried the sails were mounted.  Originally, the sails were of the ‘simple’ variety but these were later replaced; when the mill was sold in 1875, the auctioneer’s catalogue described them as being . . . .


“of modern construction, with all the latest improvements, two of which are recently new, and the Fan [fantail] will be found good and efficient.”


Although long gone in Freese’s time, he describes the sails as having been “double-shuttered anti-clock patents”, which can be seen at fig. 10.2.

The mill originally had a gallery at second floor level (fig. 10.4) but this was removed in 1947 when extensive repairs were carried out.  The present gallery at cap level (plate 22) is a recent addition, constructed to ease roof maintenance, for leakage has been a recurring and expensive problem to deal with.  A tall chimney stack was also built onto the south side of the mill at some time after windmilling ceased, for it would otherwise have impeded the fan-stage as it revolved.


 
STEAM MILLING

 

Fig. 10.4: Wendover mill showing the engine house.

At some point in its life wind power was supplemented with a 12 hp steam engine installed in an engine-house built onto the south side of the mill . . . .


“. . . the former windmill at Wendover was converted to steam power because the building of houses near to it affected the currents of air. The late Mr. F. Purssell, the miller, said there was great difficulty when the wind shifted suddenly into the opposite quarter, and the sails started to revolve backwards. The sails had to be wound round by hand to bring them into the wind again.”

In Buckinghamshire, G. Elland, 1923.


Stanley Freese describes the machinery as . . . .


“. . . . an exceptionally fine expansion engine, no doubt the best ever used in a Buckinghamshire windmill . . . . starting from cold at 7.30 a.m., she would soon grind corn with about 40 lbs. of steam, but would not operate the sack hoist until about 11.30 . . . . sometimes the sack hoist was driven all day in order to replenish the exceptionally capacious bins.”


A flue from the engine’s boiler passed underground to a tall brick-built chimney in the centre of the mill yard.  Although it is not known when the steam engine was installed, it is recorded that it was by Hillsdons of Tring (Chapter V).

Milling is believed to have continued using both wind and steam, but having been damaged severely by a storm the sails were removed in 1904.


Fig. 10.5: the miller’s house.


 
THE MILLERS

 

Fig. 10.6: Charles Burton.

Wendover Mill had a number of occupiers up to 1875. Local trade directories list Thomas Horwood and Thomas Andrews as millers in 1842 and 1850 respectively; the 1851 Census lists Charles Burton. In 1861 the diary of Thomas Grace of Tring records that he accompanied his brother-in-law, Edward Mead, to look over the mill and that Edward agreed to pay £100 a year in rent. Mead operated the mill until 1869 when Thomas Edward Biggs took over.

In 1875, due to the expiry of the lease, the mill was offered for sale by auction.  The name Zachariah Phillips appears on the auctioneer’s ground plan, which suggests that the freehold remained in the possession of the original owners, the Phillips family.  The sale was conducted by Reader & Son at the Bell Hotel, Aylesbury.  Their catalogue describes the property as a . . . .


“Brick-built, octagon-shaped, roomy
FREEHOLD WINDMILL
of five stories, driving three pairs of stones,
with the whole of the gearing complete
also, attached thereto, a
12-HORSE-POWER STEAM ENGINE
and boiler, with high Shaft, driving two pairs of Stones . . . .”


In addition to the windmill were granary, store houses, cart sheds, stables, the miller’s house, out-houses, yard and garden.  The catalogue goes on to describe in detail the mill’s structure and equipment (see Appendix I).

The mill was bought by William Purssell for £1,000, but others ran it for the names of Francis Beesley (1877) and George Butterfield (1883) appear in the records.  On William Purssell’s death in 1887, his son Frank took over from Butterfield and continued to operate the mill until his death in 1922.

In his account, Freese suggests that in its early life the windmill was unsuccessful commercially and it was not until Frank Purssell’s time that business began to look up . . . .


“. . . . he took her over from a Mr Butterfield. Steadily the business improved under his management, and he confounded the pessimists by building up a very flourishing and successful trade, which was still very good when he passed away in 1922 . . . . mostly English wheat was ground in the old days, some of it coming by canal to Wendover Wharf, but with the steam engine they latterly ground much Russian barley and American maize, etc. and flour was made until about 1912; generally speaking there was a loss of about 7 lbs. per bushel.”


Following Frank’s death in 1922 his son Basil carried on, but by then business was beginning to decline, probably due to competition from larger and more efficient roller mills.  By 1925 the mill was only working two days a week due to “difficulties of the trade”.  In the following year, the General Strike and its coal shortage led to the mill’s closure.  The machinery was removed in 1929 and the engine house and chimney were demolished two years later.


 
THE WINDMILL IN DOMESTIC LIFE

Fig. 10.7: the mill following conversion to a dwelling c.1930.


By the time of its closure, the mill’s floors were in poor structural condition with rot affecting some of the joists, probably due to damp seeping through flaws in the bonding of the brickwork.  The mill’s cap was also perishing and there was talk of demolishing the top two floors.  This drastic action was avoided, and in 1931 the mill was converted to a private house.  Freese, writing during the 1930s, reports that . . . .


“. . . . some big long irons or bolts were inserted by which the weak fourth floor is now practically suspended from the curb of the mill, whilst the fifth floor has two iron girders set into the wall just below, giving support to the rotten ends of the two main joists.  New staircases have been installed . . . . and the ground floor has been converted to a cosy living room by Miss Marion Fawcett, the actress and playwright, who is now the tenant, whilst the second floor contains two comfortable bedrooms and a bathroom, the upper floors being vacant .”


Miss Fawcett, who leased the mill for 15s. a week, continued the tenant until 1946 when the mill again fell into disuse.  Basil Purssell, writing to the Bucks Herald in October 1954, stated that . . . .


“In October 1948, when a gale blew in part of the back cap, Mr Freese was a great help.  Together with a London workman, Mr. Carew, who had been working therein that summer, he repaired the roof temporarily for £50 and it was a courageous job. . . . the late Mrs. Frank Purssell planned the preservation of the mill back in 1931, the idea being to convert it into a comfortable home . . . after that considerable sums of money were spent on maintenance both by the owners and the leaseholder, London actress Marion Fawcett.”


By 1953 the mill was again in a poor state of repair and at risk of demolition.  It was offered for sale and an advertisement in the New Statesman caught the eye of Kenneth and Margaret Roberton, who bought the mill and moved in on Coronation Day, 1953.  Again, the Bucks Herald . . . .


“The new owner, who is the well-known musician Kenneth Roberton, spent a further £600 this summer on renovation.”


The domed roof was rebuilt in the mid 1960s making the top two floors habitable and from the 1970s until his death in 2003, Kenneth Roberton used them as the base for his music publishing business, Roberton Publications.  His obituary in the Bucks Herald stated that he was a tireless campaigner for the town’s interests, helped to found the Wendover Society, as well as fighting for the rights of residents and battling against developments that he felt would adversely affect the town.

A further piece of structural work on the cap is recorded in an article on the mill in the Bucks Advertiser in June, 1971 . . . .


“in the summer of 1969, the familiar black cap was replaced with a shining white aluminium one . . . .”


. . . . that the present occupier had to replace when the aluminium was discovered to be leaking through its joints.  The cap is now clad with zinc sheeting, the fastenings of which are sheltered from the rain by fold-over joints.

Today the windmill, which is Grade II listed, is a very comfortable family home.  Its five levels contain five bedrooms, three reception rooms, three bathrooms and a kitchen (Appendix II) — but looking back at some of the old repair bills, one cannot help forming the impression that those who would live in an old windmill need a deep pocket!


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APPENDIX I.

AUCTIONEER’S PARTICULARS (1875)

ENGINE HOUSE


A superior 12-horse-power horizontal Steam Engine by Hillsdon, Tring, working expansively with 11-inch cylinders, 2ft. 4ins stroke, large fly wheel (11-feet diameter), steam and exhaust pipes, with governors, pump, &c., bed plate, and brick foundation.  An excellent Cornish boiler (only recently put in), 18ft. by 4ft. 6ins, with flue 2ft. 3ins diameter, dome, safety valve, pressure gauge, water gauge, and the brick setting thereof.  Hand-force pump for feeding boiler.


THE MILL


GROUND FLOOR. — Crank shaft from steam engine, 5½-inch diameter, and 14ft. long, driving two pairs of wheat stones on first floor, on cast-iron upright frames, with plummer blocks and brasses, carrying two bevel wheels, driving pinions, on stone spindle, with iron bridge-trees and brass steps, iron rising screws one drum on end of shaft, for driving dressing tackle on 1st Floor two meal bins and shoots, jogging screen for offals, sack jumper, and step ladder.

FIRST FLOOR. — Two pairs of 4ft. wheat stones (driven by steam power), with damsels, wood hoppers and casing, stone spindles, bevel wheels and pinions, iron shaft, driving pulley, cast-iron housings, housings, and wood shoot.  One 21-inch lay shaft, 9ft. 6ins long, with plummer blocks and three pulleys, driving the 3ft. 6ins dressing machine, with 16-inch cylinder, pulleys, plummer blocks and shaft, complete in deal case flour bin, offal bin.

SECOND FLOOR. ― Spur wheel and three stone nuts and spindles, bridge trees, rising screws, and governors, three jogging screens to part the offals, three meal bins, three spouts, apparatus and chain for hoisting by steam power.

THIRD OR STONE FLOOR. — Two pairs of wheat and one pair of barley stones, 4ft. and 4ft. 6 in diameter, with damsels, wood hoppers, and casings, stone spindles, spur wheels and pinions, iron shaft, driving pulley, cast iron housings, and wood shoots one lay shaft, about 10ft. long, with hanger and plummer blocks, bevel pinions for driving smutter, dressing machine, and bolting mill one crown wheel, on wallow shaft and iron pinion one dressing machine, 4ft. 6ins long, with 16-inch cylinder, and apparatus feed, &c. one horizontal smutting machine, 2ft. 2ins long, 16 inches diameter, with shaft, pulleys, &c. bolting machine, 6ft. long, with spindle, pulley, plummer blocks, &c.

FOURTH FLOOR.  — Hoppers to smut machine two others six large bins.

FIFTH STORY. — Iron wind shaft, with large iron boss and break wheel cast iron wallow wheel, working into break wheel, with oak upright shaft, circular rack, and hand-gear to fan-tail self-acting hoisting tackle, with wood barrel break and lever, and about 84 feet of quarter-inch chain.

YARD. — 53 feet of smoke flue, brick smoke shaft, base 6ft. square, height about 55 feet.


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APPENDIX II.

FLOOR PLAN OF WENDOVER MILL
(excluding the cap)



Fig. 10.8: Wendover Mill today.

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CHAPTER XI.
 


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