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A Tilt of Windmills

In the nineteenth century, there were up to twenty-five windmills in Brighton and over a thousand in the UK. They would either have been a post mill, a smock mill or a tower mill, and there was probably one in your neighbourhood where you and local farmers and smallholders would take your corn to be ground into flour. They were as prevalent as phone boxes and chip shops were in the 1960s. They were put centrally, where people could reach them and where they could get good clean wind. They were on the hills and beside the sea: Hanover, Toronto Terrace, Albion Hill, Rose Hill, Round Hill, Clifton Hill, Blackrock, etc. They were always there in the background providing an ambient soundtrack and watching over you either benevolently or malevolently, depending on your state of mind.

The image below was painted in 1839 by Frederick Nash. The windmill looming up in the background is possibly Jill, one of Brighton’s best-known windmills. She is actually based in Clayton now, having been literally dragged there in 1852. The tunnel under construction in the picture is probably the Belmont tunnel which joins Preston Park to Hove, foreshadowing the dominance of the steam power which would wipe windmills from the landscape.

The earliest recorded mills in Brighton were Brighthelmstone North and Brighthelmstone South, built in 1545. These would almost certainly have been post mills.

Post mills were the first of what we would recognise as windmills. As you can see in the print above, it’s built around a single post; hence the name, so the whole mill can turn to get its sails into the wind. It’s the simplest and the cheapest of mills and has the advantage of being relatively portable. It was the most popular, and the majority of the mills in Brighton were of this type. However, it was also the most vulnerable. Our two blew over in the Great Storm of 1703. While it wasn’t that unusual for post mills to be blown over, the Great Storm of 1703 was something else.

It made landfall on November 28th 1703, and lasted until December 8th. It is estimated that it killed up to thirty thousand people in the UK. 2,000 chimney stacks fell across London, and more damage was done than in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Over 800 seamen were reputed to have died on the Goodwin sands off the coast of Kent alone. It was reckoned to be a punishment sent by God. After the storm had blown out, Queen Anne announced that the calamity ‘loudly calls for the deepest and most solemn humiliation of our people’ and proclaimed a national day of fasting on December 16th to recognise the ‘crying sins of this nation’.

It was a terrifying demonstration of the power of the wind, a power that humans have always tried to harness. The earliest record of them doing this successfully is in 5000 BC when the first wind-driven ships sailed up the Nile. The history of windmills reaches back 3700 years to when Hammurabi of Babylon revealed his plans to use wind power on a group of irrigation windmills to provide water for his land. Modern windmills as we know them today appeared in the 8th and 9th centuries in the Middle East and Western Asia. They spread rapidly to China and Europe and went though many innovations, leading to the vertical mill. The first example of the vertical mill, the post mill, was built in 1185 in Weedly, East Yorkshire. It then spread rapidly throughout the world. By 1850 there were about 200,000 vertical windmills in Europe alone. Now, there are just 140 in the UK, five of them in Brighton.

Jack and Jill are two Brighton-based survivors. Jill, a post mill is in the foreground below.

While they are not strictly speaking in Brighton but Clayton, I think Jill can be claimed by Brighton as she was built on Dyke Road in 1821. She stayed there until 1852, when she was dragged to work alongside Dunston Mill in Clayton and christened Jill.

The mill above is not Jill, although she would have been dragged by the same system, but Streeters Mill, being dragged by 86 0xen in 1797 from the Regency Square area to the top of Dyke Road, uphill all the way.

Here’s Jack.

Jill is in the background. He joined her in 1886 when her previous companion, Duncton Mill, was demolished. He’s a tower mill, built of brick or stone with a ‘hat’ that can rotate the sails into the wind. It is unusual for a mill to have a male name, but there doesn’t seem to be any explanation here apart from the children’s nursery rhyme.

Wonderfully, Brighton also has an example of a smock mill so completing the trio of windmill types. Beacon Mill, a smock mill, built in 1802 is in Rottingdean and clearly visible from the coast road.

Smock mills are so-called because they vaguely resemble the smocks that used to be worn by agricultural workers. They are generally ship-lapped with horizontal timbers and can have either six or eight sides. They also have a rotating ‘cap’. Our other two mills are West Blatchington Windmill in Hove, built in 1820, a six-sided smock mill and Waterhall Mill in Westdene, a tower mill built in 1884-5.

Windmills lasted for 800 years until the arrival of steam power and the combustion engine effectively wiped out these magical constructions. However, wind turbines, a direct descendant of the vertical windmill, are reproducing with incredible speed all around us. Given that we would need 1.5 million of them to supply all the world’s electricity, perhaps they will become as common as windmills used to be: one at the bottom of every street and three in Hanover.

Posted in History on Aug 01, 2023