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Ever since man ceased being a hunter gatherer and settled down to a predominantly agrarian existence, the grinding of grain has been a central feature of rural life.  From the simple quern stones of the Neolithic Age through the age of water-, wind- and steam-driven mills, to the electrically-powered, computer-controlled, roller mills of the present day, the production of flour has remained essential to the preparation of our most basic food, the loaf of bread.

The Romans are believed to have first brought watermills to our country.  A thousand years later, many places recorded in the Domesday Book had one or more mills, most probably run by water power.  Tring’s Domesday Book entry records two mills, both valued at 9s. 0d.  Within the Tring Hundred, several more are listed: one at Tiscott (now a deserted medieval village), value 10s.0d.; two at Puttenham, value 10s. 8d.; one at Gubblecote, value 12s. 4d.; and one at Wigginton, value 5s. 0d.  Given the latter’s hilltop position and low valuation, this was probably a mill driven by a single or a pair of yoked oxen.  And for hundreds of years, small hand-operated grinding stones were used in many rural homes.

Although there is a reference to a windmill in Persia as far back as AD 644, the first known practical windmills in that country date from the 10th century.  Such early examples took the form of a roofless tower supporting a vertical pole to which lightweight sails were attached to horizontal struts.  This type of windmill was known as a ‘panemone’ and was fixed in one position.  The concept is thought to have been brought to Northern Europe by knights returning from the Crusades in the Middle East; the first mention of a windmill in Europe is in a Papal Bull of 1105.  The idea then spread throughout the Low Countries, Denmark, and Bohemia, in fact to any location lacking water to drive a mill but where there was plenty of wind energy. [1]  The great Mongol conqueror, Ghengis Khan, also realized the wind’s potential as a source of power, and following his invasion of Persia he took local millers back to China to build identical mills.

Fig. 0.1 - an illuminated letter depicting a 4-sail sunken post mill (c.1260)

The first references to windmills in Britain date from the last quarter of the 12th century, but surviving pictorial evidence is much later.  One of the earliest illustrations appears in an illuminated letter in Aristotle’s Meteoroligica (fig. 0.1).  It depicts a 4-sail ‘sunken’ post mill, a type in which the superstructure of the mill (the ‘buck’) was supported on, and revolved around a substantial upright post — the stability of this type of mill derived from its central post having being sunk into the ground, hence the description ‘sunken’.  Supporting the buck on a central post enabled the mill to be turned to face into the wind (‘winding the mill’).  Here, the miller is shown applying his back to the tail poll to wind the mill, and a sack of grain lies awaiting his attention in the doorway.  The sails are shown covered in cloth and the wind power thus captured would have driven a single pair of grinding stones.

Fig. 0.2 - detail from the ‘Walsokne Brass’ plaque (1349)

Another early image appears on the ‘Walsokne Brass’ plaque in St. Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn  (fig. 0.2).  Dating from 1349, a panel at the foot of the brass depicts a horseman carrying grain to be ground at a post mill, followed by two men who are bearing their lord on a litter.  The type of windmill shown is of a later type known as a ‘tripod post mill’, in which the sunken upright post (fig. 0.1) is replaced by a post braced by supporting beams that form a tripod arrangement.  This construction provided better stability and kept the upright post more free from damp; it also permitted the windmill to be moved more easily.  This type of windmill continued with minor modifications and improvements until the 17th/18th centuries, (plate 4) by which time windmill construction had evolved into more sophisticated and substantial smock and tower mills.

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain around the mid-18th century and led to a gradual transition from an agrarian to a manufacturing economy.  Until this period, most of our population lived in the countryside in small communities that were much more self-contained than those to which we are now accustomed, and which relied on the local grain mill for the production of both human and animal foodstuff.  By the beginning of the 19th century it is estimated that there were some 10,000 grain mills of various types operating in Britain.  As well as grinding cereals, windmills were used for various other purposes in which a rotating shaft could be made to do useful work including, in East Anglia and other low-lying areas, pumping water from low-lying areas into drainage ditches.

By the middle of the 19th century, the arrival of steam power together with more modern milling techniques rendered wind and water mills obsolete, and they fell rapidly into decline.  Fortunately, some have survived as private dwellings (fig. 0.2), some as static museum exhibits and a few have even been restored to working order by dedicated preservationists, but most were abandoned, fell into decay and were eventually demolished (fig. 0.3).

Fig. 0.3: Edlesborough tower mill (ca.1947), Buckinghamshire, now a private house.

We are fortunate that in Tring and the surrounding area, four of the five windmills whose histories are given in this book survive.  Pitstone Windmill, now fully restored and preserved as a historic monument, is cared for by the National Trust.  The other three have been converted to private dwellings at Tring (Goldfield), at Wendover and on Hawridge Common.  The fifth, Gamnel Wharf windmill at Tring, was pulled down in 1911; although the only one of the five local windmills not to survive, its site, ironically, is now occupied by one of the largest flour mills in the country.

Fig. 0.4: Riseley post mill, Bedfordshire (ca. 1933)
― demolished ca. 1946.

Further afield are examples of post mills at Brill and at Chinnor.  There is also a tower mill at Edlesborough ― alas, not visible from the road ― that has been converted into a holiday home, while a short distance away is Doolittle Mill, a rare example of a combined wind and water mill, now an attractive private dwelling.  And not to disregard completely the competing technology, there are working water mills in the locality at Ford End (Ivinghoe) and Redbournbury (St. Albans).  Both are open to the public, the latter producing bread for sale in its adjoining bakery.