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Fig. 6.1: Pitstone post mill.

Despite its inanimate nature, Pitstone post mill always appears to be lonely, particularly so when viewed from a distance in silhouette, its upper sweeps outstretched like two skeletal arms pointing accusingly at the sky.  And well they might, for a sudden gale caught the miller unawares, and before he could wind the mill almost destroyed it.  Thanks to its donor, Leonard Hawkins and to the band of brothers who toiled for many years over its resurrection, Pitstone windmill continues to stand, a lonely sentinel over the bare expanse of Windmill Field.

The village of Pitstone derives its name from the Anglo Saxon for ‘Picel's thorn tree’; it appears in the Domesday Book (1086) as ‘Pincelestorne’, a holding of William the Conqueror's half-brother, the Count of Mortain, who also held land in nearby Tring.  Although not listed in Domesday, a watermill probably existed in Pitstone as a necessity to village life, but it was not until 1231 that the first watermill is recorded.  Further references appear in 14th, 16th and l7th century documents, the mill referred to latterly probably being that which still exists at Ford End and which is opened to the public.

The Domesday Survey predates the coming of the windmill to Britain by a century or more.  If a windmill did exist at Pitstone during the medieval period, there is no record of it.  The first mention of a windmill arises in records held in the Bucks Record Office for the years 1624 to 1628.  These refer to the tenants of the ‘Windmill at Ivinghoe’ and to payments made to carpenters working on its structure.  They further suggest it to be an old mill at the time.  Archaeological evidence of its age exists in the date ‘1627’ carved into one of its internal timbers, while dendrochronology suggests a date of 1590.  Neither can be relied upon, for the timbers could well have been recycled from an earlier building.  Whatever the mill’s exact date-of-birth, there is sufficient evidence to place it at least in the early 17th century, making it one of the oldest remaining windmills in Britain, possibly the oldest.

Fig. 6.2: hand reaping in Windmill Field, Pitstone.

In his historical note on nearby Brook End watermill, Keith Russell, the present owner, has this to say about the close relationship of Pitstone’s three mills . . . .

“Pitstone Windmill (dated 1627) has always been linked with Pitstone Mill.  The two were connected by a ‘good road’ then known as the Mill Way, and it followed the line of what is Orchard Way.  The Whistle Brook, also known as the Missel Brook because of the propensity of fresh water mussels therein, was the source of power.  Often in the past the Windmill, Pitstone Watermill and Ford End Watermill have been worked simultaneously by the same individual, which is not surprising when you realize that as the crow flies they are all just a short walk away from each other.”

The earliest person known to be connected with Pitstone mill was John Burt, who in 1770 occupied The Mill House (Brook End) and owned both wind and watermills.  These he bequeathed to his son James in 1786.  Two years later James insured both mills and other premises with The Sun Fire Insurance Company for the sum of £400; in 1801 he switched to the Royal Exchange Fire Insurance Company, the cover for the windmill stating . . . .

“On his Corn Windmill house, timber built, situate at a distance from the above [i.e. Brook End mill house] £50. On the standing and going gears, millstones, machines, etc. therein £50. Warranted no steam engine in either mill.”

The caveat is interesting, not so much because steam engines were regarded as an increased fire risk, but the suggestion is that at this early date they were already being used in mills to supplement wind and water power.

James sold both mills at auction at the Rose and Crown Inn at Tring in 1810, the windmill being advertised as . . . .

“. . . . a capital and substantially built Wind Corn Mill, standing in the open field of Pitstone about two furlongs from the house, on an excellent site, and a good road; the whole admirably calculated for a mealman, being situate in a good corn country where mills are scarce.  Land tax £1-3-4d. per annum.”

The buyer was probably the Grand Junction Canal Company (the company was to sell both mills in 1842) who might have wished to gain control of the ground water in the area.

Pitstone windmill’s next recorded miller was Benjamin Anstee, who is listed in Pigot’s Directory for 1823 and whose surname was also carved on the old mill door.  The windmill again changed hands in 1842, when Francis Beesley bought it from the Grand Junction Canal Company, [7] retaining the mill until 1874 when it was bought by the 3rd Earl Brownlow, owner of the Ashridge Estate.  The windmill was later let to the Hawkins family, tenants of the surrounding Pitstone Green Farm.  John Hawkins employed a miller named Jim Horn, who is believed to have worked the mill until around 1894, to be followed by Charles Simmons, the last recorded miller.  Following the death of the 3rd Earl and the break-up of the Ashridge Estate, the Hawkins family bought the farm and windmill in 1924.

The body of the mill was renovated in 1894, which included re-boarding.  The author Stanley Freese, writing in the 1930s, states that the job was carried out by a workman named John Payne, “said to have been exceptionally clever with his tools, being able to do inlaid work amongst other things”.  The work being completed at Christmas, Payne then “got on to the top ridge of the body and walked along it in his bare feet to fix a sprig of holly on the tail”.  The mill’s post and trestle were open to the weather until the roundhouse was built shortly after the renovation work was completed, for it bears the date 1895 upon a cement slab low down on the outer wall.  Freese records that it was of yellow brick (it is now whitewashed) and had four doorways, but the doors and frames were never fitted.

In 1902 the mill’s working life came to an abrupt end:

“. . . . a great gale rose and caught the mill tail-winded, thrusting the sails forward, lifting the tail of the windshaft out of its seating, and finally blowing two sails off altogether.”

Fig. 6.3: Pitstone Mill derelict c.1930.

The damage was such as to place it beyond economic repair and over the following decades Pitstone mill fell into progressive decay.  In English Windmills Vol. II (1932) the mill’s plight is described thus . . . .

“This is a post mill standing alone in the middle of a very large field, on the road from Ivinghoe to Pitstone. It is derelict.  The roundhouse of yellow brick was a comparatively recent addition and is now covered with corrugated iron.  The trestle timbers have some good moulding, but had apparently weathered a good deal before the addition of the roundhouse. . . . It has now no ladder, tail pole or sails.  There are remnants of machinery still in position and two large millstones on the floor. It should be emphasised that such a building is not safe in any way, and that visitors can see all that need be seen from without.”

Fig. 6.4: Leonard Hawkins.

At some time during the 1930s, Stanley Freese wrote an interesting account of Pitstone mill based on his observations and on interviews with people he does not name, but probably members of the Hawkins family.  In Freese’s view, the mill had sufficient similarity to that at Brill to suggest that Pitstone was the product of the same millwright. [8] He goes on to describe the mill in considerable detail, giving some idea of the miller’s everyday activities . . . .

“Two pairs of stones, 3ft 10in and 4ft, are placed side by side upon the upper floor. . . . in a good east wind both pairs of stones could be worked, but this entailed a lot of rushing about the mill; one pair could often be worked with two sails half-clothed and the other two furled. . . . When worked ceased, the sweeps were always placed on the cross, so that the tips were out of reach of mischief makers who might otherwise climb up the bottom sail and get into the trap door in the breast of the mill over the windshaft neck.  This extremely unusual door . . . was provided for the purpose of greasing the neck bearing . . . . and in milling days this neck was greased every morning before starting work.”


Fig. 6.5: restoration.

It was not until 1937 that the resurrection of Pitstone mill began.  Its then owner, Leonard Hawkins (fig. 6.4), dismayed by its sad condition and his inability to restore it, gave the derelict hulk to the National Trust together with access rights across his land.  Shortage of funds meant that little could be done other than to make cosmetic repairs [9] and stabilise the mill’s structure to prevent further deterioration, although work on the roundhouse that had begun in 1895, was completed, two of its four doorways being bricked up.  In 1938, Freese records that the fourth was “provided with a beautiful iron-studded oak door the like of which has probably seldom been seen on a windmill.”

Other than necessary remedial work to stem the ravages of time, no further restoration took place until 1963 when the Pitstone Windmill Restoration Committee was formed and a plan drawn up to restore the windmill to full working order by voluntary effort.  A survey of the structure showed that, although much needed to be done, it was in better condition than had been feared.  Donations from various sources raised £1,000 towards the restoration, materials were given free or at a discount, equipment was lent, and the carpentry students at Aylesbury College made the mill’s sails.  After much voluntary effort, Pitstone mill again ground grain in 1970.

Pitstone mill is now maintained as a non-working exhibit by the National Trust.