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Fig. 15.1: Middleton Road post mill, Bicester c.1880.
Built c.1675, blown down in 1881.

Could there be a more picturesque reminder of old English life, or any feature in more perfect harmony with its rural surroundings, than a venerable old wooden windmill?  Whether standing on a far hilltop or on a gentle rise in the valley, its place in the picture was always pleasing, often its centre of attraction.  In the opinion of Robert Louis Stevenson (The Foreigner at Home) . . . .

“There are, indeed, few merrier spectacles than that of many windmills bickering together in a fresh breeze over a woody country; their halting alacrity of movement, their pleasant business, making bread all day with uncouth gesticulations, their air, gigantically human, as of a creature half alive, put a spirit of romance into the tamest landscape.”

Such romantic scenes live now only in pictures.  Here, Walter Rose (The Village Carpenter) describes the exhilaration he experienced as a child, standing before those selfsame uncouth, gesticulating sails . . . .

“The sails always reached to about two feet from the ground, and it was an enthralling experience to stand before them, as I often did, when a stiff wind was blowing, and watch them go roaring by: to note the ‘swoop,’ ‘swoop’ of each sail as it passed and to follow the orbit of one as it rose to almost sixty feet in the air, immediately to descend and swiftly pass again.”

Fig. 15.2: frontispiece, Lettres de mon Moulin.

In Lettres de mon Moulin, Alphonse Daudet reflects upon the disappearing windmill and the way of life that once centred upon it . . . .

“At one time there was a great milling trade, and from thirty miles around the people of the mas brought us their wheat to grind. . . .

All about the village the hills were covered with windmills.  Right and left your eye fell upon arms revolving in the mistral above the tops of the pine-trees, upon endless numbers of little donkeys laden with sacks, trotting up hill and down dale along the roads; and the whole week through it was a pleasure to hear on our hill-top the cracking of whips, the flapping of the arm-sails, and the ‘gee-up’ of the millers’ boys. . . . On Sundays whole parties of us used to go up to the mills, where the millers treated us to Muscat wine.  Their wives were like queens, decked out in all the bravery of their lace scarves and gold crosses.  I used to bring my fife, and until black night there was dancing and farandoles.  These mills, you see, were the joy and the wealth of our countryside.

Unfortunately, some Frenchmen from Paris conceived the idea of establishing a big steam-driven mill on the Tarascon road.  There
s always a craze for anything new!  People got into the habit of sending their corn to the steam mills, and the poor windmills were left without any work to do.  For some time they tried to struggle on, but steam proved the stronger, and one after another, alas! they had to close down . . . . No more little donkeys. . . . The handsome millers wives sold their gold crosses . . . . No more Muscat wine! No more farandole! . . .”

Apart from Muscat and farandoles, a miller’s life could be hard, as is portrayed by Julia Ewing in Jan of the Windmill . . . .

“In a coat and hat of painted canvas, he had been in and out ever since the storm began; now directing the two men who were working within, now struggling along the stage that ran outside the windmill, at no small risk of being fairly blown away.

He had reefed the sails twice already in the teeth of the blinding rain. But he did well to be careful. For it was in such a storm as this, five years ago ‘come Michaelmas’, that the worst of windmill calamities had befallen him, — the sails had been torn off his mill and dashed into a hundred fragments upon the ground.  And such a mishap to a seventy feet tower mill means — as windmillers well know — not only a stoppage of trade, but an expense of two hundred pounds for the new sails . . . . That catastrophe had kept the windmiller a poor man for five years, and it gave him a nervous dread of storms.”

Fig. 15.3: Don Quixote tilting at a windmill, by Gustave Doré.

The most famous episode in all of literature to feature windmills must surely be that which appears in Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote.  In one of his adventures, the Don imagines the sails of a group of windmills to be the waving arms of giants.  This famous scene gives rise to the idiom “tilting at windmills”, meaning to attack imaginary enemies or to fight futile battles.  The word ‘tilt’, in this context, comes from jousting, which is precisely what the Don’s fevered imagination leads to . . . .

“Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain.  And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, ‘Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished.  Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants?  I intend to do battle with them and slay them.  With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.’

‘What giants?’ asked Sancho Panza.

‘Those you see over there,’ replied his master, ‘with their long arms.  Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length.’

‘Take care, sir,’ cried Sancho.  ‘Those over there are not giants but windmills.  Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone.’”

Fig. 15.4: Paul Joseph Constantin Gabriël, English Landscape with Mills.



More classical allusions to windmills appear in Shakespeare. In Henry IV Part I, Act 3, Harry Hotspur says to Mortimer, Earl of March . . . .

“. . . . . O! he’s as tedious
As a tired horse, a railing wife;
Worse than a smoky house.  I had rather live
With cheese and garlic in a windmill, far,
Than feed on cates and have him talk to me,
In any summer-house in Christendom.”

But a cheese and garlic sandwich might go down remarkably well in a windmill, particularly if during the repast one can gaze down on acre upon acre of wheat, barley, oats or whatever, with a flock or herd grazing here or there and the odd farmhouse dotted about the patchwork sea of colour.  Falstaff and his companions would surely have revelled to their heart’s content in cheese and garlic perched in such a position, for in the second part of Henry IV Act 3, Justice Shallow remarks to this bulky man, who had “a kind of alacrity in sinking” . . . .

"O, Sir John, do you remember since we all lay at night in the windmill in Saint George’s Fields? . . . . Ha, it was a merry night!"

The Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc actually owned a working smock mill; Shipley Mill in Sussex formed part of an estate that he bought in 1905.  Belloc employed a miller, and windmilling continued there until 1926.  Thereafter he maintained the fabric but, following his death in 1953, the mill was found to be in a sad state of repair.  It was then that friends raised money to restore it as a tribute to the writer.

Fig. 15.5: ruined post mill at Stratford, 1901.

Halnaker (pronounced Ha’nacker) Mill, the subject of this melancholy poem from 1912, stands on Halnaker Hill north-east of Chichester.  In the poem, Belloc reflects on the collapse of the mill (struck by lightning), which he uses as a metaphor for the decay of the prevailing moral and social system.


Sally is gone that was so kindly,
    Sally is gone from Ha’nacker Hill
And the Briar grows ever since then so blindly;
    And ever since then the clapper is still . . .
    And the sweeps have fallen from Ha’nacker Mill.

Ha’nacker Hill is in Desolation:
    Ruin a-top and a field unploughed.
And Spirits that call on a fallen nation,
    Spirits that loved her calling aloud,
    Spirits abroad in a windy cloud.
Spirits that call and no one answers —
    Ha’nacker’s down and England’s done.
Wind and Thistle for pipe and dancers,
    And never a ploughman under the Sun:
    Never a ploughman.   Never a one.

In The Windmill, Robert Bridges describes the miller in situ, account book in hand, thus laying emphasis on the commercial realities of a miller’s life.  His descriptive details with “creaking sails” and “shuddering timbers” conjure up a vision that anyone who has visited a working windmill will recognize.


The green corn waving in the dale,
    The ripe grass waving on the hill:
I lean across the paddock pale
    And gaze upon the giddy mill.

Its hurtling sails a mighty sweep
    Cut thro’ the air: with rushing sound
Each strikes in fury down the steep,
    Rattles, and whirls in chase around.

Beside his sacks the miller stands
    On high within the open door:
A book and pencil in his hands,
    His grist and meal he reckoneth o’er.

His tireless merry slave the wind
    Is busy with his work to-day:
From whencesoe’er he comes to grind;
    He hath a will and knows the way.

He gives the creaking sails a spin,
    The circling millstones faster flee,
The shuddering timbers groan within,
    And down the shoots the meal runs free.

The miller giveth him no thanks,
    And doth not much his work o’erlook:
He stands beside the sacks, and ranks
    The figures in his dusty book.

Fig. 15.6: Hawridge tower mill,
by Stanley Freece.



Fig. 15.7: the Millers Daughter,
by Herman Winthrop  Peirce (1891).

Alfred Lord Tennyson follows Bridges’ allusion to the miller’s grip on the world of business.  Here, he describes a prosperous and contented man, but one “full of dealings with the world”. . . .


I see the wealthy miller yet,
    His double chin, his portly size,
And who that knew him could forget
    The busy wrinkles round his eyes?
The slow wise smile that, round about
    His dusty forehead drily curl’d,
Seem’d half-within and half-without,
    And full of dealings with the world?

As for the miller’s daughter, the Laureate’s feelings, tenderly expressed, are thus . . . .

It is the miller’s daughter,
    And she is grown so dear, so dear,
That I would be the jewel
    That trembles in her ear:
For hid in ringlets day and night,
I’d touch her neck so warm and white . . .
. . . . And I would be the necklace,
    And all day long to fall and rise
    With her laughter or her sighs:
And I would lie so light, so light,
I scarce should be unclasp’d at night.

With so much grain in evidence, the risk of a vermin infested mill is a real problem.  Here, Walter de la Mare pays recognition to the miller’s countermeasure . . . .


In Hans’ old mill his three black cats
Watch his bins for the thieving rats.
    Whisker and claw, they crouch in the night,
    Their five eyes smouldering green and bright:
Squeaks from the flour sacks, squeaks from where
The cold wind stirs on the empty stair,
Squeaking and scampering, everywhere.
    Then down they pounce, now in, now out,
    At whisking tail, and sniffing snout;
While lean old Hans he snores away
Till peep of light at break of day;
    Then up he climbs to his creaking mill,
Out come his cats all grey with meal —
    Jekkel, and Jessup, and one-eyed Jill.

. . . . and not to forget the source of the windmill’s motive power; this by Christina Rossetti . . . .


    Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling,
    The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
    Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
    The wind is passing by.

Reference was made in Chapter IX on Hawridge windmill, to the writer Gilbert Cannan who rented the mill after its conversion to private living accommodation.  In his study at the very top of the mill, he wrote copiously, including a book of verse from which this extract is taken . . . .


I have a room wherein each day I sit
    Word-weaving.  I have windows south, east, west,
    And with the changing sky my eyes are blest
Over this wide Heaven I let my wit
And fancy roam.  My thoughts like birds do flit
    Against the clouds in happy, happy quest
Of straws and twigs and moss to build their nest.
    This is the spring when days with love are lit.

Amateur poets have also paid tribute to windmills.  This anonymous sonnet pictures a feudal landlord and owner of a windmill — to which his tenants are obliged to take their grain — reflecting on his idle way of life, as idle as the slumbering landscape that surrounds him.  He tries to create an impression of industry for the “bustling world” to see, but guilty conscience or not the landlord collects his toll, which his miller deducts “in kind”.

Fig. 15.8: smock mill.


I pause to gaze across the weald —
    There seems to be no life astir
    Save a skylark soaring in the air
Caroling o’er a wheat-filled field;
    And on this landscape, patch-worked jade,
Stillness lies; no other life is visible
But the slow-winding sails of my old windmill
    Play flitting change with sun and shade.
In this place I follow my idle way,
   As the bustling world would judge it,

Like a windmill I twirl my arms all day
    And try to look committed.
        Though I toil not for what we grind
        The miller mulcts my toll in kind!

James Edwin Saunders was a miller from Slough.  He died in 1935, aged 91, after a lifetime spent in windmilling that brought him immense satisfaction in spite of once being on the brink of bankruptcy.  James kept a diary in which his conflicts and consolations are recorded, mostly in rhyme; one of his long poems, which sums up his feelings for his craft, begins . . . .


There is poetry in Milling, when one’s heart is free
From the care that blinds one’s vision — oft ‘twas so with me
    To a large extent, though even in those anxious days
    There were times when I had glimpses of its transient rays.
How I like to see good running and due pleasure found
In the Mill’s efficient working, as I walked around.
    When I went to bed I saw it still before my eye,
    Still I heard the music stealing like a lullaby,
Soothing me to sleep and dreamland like an evening psalm,
After days of busy effort, like a restful balm.

Another amateur poet, H. E. Howard, from Chesham, wrote 50 Poems of Buckinghamshire.  A few lines from the beginning of one of these poems, written in 1935 . . . .


At noon among the rolling hills I strayed

    And watched the bearded ploughman.  In the
The February sun sang out and strayed
    Up o’er the bramble slope until the sail
Of that old windmill tried to live again.
    The wind tip-toed on every blade of grass;
And shimmering ponds as smooth
    as smoothest glass.

Fig. 15.9: Le Monde vu par les artistes (p.11), René Joseph Ménard (1881).

The last poem needs little introduction, for it must be the best known of what windmill poems there are, and one of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s most enduring . . . .


Fig. 15.10: “Mill near Havant, Langston Harbour, Hants” by E Duncan (1869).
The mill is now a scheduled ancient monument.


Behold! a giant am I!
    Aloft here in my tower,
    With my granite jaws I devour
The maize, and the wheat, and the rye,
    And grind them into flour.

I look down over the farms;
    In the fields of grain I see
    The harvest that is to be,
And I fling to the air my arms,
    For I know it is all for me.

I hear the sound of flails
    Far off, from the threshing-floors
    In barns, with their open doors,
And the wind, the wind in my sails,
    Louder and louder roars.

I stand here in my place,
    With my foot on the rock below,
    And whichever way it may blow
I meet it face to face,
    As a brave man meets his foe.

And while we wrestle and strive
    My master, the miller, stands
    And feeds me with his hands;
For he knows who makes him thrive,
    Who makes him lord of lands.

On Sundays I take my rest;
    Church-going bells begin
    Their low, melodious din;
I cross my arms on my breast,
    And all is peace within.



Fig. 15.11: monarch of the hill.

Not just in Spanish literature, but in many other cultures, the windmill has acquired symbolism with a host of different meanings.  For example, in China the wearing of a piece of jewellery depicting a windmill represents a blowing away of bad luck and a change of fortune for the better.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the windmill is the symbol of the martyrdom of St. Victor of Marseilles, a solider of the Roman army who was killed in AD 290 for exhorting local Christians to be firm in their faith.  For this he was put to death by being crushed under a millstone.

Fig.15.12: Scenting the Summer Air: Golden Gorse, by David Murray.

Perhaps the best known modern literary analogy is George Orwell’s warning of the failure of the Communist system, which he satirized so powerfully in his novel Animal Farm.  Orwell used the windmill to represent Stalin’s ‘Five-Year Plan’, which aimed to improve Soviet industry for the benefit of the proletariats.  Just like the eventual fate of the windmill in the book, Stalin’s plan was an utter failure.  When the windmill in Animal Farm was blown down in a storm due to being built with shoddy materials, the animals decide to build another, just as Stalin kept introducing new Five-Year Plans.  The final destruction of the windmill became known as ‘The Battle of Windmill’, which Orwell used to represent the real-life Battle of Stalingrad.

Fig. 15.13: Dutch mill, by A. T. Gellerstedt (1891).


Lyrics by Herbert Brandon

Born in Tring in 1878, Herbert J. Brandon first lived in Akeman Street and attended a Non-conformist boys’ school in Park Road.  As a young man he worked in the family furnishing business, filling his spare time by writing numerous song lyrics — often to music by Horace Keats — prose pieces and stories, many of which were published both in England and Australia (the great Australian baritone Peter Dawson recorded Brandon’s song, Drake’s Call).  The lyrics for The Miller of Tring appeared in 1917, possibly in an effort to provide some cheer in the darkest days of WWI.  Brandon lived in Tring all his life; he died in 1945.


Fig. 15.14: Plumstead Common Windmill, Greenwich (c.1820).