Keeping the wind in the sails of Waltham Windmill

Words by:
Roland Oldroyd
Featured in:
March 2013

A windmill has been part of the life in Waltham, near Grimsby, for several centuries. Windmills were introduced into this country in the 12th century, though the first mill in Waltham was not built until 1666, the same year as the Great Fire of London.
It was a four-sailed post mill, which was on the site of the present tower mill, just off Brigsley Road and was recorded on the Waltham Land Enclosure Act of 1769. This mill was blown down during a gale in March 1794.

A second windmill was built opposite the Kings Head public house and remained in business until the late 1830s. It collapsed one wet day when the millwrights were working on it; another post mill replaced this, which was itself blown down in 1873/4, again while being repaired.

The present six-storied tower windmill was built between 1878-1880 by John Saunderson of Louth, using over a quarter of a million light-coloured local bricks made at the old brick pits on Barnoldby Road. They then had to make it waterproof to keep out the ravages of the weather by tarring them. It had six double-sided patent sails and a traditional Lincolnshire ogee (onion shaped) cap. The building cost was £500 but because this was all they had, there was not enough money for a cast iron balcony – this being an extra £50. Sibsey Trader windmill is a sister mill to Waltham. It was also built by Saunderson’s, but this has the usual gallery around it. Waltham has two pairs of French millstones for grinding flour and two pairs of Derbyshire Peak stones for grinding coarser materials such as animal feed.

It is a sad fact that as soon as this mill was completed it was obsolete and old technology because the industrialisation of the milling process was underway at this time in Europe. In 1882 this faster new process was not weather dependent; rolling mills used ceramic and later metal rollers to grind the corn in large quantities very quickly. This mechanisation of the milling process also had one other great effect, that of producing white flour – since it was an easy task to remove unwanted parts of the corn. Also at this time commercial bread making took a leap forward and this new industrial process reduced the bread making time down from six to only two hours. This lowered the price of bread and white bread very quickly became the preferred loaf of the working masses. So at a stroke began the demise of Waltham windmill.

In 1880 there were around 10,000 mills in Britain. Yet less than a decade later there were a mere 2,000. At the same time the rise of huge coastal and riverside mills close to docks unloading cheaper imported wheat speeded up their decline. Today there are less than a dozen working windmills left in Lincolnshire, of which Waltham is one, with over eighty extant mill sites.

During the First World War one of the sails was lost, and the opposite one was removed to balance it – timber was unavailable at the time to replace them. In the 1920s the sails were reduced to single-sided sails. During the Second World War the mill was used as a Home Guard look-out post with a view over the River Humber, and had a narrow escape when the RAF wanted to demolish it as a hazard to aircraft. However, it survived this threat and continued as a working mill.

In 1952 the mill was listed as a Building of Architectural or Historic Interest and in 1966 the Waltham Windmill Preservation Society was formed to restore the mill. In 1978, one of the four remaining sails was damaged, with the other three having to be removed for safety reasons.

From this low point, Waltham Windmill Preservation Society raised over £20,000. In 1980 the former Cleethorpes Borough Council purchased the mill and the site on which it stands and in 1981 the Waltham Windmill Trust was formed as a registered charity to administer the site. The responsibility for the actual maintenance of the mill itself was still readily accepted by the Preservation Society and in June 1994, after twenty-eight years of devoted work, it was rewarded when the mill was restored to its six-sailed splendour.

The present miller maintains the workings of this mill and grinds best quality grain to produce flour occasionally, which is then made into bread by a local baker before being sold on the windmill site at Cakes by Barbara.

When the doors close to the public at the end of the season work behind the scenes can begin again in earnest. The windmill needs constant attention even if on the outside all looks well. Inside, the miller is busy limewashing the interior walls to give them that clean white look. The reality is that the mill is now at the start of a major overhaul of the sails and exterior, so that if you pass by you cannot help but notice what appear to be big gaps that have appeared in five of the six sails.

The gaps are usually filled with small opening and closing components known as shades. These regulate how fast the sails turn by being adjusted from inside the mill cap, either by opening or closing them – in very much the same way that the louvers of a venetian blind can be adjusted to control how much light enters a room.

Neil Medcalf, one of only two traditionally trained millwrights in the country, removed these using a hydraulic lifting platform. Neil is also recognised by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and Monuments (SPAB). He worked for fifteen years at the nationally respected local millwrights Thompson’s of Alford, where he served his apprenticeship, and has worked fifteen years on his own. They have a long and distinguished heritage as millwrights in Alford, being established in 1877, with the current owner, Tom Davies being the last of the line. His father, Jim found work with Jack Thompson, who was the son of Robert Thompson, after coming out of the forces at the end of the Second World War. It is thanks to the expertise of the men working for Thompsons that Waltham windmill has survived for so long. A large number of the repairs and renewal of parts were undertaken by them because of their capability, experience and know-how.

Neil served his apprenticeship under Jack and worked alongside his son, Tom, and so he has the training, skills, expertise, knowledge, understanding and capability to keep this important work going. It is true to say that without his passion and others like Neil, who have the commitment to being a millwright, many more water and windmills would quickly fall into disrepair. These traditional skills, that were for so long simply passed from father to son are rapidly dying out, and we should recognise the problem that future generations will have if we fail to look at millwrighting as a skill needed not only now but in the future. So it was with sadness that we learned that Tom Davies has decided to call it a day, and with no one able to carry on the family business it has closed for the last time bringing to an end a tradition that had lasted 125 years.

The good news is that Neil looks to be taking over the mantle to keep millwrighting alive in Lincolnshire, although there is currently no one doing an apprenticeship, to continue this legacy of work – let us hope this changes.

Since the last major overhaul of the sails in 2005, there are more than sixty shades that need either repair or replacement. As the steel rod rusts the shades stop being as efficient because holes appear in the fabric covering. This repair work continues over the winter and Neil works indoors when the weather is inclement and work on the outside of the mill has to stop. All these replacement parts are handmade and individually fitted to each sail, so that they are bespoke pieces, not mass produced off-the-shelf parts.

When the shades have all been repaired or replaced and reinstated in the sails of the mill, the next stage in Waltham’s renovation and restoration plan will be to paint white all of the exterior woodwork. No small job when you consider that the tower of the mill, excluding the finial is some 75 feet tall. So a head for heights is a requirement of any millwright; add to this the fact that Waltham is 30 feet above sea level at the mill site and you realise that overall Neil will be 100 feet above sea level. All metalwork will also be checked and restored to good order with a specialist coating to protect the iron and steel pieces for years to come. Since Waltham is so close to the sea it suffers from the effects of corrosion more readily than those situated inland. Therefore the continual checking of these metal components is vital.

The other work Neil will be undertaking over the next few months will be to tar the outside walls of the tower. This is really important as the brickwork is porous and so needs the tar to keep the water from damaging the walls. This simple additional work is due to cost cutting when the bricks for the tower were being made. When bricks were ready for firing, those bricks closer to the centre of the kiln would get hotter and be fired for longer. This also meant that the bricks were higher quality and therefore could be sold at higher prices, which the original builders could not afford. So even in the nineteenth century costs played a major part in everyday life. The bricks on the outside were cheaper to buy initially but were porous, which is why so many mill towers are black – it was tarring that gave the tower the colour. To put it in context, the mill tower has a surface area of about 575 square metres. However cutting the cost at the construction stage saved money, but over the years the attention the exterior needed probably cost many times the extra cost.

Each sail will cost approximately £15,000 to replace and in 2001 the cap of the mill, which was made by Thompsons, cost £60,000 to replace. Waltham Windmill Preservation Society volunteer members and friends put a lot of energy into keeping this remarkable icon in good working order. There are many fundraising events including table-top sales and car boot sales, which generate the income needed to keep the mill fully functional and, more importantly, open to the public. The mill has also been successful in obtaining support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Co-operative Dividend Grant scheme and a NE Lincolnshire Ward Grant.

Waltham Windmill has a range of fundraising events which can be found on the website. Opening times for 2013 will be 10am to 4pm from Easter until the end of September (Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays).

Also daily Tuesday to Sunday during local school holidays. Mill Admission – Adult £1.50, Child £0.75.

There is free parking onsite, toilets with disabled access, a restaurant, Railway Carriage tearoom, and a range of shop units selling sweets, ice cream, cakes and clothing. In addition there is the Museum of Rural Life and a miniature railway run by the Grimsby and Cleethorpes Model Engineering Society, a picnic area and children’s play area. Having so many attractions, it is place a well worth visiting in 2013 and should you wish to become a friend of the mill or volunteer they would love to hear from you.

Waltham Windmill Site, Brigsley Road, Waltham, Grimsby DN37 0JZ
Telephone: 01472 752122

Membership & General enquiries: 7 Cheesemans Lane, Waltham, NE Lincs DN37 0EP
Telephone: 01472 825620

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