David Nicholls – Personal Memories of Wilton Windmill’s Restoration

posted in: General News | 0

My connection with Wilton Windmill goes back to 1974 when I was the manager in charge of the major restoration of Woodbridge tide mill in Suffolk during 1972-73. I became acquainted with Derek Ogden from Warwickshire who was millwright for the mechanics of this wonderful mill.

Derek was aware of my developing interest in the machinery but advised me that it was unlikely that he would complete his part of the repairs because he was planning to emigrate to the USA.

He told me he was also working on Wimbledon Common post mill and Wilton Windmill in his workshops at Great Alne in Warwickshire.

Derek and I had lengthy discussions during 1974 when he suggested that I might care to take over the work schedule he had in the UK – this despite my total lack of experience – and knowledge about millwrighting practice. In 1974 Derek convened a meeting with Wiltshire County Council who had engaged him as the Millwright to carry out the restoration work.

We met at the Windmill to discuss Derek Ogden’s proposal that I should take over the Millwright restoration work because he was going to the USA. We met the County architect Mr Bowden, Head of planning Mr McCormick, and the County solicitor Mr Gwyn Ab Ifor as well as representatives of the Windmill Mr David Lemon and Mr John Gilbert. This was a very difficult predicament for the County Council and Trustees, but Derek was determined to leave for the USA as soon as possible and it was agreed that this was the only satisfactory way forward.

The Mill brick structure was very weather beaten and Rendalls from Devizes were engaged to reinstate it by re-pointing and replacing the damaged brickwork. Derek Ogden had commenced work on Wilton Windmill in 1972 when he had dismantled the remains of the cap, curb, fantail stage and sails. The mill had been derelict since 1920. The components had been removed to his workshop at Great Alne where he constructed the new cap and refitted the original iron ribs as well as the fantail. The cast-iron break wheel and the wallower were in good condition and I arranged everything to be transported from Warwickshire back to Wilton. Work at Wilton commenced with my team of four millwrights rebuilding the cap frame, the cap and the fantail and its stage during the hot summer of 1975.

It is worth pointing out that my home was a delightful cottage opposite Harwich across the river Stour in deep countryside and our business was based on the edge of the East Coast at Hollesley near Woodbridge – hardly ideal for the location of Wilton Windmill. As well as a 3 ½ hour journey across country I was also away from my family for weeks on end. Despite the interesting challenge of the work I can honestly say that this was not the happiest time of my life especially when we were still shaking down to a compact team within my business. Working on Wilton Windmill in pleasant summer conditions was fine but when it came to working late into the evening, in the dark, in a blizzard, in freezing conditions, with limited facilities forging components I wondered what I had taken on. It transpired that Derek’s brief to me was somewhat lacking and he had left very little manoeuvrability on the costs which meant that my Company lost money on this restoration work.

One of the requirements of our project was to obtain a good pair of French Burr millstones, because the mill had been left with only one pair of granite stones not suitable for everyday milling. Via a circuitous route I was directed to a local Watermill near Chilton Foliat where there was a pair of French stones and later I was recommended to contact the Potter brothers at Ecchinswell Watermill who also had a spare pair of first-class French stones. I had no previous experience of dressing millstones and Reg, Mont, and Clarence Potter became very good friends and helped me set up and dress the stones for the Windmill. Their own working Watermill at Ecchinswell was a delight they told me that their Grandfather had been the last Miller at Wilton when it closed in 1920.

During 1975, although I found a number of quite serious restoration problems, I was obliged to continue with the specifications that Derek Ogden had prepared for the County Council and Wiltshire Historic Building Trust. After we had completed our work and returned to Suffolk late in 1995, arrangements were made by David Lemon for a hand winding gear to be introduced on the fanstage, so the sails could be manually turned into wind if the fantail broke. There had been no provision for this essential safety feature and a heavy and not particularly satisfactory gearing was installed by Hole and Sons of Sussex.

In the early 1980s I moved to Oxfordshire with my family and my Millwright Company was based in Maple Durham near Reading, where we lived for a while adjacent to the business. We achieved great things over several years up until 1994 when, due to personnel difficulties with a Director, I resigned from my Company. I set up a new company called the Chiltern Partnership and happily both Wiltshire County Council and the Windmill Society were anxious to continue our association.

I was determined to correct the various technical issues which were of real concern since the Restoration in the 1970s:

  • The first urgent task was to correct the alarming settlement of the fanstage which due to the extremely long length and associated weight was causing much worry as it was gradually bending.
  • The introduction of the winding gear had not helped and the design of the fanstage based on original detail was at the extreme limit of performance.
  • In addition to this there was no means of gaining access for maintenance to the worm gear.
  • I remember visiting English Heritage in London and discussing our problem with their architect at the time – Arnold Root, who said that they would not entertain any alterations because of its listing. I explained that if not corrected there would be no mill!
  • Following this meeting I discussed the problem with a structural engineer who had helped me at the Warwick Castle restoration – Don Ascough.
  • We felt that the problem could be solved by the introduction of a discreet steel support framework allied to the main fanstage oak sheers and accordingly we agreed a design which was presented to English Heritage.
  • This also incorporated the suspended basket enabling access to the worm gear and minor alterations were included to deal with the final drive.

English Heritage reluctantly agreed that this really was the only way forward and accordingly the whole cap frame was craned off and returned to our works which continued to be at Mill farm Mapledurham.

All the alterations were made and in addition:

  • I decided that this really was the time to put right the dreadful aluminium cap sheeting proposed, purchased and introduced by Derek Ogden in 1974.
  • The original sheeting in 1821 was wrought iron – no longer made but possibly available as a reprocessed material which we had used in the major restoration of the waterwheel at Warwick Castle Mill.
  • This was a fairly major undertaking but I was successful in sourcing sheet material which I had re-rolled as flat sheet in Rotherham.
  • At our works I set up a mould so that the sheeting could be worked to the cap profile and the sheets were then riveted, as originally, to the iron ribs.
  • This was then painted with four coats of lead paint.
  • Under continued on-going maintenance this should last for another hundred years.

Various other tasks undertaken such as:

  • Machining the live curb rollers to a radial profile so enabling better tracking,
  • Freeing the rigid connection which had developed to the collar of the two-piece castiron upright shaft which was causing problems with the vertical alignments,
  • Introducing a more simple, safe and accessible hand winding arrangement.
  • We had several sessions with the sails over the years and some replacement,
  • One or two cast-iron gearing components
  • Establishing the most suitable painting system for the sail assembly.

 

The Windows in the Windmill

  • I remember that the original 1821 windows in the Windmill were of small frame castiron – a piece had been found many years before.
  • The windows made and installed by the builders Rendells from Devizes during the restoration in 1974 had simple wooden frames which had deteriorated over the years.
  • In 1992, Derek Waite then Chairman of the Windmill Society, arranged for his own window supplying company to install replacement windows.
  • I did not like these and in due course these were removed and we installed simple wooden windows which were reasonably comparable to the original although not small paned.

 

Of course the staging is entirely fictitious i.e. there is no relationship to the original, early 19th-century arrangement whereby access to the sails was affected by standing on the long demolished outbuildings. The staging is probably the only real solution to gaining access to the sails whatever position the mill is in and we have now accepted this as part of the mill’s character.

  • Over the years we have seen the following on-going problems:
  • The damp penetration of the brickwork particular on the prevailing South West weather side.
  • This is a worry, causing much spalling of the brickwork with the resulting need to cut out defective bricks and replace these.
  • Some of this problem is attributable to the cementitious nature of the pointing carried out during the restoration in the 1970s.
  • In 1995/6 we engaged a company to advise us and subsequently a silicone based solution was applied to the brickwork in an attempt to set up a barrier to prevent water penetration.
  • This was partly successful for four years not 20 as quoted. At the time of writing these notes – 2013 – this is still being addressed.

Some random memories
Once in the early days I cogged the brake wheel – alone - during the 1970’s and this task seemed to go on for ever. I had never cogged a gear before and this was done in very cold conditions on dark nights. I am proud to say that I believe none of the teeth have required replacement and that the mesh is still almost perfect. The only technical advice I could find was in the book by Stanley Freese on Windmills and Millwrighting. The great spur gear I cogged with one of the younger members of the team.

I cannot remember exactly when it was that we did our first milling. I’m told by Peter Lemon it was March 1976 when he and Fred Scammel milled the first session. I recollect that it was very satisfying to finally reach that stage and produce flour after so long and of course subsequently it has been a pleasure to instruct Mike Clark and others in milling procedures to help to bring this wonderful mill back to life.

So many people have been involved, many of them now dead and just memories - their efforts have resulted in developing extraordinarily good teamwork and dedication. I have now retired and handed my business over to Owlsworth IJP Ltd under the direction of Paul Sellwood. He shows such dedication and I know the future of the mill will be assured because it is the continued on-going maintenance and care which is so critical to any working structure.

I am pleased to be called in from time to time and I am honoured to remain a committee member. Memories of my early association with the mill are not happy but I can honestly say that I have enjoyed every minute of my time over the past 20 odd years. This is a very successful mill and long may it remain so.

My particular thanks are due to my friend Peter Lemon, but I am grateful to many others including Mike Clark, Mike Arlett, Phil Durston, Henry Bowden, Gwyn Ab Ifor , Peter Swain, John Talbot and so many others for engaging-or allowing – me to participate in helping to look after this fine mill over the past 38 years. This includes all the various team members at the time.

David Nicholls
May 2013