My country life: the millwright

Tony Burton meets Vincent Pargenter, who uses traditional craftmanship to keep his windmill's blades turning

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There was a time when the millwright was one of the most important men in the community.

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The Domesday Book lists more than 5,000 mills at work in England, grinding grain into flour, and each one of them was designed, built and kept in working order by a millwright. Then, in the 18th century, the steam engine came along, followed by diesel engines and electric motors and the wind and watermills gradually fell into disuse.

But a surprisingly large number have survived. There are still more than 700 mills in Britain that are open to the public, and their restoration and maintenance depends on the age-old skills of millwrights such as Vincent Pargeter.

Vincent started his working life in the planning department of Essex County Council, but his great love was always windmills: “They are like human beings – no two are alike, each one is different and they vary from one part of the country to the next.”
He became interested in the White Mill at Sandwich, which was falling into dereliction, and he volunteered to set about restoring it.

He started work in 1961 and consulted other groups of enthusiasts: “We had to learn how to do it all over again, because the whole craft had been lost.” The mill is now a rural heritage centre.

By 1969 Vincent felt sufficiently confident of his new-found skills to set up in business as a professional millwright, and he’s been working at it ever since. I went to see him in action at Willesborough Windmill at Ashford in Kent.

It is not hard to see the appeal of windmills. The mill rises high above the surrounding houses on the outskirts of the town, its sails forming a brilliant white cross against a bright blue sky. This is a smock mill, one in which the main machinery is housed in a wooden tower, perched on a two-storey brick base, with the miller’s house attached.

The first thing you discover is just how complex a mill really is, and the machinery that makes it all work fascinates Vincent. It is not just a question of the wind blowing, the sails going round and turning millstones. For a start, you have to get the sails, which are mounted on a rotating cap at the top of the mill, facing into the wind.

They can be winched round by hand, but that takes hours of hard work. Instead, a fantail, looking like a child’s whirligig on a stick, is mounted on the cap. When the wind blows it acts like a propeller, driving the cap round until it is sheltered from the breeze. The motion, like everything else in the mill, is regulated through gears, some made of wood, others from iron, so the millwright has to master both materials.

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Jack of all trades

Vincent is an expert carpenter, and he can do blacksmith work in his own forge. In fact, he has to be able to do virtually anything, from designing machinery to painting the outside of the mill. His latest project involves the restoration of a mill that exists as little more than a brick tower. It was built by Holman Brothers of Canterbury, but a long way from home – just outside the old city of Jerusalem.

For Vincent, a mill is far more than a machine for turning wheat into flour. “I’m interested in the whole history of mills, and the way they’re different in different parts of England”. When Willesborough mill was built in 1869, steam-powered mills were already at work.

To compete, the miller added a steam engine to take over on calm days. So why bother with wind power at all? “Steam engines cost money to run, but the wind is free,” he added. Over the years, other engines were added, and there is still a 1906 Hornsby oil engine in the mill, ready for use.

But though the oil engine is of interest to specialists, it is the sight of the old mill working with the wind, just as mills have worked for centuries, which brings in the visitors to buy flour or just to admire the smooth efficiency of gears and grindstones. Thanks to Vincent, they’ll be working for a long time yet. He also has an assistant, Paul Kemp, ready to take over when he retires. Paul could have a long wait.

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THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 44 OCOUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!