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Page 4

Newsletter 125 Summer 2019   © Hampshire Mills Group

 

 

Tower Flour

 

Robin Appel

The Origins of Tower Mills (in Norfolk)

 

This article attempts to answer a question raised at the recent meeting about the advent of tower mills.  Nobody seemed to be clear, and nor was I, so I have done some research.

At the Spring meeting of HMG at Emsworth, following a first class talk from Peter Hill on “Windmills of the Channel Islands”, a question arose about the advent of most of the tower mills which had been illustrated.  They all appeared to have been built in the first quarter of the 19th century.  Was this influenced by the Corn Laws (1815-1846)?  Was their construction responding to demand from an expanding population?

In order to try and get a view on this, it is sensible to look at those counties where windmills were once abundant:  the eastern counties of Suffolk, Norfolk, and Lincolnshire in particular.  These counties with their predominantly flat, wide open landscapes, crossed by few, and slow moving rivers, produced far more windmills than water mills, a contrast to their near neighbouring counties to the south and the west.  I will focus on Norfolk where all the windmills recorded are overwhelmingly tower mills, and pertinently, mostly constructed in the 19th century.

 

Tower mills were very expensive constructions, more expensive than the average water mill.  They were mostly built of stone in the western half of the country, and of brick in the eastern counties.  The towers varied from 20ft diameter at the base, with walls 18ins thick, to 42ft in diameter at ground level with walls 4ft thick.  They were mostly 5 floors, but anything from 3 floors to 11 floors (High Mill, Southtown, Great Yarmouth) according to the records.  But they were more powerful than water mills, with more space for machinery and storage.

Norfolk corn windmills, of all structures, peaked around 1845, numbering 435 in total, after which there was a progressive decline down to just 100 by 1912.

 

Concentrating on the tower mills, at the end of the 18th century there appears to have been only a handful (about 10) in existence within the county, the earliest being dated 1740.  Coming back to the first question raised at the Spring meeting, Harry Apling’s book, Norfolk Corn Windmills, published in 1984, records 99 tower mills, of which just over half (56) were constructed between 1815 and 1846, the Corn Law years.  There were fewer ‘new builds’ in the run up to 1815, than there were post-1846, the last construction in 1885.  So the conclusion from a simple layman like myself, has to be, that there is no exact correlation between the construction of tower mills and the Corn Laws, although that fiscal legislation must have helped, while it lasted.

The point is, as I have already highlighted, tower mills were expensive to build, and so the investment was safer if it was underwritten, so to speak.  And between the years 1815 and 1846, underwritten it certainly was!  The Corn Laws protected the domestic price of wheat up to 80 shillings per quarter (never attained in the period), the minimum price at which imported wheat could be placed in the home market.  That was a huge price in 1815, and land owners, farmers, and millers all prospered on the back of this protection.  To give you some perspective of this wheat value, I was still buying English wheat from farmers as late as early 1973, at about 80 shillings per quarter (5 quarters to the ton), or to be more precise – £20 per tonne.  The Corn Laws were, of course, all about protecting land owners (who dominated Parliament), albeit protecting them at an enormous price for the working man.  This latter point would seem to answer the second question from the Spring meeting, that of rising demand for flour.  It is unlikely that it was exponential during the Corn Law years!

Despite a long drawn out campaign to repeal the Corn Laws, it was the Irish Potato Famine which began in 1845, that finally drove Sir Robert Peel’s government into over-throwing them.  Then with cheap imported wheat, from North America in particular, combined with the new technology of roller mills (from Hungary), new large scale mills built on the dockside eventually spelled the demise of the small country flour mill, wind, or otherwise.

If there is any correlation to be drawn over the construction of tower mills, a recurring theme in Harry Apling’s book is that it seems the majority of those in Norfolk, at least, were constructed on the site of a former post mill!  Why?  The problem of post mills was twofold:  (1) as we know from the HMG membership, like all mills, post mills “shook themselves to bits”, and (2) particularly in the eastern counties, they were frequently blown over with terminal consequences for both man and machinery.  The solution to both issues was straight-forward:  build a structure with fortress like dimensions!

 

As a boy, growing up in Suffolk, one particular tower mill in the next village, that of John Bryant’s much photographed Pakenham Mill of 1824 (right, during an HMG visit), was a regular feature of my life.  The mill, which sits immediately behind the farm buildings, was still regularly grinding corn up to the mid 1960s, some of which was fed to Mrs Bryant’s chickens which supplied the Appel family’s (large) weekly eggs requirement – my mother baked a lot!.  Driving up to the farm when the sails on the mill were turning was always quite atmospheric, and an experience which even further endeared me to embark on a career in the corn trade.

 

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