Kent County Council has been actively involved in the preservation of its mills for half a century. Peter Cobley is an architect and planner who worked as Principal Conservation Officer for Kent County Council. Here he provides an introduction to the history and some of the conservation issues related to the Kent windmills.
After a career as an architect and town planner in various local authorities, in 1990 I became Kent County Council's Conservation Architect. Amongst other roles, I was responsible for advice on the care and repair of the sixty or so listed buildings in County ownership. Of these, eight are windmills, three being Grade 1, three Grade II* and two Grade II. It was in 1998 that I entered this world of sprattle beams, cant posts, damsels, sheers, cogs and breast beams, when I was asked, on behalf of the Planning Department, to take over care of the windmills in the Council's ownership.
On taking over, I visited the windmills. All were suffering from varying degrees of structural and/or maintenance problems, as might be expected with structures which are really sensitive machines first and historic buildings second. Indeed mills work for a living and have a limited life expectancy. In 1933, William Coles Finch, in his book, Watermills and Windmills, quotes the life expectancy of a post mill at 200 years and a smock as 100 years - but this assumes the continuous care of an on-site miller. Mills nowadays do not have this luxury and repairs can be piecemeal and fail to address longer-term issues. We cannot therefore treat them as other listed buildings and in fact working mills may require more invasive change than in (for want of a better phrase), the normal listed building. I surveyed each mill and assessed the costs involved for repair and restoration at something under £1 million.
Because of the costs involved, it was agreed that an application should be submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund. The special needs of windmills were recognised in the submission and this approach also fitted the HLF criteria of funding high quality work. Overall the work consisted of sensitive repair to the mill structures and work to improve the potential for tourism and for educational purposes.
Another important issue related to the seven volunteer groups who look after the mills for the County Council on a day to day basis and open them to the public. They perform an excellent service and it is obviously necessary to maintain their interest and morale, something which is less easy to do if the mills are not in good shape. There is also a further problem since the numbers of volunteers are dwindling and the existing members are ageing. (I'm sure they would not object to me stating the obvious). Without new blood, there is a danger that the mills will not be able to open as at present. This seems to be a difficulty not unique to Kent - maybe a national effort is needed to resolve the problem.
THE PROJECT IN BRIEF
The Heritage Lottery bid was for £523,000 with matching funding from KCC and others of £120,000. Included in the bid was a commitment to spend money promoting the windmills for tourist and educational purposes. This included improving facilities for volunteers where possible. The bid was submitted in June 1998. Approval of a grant of £400,000 for work on seven of the eight windmills was given in September 1999. As well as repair work to the mills themselves, the grant covers the production of measured drawings, volunteer training, site work, interpretation, school education packs, leaflets, disabled facilities where practical and professional fees. Of these longer-term items, volunteer training has taken on a wider dimension than originally envisaged due to health and safety issues.
Work on Herne Mill, Draper's mill at Margate and Chillenden Mill was begun as a first phase. The inevitable lead time before work started was a little frustrating for everyone, particularly the volunteer groups who realised they would have to close the mills during repairs and could lose volunteers as a result. The repairs at Draper's and later at Chillenden illustrated the hidden extras (and additional costs) likely in buildings of this type and caused a halt to some work. At Chillenden we concentrated initially on making the mill body watertight and structurally sound for the winter. Because of the cost increases at Chillenden and Draper's mills, however, a further grant application was made to the Heritage Lottery Fund. This was a much more straightforward process since it involved topping up an existing approved grant. As a result the total grant was increased by £326,000 to a total of £726,000. A condition of this increase was a commitment from KCC to implement a 10-year programme of planned maintenance involving an estimated annual expenditure of approximately £35,000. There was recognition here that funding capital repairs without considering the costs of longer-term care can easily be a wasted resource. After agreeing with the HLF, we were able to initiate repair work on the remaining mills and complete the work on Chillenden windmill.
THE INDIVIDUAL WINDMILLS
Windmills were for a long time an economically essential feature of the Kent countryside. The historian William Coles-Finch, found evidence of over 400 windmills in the County. Many villages had two and Deal and Sandwich had six each! In spite of inevitable losses and demolition over the last 50 years, there are still about twelve windmills in Kent in near original condition. The windmills owned by the County form the largest group in near complete or working condition in Kent. Unlike many other historic buildings, they have a multiple value.
Two types of windmill survive in Kent in near complete form, the post mill and the smock mill. Of the eight KCC mills, Chillenden and Stocks mill at Wittersham are post mills, whilst Draper's mill at Margate, Stelling Minnis Mill, Meopham Mill, Herne Mill, the Union mill at Cranbrook and West Kingsdown Mill are smock mills. (Can it really be true that it is so called because of its similarity in shape to a farm worker's smock - five of ours were always coated in coal tar?) A few brick tower mills remain, but none are complete and all disused or in residential use.
All the windmills owned by the County still look like real mills inside and out. None have been subject to any changes of use and most have the majority of machinery in place. Some are capable or with minimum effort could be made capable of grinding. The County between 1958 and 1985 acquired the eight mills. The first one we accepted was Chillenden post mill, dating from 1868. This is situated in open country. Up until 1958, it had a barn and engine house adjoining. When acquired by KCC, the mill was only valued as a landscape feature so the barn with its machinery was demolished and the interior fittings of the mill were burnt. How attitudes have changed! The last mill to be acquired was Herne in 1985. Built in 1789, it was acquired from the miller's family and was therefore complete with machinery and capable of producing flour.
(Above) Kent County Council's former Conservation Architect, Peter Cobley, looks on as painter John Newman sands down one of the sweeps of Stocks Mill, Wittersham, in 1996
The County Council's position, 1954: excerpt from booklet by James W. R. Adams
The restoration of the KCC-owned windmills