Somerset Windmills

Issue 38: January 1987
In Eastern England, almost every village once had its windmill. There were three forms.

The most ancient was the post mill, a building entirely of timber which revolved upon a stout post supported by four struts rising from a timber frame laid on the ground or brick supports.
Later builders enclosed the base in a brick round-house which acted as a granary. This form of mill was by far the most picturesque but lingers in Somerset only in the form of carvings on bench ends in the churches of North Cadbury (a side view) and Bishop’s Lydeard (a front view). In the Cadbury carving can be seen the ladder to reach the door, and the pole for turning the mill to the wind. When the wind changed the miller had to go out and turn the whole mill round.

Then there was the smock mill, which was a timber tower with a revolving cap that carried the sails; it is not thought any of these were built in Somerset.
Lastly the tower mill built of stone or brick, also with a revolving cap. At first this had to be turned to the wind by hand but about 1800 the wind vane or fly-wheel was invented, which, set on the back of the cap, or on the ladder work of a post mill, revolved quickly as the wind veered and brought the sails again into the wind. It is unlikely this invention reached rural Somerset.

The towers of Somerset mills were mostly, if not all, built of blue lias stone. The cap was originally thatched with an overhanging edge, and the sails were of open lattice work over which sail-cloths were drawn. In other countries most mills had the later sails with slats which automatically opened or closed according to the force of the wind, so the Somerset tower mills were of an antique type.
The interior machinery was of wood; thick driving wheels, one on the shaft behind the sails, working into another on the top of a vertical shaft, by stout wooden cogs. Another wheel below was cogged into the spindles of the mill stones. Somerset mills were usually fitted with two pairs, the lower stone fixed, the upper revolving; the corn dribbling down through a central hole from a bin above, having a tube of sacking to guide it in to the stones. From these the meal was conducted down into a bin on the lower floor of the mill.

Between Glastonbury and Bridgewater once stood a string of windmills along the Poldens and at least one of these, above Street, was a primitive post mill. There were mills at Moorlinch, Puriton, Woolavington, Watchfield and Puxton, and at Walton the machinery was removed from the mill in the 1930s and the tower, dating from the time of Queen Anne, turned into a dwelling house.
The remains of an old mill tower can be seen on the top of the hill above Worle and the stumps of the towers were noted near Langport and Hutton.
Windmills have been preserved complete with sails at High Ham and Chapel Allerton in Somerset, and not far away from the latter another tower formed part of a house. In Wiltshire the only original windmill still in working order is at Wilton, although the manufacturers of Windmill Butter took and old tower from Burdrop and rebuilt it complete with sails on a Swindon trading estate.

Windmills were not a feature of the Dorset landscape; there are remnants on Portland and records of a few post mills but nothing else remains in a county which once had more than 300 water mills. There is a working windmill at Cann, Shaftesbury, but this is a replica of a Cretan type.
When we think that windmills are the oldest form of machinery remaining in the 20th century, and that they are so closely interwoven with the history, art and literature of our country, it is sad indeed that they vanished so rapidly from our villages.

Most of this information is taken from an article by Henry Corder in the July 1932 edition of
The Somerset Countryman.