For a general introduction and account of these windmills, please read an article that the writer had published in :  THE  DORSET  YEAR  BOOK (1999)

 The Windmills of the Isle of Portland 

                                                         By RICHARD CRUMBLEHOLME

 The two stone windmill towers to the south of the village of Easton on the Isle of Portland are the only historic windmill remains to survive in Dorset. Although watermills have always been predominant, there is archival evidence of over thirty windmill sites in the county dating from the 13th century. Most of these were wooden post mills with their machinery housed in a cabin which rotated on a central timber post. None have survived even in part and are probably unlikely to be located by archaelogical excavation.

Of some six thousand grainmills recorded in Doomsday, all were powered by water, men or animals as windmills did not appear in Europe until the late 12th century. Although the earliest dating of a stone tower mill in England occurs at Dover in 1295, this form of windmill did not become established in northern Europe until the 15th century. With their sails and windshaft mounted in a rotating cap set on a stone tower, these mills were far sturdier structures. From the mid 18th century, they developed especially in eastern counties, as much larger structures with tall tapering towers, multiple pairs of millstones and many quite sophisticated automated operating devices.

The small parallel sided towers at Easton are of typical southern Mediterranean form. They remained as small, primitive windmills to serve their local isolated area on a communal basis. The writer found windmills on the island of Rhodes which being almost identical in size, have proved invaluable in conjectural reconstructions. Although there have been broadly similar windmills in Brittany, the Channel Islands and other parts of England, the Portland mills appear to be amongst the earliest of their type in this country. As with the Portland lerret, the technology was possibly introduced or gained via the numerous trade links with the Mediterranean area.

The Royal Manor of Portland had always been an isolated community with agriculture being central to its early self sufficiency. With limited resources, the islanders had devised a communal farming system based largely on sheep and corn. The governing Court Leet ensured that common crops were grown in particular areas and that crop harvesting and the grazing of animals was carried out on a communal basis.

Due to the local custom of shared inheritance and the potential value of building stone, the islanders carefully guarded their part shares in the numerous strips of land locally known as lawns. This resulted in Portland retaining its open fields, common lands and the method of utilizing the windmills. Although harvested communally, the Islanders would bring their own grain to be milled as they wanted to use it.

 There is an interesting insight in the diary of Elizabeth Otter : .................When volk wanned flour to make bread they took grains to mills. Were two of 'em and ruins be there still. I 'ave 'eard people say how they winnowed ther wheat, take it ter mills, have it ground into flour, take it home to Southwell and bake cakes afore they'd anything ter eat . Ol' miller would take so much flour for his pay, I 'ave 'eard 'em tell how they burned crusts of bread and poured water on it ter make tea.

This piecemeal type of milling caused some mistrust as the customer could not measure his flour against the amount of grain that he gave for milling. Apart from the vagrancies of the wind, the millers would have probably had others jobs as they would not often have enough work to mills constantly.

Both north and south mills only had one set of millstones but any problem caused by maintenance or recutting of the stones was solved by operating two windmills. Islanders often joked that in light winds one would be stopped to allow more wind for the other one !

Hutchins records a watermill powered by spring water from the foot of the north hill in Underhill. As the vast majority of crops would have been grown on the Tophill area of the island, a similar small watermill may have predated the windmills as water is said to have constantly bubbled out of the ground by the north windmill. Small "Norse" or "click" mills were very common and only needed a small spring as a power source. Although no records have been located, the Crown almost certainly would have been connected with the construction of the windmills initially in this Royal Manor. This may have been contemporary with the building of Portland Castle in the 1540's whose garrison must have caused a great increase in milling requirements.

A reference to land by the windemill held by Dorothie Kames of Wakeham  in The Rentals and Survey of Portland dated 15th September 1608 is the earliest dating at present. Both windmills are illustrated on the well known map of 1626 by William Simplon and on all maps and charts afterwards. Set on ways amongst the numerous lawns of Droopfield, the north mill (at Cottonfields SY 690713) and the south mill (at Grammars Land SY 691 712) would have, no doubt, always occupied the small areas of land as shown on John Tapperell's 1841 Tithe Apportionment map.

Many windmills became seamarks and although their sail movement may have sometimes been visible, it is likely that their size and location in the middle of the island precluded this on Portland. Apart from map symbols, they are first illustrated by S H Grimm in two of his sketches made in 1790. Local artist Will Pye made a small but detailed sketch c.1890 and good details were also captured in an early photograph of the same era showing ploughing in front of the apparently just redundant north windmill.

The windmills probably ceased to operate in the late 1890's due to cheap mass produced flour and bread being readily available via the Island's first modern rail and road links. The Home Guard inserted a concrete floor in the south mill to form a pillbox during the 1939-45 War. All 20th century illustrations catalogue the rapid destruction of the timber components culminating with the final crane removal of the north mill's windshaft and sailstock. These were placed in the local museum (unfortunately outside) in November 1983 leaving just the stone tower shells on the site.

The windmills had traditionally been operated by the Pearce family.(see Portland millers for more detail) Richard Pierce, miller of Portland, was bound over in Dorchester by Sir Francis Ashley JP on 3rd September 1626.... for tipling without licence and keeping disorders in his house on the sabboth dayes.  Millers producing malt for ale were sometimes called licenced victuallers and a tippler brewed and retailed ale usually from his own home. The Stone family appear as tenants from the 1670's until the Pearce family appear again in 1744 when Abraham Pearce took over the tenancy of Angeles (south) mill from Shadrac Stone. Whether at sometime the Angel family gave their name to the south mill is unknown. The last millers Edward (Ned Lopp) Pearce and Robert (Bob) Pearce were both over 70 when they stopped operating the windmills in the late 1890's.

It would seem that the windmills remained in the same primitive form throughout their 400 year existence. They were probably built and maintained by island craftsmen and millers rather than millwrights. Timber was regularly imported from the Isle of Wight and burr millstones were imported via nearby Weymouth. Stone and canvas were readily available and the conical cap roofs were probably thatched initially.

The north tower (6.3m high x 3.2m internal diameter) is slightly smaller than the southern one. Both have substantial walls[1] some 700mm thick with ashlar quoins to the low north/south door openings[2] and segmental curb stones[3]. These small dimensions together with surviving joist sockets in the stonework confirm that only one pair of millstones, in the upper part of the tower, could have been accommodated. Internal access was by ladder from ground level. [4]

The four common canvas sails were fastened to sailbars [5] forming a lattice frame mounted on two sailstocks [6] which were mortised through the external poll end [7] of the windshaft. Internally, a large cogged head wheel [8] (with compass arms also morticed through the shaft) drove a wooden lantern stave wallower gear [9]. This transferred the drive to the vertical quant shaft [10] which in turn rotated the upper millstone [11]. The mills were thus directly overdriven with a gear ratio of about 1:6 used to achieve an optimum speed of 120 rpm at the millstones. The millstones appear sadly no longer to exist. The oak windshaft [12] (4.3m long and weighing over half a ton) is one of only two all timber shafts to survive in the country. Such shafts had a working life of approximately 150 years depending on conditions. Iron strakes protected the shaft where it turned (probably) on a stone neck bearing.[13] The early compass arm type main head wheel can be seen in a photograph of 1907.

Operating one of the Portland windmills was highly skilled but strenuous and dangerous work. Working inside the small tower would have been extremely cramped, draughty, dark and dusty. Upon arrival the grain was manhandled up through the mill and loaded into a hopper above the stones. The mill was anchored to allow the sails to be rigged, one at a time, by climbing the sail bars like a ladder. The sail canvas, rolled up and furled when not in use, was set across the bars and fastened with cords and pointing lines according to wind speed. To reduce the area or reef the sails in stronger winds could be dangerous especially when they were heavy and stiff in cold and wet conditions.

The sails had a slight twist or weather like a propeller and for optimum power from the wind the cap had to face it squarely. The rear tailpole [14], with its lower end at shoulder height, was braced in the Dutch style to the cap which resting on well greased curb timbers [15], allowed the miller to turn or wind the mill to face the wind. Turning away from the wind direction or quartering would slow the mill. Details of any internal brake on the head wheel are not known.

The tower's loop lights [16] (open slit windows) faced the prevailing wind giving the miller an idea of its strength and direction. If the latter changed, the mill would have to be turned again or its sails laboriously reefed. High winds could be quite dangerous and if control was lost, the stones could catch the grain on fire or if the sails were backwinded, the whole mill cap could be dislodged. In such conditions, millstones were sometimes choked with grain to slow a mill down and assist any crude internal  brake device.

Once the mill was operating, the amount of grain flowing into the millstones had to be constantly monitored. Flow from the hopper [17] was regulated by a simple gate or spattle in its mouth. The suspended hopper had a hardwood block or rap on its side constantly knocked by a protruding damsel [10] on the rotating quant shaft. A wooden leaf spring held the hopper against the shaft and the grain was thus shaken down within the inclined hopper on every rotation. The damsel got its name as it made more noise than anything else in the windmill !! 

The miller would always have to work with the wind sometimes spending long hours waiting or working late when wind was strong enough. He had to be very skilled at looking and listening to the workings of the mill. Correctly set millstones would grind with a particular noise and smell. Grain would get burnt if the stones ran too fast or close together, it would only be partially ground if the opposite happened. The critical gap between the stones was manually adjusted by turning a "tentering" screw [18] which lifted or lowered the bridge beam [19] and its bearing on which the upper millstone rotated. The stones were enclosed in a wooden vat [19] from which the ground flour trickled out of a chute into a suspended sack below. The fineness of the flour was checked between thumb  and  forefinger and gave rise to the saying "rule of thumb".

Constant maintenance and adjustments were required to ensure the correct running of the shafts and wooden gears. The biggest maintenance item was the millstones. A new 4 foot diameter stone weighed approx 1 ton and would be redressed many times (on both sides) during its life of about 10 years. To enable redressing, the upper stone would have to be lifted off the fixed lower one. Replacement of a stone or windshaft probably required roof removal and external lifting tackle probably borrowed from the stone quarries.

Although the south tower was renovated by ARC Ltd in 1991 when a new quarry was dug alarmingly near, the north tower is not in such good condition. Their sturdy construction has stood the test of time but constant modern vandalism and graffiti would seem to make their longer term future more uncertain. The Portland windmills are almost unique as early examples of stone tower windmills. It is regrettable that they have been reduced to two stone tower shells in under a century since they ceased to work.

 (2227 words  Richard Crumbleholme, August 1998)


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