Kent's millwrights were the individuals responsible for building, repairing and maintaining the county's stock of mills powered by wind, water and other energy sources. At the end of the 18th century, the millwright was concerned solely with the construction and maintenance of new mills, which were still high technology for their time. They used new materials as they became available and introduced design improvements as they were invented.
Today, the number of active millwrights is a fraction of those at work in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the last fifty years, the number of mills which have been repaired as monuments to a past age has increased dramatically. The 21st century millwright is charged with the additional responsibility of restoring our remaining mills to the condition in which they last worked, respecting regional variations and the individuality of each example.
"A Millwright's Tale" contains a summary of the work of the millwright; a brief history of the firm of Holmans of Canterbury and details of recent millwrighting work in the county from the standpoint of a 21st-century millwright.
The work of the millwright
(with excerpts from The Windmills of Kent, 1973, by Jenny West)
The craft of milling by wind has always been dependent upon the skill and judgment of the millwright, for it was only he who could erect a structure not only of sufficient strength to withstand years of strong winds and rain on the high ground usually chosen for it, but of so fine a precision that it could turn or be turned to the wind without hesitation; and with sails or sweeps so finely constructed that they caught and rotated with every available breeze.
To harness the power of flowing water in order to generate a useful source of power was an equally challenging task. Building an efficient watermill required many similar skills to those of building a windmill, as well as a number of different ones.
The millwright was expert architect, carpenter, and also engineer; for not only did he construct the mill itself but all the machinery within, — every part of which played an essential part in the intricate milling process. Although minor, and in some cases major, technical or structural repairs were occasionally undertaken by the miller himself, these were usually the responsibility of the millwright who was required to return the mill to working order with all due speed, for on this the miller's livelihood was dependent.
Of the many long established millwrights who must have been at work in Kent since the time of its first windmill, none now remain. Hill of Ashford, Humphrey of Cranbrook, and Warren of Hawkhurst, all known to have constructed or repaired individual mills, have among others gradually disappeared. The last surviving firm of Kent millwrights, Messrs Holman of Canterbury, were latterly concerned only with agricultural and not milling machinery, their last commission having been at Barham mill in the late 1950s.
As milling by wind- and water power gradually decreased towards the end of the 19th century and more dramatically so during the early part of the 20th, only a few more mills were built, few urgent repairs so essential for the continuity of the milling process were required, and the millwright's work became less, resulting in the inevitable dissolution of the various firms. With the increasing realisation during the last sixty years of the need to preserve certain of the otherwise rapidly disappearing windmills, the millwright's craft is once again in demand.
“A Millwright’s Tale” continues with a short history of Holman Bros., Kent’s last historical millwrighting firm. This is followed by details of the recent repair work undertaken to windmills in Kent by a practising 21st-century millwright, Vincent Pargeter.
A short history of the firm of Holman Bros., millwrights and engineers of Canterbury, Kent
(© Geoff Holman)
The information below has been compiled by Geoff Holman as part of ongoing research into his family history.
John Holman was born in 1783. His father was a miller at Boughton-under-Blean until 1791 when the business was liquidated. In 1806, John entered into employment with a firm of millwrights, Sweetloves of Wingham. At the time, Sweetloves would no doubt have been involved in the construction of several windmills in the surrounding area, giving John an excellent opportunity to learn a millwright's skills and develop experience in the trade.
John set up his own millwrighting business in Canterbury in 1816, assisted by his two sons until 1866. How he got the money to buy the business we do not know. It appears he was in Northgate at this time, as the following excerpt demonstrates:
Kentish Chronicle Jan 23rd 1816
Mrs Hunns, Broad Street, Canterbury.
Begs leave to return her thanks to her Friends for the favours conferred on her late husband, and solicits to recommend Mr John Holman to their notice, who has lately taken the Business of her.
JOHN HOLMAN, Millwright
Begs leave to solicit the favours of the late Mr Hunn's employers and others who may please to favour him with their commands, and informs them that he intends carrying on the above business in all its branches, having been in the employ of Messrs Sweetloves of Wingham nearly ten years, he trusts, by paying a strict attention to execute the orders he may receive, to merit a continuance of their favors and support, which will be most gratefully acknowledged by their most obedient servant.
N.B. Two Winnowing Machines for Sale on an improved principle. Northgate, Canterbury Jan 22, 1816
In 1822, John Holman became a Freeman of the City of Canterbury, and a year later, on 20th February, John Holman married Mary Ann Bax when he was nearly 40 years old. The couple went on to have a large family: in 1824, on 19th September, John James Holman was born and in 1831, Thomas Richard Holman was born - their sixth offspring.
In 1857, John Holman's two sons had joined the business and on Nov 11th indentures were drawn up biding Thomas Richard Holman as apprentice.
During the first 50 years of the firm's existence, very few records remain of the activities undertaken, but it is believed that they were mostly in connection with windmills, millwrighting, wheelwrights, building carts and wagons and allied activities. The first available record is a sales ledger covering the years from 1865 to about 1880.
In 1865, John James Holman died. The business was carried on by Thomas Richard Holman who, in 1869, dissolved the partnership between himself and Catherine Holman, widow of John James, with a payment of £1100. For a short period (27 May 1869 to 2 Nov 1885), Thomas entered into partnership with Albert Collard. Subsequently, he continued to trade in partnership with his sons Harry Branford Holman and Wilfred J. Holman.
Harry Branford Holman was born in Canterbury in 1863, and was the elder son of Thomas Richard Holman who was in business in the City as a millwright and engineer. Harry was educated at Canterbury Cathedral Choristers School and at Southborough near Tunbridge Wells. In 1880, Harry Branford Holman entered the family business which at that time consisted largely of work in the many windmills and watermills in the district. Harry had worked in most of the wind and water mills in East Kent. At the time he started work practically the only implements in use on the farms were Kent ploughs and wood harrows both of which, together with carts and waggons were made by the firm.
Thomas Richard Holman died. Harry Branford Holman, in partnership with his brother, assumed control of the business, the character of which gradually changed as more agricultural machinery was introduced. Harry Branford Holman was one of the founder members of the Kent Agricultural Engineers Association and for many years was secretary of the Kent Threshing Machine Owners Association. He was a member of the Kent Agricultural Committee and served on the Showyard Committee. He was probably the oldest exhibitor at the Kent Show, having, we believe, exhibited at every show of the Kent Agricultural Society and, before that, of the East Kent Society. He was an Heriditary Freeman of the City of Canterbury.
In 1931, Tom Holman joined the firm, having served an apprenticeship with Ruston and Hornsby of Lincoln building horizontal and vertical crude oil engines. By this time, work on mills had diminished and agricultural engineering work had taken its place.
On 21st November 1949, the assets of the business were taken over by a newly-formed limited company which was named Holman Bros. (Canterbury) Ltd., with registered offices at 12 Dover Street. The terms of the sale are quoted in full below:
The objects for which the Company is established are:-
To acquire and take over as a going concern the business of Engineers carried on by Holman Bros at Dover Street, Canterbury and all or any of the assets and liabilities thereof and for that purpose to enter into and carry into effect with such modifications whether before or after execution as may be agreed upon an Agreement with Holman Bros in the terms of the draft Agreement which for the purpose of identification has been subscribed by H B Holman, W J Holman, J A Holman, F Holman and T R Holman.
To carry on business as manufacturers of and wholesale and retail dealers in agricultural machinery of every description, including binding, threshing, reaping and mowing machines, ploughs, tractors and power driven or mechanically propelled and other engines, vehicles and equipment, implements and machinery of all kinds for use in agriculture and land cultivation and in accessories, fittings, spare parts and components for all such engines, vehicles and machinery.
To carry on business as motor, mechanical, electrical, marine, aeronautical, gas, mechanical and general engineers and contractors, iron, brass and steel founders and blacksmiths, wheel and millwrights, wood, timber, metal and alloy merchants and workers, oil and petrol and accessories merchants and dealers, garage, wharf, dock and warehouse propritots, hirers out of vehicles and machinery of every kind and carriers of goods and passengers by land, water or air, agricultural contractors and suppliers of labour, material and equipment for use in land cultivation generally.
By 1968, Holman Bros. (Canterbury) Ltd was in liquidation and, in 1975, the firm closed down.
Many of the staff who were employed, over the years, at Holman Bros., are listed in a separate document. One of the last members of staff, Robert G. ("Bob") Barber, deserves special mention; his obituary, written by a long-term colleague Fred Waters, is reproduced below.
Death of Canterbury Millwright
One of the finest millwrights in East Kent during this century died on Tuesday 20th March 1979 at the age of 91. He was Mr R G (Bob) Barber who lived at 58 Dover Street, Canterbury. He was employed from 1912 until his retirement in 1958 (full time), 1963 (part time), by Messrs Holman Bros, the well known Canterbury firm of engineers and millwrights who closed down their business four years ago.
Born at Shoreham, Sussex in 1888, Bob Barber served a long apprenticeship with his father at a Sussex firm of millwrights where he worked on a variety of mills in that county. He then came to Canterbury and throughout the years with Holman Bros he worked on repairs, replacements and installations at practically every windmill and watermill in East Kent that was operational at that time.
The millwright of that era was a craftsman in both woodwork and metalwork and at these skills Bob Barber was a perfectionist. Details of the work he accomplished over the years would fill volumes, a few of the more time consuming jobs would include making and fitting new sets of sweeps and midlings for windmills, re-gearing large wooden-teeth gearwheels with new sets of cogs cut from seasoned hardwoods, and making patterns for the casting of iron and brass components, all types of work calling for great accuracy.
The last new windmill to be built in Kent was at St Margaret’s Bay in 1929/30, it was made and erected by Bob Barber with two assistants.
As wind and water power were superseded by steam, paraffin, petrol and diesel engines, Holman Bros installed these in many places in East Kent, Bob Barber being responsible for much of this work, and latterly working also on electric motors. In addition to wind and watermills he worked in malthouses, breweries, tanneries, laundries, pumping stations, electricity works, hop oasts and barns - in fact anywhere in this district where there was machinery. Whatever the job, he approached it with careful planning and conscientious workmanship until it was successfully completed.
His only absence from Holman Bros was during the first World War when he was sent to the Enfield Small Arms factory to work on machinery maintenance.
Contribted to the East Kent Mills Group newsletter by Fred Waters who was a colleague of the late Bob Barber from 1925 to1952.
Modern millwrighting work in Kent
The following information has been compiled by Luke Bonwick from an interview with Vincent Pargeter, millwright, carried out at his workshop near Ingatestone, Essex, on 31st May 2007.
Vincent Pargeter, a native of the county, became aware of local windmills standing close to the villages of the east coast as a child during the late 1940s. The first mill he explored, together with his parents, was Old Mill at Northbourne, then a sorry wreck of a smock mill and no longer in existence. Few such atmospheric derelicts still exist to be explored by mill enthusiasts – perhaps a good thing from a modern health and safety perspective!
At this time his father, a dentist, would ask his customers if they knew of any windmills that he could take his son to visit. Two mills that were still in operation by wind power during the early 1950s were Stelling Minnis Mill, where Vincent got to know the last miller, Alec Davison, and Herne Mill, which was owned and run by the Wootton family. Vincent remembers Herne mill being worked hard by wind power during a visit one Saturday in 1951, although a year later the shutters in the mill’s sweeps were removed and the plant was subsequently operated by electricity only. In later years, Vincent became involved with restoration work at both of these mills, which are today preserved, in working order, and regularly open to the public.
In 1961, Vincent approached the owners of the deteriorating but ancient smock mill at Sandwich, who agreed to let him undertake some repairs as a volunteer. Over the following eight years the mill’s structure was thoroughly overhauled, the fan stage and fantail were reinstated, and one pair of secondhand sweeps, from the demolished tower mill at Wingham, were repaired and installed.
On leaving school, Vincent went to work for the Westminster bank, which taught him a fair amount about business and finances. Nevertheless, his heart was in a more hands-on trade and, in 1969, he left in order to concentrate on practical millwrighting. In the early days of his professional career, Vincent worked in partnership with Philip Barrett-Lennard, who was based in Essex. The firm’s first project was the repair of St Margaret’s Bay windmill, which needed a new fantail, fan shaft, and repairs to the cap and sweeps. The mill was soon returned to working order. Other early projects undertaken by Vincent, with some assistance from Philip, included repairs to the cap of Charing smock mill and the rebuilding of the cap of Eastry smock mill.
Vincent had carried out some repairs to the cap of Herne mill as a volunteer, and in 1971 he and Philip Lennard rebuilt the cap roof with new rafters and weatherboarding, and some timberwork. The fanstage was repaired, as well as the smock tower, which was reinforced and tarred. The mill’s last working sweeps were subsequently removed and a new pair, made by Chris Wilson of Over mill in Cambridgeshire, were fitted.
Following the death of Alec Davison, Stelling Minnis Mill was acquired by the County Council. By the early 1970s, the mill had lost two of its sweeps and the reefing stage which surrounded the mill had fallen into decay. Comprehensive repairs to the mill were undertaken by Vincent and Philip. The work included the partial renewal of a number of cant posts within the timber frame, some repairs to the curb, the rebuilding of the cap roof, the construction of a new porch at ground floor level, the repair of the two existing sweeps and the installation of a new pair. Together with a new midling.
During the early 1970s, the restoration of Draper’s Mill at Margate, organized by a group of local enthusiasts, began to gather pace. Some of the specialist millwrighting work was undertaken by Vincent, initially as a volunteer, and later in partnership with Philip Barrett-Lennard. Initially, Vincent constructed a new fan stage with the cap still in position on top of the tower. Later, Lennard and Pargeter manufactured and installed two new sweeps, setting up the machinery to enable corn to be ground again. The mill was completed in 1975, with a second pair of new sweeps fitted by Vincent alone.
A sad loss for the county resulted in a positive outcome for Draper’s Mill. In March 1970, the spectacular black smock mill at Barham caught fire and was destroyed during the process of repair work. A new reefing stage for Barham mill, constructed by Midlands millwright Derek Ogden, was no longer needed, so it was donated to Draper’s Mill instead. Vincent modified and installed the new wooden stage which remains in place today.
In 1975, Vincent accepted a job as millwright to Essex County Council, and was unable to concentrate on Kent mills until early in the 20th century, when he recommenced freelance work. His most recent restoration project concerns Willesborough mill near Ashford, a late-built but substantial white-painted smock mill. Although restored during the early 1990s, the mill had suffered from the effects of the weather, so another overhaul was needed. Following major works to the cap and fantail, a new set of sweeps, built to a traditional design, have been fitted. Work to the exterior of the structure continues, and the mill is now capable of grinding corn again.