Kent Millers’ Tales

The Mill Smasher's Tale

January 01st 2007 by Luke Bonwick & Alan Stoyel

Carpenter and wheelwright Mr George Jarvis was active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He used two windmills, in addition to other prime movers, to power his works at Bethersden.

George was aged 78 in 1933 and 9 in 1864. By the time of his birth, the decline of the traditional Kent mill had begun. As a consequence, Mr Jarvis was asked to demolish more mills than he repaired, and gained the nickname of the 'Mill Smasher'. His son, also George, was aged 7 in 1900.

The excerpts below tell some of the stories behind the Jarvis’ activities and the origin of the nickname.

Excerpt from West, J. 1973. The Windmills of Kent. London: Skilton & Shaw, p 95:

Mr Jarvis relates how his father, who worked the Black Mill [Black Mill, Bethersden], was an expert not only in saw milling but on moving mills and on hired demolition work. The above mill, which replaced a “six-sweeper” moved from Sandgate, was moved in sections by this miller, from a site near Folkestone. For his escapades in demolishing various Kent mills, Mr Jarvis Senior was, as previously mentioned, known as the “mill smasher”; many a mill considered by its owner to be unsafe, or no longer a working proposition and therefore of more value as scrap, has been demolished by the Jarvis family. Among those mills thus “felled” were those of Appledore [post mill: 1900], High Halden [post mill], Newchurch [tower mill: c1900], Aldington [smock mill: 1910], and Kingsnorth [smock mill: early C20], of which certain remains are present, and the Black Mill, Headcorn [smock], which was entirely demolished.

Excerpt from Coles Finch, W. 1933. Watermills and Windmills. C W Daniel Company, p 65-68:

In these days old mills can often be bought for 'a mere song'. In fact they are sometimes given away, as it is dangerous work to pull them downMr Jarvis's workshop at Bethersden with a 6-sailed smock mill to provide power and few men care to undertake it. Mr. George Jarvis, late of Bethersden and now of St. Michael's, Tenterden, has had at least three windmills given to him in payment for his work of demolition —Aldington smock mill, Newchurch tower mill, and High Halden post mill.

Mr. Jarvis, who has earned for himself a rather unenviable reputation as 'the Mill Smasher’, has also demolished a number of other Kent mills, including Headcorn Black Mill (he was paid for this work and the owner utilised the material in the building of a house on the site; Kingsnorth, the square brick base of which was heightened and made into a labourer's dwelling which stands to-day; and two mills at Appledore Heath, a post and a smock, both of which he purchased for a small sum: the base of the smock mill still stands and is used as a shed.

The old post mills at Smarden and Frittenden would probably not be standing to-day had Mr. Jarvis been prepared to offer a little more money for them; and he was very nearly commissioned to dismantle the old black smock mill at Smarden, but in this case it was because an American had taken a fancy to the old derelict and expressed a wish to transfer it across the Atlantic. This fancy, however, did not materialise for, although our friend from across the water could buy the mill cheaply as it stood, the cost of transfer and re-erection would have been out of all proportion; so that lovers of these quaint old derelicts of our English countryside have been spared at least one heartache.

Had it not been for Mr. Jarvis's advancing years (he is now seventy-eight) and his having yielded to the persuasion of his near relatives no more to clamber about on old and tottering windmills, I am afraid the number of Kentish derelict mills would have been still further depleted. Certainly the mills at Pluckley and Benenden would not be standing to-day had he succumbed to a strong temptation to ignore the advice of his friends.

In addition to demolishing mills, however, Mr. Jarvis has often repaired them, but this side of his work has not been so well known. He is more a lover of a windmill in its entirety than of its many dismembered parts!

He has not been a corn miller. His chief connection with windmills has been in utilising them for timber sawing, to which purpose he admirably adapted them.

One of his earliest reminiscences is, however, to do with a corn mill for he remembers carrying wheat to Rolvenden Mill when he was a lad of nine years of age (in 1864). He was at work leading horses when only six and assisting with ploughing in the open fields at seven!

The first windmill he purchased was a little six-sweep mill that had a varied career. It was originally built at Pluckley, then transferred to Great Chart, where it was the predecessor of another six-sweep mill of which the base alone remains to-day. Later it was removed to Sandgate.

Mr. Jarvis, then a young man of nineteen, owning a carpenter's and wheelwright's shop at Bethersden, thought a windmill for timber sawing would be a useful adjunct to his business. He humorously tells how that one evening he rode from Bethersden to Sandgate (about twenty miles) on one of those old-fashioned 'bone-shakers’, an iron-tyred bicycle, in order to see Mr. Brissenden, the Sandgate builder, who had the mill for sale.

The mill had not been used for some years; the authorities would not allow it; its whirling sweeps were a danger to the public in the populated, growing Sandgate of those days (about 1875).

The purchase price was £20, and arrangements were made for the transfer of the mill. The body of the structure was conveyed whole, by road, with two or three horses, and the cap was later fetched with a one-horse van. The mill was re-erected close to Boorman's Stores at Bethersden, where it became known as the Little Mill and did useful service for many years.

Finally it was transferred to its fifth home, on the other side of Bethersden. There had been much discussion in the village regarding this proposed removal and folk were anxious to see the process. Their curiosity, however, was unappeased, for the mill was dismantled one moonlit night, and the following morning they awoke to find the little old mill had vanished!

A year or two later, the business having grown, Mr. Jarvis, then in partnership with his brother, required another and larger windmill. On his way to Dover by train one day he noticed that houses were being built near a mill in Folkestone (Dawson's Mill, Millfield, a fine white smock corn mill) and he thought it would probably soon be up for sale. A windmill is not usually left to keep company with rows of houses — the famous Delce Mill at Rochester is a notable exception.

A few weeks later Mr. Jarvis saw the mill advertised for sale and very soon took an opportunity of looking over it, found it just what he wanted and - paid £30 for it! Only a few years previously it had been put in thorough repair at a cost of about £400: the weather-boarding and all the main timbers were new.

The mill was duly transferred to Bethersden by road, a traction engine and three 'trailers' being hired for the purpose. The heaviest of the machinery went by rail, and when everything had arrived the mill was re-erected near the little six-sweep mill which, a little later, it replaced. The newcomer [thereafter known as White Mill, Bethersden] stood idle for a day or two after completion because of lack of wind, but one night the wind blew up and Mr. Jarvis left his bed to start work in the mill at two o'clock in the morning!

*****

Mr. Jarvis has always had a quaint love for machinery and tackle from windmills. I cannot say how many iron windshafts he has acquired from various Kent mills, but I know that shafts from GoudhurstKennington and one of the Headcorn mills have all had an extended period of usefulness at the Bethersden sawmills. One of them is still in use to-day — embedded in the ground and supporting an overhead run for timber! One shaft was in use for years converted into a crane.

His accumulation of tackle is a marvel. I verily believe that if windmills came again into their own, he would make quite a fortune in disposing of his treasure trove, if he would part with it and if he could spare the time to sort it over to find what was wanted for he is a busy man; but the revival of windmills is unlikely, so that his wonderfully heterogeneous collection of tackle continues to expand!

When I heard that Mr. Jarvis lived at Knockwood, St. Michael's, I took it for granted that Knockwood was the name of his house, doubtless specially chosen by himself as a link with his main work in life — veritably knocking wood about in one way or another, including windmill timbers—but, curiously and humorously enough, the name is just a coincidence, for Knockwood happens to be the name of the district in which Mr. Jarvis lives.

I believe it has given Mr. Jarvis real pleasure to supply any information he could regarding the many Kentish mills with which he has been associated.

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