Frank W. Gregory (1917-1998) A Milling Hero

Industrial archaeology & SPAB

November 02nd 2014 by Elizabeth Trout

Frank was very interested in the geology of the Sussex Downs and industrial archaeology in general. He joined the Brighton & Hove Archaeological Society. Frank also took an active part on various digs on the Sussex Downs. On a dig with the Worthing Archaeological Society in 1936, Frank was present when they dug through light infill on Harrow Hill and discovered a 60 foot deep flint mine with several headers. He also assisted the Wealden Iron Research Group with their surveys of forges. Being a Sussex man, he also joined in walks organised by the Society of Sussex Wealdmen and the Society of Sussex Downsmen. The latter had a wide remit for the preservation and conservation of the South Downs and Frank contacted them with his concerns about the need to preserve Polegate tower mill. This keen interest in the Sussex landscape, industrial archaeology and his love of mills provided the impetus for a lifetime spent learning about mills.

Frank joined The Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) and its Wind & Watermill Section in 1948. He was encouraged by Monica Dance, the long-standing secretary of SPAB, to give his valuable assistance conducting mill surveys that record the location and fate of known mills. Frank’s first love was windmills but it was Mrs Dance who first persuaded him to get involved in watermills by recording those in Sussex in 1967; by then he was on the committee of the SPAB Wind & Watermill Section.

The following year, she suggested that he help SPAB assess the condition of various Sussex watermills, including Dean’s Mill, Lindfield, and Terwick Mill, as she knew about his restoration work at Nutley and Polegate Windmills. She also asked Frank for his views on the mill report on High Hurstwood by Derek Ogden and the work that needed to be done there. It was through her that Frank became involved with the Lowfield Heath Windmill project. In 1969 and 1972, Frank visited Crowsole Mill and Arun Mill at Horsham where an application had been lodged to convert it into maisonettes. She sought Frank’s opinion in 1975 on the feasibility of moving Dunsters Mill House at Ticehurst otherwise it would disappear under Bewley Bridge Reservoir. She also asked Frank to accompany a SPAB Fulbright scholar in 1976.

It was a good idea to keep on the right side of Monica Dance; her handwritten notes on some of the letters she sent to Frank indicate that she was charmed by and delighted to receive his greetings cards and enquiries after her health when she had been ill. He also kept her informed of progress in various projects; one letter in July 1969 mentions his success at grinding wheat at Shipley. SPAB organised regular mill visits and tours and Frank went on as many as he could fit in; Frank organised several around Sussex.

Frank toured all over the UK seeking out and visiting mills: Kent and the South East; Norfolk and East Anglia; Devon and the West Country; the Lake District and North-West (including the Isle of Man); Yorkshire and the North East; the Midlands; Wales, Ireland, and Scotland (including the Norse mills on Shetland and the Orkney Isles). In the 1960s, mill visits were an inevitable part of his family holidays with his wife, Betty and daughter, Joy. Through this survey work, he made many friends and contacts, some of whom Frank worked with on the restoration projects he became involved in.

Letter from G C Wilson
Letter from GC Wilson. Joining the SPAB Mills Section put Frank in touch with other like-minded mill enthusiasts such as Chris Wilson of Over Mill, Cambridgeshire, many of whom, like Frank, were involved in practical mill repair.

In 1967, Frank was one of the founder members of SIAS: The Sussex Industrial Archaeology Society. He became their wind and water power co-ordinator until his death in 1998. As such, he was recommended as the person to carry out mill surveys and reports or to give advice to solve problems. He was also instrumental in setting up the Sussex Mills Group and was its first Chairman.

On mill visits, he usually wrote his notes in pencil in a small A6 notebook he carried with him. However, very often he wrote on a scraps of paper, old envelopes and even bus timetables. These working notes comprised information on the history or construction, accurate and detailed measurements, and quick sketches of the mill buildings and machinery parts. Frank later neatly redrew the technical drawings of the mechanical parts of surviving windmills and watermills as a means of recording measurements and as an aid for comparison. They also show his attention to detail and accuracy. Fellow enthusiast, Stephen Buckland once described Frank to Syd Simmons as a “wholly reliable fieldworker”.

However, Frank’s mill visits were not without mishap. In an email to the Mills Archive in January 2010, Duncan Fearns of Buckland Mill recalls a visit made by Frank in 1995, at the age of 78. He was taking photographs upstairs despite being told that the floor was rotten. The inevitable happened and Frank’s leg suddenly appeared through the ceiling of the room below. Frank’s response was to laugh it off as, “it happens all the time!”. One can only wonder at what other scrapes he had got into (and survived) over the years. A lot of mill visits, surveys and reports Frank conducted on his own, without any safety equipment, often clambering over quite dangerous structures that were on the point of collapse.

Frank’s work in Sussex and nationally was eventually recognised by SPAB. Monica Dance wrote to Frank on 4th January 1979:

At a recent meeting of the Windmill & Watermill committee comments were made on the remarkable work that you have undertaken in Sussex, and indeed elsewhere, and it was unanimously felt that the time had come to recognise the work you have done and are doing to keep mills working. To this end, it was decided to present you with a windmill certificate as a mark of the real appreciation for all your work in prolonging the life of mills in your county. It is hoped that you will be willing to accept this token of our appreciation from the section and it would then be presented during the March [1979] meeting and, being in the year of the 50th anniversary of the Society, it would have special significance.

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