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

Mill research & expertise

November 02nd 2014 by Elizabeth Trout

Frank spent his lifetime undertaking extensive and meticulous research in order to gain as much knowledge as possible about all aspect of mills and milling. He made extensive notes and took thousands of photographs during mill visits. His interest was wide-ranging and encompassed the traditional windmills and watermills of the UK but as well as different types of mills and power sources: hand-mills in Africa, tide mills, roller mills, animal-powered mills and wind-pumps used to raise water. He was a habitual list maker: made lists of mills that he visited and surveyed; wrote lists of mills to visit for mill tours; and filled small notebooks with lists of the photographs he took. He organised and planned his mill trips and tours in detail, again making endless lists – one tour in 1991 included 23 mills.

Survey notes - Bex Mill, HeyshottAn example page of Frank's survey notes of Bex Mill, Heyshott, made in 1960. He was interested in the technical minutiae of every mill as he realised that each example he came across was slightly different.

He read widely and scoured bookshops and libraries; if he was unable to borrow a book or journal, he transcribed the information. Although not a writer himself, Frank collected numerous books and magazine articles on mills and milling. On mill visits, he gathered all the written information available free or to buy: articles, pamphlets and guidebooks, as well as taking lots of photographs and buying multiple postcards. He enjoyed seeing what other people had written and, maybe to check the accuracy of their facts, people like Martin Brunnarius and Lawrence Stevens sent him copies of their manuscripts for his comments.

Frank’s encyclopaedic knowledge was legendary. He enjoyed sharing his extensive knowledge with other people, whether it was to solve a practical problem or to discuss the history and operation of a particular mill. He was readily acknowledged by others as an expert on the technical aspects of the construction and mechanics of mills and milling. He was often recommended by highly respected and well qualified people in the milling world. H.C.P. Smail of Wood’s Watermill wrote to Frank in February 1967and told him that, “Mr Rex Wailes ... has given me your name as an authority on the technical details of mills and milling”. There are very few examples of Frank being paid for his advice. He regularly provided copies of material and photographs in his collection to mill researchers, like the Mills Research Group. Sharing information and providing advice and practical help was a natural extension of his hobby. He always made time to talk to people, no matter how busy he might be.

Rail timetableIf he was without his notebook, Frank would not be deterred from carrying out a mill survey. Here, he has scribbled notes in every available space on a rail timetable.

As well as the technical aspects of mill construction and milling methods, Frank seemed particularly interested in the history of mills, especially the owners/occupiers and the trade and industries they supported from medieval times to the present day. He found that he shared this interest in mill history with many people who sent him additional information that they had found in the course of their family and local history research. Syd Simmons gave Frank his notes on the owners and occupiers of mills. He also built up a vast collection of cuttings of mill stories and illustrations about mills, especially from 19th century newspapers including from the Illustrated London News. One local newspaper ran a series looking at how the area around Brighton & Hove had changed. Frank collected all the ‘then and now’ views of mills to put them into context and as a record of their existence.

Whenever he discovered a Sussex mill had been sold he often wrote to the new owners, on behalf of SPAB, SIAS and TIMS, explaining the history of the mill and offering his services to undertake a survey and mill report as well as negotiate with local planning departments regarding any future restoration projects they might wish to undertake. In 1995, he wrote to Mr and Mrs Dyball, the new owners of Sheffield Farm Mill at Furners Green near Uckfield, perfectly demonstrating his acute mental recall and assurance of his facts:

Your watermill is of great interest to the Molinological World. It is the only remaining example in Sussex of a wooden layshaft driving 2 pairs of millstones with old wooden cogwheels. I knew [sic] of two others, one at Horam which was gutted and has since been burnt down, the other, Stream Mill, Chiddingly which I remember in the 1930s had similar gearing but this was stripped out soon after and the building is now a house. So Sheffield Mill is the sole survivor in East Sussex of what is now a rare type of watermill gearing which must be preserved. This type of drive pre-dates the spur wheel type of drive to the stones which is more usually found in watermills. There was some modernisation at Sheffield Mill about 1869 when Samuel Medhurst, the famous Lewes millwright, put in the present dated cast iron overshot waterwheel and cruciform shaft with a new iron pitwheel which here is set well in from the wall to mesh with an iron wallower he put on the on the old wooden layshaft which he retained with its old hursting. He must at this time also put in the wire machine and its present drive. In West Sussex, there is only one example of an iron layshaft and iron gears at Cobbs Mill, Sayers Common, but this was built in the 1860s.

Frank studied old maps to discover the location of long-forgotten mills and the old names by which places were known. He researched and plotted the location of every mill in Sussex on hand-drawn maps. HES Simmons also gave Frank the individual location maps he had drawn. Perhaps spurred on by H.E.S. Simmons’ work, Frank filled his own notebook details of the exact location and brief history of many mills in Sussex. The latter is one of a few examples of Frank producing a complete record of his knowledge.

Before he went on a UK mill tour or abroad, Frank wrote to tourist offices, museums and individuals to gather information and research about the mills in a particular area. He would also garner published and unpublished articles and leaflets for research beforehand and whilst on his trips. If he couldn’t visit a country, other people would send him information and pictures of mills that they had visited abroad. On foreign mill visits, Frank would often strike off the beaten track in order to locate the most obscure mill workings that he knew were there from his preparatory research. Chris Hulcoop of Suffolk Mills Group accompanied Frank on many mill tours at home and abroad and recalls Frank’s way of working:

He took many photographs and made meticulous notes and measurements many times. I held the end of his measuring tape or passed up his camera gear to difficult to reach parts of old mills.

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