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

Restoration of Lowfield Heath Mill

November 02nd 2014 by Elizabeth Trout

Click here for more information on Lowfield Heath mill.

The mill with reconstruction complete except for roundhouse roof and two sail frame, May 1991

[With thanks to Peter James for contributing additional information about his involvement and technical expertise during the restoration of Lowfield Heath windmill].

The rescue and restoration of Lowfield Heath Windmill (Grade II listed), took over twenty years to achieve.  Whilst it is the largest file of material on an individual mill in Frank’s collection, this was one mill that he was not actively involved in rebuilding.  Much of the work was done by Ted Henbury (repair work up to 1987), Peter James, Brendan Sewill, Ron Martin and other members of the Lowfield Heath Windmill Trust. 

Lowfield Heath Windmill was a victim of 1980’s development in the suburbs around London.   It was built in the early 18th century but had ceased functioning in the 1880’s.  Since then it fell into a state of disrepair.  There was some restoration done in the late 1960’s by Edwin Hole, the millwright.  Frank was involved in fundraising and finding volunteers at the behest of Monica Dance of SPAB in a letter dated 27 April 1967:

Incidentally, I wonder if I can have your help with regard to Lowfield Heath. Is this too far out for you? In the near future, I simply must call together a sub-committee for the purpose of raising funds and finding experienced volunteers to help with the work; Mr Hole [the millwright] begins work at the end of the month!!

However, by 1980, the development of Crawley’s suburbs was threatening the mill.  It suffered more vandalism and storm damage; urgent repairs were needed.  Land ownership changed several times and Lowfield Heath village also moved from Surrey into Sussex as a result of boundary changes so planning consultations were delayed.  Efforts were made to restore the mill as a local feature but in the end dismantling and rebuilding it was the only way to save it.    

By the end of the 1970s, the area around Lowfield Heath was included in a development plan for housing and shops. In response to a planning application in 1979, Ted Henbury proposed various options to SIAS regarding the fate of the mill.  In March 1980, Ron Martin, Secretary of SIAS, contacted Mr A.G.W. Bussell, an architect with Stanley Bragg Partnership appointed by the developers Federated Homes. SIAS was concerned because the outline planning permission granted by Crawley Borough Council made no mention of the fate of Lowfield Heath Windmill and Cottage.   As the developers were planning to restore the windmill, on recommended Frank to Mr Bussell as a man who "has considerable experience in restoring windmills". When Ted, Frank and Mr Bussell visited the mill on 1st May 1980, the basic structure was declared sound but “first aid” was required to protect the trestle and repair the weatherboarding. Frank produced his report including an estimate of £10,000 for new sail frames. Ted Henbury produced a detailed summary of the work to be done. Federated Homes agreed to the repairs and hoped that a local group would restore the mill internally to create a static display within the proposed development, even though a motor tyre and petrol station were to be built to the west of the mill.

Sussex County Council had objections to the housing development and a public enquiry began on 1st July 1980. It can be assumed that the development was rejected because in April 1984 Ted Henbury was in contact with the new landowners, the British Steel Corporation Pension Fund with an estimate of £29,000 for the costs of the proposed restoration.  The Thomas Mason Trust offered £3000 towards the costs on condition that the mill remained on site with permanent public access. By November 1984, storm damage and vandalism had again taken their toll and a copy of a letter from Kenneth Major dated 17th November indicates that the Lowfield Heath restoration was a priority for SPAB funding. 

In December 1984, the local Charlwood Society became involved.  The Chairman, Brendon Sewill, CBE, reopened negotiations with the BSC Pension Fund about restoring the mill as an asset should they sell the land.  However, the BSC position was intransigent – they would fulfil their financial obligations to fund basic repairs but not a full restoration and neither would they allow access for external groups to restore it. 

SIAS mooted the idea to dismantle the mill as the only remaining option to rescue it from certain demolition.   In the 18th and 19th centuries, records show that post mills were moved, sometimes dismantled and rebuilt but occasionally pulled whole by horses or oxen to a new site.  In Sussex, Lurgashall watermill had been dismantled stone by stone and re-built at the Weald and Downland Museum in the 1970’s.  So moving a wooden post mill and brick roundhouse should have been straightforward but it took a lot of effort and perseverance over twenty years to rescue and rebuild it. 

In February 1985, Brendan Sewill asked the BSC Pension Fund for permission to move the mill to another site. However, it was another year before this was granted. During that time, the mill suffered further vandalism and storm damage. Ted Henbury reported that unless urgent repair work was done, there was a very real danger that the mill would collapse.  SIAS and the local Charlwood Society battled for over five years to persuade the local authorities and the various landowners to agree to the mill being moved to another site.  A suitable site had to be found and at least £50,000 raised to fund the project and qualified engineers had to be found to dismantle and rebuild the mill. 

The Lowfield Heath Windmill Trust (LHWT) was created in late 1985 in association with SIAS, the Surrey Industrial History Group and the Charlwood Society.  The first Trustees were Brendan Sewill (Chairman), Ted Henbury, Peter James (Secretary), Gerald Moss (SIHG Representative) and Jean Shelley (Treasurer).  Frank seems to have acted in an occasional advisory capacity in the early stages of the project, mainly because he lived 20 miles away.  The minutes of the first meeting on 1 December record that Peter James and Frank Gregory inspected the mill on 24 November and agreed that the trestle was not in danger but the buck needed weatherboarding as a priority. 

Frank is recorded in the minutes between 1986 and 1988 as attending some of the committee meetings though he was not officially a member of the Trust.  According to Peter James “Frank was as ever incredibly keen and a great supporter of the project.”  For the most part, Frank was kept informed of developments, copied into correspondence and sent minutes of meetings.  Later on, he took a more active role in fundraising for the Friends of Lowfield Heath Windmill Group.

Copies of the LHWT minutes in Frank’s collection describe many of the individual decisions required to make progress with this complicated project.  Brendan Sewill as Chairman of the Trust did most of the work to raise funds, apply for grants and gain the official consents from local authorities, English Heritage and SPAB before the move could take place.  Peter James did the research, produced the technical drawings, engineering specifications, and millwright contract, project managed the contract, and led the volunteers from 1987 onwards.

BSC granted their permission to relocate the mill with Brendan Sewill and Ron Martin entering into negotiations for a substantial sum from BSC to fund the removal.   

After the first meeting of the Trustees, Peter James supplied a sketch of the unusual design of the roundhouse so Ted could obtain a quote from Longley’s to dismantle and rebuild it.  Remedial repair work to replace the weatherboarding and weatherproof the trestle was organised by Ted Henbury with the help of volunteers.  After that Ted was occupied on the restoration of Ifield watermill.  Whilst he remained a member of the Trust, his practical involvement with Lowfield ceased from 1987.

Meanwhile various offers had been made for an alternative mill site. Eventually, a site at the Gatwick Aviaries near Charlwood became the preferred option as favoured by the planning departments of Crawley and the Mole Valley.    By June 1986, a 99 year lease on a peppercorn rent was drawn up with the owners, Mr and Mrs Thorpe and planning applications submitted.  Brendan Sewill drew up a Fundraising Plan based on a rough quote of £65,000 from Longley’s to completely remove the mill and rebuild the mill.  A target of £30,000 was agreed before any work could commence.  He also applied for grants from major funding bodies and heritage organisations.    Negotiations with the BSC Pension Fund were successful and £20,000 was secured.  The Science Museum sent a representative to meet Frank, Ron Martin and Peter James to discuss the plans.  As a result they offered £2500 as long as the work was completed in 18 months.  The local Thomas Mason Trust undertook to raise £30,000 in stages. 

Alan Allnutt was approached to design the roundhouse foundations as it was an unusual shape.  Peter James conducted a site survey at Gatwick Aviaries.  He prepared estimates of the costs involved of for the structural work, prefabricated steel stocks and the sail frames.  A separate estimate was prepared for the access track, roundhouse foundations and low loader.    Vincent Pargeter, the SPAB consultant millwright was asked to comment on plans at every stage.   Peter invited various millwright and construction companies to bid for the different parts of the project.   Frank kept a copy of a quote by Edwin Hole of Burgess Hill to replace the stock and sweeps for £24,000. 

Eventually, by the autumn of 1986, Peter James had contracted the West Sussex Rural Engineering Company based at Singleton as the millwrights for the project.  Peter James wrote a detailed project specification for the removal and rebuilding of the mill and WSREC supplied a quote of £60,000. The company had recently been involved in the successful mill restoration projects at High Salvington and West Blatchington who supplied good references.  Planning permission and Listed Building Consent to remove and re-erect the mill had also been granted.  The Crawley Borough Planning Officer encouraged the Lowfield Heath Windmill Trust to move the mill as soon as possible before the long-term development plans had been finalised.  Peter James did a photographic survey and produced full detailed drawings of the mill during 1984 and 1985, and then recorded the subsequent dismantling and rebuilding of the mill.  The unusual shape of the roundhouse required designs to be drawn up for the foundations and brickwork. Eventually Ron Martin drew the plans and Mitchells of Horley were contracted to dig and make the foundations.  Negotiations were entered with the Woodland Trust to lease a barn they had purchased at Edolph Copse for a workshop. 

At the AGM of the Lowfield Heath Windmill Trust in February 1987, it was reported that funds had been raised for £50,000. Thus the work to remove the mill could begin in April. At the AGM, Frank, Jean Shelley and Ted Henbury gave a slideshow about the plans.  Brendan proposed that a Friends of Lowfield Heath Windmill group in order to raise funds to restore it to full working order and maintain it afterwards. The Horley Mirror and the North Sussex Evening Argus ran stories about the restoration project, the need for volunteers and the fundraising appeal for £25,000.  There were discussions with various local film companies and even the BBC Blue Peter programme to film the demolition and restoration. 

The minutes of the Friends of Lowfield Heath AGM in November 1987 record that Frank was elected to the committee (although not as a Trustee) as "knowing more about windmills and their restoration than anyone else in Sussex or Surrey!"   The mill had been dismantled in July 1987and was described in detail along with an outline of the work still to be done.  It was hoped that once the sails are attached, Lowfield Heath Windmill may once again grind corn by 1990.  The removal of the mill was timely as it would certainly have been destroyed in the October Hurricane of 1987.  This was an echo to the past when a nearby Charlwood mill collapsed in a Great Storm of 1703. 

Frank has no further information about the rebuilding and restoration of Lowfield Heath.   This might be because he moved house in 1988 and was forced to declutter.  Peter James has filled in some of the gaps.  Peter project managed the entire practical side of the restoration with the millwrights and led the volunteers from 1987 onwards.  As a professional engineer who has spent many years studying windmills, he used his 1984/5 drawings and photographic survey to produce the detailed technical contract drawings required by the millwrights.  Vincent Pargeter answered technical questions when required, although a lot of the technical input was from Peter’s own engineering and milling expertise.  Much of the rudimentary work was done by volunteers led by Peter such as cleaning the roundhouse bricks and all the metal parts of the machinery by hand – a huge task.  A volunteer blacksmith was also found by Peter, to support the forging work, steered by Peter’s research and drawings.  Ron Martin of SIAS, then a Trustee, ran the small works contract throughout the main works and met with the millwrights to discuss interim payments.  The final set of minutes that Frank kept was from November 1988 when it was recorded that the trestle had been erected onto the roundhouse piers and covered with tarpaulin.   A large quantity of hornbeam and applewood had also been procured for the restoration. 

Frank meets Princess Alexandra at the official opening of Lowfield Heath WindmillThe last letter Frank has in this collection was a confidential letter from Brendon Sewill of the Charlwood Society dated 21st December 1989. Princess Alexandra had agreed to attend a ceremony to mark the completion of the restoration of the windmill on 10th April 1990. It was hoped by then that Peter Derby would have erected at least the first pair of sails.

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