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Bolnhurst Windmill

Bolnhurst mill about  1915 by E SharmanBolnhurst mill about 1915 by E Sharman

The following is a letter sent to Bedfordshire Archive and Record Service in 1984 by E M Sharman of Wales about the history of Bolnhurst windmill.

Information recently gleaned from Bedford Record Office reveals the site of a windmill at Wood End, Bolnhurst, and shown on a map dated 1765. Details show that it was a post mill standing above a brick roundhouse, having an interior measurement of 18 feet. The lower storey had a lean-to projection in front to enlarge the first floor, which was rather unusual for this particular type of mill. This mill was, in basic principle, similar to the post mill at Keysoe, with the exception of the lean-to.

The sails consisted of two which had fixed, adjustable shutters operated by rods from ground level, and two furled sail cloths which were tied to nails and folded back when the mill was not in use.

Two pairs of grinding stones were contained in the mill, one being French Burr for grinding flour and one Derbyshire Peak for animal feedstuff, barley and beans, together with an oat crusher.

A map of 1624 shows a post mill in the hamlet of Bushmead. This stood in a field adjacent to the cross roads opposite the Gery Arms, which is noted as “le Wyndmylfeld” containing “le wyndemyll”. It is shown in the “Mapp of the Priorrye of Bushmead” and in the Survey Book of the same date. The mill mound was distinctly indicated (1680) and, indeed, there is today still some slight evidence of its position.

There appears the possibility, therefore, that the earlier mill at Bushmead was transferred to Wood End, Bolnhurst, some time prior to 1765. This suggestion was made to the writer by the sister of the last occupier of Bolnhurst Mill, Edrop Joseph Sharman, in 1971 when she was 100 years of age. However, no further substantive evidence appears to exist.

Written documentation shows the following occupiers of the mill at Wood End, Bolnhurst:

  • 1830 Joseph Edrop, miller and freeholder
  • 1869 Thomas Houghton
  • 1885 Joseph Sharman
  • 1908 Edrop Joseph Sharman

In 1920 a sail was blown off during a gale and later the mill was taken down and the property sold.

I am the son of Edrop Joseph Sharman, the last miller of Bolnhurst Mill, and I have vivid memories of the working of the mill. I have in my possession photographs of the windmill, the mill house and the adjoining steam engine operated mill.

I well remember the action required to start the mill. My father first unfurled the cloth on the two sails, tied it back to the framework of each sail, then adjusted the shutters on the remaining two sails into the closed position. Following this he faced the sails into the prevailing wind, released the braking mechanism, adjusted the control of the millstones to be used, and the sails would then commence turning.

Being a post mill, the whole structure above the brick roundhouse had to be turned to face into the wind, and this was done by the miller pushing on a tail-pole using a yoke through which he put his head and shoulders, first having raised the mounting steps.

The cereals to be ground were raised to the top of the mill via a chain hoist which passed through the trap doors to the two floors. It was then fed into a bin through a chute to a hopper above the grinding stones, where it passed through a slipper into the eye of the stone and ground between the moving top stone and the fixed base stone, passing from there through a chute to the ground floor where it was bagged.

Every few months the top stone had to be raised by a chain and hoist, turned over and the surface of both stones “hand dressed” with a sharp steel bill secured in a wooden thrift. I can well remember my father lying on a small sack of bran on the surface of the stone chip-chip-chipping away by candlelight to sharpen the cutting edges of the stones and deepen the grooves through which the meal was released. I, too, had a very small thrift and bill which gave me my first insight into dressing a millstone. The last pair I dealt with was in 1936, long after my early initiation at Bolnhurst Mill.

I recall the massive brake-wheel attached to the main shaft and sails. Heavy steel weights were attached by rope to this braking mechanism which were brought into use when the mill was not working. The sails were unfurled and turned away from the prevailing wind. The stones themselves provided a great braking effect when they were stationary. Consequently, when the top stone was raised for maintenance the braking effect was very much reduced and it was very important that the sails were kept “out of the wind” and the brake was made fully secure. Another great risk was that of fire caused by sparks from the millstones which could occur when they were being operated without sufficient corn being fed into them, in an atmosphere of ever-present flour dust which was highly inflammable.

Few safety devices existed in those days and no Safety Regulations, but I still have two brass bells which were fitted to the bottom of the cereal hoppers. These rang out when the hopper was empty and the miller was thus quickly made aware of the situation.

The wooden body of the mill was tarred overall and, fixed to the roof was a wooden weathercock which, I am pleased to say, is still in working order and at present is in use at my home.

Prior to the 1914-1918 Great War and for many years after, it was the custom that, following the harvesting of cereals, the villagers were allowed to glean the fields by picking up the heads of corn once the harvesting had been completed and the field raked. One stook of corn was left in the field, denoting that it was not yet available for gleaning, but, once this had been removed, the public were at liberty to go into the field to pick up whatever ears of corn had been left behind.

Theses gleanings were taken to the miller, where the corn was thrashed out and the wheat, beans and barley ground into flour which helped to provide additional food for the winter months.

During the period under review most occupiers of land kept pigs, cattle and sheep and cereals were grown which were ground into either flour for human consumption or offal for the livestock.

In addition to the windmill my father also used a coal-fired steam engine which provided power to drive a separate mill containing two pairs of stones, dressing facilities (silks) to separate the flour for human consumption from the coarser offals for animal food, together with a Bamford steel mill for the crushing of oats, beans and maize. I also remember a hand-operated seed dressing machine which was left in the mill when my father moved to Eaton Socon. I last saw this machine at Bolnhurst some 20 years ago.

When the wind blew sufficiently to use the windmill this source of power was used, but in the calmer periods the steam engine had to be used, with the consequent additional cost of buying coal which had to be transported by horse and cart from Sharnbrook Station.

I remember being told by my uncle, Ernest Sharman of Oxford Farm, Keysoe – a mile or so across the fields – that he frequently looked out in the winter evenings to see if his brother was still using the windmill. It was possible to see the light inside the mill intermittently flashing when the sails cut through the beam of light.

Today all that is left of the post mill is the mound of the brick roundhouse, together with the actual building of the steam engine mill and a number of worn-down millstones set out in a row adjacent to the rear of Mill House, on which I remember playing as a child.

The Rating and Valuation Act 1925 specified that every building and piece of land in the country was to be assessed to determine its rateable value. The valuer visiting the site of the windmill found the miller’s house still standing [DV1/C168/50]. It was owned and occupied by C W Cooper and comprised two reception rooms, a kitchen and scullery with two bedrooms above. The valuer noted: “well built”.

Farm buildings adjoining comprised: a brick and slate barn; a store shed with a loft over; a brick and tiled barn; a weather-boarded and tiled shed; a weather-boarded and tiled stable and tool shed. Cooper also had an adjoining grass field of nearly an acre.

Windmill on 1901 map [DV2/J8a]
Windmill on 1901 map [DV2/J8a]