The Last Survivor: History of Cromer Windmill in Hertfordshire
- Credit: Andrew Rylah, Codicote Local History Society.
In his regular Hertfordshire heritage column, Andrew Rylah, of Codicote Local History Society, looks at the county's sole surviving windmill.
This month, I'm tackling a different aspect of Hertfordshire heritage. No great historical events, no invading forces, no lords, no royalty. Instead, an aspect of village life that has arguably had even greater significance… windmills.
So where are these mills? In Hertfordshire we are lucky still to have one of the earliest types, at Cromer.
And where’s this sudden interest come from? A few weeks ago, Codicote History Society organised a fascinating visit to Cromer.
This windmill impressed me with its history and its pre-industrial technological ingenuity, demonstrating practical innovations to automate the grinding of wheat into flour.
Hertfordshire windmills played a key role for over 700 years.
They first appeared in NW Europe during the late 12th century, perhaps due to Crusader contact with the Islamic world, where different types of windmills operated.
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Watermills were already well known and feature in the Domesday Book. But windmills brought in a novel solution where water was unavailable.
Cromer Windmill is a Grade II listed Post Mill type, over 38 feet tall. This follows an early design, where a large wooden body, containing the milling equipment, rotates around a huge central post.
In Cromer’s case, this oak post alone is 18ft 9ins tall, weighs 4.4 tons and has been dated to 1678.
Despite its size, the mill is so well designed that a single person can hand-crank it, turning the mill on its axis so its sails face the wind. Hard work, yes, but certainly possible – I tried it.
Later windmills, such as Great Hormead and Weston, were designed so that just the cap of the mill (to which the sails were attached) turned – much easier.
A cautionary tale from the past recalls a person who wandered too near the sails as they turned, was picked up by them and tossed into a hedge. Let’s hope that poor unfortunate survived with just a few bruises and some injured pride!
Cromer, and Sandon a few miles away, are both documented in 1222 on manors owned by St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Not unusual, as religious houses were significant landowners in the past.
Cromer Mill was valued at 20 shillings at that time, a sizeable sum. Its value is clear as several mills have existed on the site over the years.
The 13th century structure is long gone. In fact, the mill was in ruins in 1374, rebuilt by 1576, and potentially destroyed by the Great Storm of 1661 (which ruined over 400 windmills in England). A new mill was built before 1721.
How do we know these details? The mills are depicted on old maps.
In 1861, Cromer’s mill was blown over, recorded as ‘lying, a shattered mass of timber’. But the pole remained usable. The mill was soon rebuilt and indeed expanded to include an iron foundry.
Sadly, over time Cromer’s future and its structure became very insecure. Flour ceased to be made around 1910. The mill fell into disrepair and dereliction in the 1920s when operations became uneconomic.
One sail was blown off in 1929, with the remaining ones removed for safety. World War Two damaged the mill further, not due to German bombs – the Ardeley Home Guard cut a hole in its roof so they could use the mill as an observation post.
The future did not bode well. Cromer looked set to follow the destiny of other Hertfordshire windmills – Great Hormead had collapsed in the 1940s. Little Hadham ceased working by wind in 1929 and was destroyed by fire in 1981.
But the possibility of Hertfordshire losing its last surviving windmill galvanized support in the 1960s.
A local appeal in 1967 led to funds to restore the mill and to fit new sail frames, a new fantail and ladder.
By the late 1980s, English Heritage and East Herts Council had joined in the funding.
The last new sail was lifted into place in 1990. And on Midsummer’s Day 1998 the fully restored mill was officially opened to the public in front of a large crowd…
Cromer windmill continues welcoming summer visitors to this day.
Codicote Local History Society is starting a new programme of activities in September. Everyone is welcome. Check www.codicotelocalhistorysociety.co.uk or contact Nicholas Maddex (firstname.lastname@example.org) for details. Explore your interest in history today!
- ‘Cromer Windmill’ by Luke Bonwick, Hertfordshire Building Preservation Trust, 1999.
- ‘From Quern to Computer’, Mills Archive Trust 2016.