Ian Dair: The mystery of the windmill at Carlby

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The mystery of Carlby mill has nagged at me for the past five years.

For most of the 19th century the Smiths father and son had been the millers in my village of Carlby. But by the 1890s the family had largely left and the 1891 census recorded no miller or baker in the village.

The remains of Carlby windmill

The remains of Carlby windmill

And nobody knew what had happened to the mill itself.

All that remains to the present day is the unimpressive stump of the Smith’s windmill in a field at the Stamford end of the village, just off the main road between Stamford and Bourne.

I ended my article by saying ‘What happened to the mill? That will be, as they say, the subject of further inquiries.’

The stump is not pretty, is it. Any sensible person would have left it there.

But it represents a bit of history, a symbol of our past when people lived differently. No travelling to Sainsbury’s for a wrapped sliced loaf.

The corn came from a field next to the village. It was ground in the mill that you saw every day. And you bought your bread from the bakery, a few doors down from where you lived.

Historians and researchers, including amateurs like me, want to find out what happened. And we refuse to be beaten.

The further inquiries I promised have taken longer than I expected but diligent (or lucky) browsing on the internet has finally paid off. At least, to some extent.

Thanks to the Mills Archive I have found photos, printed right below of Carlby tower mill, pictured in 1905. The photo on the right is taken from the junction of the main road and the Greatford road.

This Y junction is the same now as it was 110 years ago.

Both photos were taken on glass lantern slides by Edward Mitford Abraham. Edward was born in Yorkshire in 1882.

He began to photograph and document windmills and watermills around 1900, at a time when they were fast disappearing. 

He amassed a remarkable collection of 47 albums containing over 1,200 views of mills in England and the Netherlands.

He must have been only 23 years old when he took the photos of Carlby mill.

His collection documents the windmill as a historic building overtaken by time and technology.

Fortunately, thanks to organisations like the Mills Archive some remain as beacons of our heritage.

The Carlby mill doesn’t. At least, we know what it once looked like.

Apparently, it was a pretty unique construction. We move on to 23 May 1936.

A gentleman named F J Erskine (he must have been a gentleman to be reading this magazine) wrote to ‘Country Life’.

His letter was published under the headline ‘Carlby windmill: a vanished landmark’.

The letter concludes ‘this particular mill was unique and its destruction is a great loss’.

Mr Erskine wrote ‘Now its place is taken by an empty field, as the old mill, like many others of its class, has been pulled down’. The mill ‘differs greatly from the usual type --- in fact, it is the only specimen in a fairly large collection of negatives (presumably Edward’s photographs) of the stone-built mill’.

The mill, with its octagonal shape, certainly looks unlike the conical structure we might associate with a windmill.

As Mr Erskine says ‘For about 10 or 12 feet the wall of the erection was upright then it sloped upwards in a series of ‘flats’ ending abruptly under the great wooden ring carrying the head and sails’.

He goes on to say that ‘the work of adjusting the head and the sails had to be carried out by hand.

The inverted poles forming the triangle ended in a sturdy broad flanged wheel.

This ran on a stone path which made the task of setting the sails easier.’

Mr Erskine adds ‘The type of sails tell of the antiquity of the mill and the struggle to keep up to date.

Two of the arms are netted to carry the old jute sail while the other arms have the slats of the newer patent type’.

As I understand it, patent sails could be adjusted without stopping the mill and so were more efficient.

Certainly, there had been an important place for windmills for many hundreds of years as one of the few effective sources of industrial power.

But when steam and coal came along they couldn’t compete. The struggle to keep Carlby mill as a working, economic proposition was inevitably lost.

It seems that the mill in my village suffered the fate of many rural mills.

As Elizabeth Trout of the Mills Archive has told me: “They were simply abandoned due to competition from urban roller mills.

“They became more and more derelict, vandalised for the wood, bricks and machine parts until they just fell down.”

Mr Erskine’s letter records the end to Carlby mill – ‘The great stone blocks were carted away and are now forming the walls of two new cottages at the adjacent village of Witham-on-the-Hill’.

So, the mystery of the Carlby mill is partly solved.

When it was built and exactly when it was reduced to the stump shown above isn’t entirely clear.

The mill appears on the enclosure map for Carlby, dated 1806, and on a map of 1860.

The Mills Archive have told me that Jon Sass’s book ‘Windmills of Lincolnshire’ quotes a criminal case in 1807 against the then miller Thomas Banks.

This book says that the mill was last worked in the 1890s and it was demolished in 1910.

However, another source I found, a survey of Lincolnshire mills carried out in 1923, says that the tower was still standing, although in a derelict state.

The final remains, the stones which were ‘carted off to Witham’, must still have been there not long before Mr Erskine’s 1936 letter to Country Life, for he begins it ‘Until quite recently the Cottesmore fixture list contained the announcement that the Cottesmore Hunt would meet at this landmark’.

Maybe a reader of The Local will have some information on just when this symbol of Carlby’s past finally did vanish entirely from the landscape.

Acknowledgment: the Mills Archive for supplying the copyrighted photographs, the 1936 cutting and other information.