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The Mills of Wirral
A modern treasure but once symbols of exploitation and theft
Source: Cheshire Life Magazine
Until about a hundred and fifty years ago, almost every Wirral village - like almost every other in Britain - had its own mill. It was a matter of necessity. In the days before the great wheat-growing areas of the New World had been opened up, and the means to transport bulk grain or flour over long distances had been developed, every community depended on locally grown and milled grain with which to make its bread.
As might be expected in an area that is markedly short of rivers and streams, most of Wirral's mills were windmills.
There were, indeed, a few watermills, including Raby and the tidal mill by Bromborough, but they were very markedly outnumbered by windmills.
It is a curious fact that today, when no-one in this country depends on wind or water-driven mills for his or her daily bread, everyone loves a mill; in the days when all grain was ground in the local mills they were for long regarded as symbols of exploitation and theft.
Exploitation because the mills were usually owned by the Lords of the Manor who exercised a monopoly over the grinding of corn, and it was serious offence for any unauthorised person to grind his own.
Theft, because millers were notorious for their dishonesty. It was the custom for millers to take their payment in kind from the grain they were grinding and, as Chaucer observed in the fourteenth century: "His was a masterhand at stealing grain. He felt with his thumb, and thus he knew its quality, and took three times his due."
When the miller of Burton, John Haggassman, was killed by a thunderbolt in 1579, there were many, no doubt, who regarded the incident as an act of divine retribution.
An unknown clerk, writing in 1797, was so overcome by the novelty of recording the burial of an honest miller, William Lightbound, in Neston Parish Register, that he departed from the normal practice of recording the bare details of name, date, cause of death and occupation to add:
"For once an honest miller - and not only an honest miller but allowed (i.e. generally acknowledged) to be so.”
Windmills were dangerous places. To keep a close check on the internal mechanism, and to adjust the sails in accordance with changing weather conditions demanded a high degree of skill and judgement, and mistakes were often costly in terms of both human life and materials. Bidston, on its hill top position, was particularly vulnerable.
Four disasters are recorded at the Bidston site, including one in 1791, when the sails broke loose in a gale, and the friction produced by the revolving wooden machinery caused a fire which destroyed the mill.
The sails were a continual source of danger for the unwary. The Chester Quarter Session Records include details of Inquests on a number of people who were accidentally killed by windmill sails, among them a Margaret Palin, who was killed at Willaston in 1774, and one John Bullen, who was killed at Neston in 1793.
For many years SaughaU Windmill had particularly unpleasant associations for criminals. It seems that at some time during the eighteenth century, three Irish harvesters quarreled over their earnings in the vicinity of the mill, and the one who had the largest share was murdered by the other two.
The murderers then stopped at The Greyhound Inn, Shotwick, and attempted to rob the landlady. Caught in the act, they were arrested and imprisoned at Chester, where they confessed to the murder of their companion.
They were tried and executed and, in accordance with the custom of the time, their bodies were hung in chains, or 'gibbeted', near to the scene of their crime - in this case from an ash tree that grew close to the mill - as a warning to others.
Since then Saughall mill has been known locally as The Gibbet Mill - a name that must have served as a warning to potential criminals long after the corpses had been taken down.
Now the mffls that remain have become officially recognised as picturesque landmarks of our history, and they are all the subjects of preservation orders.
For Wirral, the measure came almost too late. The watemills have all disappeared. The last to go, Bromborough tidal mill, was worked until 1940 and demolished in 1959. Almost certainly, it occupied the oldest mill site on the Peninsula, a watermill having been recorded at Bromborough in the Domesday Book.
Of Wirral's peg mills only traces remain. This oldest type of windmill, peg or post mills, consisted of a circular sandstone or brick base about eight to nine feet high surmounted by a box-like wooden structure built round a central post or peg so it could be revolved to bring it into the eye of the wind. This was done by means of an external timber beam which was heaved about as the wind changed. Access to the mill was by means of an external ladder.
Wirral's last two peg mills - at Burton and Irby - were both worked until about a hundred years ago, and demolished in the 1890s.
The demolition of Irby Mill, in 1898, was almost marked by tragedy. The three young men who volunteered to do the job obviously knew nothing about demolition work because they started by extracting bricks from the base. To that, the tixnberwork responded by groaning loudly. Warned by a particularly ominious crack, the trio just managed to scramble clear before the whole structure toppled on to the spot where they had been working moments previously.
The five windmill buildings that still stand on the Peninsula are all tower mills. A later development of the peg mill, tower mills consisted of a stone or brick tower surmounted by a movable cap, which carried the sails.
Instead of the beam that was used to turn the peg mill in the wind, a "fantail', consisting of a circle of flat blades fixed to the rear of the cap, operated a screw and ratchet mechanism to keep the sails facing the wind at all times.
At 80 feet the tallest windmill ever built on the Wirral, Willaston is associated with an advertising stunt that has passed into local legend.
One evening of unrecorded date, but shortly after the arrival of the railway at Willaston in 1866, an employee of the mill-owning family, baker Thomas Shuttleworth, won a mention for Willaston Mill in the national press by delivering, to a customer in London, some loaves, made from wheat which had been in a Willaston field until early that same morning!