The Windmill of Esh Leaves

In the 1914 a volume was published bringing together notes written my W.R Wiggen on aspects of the parish of Esh, in County Durham. Included in this was an account of Ushaw Mill (NZ215438). W.R Wiggen was born in 1835 and was himself a miller at Wallnook Mill on the River Browney thus his account of Ushaw Mill is probably more accurate than other contemporary writing, by laymen. His account not only gives a relatively detailed picture of the mill, and its demise but also gives a valuable snapshot of the decline of local wind milling in general. Mr Wiggen died in 1917 at the age of 82. The text needs no notes or embellishment, it stands on its own and is given below.

The Roman Catholic College of Ushaw in Esh Parish began its educational work in 1808, and some years later the ruling authorities decided to build a windmill on the rising ground a short distance westward of the college, with the object of making flour, &c., for their own use, and also feeding meal for cows and other live stock upon the College farm. The mill tower, built of stone, was a substantial structure some 60 to 70 feet high, the interior machinery comprising two pairs of 4 ft. 6 ins. millstones driven in the usual way, i.e., by spur gearing from a central vertical shaft, and also the flour dressing and wheat cleaning machinery. The canvas sails were of the old hand reefing variety, and were piloted or held in position to the wind by the usual arrangement of revolving top or cap actuated by what was called a fly or fantail. The mill was powerful and efficient in a steady west wind, but less so when blown from other points of the compass, this effect being chiefly due to the conformation of the surrounding land surface. When the writer knew it, the miller was George Corry, who in addition to working for the college, had the liberty to make and sell flour for his own profit. On the New Year’s morning of 1853 a gale or windstorm of extraordinary violence swept over the district, causing damage to trees, roofs and more especially stackyards, for there was at least four times as much corn grown in the district then as there is now. In the early hours of the morning it would seem that the fly or fantail gearing of the windmill, which ought to have held the heavy sails to the windward side of the tower, had become disabled, and thus loosing control had allowed them to drift round to the leeward, where the wind pressure tended to lift both windshaft and cap. These continued to rock and balance in the wind for some time until shortly after daybreak, when an extra powerful gust tilted them bodily over, and the four huge sails, each 36 feet long, thus describing a circle of 72 feet, the heavy cast iron hollow windshaft carrying its geared bevel wheel and brake wheel, together with the entire wooden roof, cap, and fly sail gearing, came to the ground with an appalling crash. No attempt was made to restore the mill, but such machinery as could be utilised was incorporated in a steam mill built shortly afterwards at the college farmstead close by.

George Cory was retained at the new steam mill for some time, and then migrated to Coxhoe Mill, which he rented for a term of years; afterwards to Allensford Mill on the Derwent, and finally to Patrick’s Close Mill on the Browney, where he died in 1869.

For many years the windmill tower at Ushaw stood hollow and roofless, till in 1884 it was lowered to the height of the first floor, the material thus obtained being used to build an agricultural silo, an invention then greatly in vogue, though now almost entirely discarded.

Other windmills in this county contemporary with that at Ushaw and known to the writer when in active use, were at Maiden Law, Gilesgate Moor, Rainton, Houghton-le-Spring, Shiney Row, Warden Law, Washington, West Boldon, Whickham, Fulwell, Ryhope, Easington, Thorpe Moor (Shotton), Heselden, Hutton Henry, Elwick, Hart, Stranton, Greatham, Norton, Newton Bewley, Mandale (Stockton), Aycliffe, Fighting Cocks, Ingleton, Eaglescliffe, Fishburn, Winterton, Merrington, Bishop Aukland, with three in Sunderland and six in and about Gateshead. Out of all the above, at the time of writing, we only know of one, Greatham, that retains its full complement of sails, in this case, four. Two or three of the others are struggling feebly to keep going with two sails each, and all the rest are either derelict or destroyed. In the last stages of their existence some of them had tried to use auxiliary power in the shape of steam, gas, or oil engines, but every one of these makeshifts failed to sustain them when the great revolution in flour milling spread over England in the eighties, and millstones were replaced by rollers. For millstones, in skilful hands, could be manipulated to suit the variableness and instability of wind power, but the roller mill can only be worked under absolutely uniform conditions of power and speed. The writer has a vivid recollection of the consternation which overspread the ranks of the old school millers, being himself one, when it dawned upon them that their old and trusted servant the millstone, old as civilisation, if not older, was bringing its long and honourable industrial career to an unexpectedly rapid close, for with it also passed the miller of song and story, there being no trace whatever of poetry or sentiment associated with the modern roller mill, whilst painters mourn over the disappearance of one of the most picturesque features of English landscape, the windmill on the skyline.

The account and others on the parish can be found in: Esh Leaves, being drafts upon the memory of an old Parishioner. Published in 1914 by Thos. Caldcleugh & Son, 45 Saddler Street, Durham.

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