When we think of Wimbledon Common, Wimbledon Windmill springs to mind. Found in the very heart of the common, this famous landmark initially opened to serve the community.
During the 18th century, there were a large amount of water and steam-powered cornmills in the area. The owner, John Watney, applied to get another piece of land on the Common to put the Windmill up in 1799 as the local residents wanted their own mill. Although Watney sadly died before he could put his plan into effect, in 1816 a new application was made by a carpenter Charles March. He was granted a lease on the small plot the year after, on the condition that he built the mill for the ‘advantage’ of the neighboured.
Because March was a carpenter, not a millwright, the mill was rather bizarrely constructed. Originally with a single storey octagonal brick base with a second storey made of wood, this housed all of the working machinery. Above this was a conical tower, which supported the cap on which the sails were mounted. These types of mills were apparently quite common in Holland – as the post was hollow so an iron shaft could be taken down inside it to help to turn the millstones on the floor below – these were known as a hollow-post mills! Apparently there was a mill near Southwark that was similar, so folklore has it that March copied the design.
The day the Windmill stopped
One day the mill stopped working in 1864 after the Lord of the Manor, the 5th Earl Spencer, said he wanted to close Wimbledon Common and build himself a new manor house instead. There was uproar and massive local opposition, leading to a legal battle for six years which was resolved by the Wimbledon and Putney Commons Act of 1871. This handed over the commons to the local community, who had to pay maintenance and an annuity to the Spencer family. The reason the mill stopped was because the Marsha family who operated the mill, were persuaded to sell it and ended up closing down the machinery so it could not be run in competition with their other mills.
The mill was converted into living accommodation for six families during this period. As it’s a museum today, one room has been kept to give an idea of the living conditions in 1870.
In 1893 there was a major restoration and this ended up with numerous changes to the building. The cap was reduced in height and the tower made taller, while the post supporting the cap was removed. Instead an iron bearing was fitted so the cap could continue to move. The mill was used as accommodation and eventually converted into a museum in 1975 when more repairs were carried out and the first floor became the museum. The Heritage Lottery Fund in 1999 allowed the sails to be restored to working order and then the museum was extended right down covering the whole building.
The museum covers rural life and local history and has a display of Scouting memorabilia which commemorates the writing of part of ‘Scouting for Boys’ by Robert Baden-Powell in the Mill House in 1908. It’s now administered by a charitable trust and run by volunteers, so admission charges are kept low. Make sure you pay it a visit!