The Lost Windmills of Leicestershire

Speaker: Mark Temple

16 February 2021

At our online meeting in February, we welcomed Mark Temple to tell us about the Vanishing Windmills of Leicestershire and Beyond.

While watermills already existed in the Saxon period, windmills were probably introduced to England after the Norman conquest. The first written reference to them dates from the 12th century and by the 14th century we have illustrations in books such as the Luttrell Psalter. Those early examples were all post mills, in which the whole structure was pivoted on a large, central post so that it could be turned to face the wind. This made them vulnerable to strong winds and a gale in 1895 destroyed or damaged 40 windmills in the Leicestershire area. The only example surviving in the county today is at Kibworth. The central post was usually supported by a trestle structure resting on four stone piers and sometimes, as at Markfield, the four stones in the shape of a cross are all that remains on the site of a former mill.

A later development was the tower mill, in which the sails were mounted at the top of a brick tower, where they could catch more wind. Only the cap with the sails needed to turn to face the wind so the millstones and other heavy equipment could be housed in a fixed building below. However, tower mills were more expensive to build and most Leicestershire windmills continued to be of the post mill type, perhaps because – unlike in Lincolnshire – we have no shortage of hills to put them on. Although 5- and 7-sailed windmills did exist, an even number of sails was preferred so that if one sail was lost, the opposite one could be removed to balance it and keep the mill in use.

Loughborough is known to have had four windmills. A “South Prospect of Leicester” from 1743 shows several of them in the area that is now Victoria Park and Highfields, as well as on the distant hills of Charnwood. A large number of village windmills survived into the age of photography and Mark showed us many examples from around the county. During the early 20th century flour began to be milled on a more industrial scale using other sources of power. Most windmills were either dismantled or allowed to decay so there are no working examples in the county today.

The most famous windmill in this area was at Woodhouse Eaves, which remained a popular tourist destination long after it had fallen out of use, until destroyed by a fire in 1945. Its stone base survives and a viewing platform has been added.

Also near to us, Hough’s Mill near Swannington is undergoing restoration and will re-open to visitors as soon as that becomes possible.

As far as the members of our Society are aware, there was never a windmill in either of our villages but documents do refer to one somewhere in Swithland. The names of the former furlongs Windmill Lane in Cropston (1775) and Windmill Flat in Thurcaston (1608) suggest that the Swithland mill might have been located not far from our border.