Mills of Wirral
A modern treasure but once symbols of exploitation and
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
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
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
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 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
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
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!
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