When I was a toddler I lived in Polegate and at the end of my road stood a huge windmill (even though the actual name of the road I lived in was Watermill Close).
I remember the mill clearly, although in the early sixties it was in quite a sorry state. It was owned by the Ovenden family and was also called Ovenden’s Mill.
Polegate Mill was built in 1817 by Joseph Seymour. Unlike many mills it is a tower mill and is constructed of brick with a rotating cap at the top to which the four sweeps are attached (A sweep is known as a sail outside Sussex).
The cap rotates to face the wind due to a five bladed fan-tail opposite the sweeps. Each sweep has several shutters which can be opened or closed to make the most from prevailing wind conditions. Before 1813 a mill had to be stopped to make these adjustments but William Cubitt designed a system to allow the mill to continue to run. He was the engineer who was to later built the Crystal Palace but was also an inventor who was interested in milling. The sweeps are attached to a wind-shaft which runs the machinery inside the building.
Grain would arrive at the mill from local farms and be cleaned by being washed in a ‘smutter’ literally to remove any fungal ‘smuts’.
A hoist pulls sacks of grain bought from local farms up through the mill to the bin-floor.
The grain is tipped into a large wooden bin which feeds a hopper, which in turn slowly feeds the grain between two large mill-stones (also known as quern-stones). The bottom stone remains stationery and is called a bed-stone, whereas the top stone moves around powered by the sweeps and is called a runner-stone.
At Polegate, the stones were French burr-stones made of stone quarried in the Marne valley near Paris, although sometimes softer Derbyshire Peak stone was used.
The distance between the stones and their speed would be adjusted by hand. A skilful miller would be vigilant to ensure that the mill was always running at optimum efficiency.
After the grain is crushed it would have been fed through a wire-machine, also known as a meal dresser which would separate the flour from the bran.
Most parts of the process would have been run by wind-power and the noise inside a working mill would have been
incredible. The mill at Polegate is over 45 feet tall and towered over the surrounding fields (which now comprise housing estates).
The original miller, Joseph Seymour also ran the nearby watermill and, as a young boy, I would play in the old mill stream which now runs behind the Southfield estate. Seymour ran the windmill for 40 years until 1857 when it was sold to Mathias Mockett.
Just after the Great War, the Polegate Mill was bought by Ephraim Ovenden from Hellingly. The mill was later taken over by his son Albert. In 1941 the fan-tail of the mill was damaged and it was decided to use electricity to run the mill and the redundant sweeps fell into disrepair.
The building was listed in October 1952.
Albert retired in 1962 and the Mill was put up for sale. Local historians led by Frank Gregory and Lawrence and Pat Stevens from Eastbourne established the Eastbourne and District Preservation Society and they campaigned to raise funds for the mill to be purchased and restored.
The Miller agreed to sell the windmill and surrounding land to the preservation society for just £1,000, although much more money was required for its preservation. After years of fundraising the mill was officially opened to the public in July 1967 by the 11th Duke of Devonshire.
The mill has slowly been restored with the assistance of lottery and other grants and, of course, by a small army of willing and cheerful volunteers including my brother who says
he loves the building).
The aim now is to actually get the mill fully working and producing flour once again. The problem is to make the whole process safe. The mill would have once had dozens of hazards including open trap-doors, sacks of grain flying up and down and fire; powdered flour can be very combustable. Some millers (including William Catt, the miller at the Tide Mills at Bishopstone) even maintained their own fire-engines.
Today you will pleased to hear that Polegate Windmill is safe and well worth a visit. It is open on Sundays until the end of October from 2pm to 5pm. Volunteers will be on hand to show you around and explain the processes of milling.
There is also a small museum (officially opened in 1968) and gift shop with a tea room. It is easy to find, just off the A27 – just look out for those majestic sweeps (don’t you dare let me hear you call them sails!).