Saving Anglesey’s Windmills

On the road again. I’m setting off for a week-long tour of the south of England, but first I’m taking the well-travelled road to Aberystwyth. I worked there for a few years and have visited regularly ever since.

Ian Capper / National Library of Wales / CC BY-SA 2.0

I’m on my way to the National Library of Wales. Perched on the hill overlooking the town, the Library is the iconic centre of learning and culture in Wales. As a Legal Deposit library it is one of the repositories for all the books published in the UK as well as a wealth of papers, documents, art, sound files, and much more. Accompanied by my wife, who is going there to continue her research into the pioneering freshwater ecologist Kathleen Carpenter, I am planning to find out more about Anglesey mills.

Of particular interest is a file of information about Anglesey windmills from the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales (CPRW). Founded in 1928 by architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis (of Portmeirion fame) under the title of The Council for the Preservation of Rural Wales, its purpose is to secure the protection and enhancement of the country’s landscapes and environment. This file contains information from 1929-1938, around the time when the last of the windmills on the island stopped working and most had started to deteriorate.

 North Reading Room, National Library of Wales / CC BY-SA 4.0

On receiving the relatively slim file from the very helpful library staff, I eagerly open it, not knowing exactly what it might contain. First is a list of the windmills on Anglesey, with brief notes of the condition of some. It is undated and unattributed, but given it says Stanley Mill at Trearddur was still working (it closed in 1938), and the condition of some of the other mills, it probably dates from the early to mid-1930s. Accompanying this is a typed manuscript entitled “Article on Anglesey Windmills”, along with the published version of it from the 4 August 1930 edition of the weekly journal The Miller. The author was Rex Wailes, an engineer and historian who developed a keen interest in windmills. As the technical adviser to the Windmill Section of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) he travelled England recording details of windmills, many of which were deteriorating and in danger of being demolished. He wrote two books about English windmills and was active in trying to save them. He had visited Anglesey in 1929, resulting in this manuscript describing the general form and function of the Anglesey style of windmills (which differed from those found in most of England).

Most interesting, however, is a series of letters from January 1930 to March 1931. These were between the antiquarian J.D.K. Lloyd, the then secretary of CPRW, and representatives of various other organizations. These letters outline the early attempts to preserve the increasingly disused and threatened windmills of Wales (the majority of which are on Anglesey).

The first letter, dated 16 Jan 1930, is from Lord Boston, a major landowner on Anglesey, keen archaeologist and President of the Anglesey Antiquarian Society, with a draft resolution on preserving windmills in Wales: “That the attention of the Ancient Monuments Board for Wales [AMBW] be called to the gradual disappearance of the Windmills which are so striking a feature of the landscape in various parts of Wales. That the C.P.R.W expressed the hope that the Board may see fit to take such action as may be in its power to preserve, where possible, these interesting relics of a past phase in the organization of the agricultural and rural life of Wales.”

The resolution was passed by the CPRW board and Lloyd then sent it to AMBW for their consideration. Ralegh Radford of AMBW responded on 16 April saying that more details of the windmills and evidence of their threatened nature was required. Lloyd then decided to marshal the help of other like-minded organizations, writing to A.R. Powys of SPAB and Wilfrid Hemp of the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire (RCAMWM) with the resolution and AMBW’s response.

Melin y Bont, Llanfaelog

Hemp replied a couple of days later, saying that Rex Wailes would be the best person to provide information about the mills, as he had recently visited them. However, Hemp warns that he should contact Wailes soon, as he had just married and was about to embark on his honeymoon in Spain, where he would also be hunting windmills! Hemp also notes that he had just visited Melin y Bont, the unusual mill on Anglesey powered by both wind and water, with Cyril Fox, director of the National Museum of Wales.

Three days later Fox copied Lloyd into a letter he was sending to the Office of Works, with his notes about Melin y Bont, expressing his hope that this unique windmill could be scheduled as a protected building. Around this time Lloyd also wrote to Wailes asking for assistance in providing details of the mills.

On 6 May Radford from AMBW wrote to Lloyd of CPRW asking to meet in person to discuss the windmills. Despite both organisations being involved in Welsh matters, they were actually based in Central London at this time, as was RCAMWM and SPAB. They did meet two days later and, according to a report from Lloyd to Lord Boston, Radford thought that AMBW would be willing to schedule some of the windmills. However, they wouldn’t be able to provide any money to do repairs or compensate the occupiers of working mills if scheduling their mills forced them to rely on old-fashioned methods of milling rather than upgrading machinery and techniques. They agreed that a list of the most important windmills should be drawn up to focus on for scheduling.

Later that month Lloyd received a letter from the secretary of the Windmill section of SPAB, Miss M.I. Batten, who had just published the first volume of her two-volume work English Windmills. She said that she had so far only focused on English windmills, but only knew of two ‘Welsh’ windmills, “Pontrewynydd near Monmouth (a pumping mill) and Mortimers Cross, Kingsland, Herefordshire”. In a follow-up letter two days later she admitted “I am afraid I must have been possessed of the Devil when I wrote to you on May 26th. I know perfectly well that both Monmouth and Hereford are in England, and also that Anglesey is in Wales!” She then points out that they have information on the Anglesey mills from Rex Wailes. Lloyd responded “Monmouth, of course, should – and for some purposes I believe is – connected with Wales, but it is not always politic to suggest this to the inhabitants.”

Batten also informed Lloyd that the address he had used to write to Wailes was wrong, explaining the lack of response, so he wrote again to the correct address. Wailes responded in July, sending the copy of his manuscript for The Miller that was in the folder with these letters, as well as offering his full support for the campaign to list some of the mills. However, by this time Lloyd had learned that AMBW did not hold much hope of being able to schedule any of the windmills. Lloyd and Wailes did agree that they should still press on with trying the get at least Melin y Bont scheduled somehow.

Correspondence about the windmills went quiet for several months after this, until January 1931, when the new secretary of the Windmills section of SPAB, Miss A.M.B. Lloyd, wrote to J.D.K. Lloyd of CPRW, saying she had heard that CPRW might be able to fund repairing one of the Anglesey windmills. He had to advise her that in fact CPRW was unable, both by constitution and funding, of providing any money. Further correspondence between Lloyd, Hemp and Wailes cast doubt that anything can be done about preserving the mills.

However, Wailes throws a cat amongst the pigeons by saying that Hemp had told him there was a possibility that the machinery at Melin y Bont could be “dismantled, and parts taken to the Cardiff Museum”. This provoked a flurry of letters and phone calls to assess the situation and decide how to act. Lloyd forwarded Wailes’ letter to Fox at the National Museum of Wales, asking if he could provide any more information.

Fox seems to have been very particular about the name of his museum, as he responds back – “Who is Mr. Rex Wailes? Will you kindly inform him that the museum to which he refers is the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, and not the Cardiff Museum!!” He goes on to say that it was the first he had heard of the matter, that he would be pleased to receive parts of the mill into their collection but would rather that it wasn’t dismantled. Lloyd writes back to Wailes about Fox’s response (diplomatically leaving out Fox’s response about the name, but prominently giving the full, correct name of the museum). Wailes responds saying that SPAB have no funding to save Melin y Bont, but could help publicise the issue.

After this the correspondence ends. The machinery in Melin y Bont wasn’t dismantled and sent to Cardiff after all. It continued grinding grain, powered solely by the water wheel, until around 1941, and was sadly burnt out by a fire in 1973, leaving the machinery in a heap at the bottom of the tower.

Efforts to schedule and protect the Anglesey windmills gathered pace again in the early 1950s. A list of windmills and watermills on Anglesey produced by SPAB at this time has most of the windmills described as “almost in ruins”, “very poor state of repair”, “half demolished”, etc. Even Melin Llynon, which is now proudly restored and fully working again, was described as “in a poor state of repair its windows and doors being almost non-existent”. However, from 1952 and through the next two decades, most of the surviving windmills were listed. Ironically, Melin y Bont was overlooked during this period of listings, but it was finally protected in 1998. As can be seen in my gallery of Anglesey windmills, many of the windmills of Anglesey have now been converted to dwellings or the empty towers stabilised. It took a while, but the wonderful windmills of Anglesey were finally saved.


One thought on “Saving Anglesey’s Windmills

  1. I visited the Trearddur Bay windmill whilst it was still working in 1935 or ’36. It was so noisy, and the whole building shook.
    It was featured on the front page of the Daily Sketch (or Graphic?) as the last working windmill about 1937 I think, and then it was shut.
    I used to love watching it going round.

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