The Mill in the 20th Century

With thanks to Mark Barnard of Suffolk County Council

Little is known of what happened to Holton mill, or who owned it, in the early years of this century. One small clue is provided by recently discovered pencil graffiti around the doorway into the basement of the roundhouse. These indicate that, between 1911 and 1915, the basement was being used for the bulk storage of cans of petrol.

The present mill house, in whose generous grounds the mill now stands, was described in the 1885 auction catalogue as a ‘Comfortable Villa Residence’ and was called Ash Cottage. It is said to date back to the 18th century. Transformation to its present mock Jacobean appearance came in 1915, at the hands of Herbert George Broom, a local building contractor, who owned the property until the late 1930’s. The pargetting and chimneys were modelled on a house at Walpole called The Elms which stillstands. It seems likely that the mill was incorporated into the grounds at this time. This made sense as a vehicular right of way to the mill from the vicinity of the house had long existed. The mill was stripped of almost all its machinery and the rear half of the stone floor lowered to create a small studio, lit by a Crittall window. For good measure, to ensure the fine views could be fully enjoyed, a gallery was added at the rear on the top floor, reached by a glazed door. The earliest postcard views, of c.1920, show the mill in this state.

By 1925 a fantail had been fitted to enable the mill to keep head to wind, even though it was no longer working. Whether by now the mill was still used as a studio or was merely an attractive feature of the grounds, it was regularly maintained. Interior pencil inscriptions record that the mill was painted in October 1930, June 1932, July 1934 and 1936, either by Ernest Haward or Robert Martin. Another inscription notes the fitting of a new fantail and carriage by Robert Martin in September 1938; presumably the earlier one was unsatisfactory.

During the war there was extensive mineral working in the parish to provide aggregate for the construction of military airfields. As one of the very few preserved Suffolk windmills at that time, the County Council sought and obtained an assurance from the Air Ministry that the mill would not be undermined.

Little maintenance was carried out during the war years and when the mill house was acquired by Col. Irwin in 1947 he found the mill in a dilapidated state. He offered to convey the mill free of charge to the County Council, but this was declined as another post mill (Saxtead) was already being preserved with public funds. An appeal for funds was therefore launched in 1949, and the Holton Mill Restoration Fund was established. Some £260 was eventually raised. In 1950-1 the exterior cladding and steps were repaired and the mill re-painted (the paint being donated by the S.P.A.B.), at a total cost of £315. Another £53 was spent in 1957 on repairing the fantail.

By the early 1960’s the elderly Col. Irwin realised that more extensive repair work was required on the mill he picturesquely described as an ‘expensive weathercock’. Neither the County Council nor the Suffolk Preservation Society could offer any help. However, in 1963 a small group of volunteers commenced work, probably the first voluntary mill repair project in the county. Their work is described by Chris Hullcoop below.

By March 1966 the County Council’s attitude towards the mill had somewhat changed, a Planning Committee noting that it was ‘widely considered to be of outstanding interest because ot its landscape value’. In view of this, and the work done by the volunteers, the County Council decided to lease the mill for a period of 50 years. A promise of financial support towards the cost of repair work had already been secured from the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, and a full restoration commenced in earnest in 1966. The contractor was Neville Martin of Beccles, who had worked on the mill with his father in the 1930’s. The buck frame was extensively repaired and completely re-boarded, and anew buck roof was made. There were also repairs to the step strings and a new roundhouse roof. Finally, in March 1968 four new sails were fitted, mounted on hollow stocks and with dummy common frames for lightness in view of concern about the weak state of the head. The work cost about £1200.

Routine maintenance work was carried out in the 1970’s, and in 1982 more extensive work including renewal of the main steps, a new stock, and removal of the rear gallery, glazed door and Crittall window. In the late 1980’s the sails were once again declared unsafe. In line with a more enlightened approach to the repair of all the County Council’s windmills, it was decided to strengthen the head so that accurate replicas of the last working sails could be fitted. Vincent Pargeter specified the work to the head, comprising a galvanised steel bracket and strainer wires to anchor the weather beam (which is tilting forward), and Peter Dolman supplied drawings for the new sails. These were hoisted into place late in 1992. On October 22nd 1998 villagers saw the mill’s four sails turn for much of the afternoon, the first time in over 90 years.


Was it nearly 40 years ago that I worked on the post mill at Holton St. Peter near Halesworth? A sobering thought, but I will try to remember something about it.

I first heard of its plight through Mr Hales, an engineering and general contractor whose premises occupied the old gravel pit next to the mill. He told me that its owner, Colonel Thomas Irwin, had all but despaired of the mill’s repair and was reluctantly thinking about demolition. He had asked Mr Hales if he could do the job and what the cost would be. Elderly retired colonels loomed formidable in my mind and it was with trepidation I rang the doorbell of the substantial mill house. The colonel answered the door and I told him of my interest. He immediately invited me in, asking if I would prefer sweet or dry sherry! Acting on the adage that ‘A little help is worth a deal of pity’, I asked if I might be permitted to carry out a little repair work on the mill at weekends. The colonel said certainly and although well over 80 would help where he could and I would be most welcome to stay overnight in the house if I wished to attend the mill on both Saturday and Sunday! I quickly revised my prejudiced view of retired colonels!

Much of the roundhouse roof was bare boards and the first job was to replace the felt. Some of the weatherboards had fallen off while others were loose on rusty nails. We soon made good the boards on the head, sides and tail and on the buck roof we spread a tarpaulin, nailed and battened on. I.C.I. at Stowmarket kindly donated some white paint and soon the old mill was looking brighter.

Colonel and Mrs Irwin were great characters. He served in India at the start of the last century and had taken part in a cavalry charge on the North Western Frontier. He fought with great bravery in World War One, winning the Military Cross and was lucky to survive his wounds. Too old to serve in World War Two, he organised the local Home Guard. Mrs Irwin was originally Australian and once had been a ladies champion rifle shot. Any rabbit tempted by lettuces in the kitchen garden was quickly despatched by a single shot from her rifle!

I had mostly worked on my own at the mill and was pleased when in 1964 Stanley Freese retired to live in nearby Wenhaston and volunteered to help. He cycled to the mill and worked there in his usual shorts. His knowledge and experience of mills was considerable and he was a congenial companion. I remember once I was using a chisel which slipped and somehow cut his leg quite badly with much blood. He only laughed and said he thought working on mills safer than cycling on busy roads which outside restricted areas had no upper speed limits! Poor Stan could be a bit embarrassing though. The Irwins were kind enough to give us meals at weekends, and after some ten hours work, which I would help prepare and serve. Stan would go to the mill on weekdays, starting at say twelve and place himself at their table at 12.45pm! He meant no harm of course but it was a bit much really.

The machinery had long been removed from the mill and all that remained inside was the brakewheel. This lack of machinery, together with the doubling of the side girts, prevented that sag so often seen in post mills. We felt some extra Support was needed under the centre of the weather beam and a vertical prop was fitted with the weight taken further in towards the post. The weather beam was also rolling outwards, so a substantial tie rod was attached to the left end of the weather beam connecting back to the rear corner post. Once the structure had been made safer we reluctantly removed the spring sails as the stock had broken in the centre and the sails were drooping. We made some minor repairs to the remaining pair of common sails and they were made ready to turn. I improvised some sail cloths from old pieces of hessian dyed red and on a windy day the sails were soon turning. Colonel and Mrs Irwin were delighted and opened a bottle of champagne.

They were wondering what to do with the mill and fortunately the then County Planning Officer for East Suffolk, Mr. Oxenbury, lived not far from me in Felixstowe. I was able to tell him of the mill’s virtues (not its vices!) and convince him that a lease should be arranged.

By mid 1965 Colonel and Mrs Irwin had decided to sell up and move into care. I felt it was a little too early as both were quite sprightly. With a large house they could have had a live-in carer. This could easily have been paid for by the sale of a fine winter scene by Dutch old master Aart van der Neer. Such a painting today would make about £1M. It hung in their drawing room and a year previously the colonel had drawn my attention to it, at the same time straightening it up. The cord behind broke and I just managed to prevent it crashing to the floor. I fitted a substantial picture wire! They had made up their minds though and the property was sold for £12,000. It has been said that a better, more complete mill could have been leased by the County Council. Certainly there were better ones then standing but it is always the attitude of the owner that is so important. To appear at the door as a complete stranger and be asked if I preferred sweet or dry sherry meant a lot.