Holgate Windmill: Inside the only wind-powered Yorkshire windmill still producing flour
Standing in the midst of a York housing estate, Holgate Windmill casts a nostalgic and romantic shadow over the bustling city. Where once there were many working windmills producing flour across Yorkshire, Holgate is the last man standing and the oldest five-sail windmill in the country.
Steve Potts, secretary of the Holgate Windmill Preservation Society, says the demise in the UK’s landmark windmills is down to the declining number of skilled millwrights.
“There are only about seven or eight millwrights left in the country and no apprenticeships. It is very worrying. So if you have a problem like a sail that needs fixing, you can wait for three years and by then it is likely other problems will have developed and the future of the windmill thrown into question.
“A new sail costs £50,000. So we try to keep Holgate Windmill in good shape with monthly inspections. It is a very unique mill,” adds Steve who says he “fell in love” with it when he was part of the architects team working pro bono to get the mill up and running again. He loved it so much that once he retired, he trained as a miller alongside head of milling Jenny Hartland.
“Obviously I love the architecture of windmills but there is something else, something so romantic and from a bygone age. I just wanted to be part of Holgate’s future.”
Holgate Windmill’s builder and first miller was George Waud. He was born in Barlow, near Selby, in 1717 and bought the land on which the windmill was built in 1768.
By October 1770, the mill was working and George was living in the mill house with his family. Originally it was built in open countryside looking over the hamlet of Holgate which was centred on the junction of Acomb Road and Poppleton Road, near the Fox Inn. These roads provided a direct route for the grain from local farms to the mill and much of the high-quality flour that George produced would have been taken into York. The original horse and cart track to the mill survives, in narrowed form, as a snicket from Acomb Road.
There had been a windmill at Acomb, in the area that is now called Millfield and another in the vicinity of the modern street Wilton Rise but both had gone by the time Holgate was constructed. Even so York was surrounded by mills.
George and then his son and grandson ran the mill until 1851. It was then sold to John Musham, a local gentleman, and run by a tenant miller John Thackwray from Boston Spa. In 1855 Musham sold the mill to Joseph Peart.
Peart owned several mills in the area, developed property in St Paul’s Square and lived in Mount Terrace House. He refurbished the mill, probably installing the steam engine, and around 1860 was responsible for raising the structure ten feet to the height that we see today.
After Joseph Peart died, the ownership of the mill is unclear, although it is believed that the Gutch family owned it from at least 1870. Joseph Chapman worked the mill after Peart’s death. His children were the first and only children to have been born at the mill during its entire history. When Joseph retired to Scarborough, his son Charles took over but he died young, in 1901, as a result of breathing in flour dust.
Herbert Warters ran the mill from 1901 to 1922 and was followed by Thomas Mollett. The mill ground corn until the early 1930s using wind power and then continued with the aid of electric motors until production stopped entirely around 1933.
The Gutch family sold the mill to York Corporation in 1939 and when Eliza Gutch died she bequeathed the surrounding land to the council. There were several attempts to restore the mill and some work took place but it became neglected and derelict as the housing estate we see today grew around it.
"I’m not sure a housing estate is exactly what Eliza had planned,” says Steve. “It had been agricultural land mainly and a smallholding but the council was under pressure to build more houses and so the housing estate built up with the windmill in the middle.”
In 2001 the Holgate Windmill Preservation Society was formed and the massive task of applying for grants and fundraising began to find the £500,000 needed to restore the mill before work started in 2005 and it took a further seven years before it started producing flour.
“We didn’t have one big grant from someone like Heritage Lottery fund or anything like that,” adds Steve. “So we had to get small grants from different organisations.
“We also ran a fund-raising campaign where people could fund a shutter for £50 – there are 200 shutters and everyone who donated has there name on a plaque in the mill.”
From the offset, the society’s mission was to create more than just a museum honouring a bygone age. “The plan was to create a commercial venture, to become a working mill producing flour to sell to the public. A working museum, if you like, showcasing the artisan skills of milling and millwrighting” says Steve.
Holgate Windmill produces two types of flour mainly using two sets of windstones to grind the wheat but there is also an set of electric stones for the days when the wind is insufficient to move the sails. Both flours are wholemeal: a strong bread-making flour and a spelt flour, an ancient Roman flour with a “nutty” taste and texture.
The millstones are four feet, six inches in diameter, between which the grain is placed and cut. The team of millers is 12-strong, although many of them are retired and Steve admits they are struggling to get “younger” people to train as millers.
There are also around 40 volunteers who help with the group and school visits and man the shop while the preservation society has 300 members.
The mill normally produces around 100kg of flour a week, which sold in the onsite shop and at some local outlets.
However, Covid saw more demand as flour was one of the commodities to be hit by shortages. “During lockdown, we were producing half a tonne of flour a week,” says Steve. The milling team was cut down to just three people at a time, in order to comply with social distancing, but they increased the days they milled from one day a week to five.
Next month Holgate Windmill be taking part in the York Unlocked initiative, which aims to encourage the public to access little-known treasures – both buildings and open spaces – in the city and surrounding area. Holgate Windmill will be open from 10am to 4pm both days and entry is free. There will also be an art exhibition by local artist, retired teacher and published poet Hilary Watkinson.
Steve hopes that by taking part in the event, more people will become aware of the mill and want to get involved to help preserve it for future generations.
Holgate Windmill, Windmill Rise, Holgate, York, is open on Friday and Wednesday mornings to the public and is one of the 70 buildings and open spaces that will take part in the York Unlocked weekend on October 7-8. york-unlocked.org.uk