Edward Lancaster Burne
Harnessing the Wind
Memories of my Father
by Lavender Mary Jones (nee Burne)
It was magic! We clicked a brass knob by the door and in the centre of the ceiling glowed an electric light.
True, it wasn’t a very bright one and the shade was made of flattened cocoa tin painted dark green on top and white underneath, but it was a real light.
No more candles to read by in bed, no smelly oil lamps to clean, just press a switch and there was a light. We felt very superior, for our light came from a windmill at the end of the garden.
I can never remember the time when my father wasn’t making a windmill. At first a spare bedroom was given over to him, and my brother and I went to sleep with the sound of hammer and saw in our ears. Eventually the various parts were manoeuvred down the stairs and finally the mill was erected at the bottom of the garden.
From an old and faded photograph, the first mill appeared to be quite small; it had canvas sails and was bolted down on a concrete base.It was completely home-made: mother’s egg whisk provided a v ital part, as did an old pram wheel. My father was an engineer by profession but was also an expert carpenter and every detail was finished with the precision of the born craftsman.
I suppose it was somewhere about 1908 /9 that the mill was elevated to a platform over mother’s hen house: this is the first one I remember.
There was a ‘fantail’ at the back which faced the sails to windward automatically, but in those early days a sudden wind from say the NE to SW might cause the mill to become ‘tail-winded’.
On such occasions, if my father was away, mother had to climb up and turn the mill round by hand to face in the right direction. On one never-to-be-forgotten day a gale blew up and though the brake was on the mill started to run. My mother, realising the danger of overheating, bravely climbed up and released the brake: to her horror the mill raced madly, the sails blew off and landed some distance away in a neighbour’s garden! Legend records that she fainted from the shock!
As a result of this it was realised that canvas sails were unsuitable and new louvred sails (my father preferred to call them ‘sweeps’), were planned. Louvred sails have, of course, been used on windmills for hundreds of years as can be seen in old pictures and even carvings on bench-ends and in churches.
The new sails, however, were to be hinged longitudinally – my father’s invention. The two sides, known professionally as the ‘leading edge’ and the ‘trailing edge’, bent back against a spring and allowed the wind to spill through them. They were much more flexible than the old type of canvas covered sail which had to be reefed, and were difficult and as experience had shown, even dangerous to handle. The louvres were all made by my father in his workshop and I well remember being sent to fetch him to meals, to which he came with considerable reluctance.
Incidentally he would never stop the mill with the sweeps positioned thus + but always x. Though an old miller’s superstition, like so many of these traditions it had a practical basis, because it lessened the leverage and strain at the base of the sweeps.
We moved to a new house fairly frequently and the mill moved with us; in later years it stood on the roof of father’s workshop.
In the earlier months of the 1914-18 War German spies were believed to be lurking behind every bush. We were living at that date on the slopes of the Hog’s Back, not far from Guildford station, and some patriotic individual reported mysterious flashing lights in that neighbourhood-obviously a spy sending messages to the enemy! The ‘signals’ were eventually traced to the cottage by the police, who discovered that they were caused by the sails of the mill passing over the lighted and uncovered skylight in father’s workshop!
After the war we moved again, this time to the country and once more mill and workshop were erected, the house wired up and the light switched on.
It must have been in the early 1920’s that my father went into the ‘mill business’ on a larger scale.
He developed a bigger and better mill, which had far greater capacity than our home-made domestic mill. A firm in East Anglia undertook the manufacturer and the unique features, which my father had included, were patented.
The battery charging system was particularly advanced at that date. The batteries or accumulators, the term preferred, were charged in ’banks’: when the wind was sufficiently strong a switch was automatically thrown which enabled the accumulators to be charged in double banks. This allowed a much wider range of wind force to be utilised. To quote from the booklet that was published in 1923 "The force of the wind varies as the cube of its velocity: thus the effect of the wind of 20m.p.h. is 18 times that of a 10 m.p.h. wind. Wind power is present almost everywhere and is free to be used to be used to an extent only limited by the capacity of the windmill. There is a saying among millers that “they are able to grind four days a week”.
These commercial mills had specially designed sails, which were streamlined, on the principle of an aircraft propeller, so giving less resistance to the air and allowing a faster revolution. They were hollow and built of aluminium sheet in front and silver spruce at the back.
The mills were built to specification and some were erected at country houses to supply domestic light and power.
A special mill was designed to run the Ames Costa Engineering sludge plant, and plans were drawn up for a farm mill which would operate a Pulper, Cake breaker, Chaff Cutter, Corn mill and saw-bench as well as lighting the house and farm buildings.
The tower of a mill erected about 1926 at Dymock in Gloucestershire (see photo) still stands though the sails and fantail have gone. Two mills were built on the Windward Islands and there was another tower at Blackheath, near Guildford.
Though electric light and power became available to many homes in the 1930’s, my father, who died in 1946, did not live to see even remote cottages supplied with the electrical appliances of today. I am sure, however, that their owners were never as proud as we were when we switched on our very own free home-made electric light!
Written by Lavender Mary Jones nee Burne (1901-1997).
Her father was Edward Lancaster Burne M.I.M.E., M.I.C.E. (1869 -1946)