The squire of Lytham, John Clifton, had Lytham Windmill constructed on Lytham Marsh in1805. The windmill is of the Fylde tower mill type, a wide structure typical of the area, topped with the Lancashire boat-shaped cap. Richard Cookson leased the mill, its kiln, a cottage and grazing rights from the squire. The lease was for forty years with an annual rent of seven shillings.
Ten years later, the surrounding plinth was added. This had the advantage of keeping people and animals away from the danger of the sails, which would almost touch the ground as they rotated. The sails had a lattice structure over which was spread a canvas sail cloth. The miller would adjust the cloth according to how strong the wind was. A 15 miles per hour windspeed was ideal, and would generate 3 horse power.
Farmers would approach the mill with their ponies, pulling a cart full of corn along a narrow path that led across the marsh from Mythop Road. The grain would first need to be thoroughly dried in the kiln, the furnace of which would burn peat or wood. Above the heat source the grain was spread on tiles which had small holes in to allow the warm air to rise and dry it out.
Once dried, the grain was placed into sacks and then pulled up to the top floor of the windmill where it would then be fed into the machinery. It was first tipped into the grain bin, which could hold four sacksful of the seed. From there it passed down a chute onto one of the three sets of revolving millstones. Each stone was about 4 foot 6 inches across and could weigh up to one and half tons. It then passed down through the meal spout to the control floor, where it was collected in sacks. The flour was used to make wholemeal brown bread.
In its earliest days, the miller would have to manually turn the sails to face the wind. He did this by means of a huge chain which hung down from the back of the mill’s cap. The cap rotated on a series of rollers around the top of the mill, and was held in position by its sheer weight.
By 1840, the sandhills and the marsh around the mill were gone, replaced by the area known as The Green. Visitors were now coming to Lytham for days out, for the delights of picnicking and riding donkeys. The mill became a tourist attraction, and many left visiting cards which were displayed on the walls inside. However, not everyone was enamoured of Lytham Windmill. The new residents of the beach houses complained about the noises of the creaking sails and the large clanking chain that was used to turn the cap. The kiln smoke was also a source of irritation.
The kiln was moved in 1849 to Kiln Street (now East Cliff). A new cap and sails were installed seven years later, but perhaps the thing of most benefit to the miller was fitted in 1870. This was the fan tail. It sat on the opposite side of the main sails and automatically moved the cap and sails to face into the wind, removing the need for the miller to do this arduous job manually.
The Last Miller
William Swann was the last miller at Lytham, working there for over 25 years. He affectionately referred to the mill as “th’owd lass” and on windy days would state that she was “standing up well to that breeze”. In the early 1900s he had spring-loaded shutter sails fitted. These automatically adjusted to the wind speed, meaning he no longer had to change them manually. He did not welcome every innovation though. When a gas engine was installed, that could also be used to grind the flour when there was no wind, he only used what he termed the “mechanical contrivance” when he absolutely had too.
Allen Clarke, the famous Bolton campaigning journalist, visited with his family in 1916. He wrote “I took our youngest children to look at the old windmill and they were interested and pleased with the little wooden models that the miller has made, and that he sets just outside on the bank where the toy sails swing round just like the big sails of the mill”. Swann would send his model windmills out to grateful recipients all around Britain, and some even went as far as America and Australia. Children were always welcome at the mill. They would be allowed to climb the ladders inside the building and be placed on the scales used for weighing the sacks of corn.
On the first of January 1919, disaster struck when a severe gale was blowing. A contemporary report from the time describes what happened: “The moveable top swung to and fro with ominous creakings, dislodging boards from the sails, and carrying them 50 yards along the Green. At 2am the mechanism that controlled the sails broke away, they whipped round at an alarming rate. The 100hp brake began to emit sparks, and almost immediately the place was in flames. Very soon the sails crashed to earth and Mr Swann had to leave.”
Swann watched as the windmill burned. A Mr Bonney of South Clifton Street saw what was happening and ran to call out the fire brigade. Unfortunately, the wind had damaged the wires that should have alerted the firemen, so they had to be knocked up individually. By the time the crew arrived at 4am, the fire had well and truly took hold. With most of the internal parts of the mechanism made from wood, there was plenty of fuel for the flames. Fortunately, the wind was blowing the fire away from the life boat house next door.
The crew put the hosepipe through one of the lower windows, and as day dawned they were still forcing water inside the building. An eyewitness stated “the old mill with its head burnt off and its sails destroyed looked a pathetic sight”. Most of the machinery and a hundred sacks of oats were all consumed.
A newspaper reported afterwards that the mill had been insured. However, the Clifton estate claimed that they had been running it at a loss, and so did not want to reopen it as a working mill. Two years later, the local squire, John Talbot Clifton, donated it to the people of Lytham.
The windmill underwent restoration including having a new cap placed on top, and shorter, ornamental sails fitted. It was used as a café to begin with, and then as an electricity substation. Subsequently, it was used by Lytham Motor Boat Club, then the Ribble Cruising Club and finally the Sea Cadets.
A historic building requires plenty of maintenance. In 1958, the locals complained that the sounds emitted from the remaining mechanisms sounded like “owls hooting and ghosts groaning”. The offending parts were duly greased and oiled. Five years later, dry rot was discovered and had to be removed. More restoration work was carried out in 1975 when four new sails were fitted, one having been lost the year before. Ten years later, the mill had to be closed for more work, as a bad case of rising damp was discovered. Fylde Borough Council received money from the European Development Fund and the Countryside Commission, using it to do a huge renovation of the mill, which took two years. It was reopened by the mayor of Fylde in 1989.
Strong winds have continued to be a perennial problem for Lytham Windmill. In 1998, three of the sails were snapped off in a gale and the fourth was beyond repair. New sails made from Canadian pitch pine were subsequently fitted. In 2011, a sail was again broken off, and the other three had to be removed to allow for repairs to the windshaft support to be carried out. At the beginning of October 2021, a sail that was subsequently found to be rotten, was broken off in high winds. At the end of same month, a second sail was broken off in high winds. Lytham Borough Council immediately promised repairs after each of these incidents.
Lytham Heritage Group are responsible for the upkeep of the the windmill. Inside there are very comprehensive displays to explain the rather complex workings of the mechanisms that turn wind power into the ability to grind corn. All the floors of the windmill can be accessed, and despite the fact that much of the wooden parts of the machinery were destroyed in the 1919 fire, the spur wheel, quant and grindstones are still in place (although the millstones are not original, having been donated from Ravenglass mill). They have also established a museum in the basement of the mill. This covers Victorian life in Lytham, along with a comprehensive history of the aeronautic industry at nearby Warton.
Site visited by A. and S. Bowden 2021
Lytham Windmill is situated on Lytham Green. It is open at the weekends from Easter through to September, with extra opening days of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday during some of that period. Check the official website here
It is free to enter, and donations can be given.
Park nearby at Bath Street Car Park. There is a parking charge.
Nearby, just a short walk away
The Story of Lytham Windmill, Marilyn Adams (undated, available from Lytham Windmill shop)
On site interpretation boards within Lytham Windmill