At the far end of the former hamlet of Nep Town, the sandstone ridge of the village descends to the River Adur flood plains below. Passing Mill End and Windmill Hill, the road curves down into Dropping Holms to the right and descends the ancient sunken lane of Sandy Lane at left. Over the centuries the area has been central to parts of Henfield's history - here we tell the story of what was once popularly known as Henfield Mill...
The Nep Town Mill, Henfield, c. 1890s. The barn was actually some distance closer to Windmill Lane and the photographer than it appears. Image: Henfield Museum (CC BY-NC-SA), colourised, 2020
This post mill was most likely first erected at some point in the 17th century - it probably takes a position as the second oldest of the Henfield windmills with another noted as existing in a field near the house 'Cannons' by 1575. Several 17th century sources refer to what is most likely to have been the mill on this prominent site, although it is not known when the Cannons mill ceased operating. For example, the Commonwealth Survey of 1647 refers to notable local landowner John Gratwicke of Shermanbury holding 'the Windmill house and lands'. The mill was definitively featured on Budgen's 1724 map of Sussex and also features on Yeakell & Gardner's 1778 map of the county, being a notable Henfield landmark for generations. But this was only a continuation of use of an ancient site, with finds of Mesolithic pygmy flints having shown that hunter gatherers once lived and worked at this high vantage point. It was commonly known as 'Henfield Mill' before the arrival of the 'New Mill' on the Common in around 1820, after which it tended to be known as the 'Old Mill' or 'Nep Town Mill'.
A post mill body or 'buck' would be rotated on its post to allow its sweeps to face the prevailing wind direction - woe betide a mill facing the wrong direction in a gale! This meant that millers or assistants needed to be ready to turn the mill at a moment's notice if the wind got up from a new direction or if a storm arrived in the night. The turning pole with wheel attached at back to ease the job of rotation can be seen in the photos. Newer mills such as the Henfield Common windmill (built in 1820) were updated with fantails, which on post mills like these were attached to the ground wheel and automatically rotated the mill to face the wind direction. The veteran Nep Town miller at this time, Robert Loase, ran the mill and associated farm where his wife Mary ran the dairy. Shortly prior to the announcement of the new mill, he had recently had his worst year in a quarter century milling - so quite what came to mind when he heard the news of the upcoming competition may not bear repeating! As with many trades of the day, the fortunes of milling could turn as easily as the sails of the mill itself. Robert had willed the property to his daughter (via her husband), However, on his death, a £400 debt to local landowner (and botanist of note) William Borrer was still outstanding and Mary had no choice but to sell the dairy farm - the mill however, was kept in the family for now.
The characterful c. 1865 painting in the gallery below harks back to an earlier era in the windmill's history. By Nehemiah Vinall, it shows the mill when still active - perhaps the bearded sawyer shown was the miller of the day. It links into interesting and tragic events in the mill's history and it is suggested he painted it due to a family connection. His great great grandfather William Vinall (the Elder) had been a miller and Henfield churchwarden in the latter 18th century. His son - and Nehemiah's great grandfather William Vinall (the Younger) was also Nep Town miller. One sad and dramatic day in 1795, he was drawn into the milling machinery and killed - a stark illustration of a time when workplace safety was largely an individual responsibility.
With the set price Corn Law debates of earlier in the century becoming a distant memory as free trade and large industrial interests won the day amidst the increasingly corporate and globalised industrial scene, small scale local production of the sort offered by Henfield's two windmills became less and less viable. Long time journeymen millers like James Randall originally worked at the Nep Town Mill, but switched over to the new mill on the Common as demand was squeezed. There however, his situation did not ease - he was now a widower with six children and a taste for beer. A taste which would ultimately lead to three months' hard labour at Petworth Gaol for embezzlement when it was discovered that he had only been recording some of the daily transactions in the day book, the others in his own purse alone... To make matters worse, direct local competition had arrived in the form of two steam mills in 1860 and 1874 - which would themselves succumb before long to the powerful forces of the wider economy. By 1871 master miller Richard Luff and his wife Harriett were living at the Mill House, with five children and son Richard also being noted as a miller. However, having been a steady source of flour for centuries, the windmill finally went out of use in ~1880 with either Clement Knight or John Sharp recorded as being the last miller (one perhaps gave the mill a brief resurrection). Papers of the time recorded a final drama before the end when a local lad jumped onto a sail, presumably aiming to ride it a short distance. However, his hand became caught and he was unable to dismount in time, being swept up into the air. The sails were stopped, but he fell from some height, luckily surviving, albeit with some bruising and no doubt a great deal of embarrassment.
Its life of grinding corn over, the mill still provided a fine vantage point over the countryside. For Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887, numerous bonfires - between 20 - 30 - were apparently spotted by those watching from its steps. The mill itself was retained as a Trinity House (and village) landmark, but according to de Candole's history of Henfield it finally collapsed with 'a loud crash in a mighty gale' on Friday, February 21st 1908. By the time of the First World War a few years later, a correspondent seeking it out reported very little remaining on site. The hill it stood on is now in many places much reduced in height having been subsequently dug out during the excavation of the Henfield sandpits, with the area now being almost entirely wooded. However, the sandpits did offer a small postscript for the mill - in the same way as the prehistoric flints, Roman pottery was discovered. Perhaps, many centuries before, it had last been used by someone standing atop what would become Windmill Hill, looking across the Roman province of Britannia.
Although going out of use at about the same time, the sole survival of the c. 1820 'New Mill' on Henfield Common for an additional forty-five years led to its having become much the better known of Henfield's mills today.
R. S. Gordon, 2020
Barwick, Alan., Carreck, Marjorie, Henfield: A Sussex Village (Chichester, Phillimore, 2002)
Bishop, Lucie, Henfield in the News (Henfield, Private Print, 1938)
de Candole, Henry, The Story of Henfield, (Hove, Combridges, 1947)
Colgate, E. J., Henfield's 19th Century Egg Basket (Winchester, George Mann, 2020)
Budgen's Map of Sussex, 1724
Yeakell & Gardner's Map of Sussex, 1778
Sussex Mills Group
Henfield Museum records
West Sussex Historic Environment Records: MWS3343 & MWS878
Galleries - Nep Town Windmill
The limited number of known photographs of the Nep Town Mill are shown here (along with the leading colourised version in the photo above). This contrasts with the large number of surviving photographs of the 'New Mill' on the common.
(Images from the Henfield Museum collection licensed under CC BY-NC-SA).
Paintings & Sketches
Luckily we also have a number of paintings and sketches from various artists in our collection which help to bring the mill back to life and provide information on the historic setting.
(Images from the Henfield Museum collection licensed under CC BY-NC-SA).
We hope you enjoy the variety of blog articles on the people and places of Henfield past!
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