When James Oakes died in 1868 at the age of 52, [the third member of the family to be given the name James] he and his wife had no children. His younger brother Thomas Haden Oakes inherited the business.
Thomas Haden Oakes was a locally renowned philanthropist. Along with Sir Charles Seely he defrayed the cost of the Girls National School at Somercotes, and contributed toward the building alterations of the Church of St. Thomas in the village. He also assisted in the costs of building and maintaining Riddings School, the Working Men's Club on Church Street and through his love of sport, the Riddings Cricket Club and Pavilion. The cricket ground dates back to 1847, and Riddings Cricket Club, which was one of the former members of the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Border League, is believed to be the oldest in Derbyshire.
Thomas had two windmills built in 1877 at Greenhill Lane, Riddings, on the site of an old wooden post mill originally owned by John Cressy-Hall, an Attorney of Alfreton, which had originally been built in 1823. A colliery owned by the company had been located on the same site and although this had been closed by the time the windmills were erected, much of the infrastructure was still standing at the time.
The new mills cost £17,000 each, and Thomas was exercising his right in law at the time to build and operate the only windmills in the area. He named the windmills James and Sarah, after his parents.
The windmills were part of Oakes Industries, and were used to mill local farmers’ grain, at a cost of 1d per bag in 1880. The grain was used for animal feed and other foodstuffs. Flour for the Oakes family was also milled, and some was sold for local consumption. Beans, oats and hay were prepared for the pit ponies which worked underground at the coal and ironstone mines owned and operated by the Oakes family, and for other animals on their estate. A bake house was also built on the site, and provided bread for Riddings House.
PHOTO: Riddings Windmills, circa 1900
Built of brick, the windmills were some ninety feet high, and the walls at the base of the towers were two feet thick. An onion shaped dome at the top rotated on a huge horizontal cogwheel set into the walls which was anchored by steel rods extending several feet into the brickwork. On top of each dome was a “fantail” designed to keep the sails into the wind, although a hand crank was also fitted should there not be sufficient breeze. The outside of the brickwork was painted in tar, to stop the mortar being eroded by the weather.
The milling machinery was driven by a central shaft from the sails through a gear mechanism. The millstones were over six feet in diameter and around one foot thick.
The Hardy Company of Mansfield replaced or repaired the worn millstones. Arriving by horse and cart, it took four men a week to dismantle, re-cut and re-assemble the stones. Some of the workmen stayed at the mill, while the driver returned each night to the company’s office to report on their progress.
On Christmas Eve 1877 during a violent storm, the guiding wheel on the windmill named Sarah, which kept the sails into the wind, gave way, allowing the sails and fantail to react independently. Although every effort was made to secure them, the sails began to revolve backwards, stopping the brake wheel from being used. Two of the six sails were ripped off and several others damaged. As the wind dropped, the damaged sails were secured with chains. The wind was so fierce during the height of the storm that workers feared that the dome of the mill would break away. A local story was told that the sails from Sarah were removed due to the fact that the positioning of the sails on James prevented the wind from reaching them, but the storm was the actual culprit.
The windmills became a landmark and a focus for the area. Over the years, the windmills were illuminated to commemorate special events, including Coronations and Royal Jubilee’s. The first was for the Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887 and the last for the Jubilee King George V in 1935. Workers from the Oakes estate department painted the domes silver and maintenance fitters from the Gas Works at Pye Bridge (also part of the Oakes industrial empire), installed gas lamps around the domes. It must have been a spectacle for the local children and residents, if not altogether somewhat hazardous!
After the First World War, the miller was a Mr. Pye. His son, Walter, also assisted in the milling of flour, corn and oats, as well as beans and fodder for the pit ponies. At the time, the company operated three deep mines, and the feed for all of the pit ponies was produced by the windmills at Riddings.
A “gang-road” or tramway was constructed between the mills and the ironworks, and was used to haul coal and other items between the two sites. Steam was used to provide power for the winding engine. The winding engine wound a steel cable onto a large drum, pulling the wagons uphill from the ironworks to the mill yard.
Coal was not only used in the bakery and for domestic use, but was also sold to the public via a land sale office, situated in the mill yard. Flour, chickens, bread and other items of food and supplies were transported from the mills to Riddings House via the “gang-road” in a covered wagon. It would stop near to Riddings House and Home Farm, where the farmer would collect the produce for delivery to the kitchens.
The “gang-road” ran at the side of Riddings Park crossing the top of Barracks Yard, Lower Somercotes and running directly into the ironworks at Pye Bridge. From the mill yard, the track initially took a straight route which is now where Parkside stands.
MAP: Map showing the Windmill site on the left with the tramway marked in red
The above map shows the position of the windmills in relation to the colliery (marked simply “shafts”), and “gang-road” which now follows the line of the road known as Parkside, Somercotes. At the time, the housing estate had not been built.
The land sale office in the mill yard was run by William Peat, who lived in the mill house. Coal, was brought via the “gang-road” to a weighbridge. After weighing it was then distributed to the Oakes properties, or sold to the public. A team of horses were also kept at the mill and were used to deliver flour, bran and other bulky goods such as sacks of crushed corn and hay or straw to local farms. Saturday was the local delivery day. Mr. Peat was also responsible for a flock of Wyandotte hens, housed in one of the many outbuildings. Eggs would be collected and taken to Home Farm, where John Chamberlain, the farmer, would sell them. Mrs. Peat baked fresh bread at the mill yard bakery for the Oakes family, which like all other produce, was delivered via the “gang-road”.
Around 1922, a gas engine was installed to drive the milling machinery of both mills, replacing the earlier steam engine. The gas engine had a large flywheel, which had to be rotated by two men in order to start the engine. It was about this time that the sails were finally removed from James. The wood from the sails was distributed to the farms to be used as fencing, and one of the ribs was used to form a stile on the footpath leading to Cotes Park Colliery, which has sadly been lost with the building of the industrial estate.
A new miller took over in 1929. Mr. Walter Lemon, from Sheffield, lived at Newlands Farm for six months before moving to Unwin’s Farm and Park Lodge, opposite Riddings School. When the old miller, Mr. Peat died in 1932, Walter moved into the Mill House. He became the last miller to work at Riddings. During the eighteen years he was in charge, little flour was milled. The main operation was the production of feed for the pit ponies and farm animals.
In the 1930s, many changes took place at the mills. When the blast furnaces closed at the ironworks in 1929, the land sale office and weighbridge were transferred to the Coke Hearth at the foundry. The rails from the “gang-road” were also removed at this time and the steam engine, boiler house and chimney, all no longer required, were demolished. Materials for processing at the mills were delivered by road.
During the early 1940s, the production of animal feed was seen as part of the vital war effort. Coal mines worked at maximum capacity and a constant supply of feed was required for the pit ponies. Food production, also critical, of course, depended on the production of animal fodder, and the mills made a vital contribution.
The mill and outbuildings became home to the Air Scouts and the Air Training Cadets. The outbuildings that had been used for stables, cart sheds and stores became offices and accommodation for the ATC. The old land sale office became their headquarters. One of the buildings was used as a hanger for an old AVRO 621- Tutor; with the wings removed it was used for basic training of the controls and mechanics by the cadets. The commanding officer was Mr. C A M Oakes of Felley Priory, a descendant of the Oakes family. Promising cadets graduated to Hucknall Aerodrome, and were trained to fly gliders.
By this time, Sarah, was just a shell. All of the machinery had been taken out, and the wooden floors removed, leaving only the large floor beams. One of the millstones is known to have been taken to the foundry and left on a path which is situated behind Furnace Row at Lower Somercotes. A Granwood floor was laid in the base of the mill and Sarah was converted into a gymnasium for the cadets. The floor beams above provided support for climbing frames and other equipment. Two floors were finally added and used by the cadets for training in navigation and engineering. During this time, Walter Lemon’s wife acted as caretaker.
At the end of the Second World War, a party was held in Sarah for sixty children from West Street, Shaw Street and College Street as well as part of Greenhill Lane. The space accommodated the children adequately, and must have provided an exciting venue for the event. When the ATC disbanded after the war, Granwood Flooring stored six hundred tons of sawdust in the base of Sarah, which they used in their floor tile products.
In 1947, the history of production at the mills came to end. The coal mines were nationalised and the mills became the property of the National Coal Board. By 1948, the miller and his staff had been transferred to a new granary at Blackwell. The use of pit ponies was in decline due to mechanisation of the coal mines, and large quantities of feed were no longer required. During the war the mills at Riddings had produced five tons of oats, five tons of beans and fifty bags of hay per week, but times had changed. The National Coal Board took the decision to centralise production at Blackwell and over seventy years of milling at Riddings ended.
Late in 1948, the mill site was sold to Deosan, a chemical manufacturer. Wm. Bush & Sons, scrap metal dealers from Birchwood removed over thirty tons of metal from James, including the vanes for the sails. Sarah also had the vanes removed from her shell and the Mill House was also demolished at this time. Footpath access through the mill yard and from Mill Lane was closed and diverted via Shaw Street. For several years the mills were used in the manufacturing and storage of their chemical products.
In 1959, the Diversey Corporation of Chicago bought Deosan, and the mills passed into the ownership of their subsidiary, Diversey (UK) Ltd.
PHOTO: The Windmills in 1960.
In October 1961, the company wrote to Mr. H Taylor, Clerk of Alfreton Town Council for permission to reoganise the mill site, which included the demolition of both James and Sarah. When the news became public, many conservation and local history societies protested against the proposal, but councillors Bradshaw and Skelton stated that the demolition of the mills would create more employment and no objection to the proposal should be raised. The stalemate carried on for months, with no action being taken by any of the affected parties.
The fate of the mills was decided on 29 January 1963, when, in the early hours of that day, a fire started in James. According to eye witnesses, flames could be seen leaping seventy feet in to the air, as the shape of the mill acted like a chimney. The fire brigade could not save the structure, and by morning, only a shell remained of the mill. The cause of the fire was attributed to an electrical fault, but many people at the time pointed to the convenience of the fire to the owners, Diversey (UK) Ltd.
The demolition of the windmills removed an historic landmark from Riddings. Factory buildings were erected where the mills had once stood. Diversey (UK) Ltd eventually moved from the site to new premises on the Cotes Park Industrial Estate, and the area stood derelict for some time before the site was finally redeveloped.
Set into the wall at the entrance to Riddings Park Community Centre is a stone carving of the two windmills, which was made by Mr. H L Burt some fifty years ago. Mr Burt is the author of a short history on the windmills.