This week Cultura Trust begins hosting a trainee millwright, working at historic mills across Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales. Millwrights are an endangered species: there are none in Britain north of Nottinghamshire.
A shortage of skilled historic trades is a national concern. The UK’s building stock is made up of 20% of pre-1919 buildings that require restoration and maintenance to keep them in use for current and future generations. The Hamish Ogston Foundation has rallied in the field of heritage building crafts with an exceptionally generous gift of £4.3 million. Working in partnership with Historic England, the Hamish Ogston Foundation Heritage Building Skills Programme will be delivered over the next five years, providing funding to encourage new entrants and re-skilling more experienced participants at host sites across the North of England in the initial phase. Without the preservation of particularly rare traditional skills and knowledge, such as millwrighting, industrial heritage could seize up entirely. The Heritage Crafts Association’s ‘red list’ sounds the alarm.
Cultura Trust has long been a champion of traditional skills, from school leavers to retraining older workers made redundant, or anyone looking for a fresh start. Cultura owns a range of historic buildings including two working watermills, but we also work with Heron Mill and other organisations and sites. Gayle Mill is one of Britain’s most important historic mills, so co-ordinating a programme around hosting a trainee learning to care for and maintain this distinctive inheritance was Cultura’s challenge.
Thanks to a grant of £60,777 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Cultura has been able to put together a great programme of training and activities to upskill the trainee and enable as many people as possible to ‘meet a millwright and pick up a skill!’
Steve Green has been a blacksmith and farrier near Cockermouth. He responded to the call, wanting to learn the mysteries and techniques of this ancient trade: “You read about millwrights in archives and old business lists like Kelly’s Directories but then the trail goes cold – they’re just not there on Google or anywhere. Millwrights have to be a master-of-all-trades – mechanical engineers, joiners, metalworkers, masons... That really appealed.”
Steve will spend a year full-time working at a range of sites. At Cultura’s Warwick Bridge Corn Mill he’ll mill flour on the Victorian millstones and learn how looking after an historic mill is as much about how it sounds and feels while it’s running as it is when checking for wear and repair between shifts. At Heron Mill, Steve will learn that each mill has its own character, so there’s no formula. Completely different is Gayle Mill near Hawes, which has three generations of turbines instead of waterwheels, and belt-driven woodworking machines rather than millstones; in one site can be seen two-and-a-half centuries of ‘industrial evolution’.
Emma Woodward Skills and Training Manager at Historic England is part of the programme team delivering this work for Historic England and the Foundation: “This significant support from the Hamish Ogston Foundation is enabling unique opportunities for people to learn ‘new old’ skills, working with experienced practitioners, often in workshops and on sites steeped in history. Steve will join other apprentices and trainees at Grade I listed Wentworth Woodhouse for a dedicated Summer School to share their experiences, gain valuable training from a range of heritage professionals and see the bigger picture of how they all are part of something very special.”
The team of trainers and host sites is led by Cultura’s director, Graham Bell: “To train a millwright to work at only one mill would be like training someone to drive only one type of car. Similarly, to train someone to repair a mill without giving them the experience of coaxing the best out of running it would be a missed opportunity. So many people are wanting to make this work, and as we have the amazing sites to do it, all of us will gain.”