Union Mill Union Mill, Cranbrook
Registered charity no.1031879

John Russell, the Last Miller

John, the second son of Caleb Russell, was born at Swanton Watermill, Mersham, which his father owned. When Caleb died in 1918, John became the last commercial owner of the Union Mill. As a youth, he had been apprenticed to Clarkes, the Ashford Millwrights and later worked in mills in Cheshire, which laid the foundation for his expertise as a millwright and miller. During the Great War, he was directed to Samuel White's Shipyard on the Isle of Wight, testing destroyer engines at sea but, when his father died, was released from this work to take over the milling concern. The business at that time was firmly based at Slipmill, Hawkhurst, and the Union windmill at Cranbrook was neglected during his father's tenure. It had lost its fantail, the sweeps were derelict and some of the weatherboard was missing. It had long ceased being wind powered, relying on a steam engine to drive stones on the first floor of the base. The work had been solely grist milling or mixing animal feeds, flour production having stopped fifty years earlier.

John Russell with cat
John Russell in 1920s,
a great cat lover
John had an intense interest in the windmill and his first task was to repair and weather proof the smock. He was not impressed by the unreliable steam engines which had powered the mill earlier so, in 1919, installed a gas engine adjoining the base of the mill. It was supplied by power from a suction gas plant, which he also built. He was now ready to remove the main work from the watermill and he made the Union Mill the base for his business, where it remained to the end of his life. John then turned his attention to the rest of the windmill and replaced the sweeps. He obtained four Patents from Sarre Mill, in 1919, and converted them into two good spring sweeps, adding two common sails from Hildenborough mill. In 1921 he ordered a new fantail from the millwrights, Warrens of Hawkhurst, and fitted it himself.

By 1922 all was in place to resume milling by wind, John having done most of the work himself. Though the gas engine continued to work for the next forty years or more, John, however, insisted on using the wind stones on every possible occasion. On the Bin Floor, two large grain bins fed the stones on the Stone Floor, which also had a wind driven bean cracker alongside the stones. On the Meal Floor, John retained the vats to receive meal from the wind driven stones, while there was also an oat crusher, a bolter to produce white flour and a smutter. There was always a multitude of hessian sacks here, too, filled with various sorts of grain and pulses ready for mixing for animal feeds, which was carried out on the floor below (now known as the Machinery Floor). Here was a large grain bin and a multitude of machines to mix the various animal feeds, while chutes delivered grain, meal and feed to the first floor, once known as the Weighing Floor, but in John's time, the Lower Stone Floor and now, the Exhibition Floor. Two motor driven stones on this floor, were fed grain from above and delivered grist to the Ground Floor which was a secondary weighing room. Here, too was the sales area where customers arrived to conduct business with John until, later, a Mill Office was built alongside the mill base. Two large, tilt-covered wagons, with three heavy horses, made weekly rounds delivering to local villages, while a small pony cart, drawn by a white pony, Tom. was used for deliveries along gamekeeper tracks' unsuitable tor the larger vehicle. A regular rota was used, with certain villages receiving deliveries on particular days of the week. A store, too, was kept at Cranbrook railway station, where rail deliveries were stored until required.

Final Commercial Milling at the Mill

John Russell with runner stone
John Russell with runner stone

The windmill had been fitted with four good sweeps and a fine fantail and was operating at its peak during the 1920s. To supplement wind power, John relied on the gas engine he had installed to drive two stones on the first floor. He continued to supply a wide range of farms in the parishes around Cranbrook with animal feeds, fertilisers, hay and straw and other necessities. To supplement what he ground at the mill, John also sold proprietary products made by firms such as Paul's, Lillico's, Rank's and British Oil and Cake Mills and the business prospered for the next twenty years or so. John, though, appeared to 'cultivate old age', as a friend once put it. He always used a quill pen, which he sharpened with his pen knife. 'Modern mechanisms' were an anathema to John who disliked telephones and had one installed only when his customers insisted that he should do so. He always wished to keep his firm small and managed his business very well with simple old methods but with utmost honesty and integrity, which brought work to the mill quite naturally. "We are very busy," he once wrote, "indeed, people seem determined to trade with us in spite of our efforts to prevent them!" In his office was a barrel of cider, so when a customer came to pay his account, he would draw him a glass. His love of the windmill, which he attempted to keep in good condition, in spite of the costs, won John a prestigious tribute. In 1935, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), granted John their first Certificate to be awarded, "as a record of their appreciation of his zeal in the maintenance of this beautiful structure."

John Russell on staging
John Russell on the staging

As John concentrated the work more and more on the Union Windmill, he first sold Swanton watermill at Mersham and then even Slipmill at Hawkhurst, which had been in the family since before 1850 and was at one time the mainstay of the business. Nonetheless, John found that he was having difficulty in competing in the market place, relying on wind power alone. The gas engine was put to more constant use, while the mixing machines on the upper floors were also kept hard at work. However, he continued to use the wind machinery whenever he could, to keep down the cost of gas. Then came the war years, when restrictions and shortages started to affect the business increasingly. The windmill began to need repairs and maintenance which could not be carried out for the lack of spare parts, timber and paint and shortage of labour. John struggled to keep it at work and used it less than he wished, to preserve it.

However, by the end of the war the windmill was only just able to continue working. John's health, too, was not as good as earlier and he found it increasingly difficult to carry out the millwrighting he had originally done almost single-handedly. He reluctantly looked for a partner to inject fresh capital into the business and, in 1952, took on a Mr Charles Lewis, who began a new mill development plan. He demolished most of the old buildings which surrounded the windmill and replaced them by an asbestos-cement factory, with an electric motor to drive the T stones, and ignored the windmill completely. Unfortunately, it did not work and the business grew less and less viable till the partnership was dissolved. John, by now was as worn out as was his old windmill and he turned to his friend, Rex Wailes, the foremost mill expert of the day, for help and advice. Rex Wailes proposed a restoration, with the financial support of many national figures and organisations, but this, too, was unsuccessful. Finally, the Kent County Council were reluctantly prevailed upon to accept responsibility for caring for the mill. John sold it to them for the sum of one shilling and a team of Dutch millwrights were employed to completely repair the windmill. However, on the day they arrived to start work, John, who had been seriously ill, died in 1958 at the age of 78.

Wynn Tremynheere

Russell FamilyTree

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