Considering that I’ve lived within walking distance of the Wimbledon Windmill Museum for the past few years, it’s almost embarrassing that I didn’t make it there until last weekend. In my defence, it had only reopened for the season at the end of March, and this past weekend was the first one warm enough to merit a walk in quite some time. After a lengthy stroll down the dirt trails of the Common (tip, if it has rained any time in recent memory, be forewarned that those paths get super muddy!), we came to the museum, which is situated in a bucolic spot, inside an actual 1817 windmill.
Admission was a modest £2, and I was immediately confident we would get our money’s worth upon spying these excellent mannequins set up near the entrance. Proceeding into the museum, numerous countrified delights awaited us, including a small collection of flails and other harvesting tools, and an entire room crammed full of odds and ends donated by a millwright. The largest space on the ground floor was given over to model windmills, including a tiny replica of the very windmill we were standing in (I don’t know whether the model windmill contained an even smaller windmill, with an even smaller one inside that, but I like to think that it did). The best thing about this was that all of the model windmills actually worked, and I spent many delighted minutes pressing the buttons to watch the various blades whir round.
Finally, I tore myself away from the buttons, and we headed upstairs. This section was devoted to the actual workings of the windmill, and the process of grinding grain, which children could try their hands at (although a disturbing number of them seemed to want to stick their fingers between the grindstones, so it’s probably good there was a lady there to supervise). I contented myself with reading the many captions on everything, and actually learned quite a few facts about windmills, including the history of the Wimbledon windmill in particular.
It seems that it was originally built as a backlash to the large grain manufacturers in Wandsworth, as people didn’t trust the quality of the grain (fair enough, as the 19th century is notorious for its adulterated foodstuffs, which only got worse as the century went on. I recommend reading The Arsenic Century if you want to find out more about the extent of it, but basically, almost everything was poisonous, to some degree.), so they wanted a “windmill of the people,” if you will, to be built on the Common. However, it only served as a functioning windmill until 1864, when it was converted into “cottages” which were in reality unbelievably cramped flats, which were only usable until the 1890s due to their deteriorating condition.
They had an example of one of the cottages, inhabited by a dressmaker, which was only two rooms, each maybe only 7′ by 7′, and irregularly shaped due to the octagonal shape of the windmill. They somehow managed to divide the windmill into 8 cottages, of 2-3 rooms each, when in reality, it could been have comfortably made into maybe two flats. Seriously, they had the census records for the windmill during the 1880s, and there were like forty people living there simultaneously (including the fabulously named Priscilla Pennycook)! Still, every room had a fireplace and a window, and they depicted the dressmaker as having two cats, shown above, so there were some perks.
The rest of the floor had another, larger model Wimbledon Windmill, and a small case of objects relating to the Scouts, (which I confess I didn’t spend much time looking at), as well as more facts about Wimbledon Common in general, including the juicy tidbit that the Duke of Wellington once fought a duel there (I have a bit of a thing for Wellington, largely because he looks kind of hot in his Napoleonic Wars-era portraits). Finally, there was a ladder leading up to the old storage area of the windmill. Despite my fear of going down ladders (the going up part is ok), I braved it for the sake of this blog. It was worth it to see the beam that old workmen had carved their names on, including one from 1893, though there were a revolting amount of flies clinging to one dingy window.
The gift shop was a good one, with lots of postcards, and other fun windmill related diversions, including books, and paper model windmills for self-assembly. I couldn’t resist the bags of homemade fudge (advertised as being made with local Wimbledon honey) near the till, and it was delicious fudge indeed. I’d advise having some extra cash on hand to pick some up if you’re in the area, and have a raging sweet tooth like mine.
I’m going to give the Wimbledon Windmill Museum a 3/5. It is rather small, but I found all the information within engaging, though it admittedly does help that I live in the area and thus have some interest in the history of Wimbledon (especially the stuff that’s NOT about tennis). I think it’s a good museum for a sunny summer afternoon, as you could get in a visit and a lovely walk on the Common (Me promoting walking? What is the world coming to?!), instead of making a special trip just for the museum – but, if you’re already in the area, just go. You’ll like it, and even if you don’t, you’re only out £2.