George and Elizabeth Jackson started building the Great Mill in 1811 but the foundations of the building, which had to be very deep due to the soft clay on the site, proved too expensive for the couple and they went bankrupt. The foundations reach 1.5 metres below the ground and stand on flat wooden baulks around the perimeter and also at right angles to the centres of the octagonal faces.
Millwright James Humphreys completed the mill in 1813 for the new owner Thomas Webb with a date stone being added near the top of the brick base. Thomas Webb also owned the Little Mill (100 Acre Mill) in Sheerness. James Humphreys had already built windmills at Goudhurst, Hythe, as well as the Union Mill and Common Mill at Cranbrook. The Great Mill was built to a similar design as Cranbrook’s mill with almost identical machinery. Cranbrook’s mill was two storeys taller than the smock mill at Sheerness that stood 66 foot to the cap, there were two floors in the brick built base and three in the smock. The Great Mill was not modernised like the mill at Cranbrook that had a fantail and patent sweeps (sails) fitted.
Thomas Webb worked the mill until his son took over and eventually it was sold to George Ride in 1864 - this is where the name ‘Rides Mill’ came from.
The mill worked three pairs of stones, a dressing machine, a smutter and a bolter. When steam power was added in 1899 George Ride also added two extra pair of stones on the second of the loading floors, these were driven by “underdrift” and steel rolling mills. In 1905 the four sweeps and stage were removed and the mill was run solely on steam power until closing in the autumn of 1918.
By 1924 most of the buildings and sections of the mill had been sold and demolished. The 1920 conveyance shows the mill was connected to 109 High Street, known as the “Corn Shop”, by an archway under the sailings buildings.
The danger of collapse caused the smock to be removed in 1924 leaving just the brick base that was used as storage for a while before being left derelict.
Bernie Watson bought the Grade II listed Mill in 1989 with the intention of preserving it. Two of the ideas considered were restoring it as a working mill (this was rejected as the height of the local buildings would interfere with the wind speed) or restoring it and converting it into apartments. The latter idea seemed the best and a planning application was put forward in February 2006 for three flats, two in the mill and one in a new building next to the windmill. The application was approved and works begun later the same year.
The reconstruction is based on the mill at Cranbrook with the building beside the mill to recreate an original building with windows to reflect a 20th Century design. The exterior of the brick base will be tar painted just as it would have been while it was a working mill and the gantry stage will be rebuilt but of steel instead of wood. The four sweeps will also be replaced.
Bernie Watson and his son Caleb Watson are doing the work to the mill themselves with a small team, not long after they started they found old ships timbers under the mill, they are possibly from driving timber poles under the mill to support the weight of the building. Clay pipes and other artefacts have also been found since work begun.
In January 2008, just one month before completion of the building works and after £250,000 worth of work the unthinkable happened - the windmill was engulfed in flames. The £50,000 cap had been lifted into place by a crane days before, however this had to be removed the day after the fire as it had made it unsafe. At first it was feared that the whole of the mill would have to be rebuilt but due to the Watson’s using heat resistant paint the steel frame had survived the fire but the cap had been the most affected by the heat as the windmill had acted like a chimney, sending all the heat and smoke into the cap. The basic structure of the cap luckily survived and work is now focused on restoring it so it can be placed on top of the mill again. Unfortunately this is being done with a strict time limit; due to building work next to the windmill starting in April, this will prevent the crane getting close enough to the mill to replace the cap. Once the cap is in place they will concentrate on rebuilding the smock before fitting out the apartments.
The police investigated the fire but could not find the reason for it although Caleb Watson and his father believe it was arson and is offering £1000 to anyone that provides information leading to the prosecution of the person or persons responsible. Sharock Insurance in Trinity Road is also offering a reward of £500 for information leading to the conviction of the culprits.
I would like to thank Bernie and Caleb Watson for allowing me access to the windmill and for all their help. I wish them luck with the continuing restoration.