Heritage: The South Ockendon mill struck by lightning - twice

 South Ockendon mill

1920s postcard views of the South Ockendon mill - Credit: From the collection of Andy Grant

They say lightning never strikes twice, but historian Andy Grant proves them wrong with his recounting of the South Ockendon smock mill.

As late as 1977, South Ockendon had a magnificent smock mill, one that surely would have rivalled the Upminster Smock Mill for grace and beauty.

Standing on the south side of South Ockendon Hall’s moat, with a backdrop of pollards, it formed a very photogenic setting.

Unusually it had also been part watermill, using the moat as a mill pond.

The existence of a mill was recorded in the little Domesday survey of 1086 and conveyances relating to the Manor of Rochelle in 1295 specifically mention the presence of a windmill.

An estate map of 1767 makes reference to a “mill-mound” south of the later mill.

No mill is shown on the 1777 Chapman and André map, although the OS map of 1805 indicates an unmarked building on the site of the smock mill.

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The construction of the smock mill is consistent with those built at the start of the 19th century and its existence is first recorded in the 1820s, when John Cliff, the owner of South Ockendon Hall, rented the mill to William Eve.

Upon the death of John Cliff on December 21, 1833, his estate was held by trustees until the death of his widow Hannah in 1844.

Thereafter two cases in the Court of Chancery delayed the sale of the estate.

Although on August 14, 1845, Lot 1 South Ockendon Hall was offered for sale with 688 acres of land - including a “windmill with fan sails and water power with undershot waterwheel, all under one roof” in the occupation of Thomas Bennett Sturgeon - it failed to sell.

A further sale “under a decree from the Court of Chancery” took place on June 22, 1847, and the estate was sold for £24,620 to Richard Benyon de Beauvoir.

During the course of 1850, with the impending end to the tenancy of Thomas Bennett Sturgeon at Michaelmas, South Ockendon Hall estate was once again offered for sale by private contract.

This included “all of the fixtures and the whole of the going gear and machinery of the windmill”.

On the date of the sale, it was announced it had been “unavoidably postponed”; presumably Sturgeon had negotiated renewal of his lease, as it was recorded he died at the hall in 1855.

Sturgeon was renowned for his flock of merino sheep, originally purchased from George III and said to be the finest in the country.

In the 1850s he employed Edward Dove as miller at the windmill. The Sturgeon family remained in occupation of South Ockendon Hall until the 1920s.

On May 27, 1853, the windmill was reported to have been destroyed by a lightning strike.

It appears that the lightning struck the point of the top sail, shattering everything in its course and then ran down the south-west angle of the mill along lead flashing, before jumping to the roof of a shed and down to earth.

Pieces of debris weighing up to 14kg were hurled up to 45 metres from the mill.

It is not known when water power was last used at the mill, nor the precise details of the equipment used.

The watermill was purportedly a small, undershot wheel in the basement and the gearing was probably on the ground floor, driving a pair of grinding stones above.

Two others were wind driven and later converted to steam power by 1902.

A further lightning strike occurred in 1893, which damaged the sails.

The farm was sold around 1922 and the mill gradually deteriorated over time.

It was subsequently cared for by enthusiasts but without adequate funds had become ruinous by the 1960s.

On November 2, 1977, after a storm during the previous night, the mill collapsed.

The remains of its workings were salvaged by Vincent Pargeter, the millwright for Essex County Council, and put into storage.

Much of the salvaged equipment has since been reused to maintain other windmills, including the one at Upminster.

  • More Andy Grant articles can be found on the Romford History Facebook group.