When the Great Storm of 1987 tore through Mid Sussex, going outside was the last thing on most people’s minds.
But when some one calls to report the windmill you have been working to restore for almost 10 years is on fire, you pull on your coat and throw yourself on the mercy of the elements.
At least, that’s what Simon Potter of the Jack and Jill Windmills Society did on October 16 1987 when smoke and sparks “like comets” were seeing pouring out of Jill.
Simon told the Mid Sussex Times that he was called at 5am by Vera and Robert Deering, owners of the Jack windmill, who gave him one terrifying message – Jill windmill is on fire.
With all roads to the mill blocked, Simon and a neighbour scrambled up the side of the Downs, crawling on their hands and knees to prevent being blown over in the howling wind.
When they reached the top, the mill was full of smoke.
The strong winds were turning the windmill’s sails, even though the brake was on – and friction between the brake shoe and brakewheel caused the fire.
This spread to the body of the mill and was in danger of gutting the wooden building but, with a chain of buckets and water, the amateur firefighters managed to put the blaze out.
Simon said: “The whole mill was pivoting back and forwards, it was pitch dark, full of smoke and we couldn’t see, but we didn’t have time to feel frightened at the time.”
At first light the rest of the damage became visible.
One stair hinge came adrift, breaking the handrail and cracking three steps as the steps were dragged round the mill. Three of the mill’s huge fanblades were blown off, one landing 200 yards away down the hillside.
Jill was built to withstand high winds but not the 100mph gusts which tore across Sussex that night.
The mill had started grinding corn again in 1986 after a break of 80 years, and a second set of millstones were due to be installed shortly before the disaster struck.
By 1988, the repair work was under way, though it would take many more months to complete. The first task was to get the mill rotating again so it could move according to the direction of the wind. Next the brake wheel had to be replaced and the sails put up again.
The work would take around £5,000 to complete.
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