For the first fifty years of European settlement in Sydney, the town was known as much for its windmills as anything else. The first site that greeted many convicts or migrants arriving up until the 1860s, were the sails of Sydney’s giant windmills. They were the first industrial developments in the colony, essential for the food production and stood tall as dominant landmarks over a small scale city.
The first windmill was built in 1797 on Windmill Hill-what is now Observatory Hill. The grinding of wheat and corn was essential to the colony for the production of flour to bake with, but for the first nine years grain in the colony was ground with hand turned iron mills, a slow process and one that was increasingly inadequate for a growing population. For some people, they had to give half their grain in payment to have the other half ground.
The first mill was a success, but a short lived one. In June 1797 while the miller was away, unknown persons stole the sails from the veins, rendering it useless. Although repaired, by 1805 the mill was beginning to sink on its foundations and needed extensive repairs. It was further damaged in a storm in 1805 and by 1810 was just a tower with its sails removed.
The second mill fared even worse. Built in Parramatta in 1798, the top was dislodged in a storm in 1799 before it had been finished. Back in Sydney a second mill was erected in 1802 close to the military barracks in what is now Wynyard Park, with a third built behind Dawes Point near the current National Trust building.
The mills were of two types: large stone mills, or timber post mills. The post mills were easier to erect and consisted of a timber ill building atop a large post. The mill could then be turned by convict labour to face into the wind no matter what direction.
Whereas the first three mills were Government built, soon enough private enterprise stepped in. In the east between 1805 and the 1820s, windmills sprang up in the Domain, along the Darlinghurst Ridge and around the new gaol close to Liverpool Street. Two of Thomas Barkers stood in Darlinghurst Road until 1866.
Further east was Gordon’s Mill in Stewart Street Paddington (c1834-c1870) and Mr Hough’s mill at Waverley (1846-1878).
Across the harbour was the Pyrmont Mill on John Macarthur’s estate, while in Miller’s Point, named after John Leighton who was better known as Jack the Miller, there were three operating from the early 1820s. Within the city area there were nineteen windmills built up until the 1840s.
Further west, windmills followed the farms out to the Hawkesbury and south through Campbelltown and down to Appin. Probably the last windmill still standing was Mount Gilead at Campbelltown, still there, albeit without its sails, in the 1970s.
Milling was a dangerous business. Jack the Miller was killed in 1826 in his Millers Point mill when he fell, drunk, from the ladder of one. George Howell Jnr of Parramatta was killed in 1838 when part of his mill gave way underneath him and he was crushed in the fall of machinery.
There are no windmills left in Sydney today, but there are bits of windmills if you look. The stones of Thomas Barker’s two Kings Cross windmills were reused to build two terrace houses in Kellet Street which remain on the corner of Kellet Lane, while the stones from the largest mill in Darlinghurst, Craigend Mill that stood near the Stables Theatre were reused to build Beare’s Stairs in Caldwell Street. And of course we have Millers Point, Windmill Street, Mill Hill Street (Waverley), Windmill Hill at Appin and other hinted at reminders of Sydney’s lost windmills.
If you want to see one for a little while, head to the Rocks Windmill which will be there until 12 May.
For more still, Len Fox’s book Old Sydney Windmills, or Olga Tatrai Wind & Water Mills in Parramatta should see you through.