Windmills in Dutch history

Windmills are said to have existed in Holland from about 1200. The first record we have of drainage mills dates from 1414 (Reijerwaard). Before those days, windmills are mentioned, but these must have been corn mills.

From time immemorial, wherever the land was inhabited, corn was grown. And where corn was grown, it also had to be ground to make possible the preparation of that excellent human food: bread. In the most primitive stage the corn was ground between two stones which were operated by manpower. The nations in the Bible already knew mills, operated by 'virgins': in Ecclesiastes 12 : 4 we read:

'and the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low'.
The excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii too have revealed bakeries with millstones.

In later ages cattle power was employed, as in the horse-mills, and finally the forces of nature were harnessed: wind and water. This latter method already called for some technical knowledge; the water mills, which naturally occurred only in the eastern and southern parts of the country, probably existed before the windmills, for their construction was simpler.

Towards the end of the eighteenth and in the early part of the nineteenth century the discovery and application of steam power caused a radical revolution in social economy, and this initiated the end of the supremacy of windmills as prime movers for all purposes.

In the nineteenth century there were about 9,000 windmills in Holland; all these turning sails and the general activity to which they bore witness must have produced an overwhelming and unforgettable impression on the Dutch themselves as well as on foreigners. They imparted a special character to the country. In the Zaan district alone 900 windmills were working virtually night and day; they powered the industries of those days, and they were the precursors of the later big foodstuff industries, the paper works, and the saw-mill yards which exist there to this day.

From ancient times the so-called manorial rights included the milling soke, i.e. the right to permit or refuse the building of a windmill, to compel the tenants to have their corn ground at the mill of the lord of the manor, and to prohibit buildings or trees in the vicinity of the mill, so as to ensure a 'free wind'. In a letter dated the Thursday after St. Nicholas's Day of the year 1299 John the First, Duke of Brabant and Limburg, grants to Arnoldus, named Heyme, as an addition to the territory the latter held in fee from him, the right to erect a windmill between the village of Hamoda van Rode (Sint Oedenrode) and Skinle (Schijndel), in the place which he should consider the most suitable, and for this purpose grants to him the hereditary right of free wind. From this document it can be inferred that the building of a windmill was certainly nothing out of the common in those days. Indeed, as early as 1294 the Count of Gelre paid an account which appears to relate to repairs to a windmill.

In the years following, the entries relating to windmills grow more numerous: old gunpowder towers which passed into disuse were converted into (so-called tower) mills, and on the walls surrounding the towns many windmills arose. We see them in numerous old prints and engravings, views of towns, maps, and street-plans. Usually these are post mills, and occasionally a tower mill.

When we look closely at the print of Jacob Savry, the windmill on the extreme right is De Koe (the Cow), standing near the Koepoort; to the left of this, the mill De Kaaskorf (the Cheese Basket). The two mills to the left stand on the Groote or Blaauwe Bolwerk, the site of the present Astronomical Observatory of Leiden University.

The water-gate visible between the two first-mentioned windmills, the present Vlietbrug, is the gate or bridge through which the Geuzen (Beggars) entered at the relief of Leiden, in 1574.

On the extreme right of the print we see the gallows, to which the water, called Galgewater, owes its name.

In those years of sieges corn mills, which naturally at first were to be found mainly in the country, began to be concentrated in the towns; they were erected on the outside walls of the walled towns, so as to catch the wind.

In the bottom lefthand corner of the engraving the dedication is given to the Honourable Sheriff Gerard van Hogeveen and to the four burgomasters - mentioned by name - of the town of Leiden.

The oldest known document containing a reference to windmills is considered to be the privilege which was granted to the burghers of the town of Haarlem in 1274 by the Count Floris V. There are also data about windmills in Amsterdam, dating from 1336 and 1342, in Utrecht, dating from 1397, and in other towns. In The Hague, on the site of the present Molenstraat, there was a windmill, the Nortmolen (1316), and another on the site of the present Westeinde (1351).

But the real development of the windmill will have to be sought towards the end of the sixteenth and in the seventeenth century; this development was quite stormy.

The many industrial mils in the Zaan district and elsewhere were built with heavy timber, brought by the sailing vessels from the countries on the Baltic Sea.

From the original types, such as the open and closed post mills, arose the wipmolen (hollow post mill) and the classical drainage mills, the large corn mills, and all those other industrial mills with which Holland abounded. To begin with, in the Zaan district there were the oil mills and the paper mills. Where the timber for the many houses and ships to be built was imported for sawing, were to be found the characteristic paltrokmolens. These owed their name to the flaring coats, the Palts-rokken, worn by the Mennonites who had emigrated to the classical country of liberty, and particularly to the Zaan district.

The paltrokmolens, with the wings added to left and right forming part of the working-space, can be turned as a whole to face the wind, so as to make sawing possible irrespective of the direction of the wind.

In those days windmills were as important for Holland as are the numerous factories in the industrial regions nowadays. The invention of the art of printing had started an enormous demand for paper; the importation of colonial produce had given rise to great activity and prosperity; new arable land had to be drained and opened up, and everything contributed to the high tide of the Dutch golden age.

In the period up to about 1000 A.D. Holland could hardly be called habitable; it consisted of marshes with small sluggish streams, separated from the sea by a belt of dunes, and the inhabitants had to hold their own mounds. It was only after 1000 A.D. that they succeeded in checking the water to a greater extent. In the raw climate prevailing in these parts they had to keep warm by burning dried peat and wood from the neighbouring forests. Their existence in those years must have been extremely rough and distressing indeed. In the period up to 1400 the centres which led to the rise of the towns were formed. The land was repeatedly ravaged by floods, when large tracts were swept away and disappeared into the sea; inland seas were formed (the Zuiderzee was formed thus about 1300), villages were destroyed, and great were the losses in goods and chattels and human lives. A notorious flood was the St. Elizabeth's Flood, from 18 to 19 November 1421, when in a single night 72 villages and hamlets were swallowed up by the water and thousands of men, women, and children with thousands of cattle met their death in the waves.

After 1400, when major sea-defences had been first constructed and the communication of several waters with the open sea had been dammed up, it became possible to drain pools and lakes. For this purpose windmills were used, and accordingly were built in constantly increasing numbers. At first these were not yet the large mills as we know them, which date especially from the seventeenth century, but smaller mills of the hollow post-mill type.

As windmills grew better and larger their water-lifting capacity increased and they became more numerous. According to the records it was about 1526 that a wip mill was replaced by an octagonal smock mill with a revolving cap. This must have had a winch in the cap, for it was not until the second half of the sixteenth century that smock mills with tail poles were constructed. After that, the possibilities increased rapidly. We find entries about the first oil mill in 1582, a paper mill in 1586, a timber sawmill in 1592; after 1600 windmills arose everywhere and were constructed for a wide variety of purposes.

In the seventeenth century the Dutch made more and more progress in the fight against their hereditary foe, the water. It is a fight that has had to be continued every day and the windmills have played an all-important part in it for more than two centuries. They delivered the country of the water and kept it dry, in spite of the fact that it lies several feet below sea level; in this way they made and kept it habitable. Holland owes its creation as well as its development in the most literal sense to the windmills, for it was thanks solely to the windmills that is was possible repeatedly to reclaim new land for the ever growing population.

The land between the towns of Holland consisted largely of peat-bogs. These bogs were of the utmost importance. How else were the inhabitants to heat their houses in winter in a country which had no coal fields, while wood from the forests could only be brought from remote regions? The peat around the towns and villages therefore was generally cut away, and as greater depths - and thus water - were reached the peat was scooped out, dried in summer, and burned in winter.

Because such peat-cutting took place on an ever increasing scale, new pools and lakes were formed in addition to the original ones and the expanses of water grew larger and larger, particularly because the water lashed by the wind tended to encroach more and more upon the banks. The lakes were becoming a great danger to towns such as Amsterdam, Haarlem, Alkmaar, and Leiden, and the necessity of draining the peat-bogs was growing more and more urgent.

It was in the years between 1608 and 1612 that the Beemster was drained. This lake had a depth of ten feet and it was drained in one year with 26 windmills, working in two stages. But the Zuiderzee dyke burst, the new ring-dyke was unable to check the water, the polder filled up, and the work had to be done all over again. In 1622 the Purmer followed, in 1625 the Wormer, and in 1629 the Heerhugowaard. In all these projects and activities the renowned hydraulic engineer Leeghwater took a very active part. In 1631 the States of Holland and West Friesland granted to the town of Alkmaar a patent for dyking and draining the Schermer according to Leeghwater's plans. For this purpose the polder was divided into 14 plots, each with its own mill. These 14 mills pumped the water into a storage basin, from which the water was pumped into the ring-canal by means of 36 mills, twelve sets of three working in stages, in order to raise the water to the high level. Altogether 51 mills (of which one served for a separate plot at a higher level) worked in this polder and they pumped out water at a rate of 1,000 cu.m./min. In four years the polder had been reclaimed and the soil could be cultivated.

The mills in question were smock mills, the familiar large octagonal wooden windmills of the North-Holland type; the span of sails, i.e. the total length of a stock (over twice the length of one sail), was 90 to 100 feet. This length formed the limit, in view of the length of the tree-trunks from which they could be made. For the same reason the wind shaft was tied down to a maximum section of about 2 x 2 feet; heavier timber was not available!

JAN ADRIAENSZ LEEGHWATER (1575-1650) was a great man. Born at De Rijp, a village in the midst of the pools and lakes of North Holland, he started life as a carpenter and millwright. He was a born inventor, engineer, and constructor, and became a renowned hydraulic engineer and dykebuilder. An invention of his enabling a man to remain under water for a considerable time caused something of a sensation and he demonstrated it before Prince Maurice, in the presence of the famous Simon Stevin.

Technology appealed greatly to Prince Maurice, for - just as at present - it was needed in the military sphere. Conversely, technology was stimulated by the circumstance of war and Prince Maurice sought the assistance of the famous SIMON STEVIN, of Bruges (1548-1620). Stevin was a great mathematician, who, among other things, drew up tables for the calculation of compound interest and applied exact calculations to engineering construction. Many patents in his name exist, among them some for the improvement of drainage mills. It was on his initiative that Prince Maurice founded a 'School for Fortification Engineers' at Leiden University in 1600. A fact more generally known is that Stevin sailed along the beach from Scheveningen to Petten with Prince Maurice and some distinguished personages in a sailing chariot or sand yacht.

Prince Maurice later also consulted the much younger Leeghwater, the man who had drained the Beemster and who excelled in all sorts of engineering techniques. He had also built two 'notable chimes', one in the Westertoren and one in the Zuiderkerkstoren in Amsterdam.

After the reclamation of the Beemster, Jan Adriaensz Leeghwater became the regular advisor of Prince Maurice and Prince Frederick Henry. His advice was also asked abroad, both in Holstein and in Flanders, in France as well as in England.

Frederick Henry employed him during the siege of Bois-le-Duc. The position was defended by the enemy by means of inundations and the Prince called for Leeghwater to remove the water; he did so by using horse mills and windmills.

In his old age he recorded his experience in two booklets, which have become quite famous; in his earlier years he would hardly have had the time for writing! He conceived a bold plan for draining the large Haarlemmermeer, which had a depth of 13 feet, with the aid of 160 windmills. This famous study appeared in 1641 and was soon out on print. It was in such great demand, even after his death, that the book passed through seventeen reprints (seventh edition in 1710, thirteenth edition in 1838). Several plans were made after that time, but it was not until 1848, when steam engines from Cornwall in England were available, that the great work could be executed; it was done as a state enterprise.

In 1579, with the Union of Utrecht, the various provinces entered into a kind of confederation, forming together 'The United Provinces'. A greater unity arose, without the independence of each province being too greatly impaired. The frequent quarrels and squabbles gradually came to an end, and the prosperity of the country increased greatly. The East India Company was formed and in every direction new trade routes were opened up. Availing themselves of the wind, the Dutch sent their sailing ships across the oceans to remote countries, thus becoming 'the sea-carriers of Europe'.

The product brought home from the 'Colonies' were sold and processed in Holland. The latter again was possible entirely thanks to the windmills. Manpower or horse-power was insufficient, just as for the pumping of the polders and the drainage of the lakes; rivers or brooks with a fall sufficient to supply the requisite power for industrial purposes by the use of a water-wheel did not exist in Holland. The only natural source of power available in these regions to an abundant degree was the wind.

This natural form of energy, which was freely available every day, was utilized by the inhabitants on a huge scale; because of this, the construction of windmills was raised to a high degree of mechanical perfection.

It has been stated above that the Zaan district, the flat country lying to the north of Amsterdam between the North Sea and the Zuiderzee, was the industrial mill district par excellence. Besides the types already mentioned, a wide variety of industrial mills existed in Holland: barley- and rice-hulling mills, cocoa mills, snuff mills, pepper mills, oil mills, mustard mills, dye mills, chalk mills, lime and trass mills, fulling mills (for the treatment of cloth), and tan mills for grinding oak-bark for the tanneries.

The acquisition of new fertile land and the large-scale industrial processing of the products, in combination with shipping, gave rise to an unprecedented prosperity, which was reflected in the flourishing of the fine arts, in particular the art of painting. The well-to-do merchants commissioned architects to build fine houses, and they wished to furnish them with handsome cupboards and with porcelain which the ships brought from China, and to adorn them with pictures and portraits painted by famous artists. It is not without reason that the seventeenth century is known as the Golden Age in the national history of Holland.

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