Tuesday, April 25, 2006

More on English Machines

While the theatrum machinarum may not have pushed into England, big machines certainly did. The fens around Ely were particularly hard hit by mills in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In some ways, the area can be considered the Holland of England in that the natives were desperate to reclaim the low lying fens as arable land for grazing and cultivation. To reclaim, they needed to cut drainage canals and pump water--hence, wind mills.

What makes the area particularly interesting is its location. It is bisected by the river Cam. The town of Cambridge gets its name from this river and Ely's cathedral is most local to the university. We can only imagine what kind of influence the looming windmills had on those Cambridge scholars as they trudged up the road to Ely.

References to wind mills appear in Dutch documents written during the reign of Count William IV (1344) and increase throughout the fifteenth century. The development of the English fens may have taken a similar pattern. Indeed, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1538-1541) several monasteries were noted to have mills. The mills of Chatteris Abbey at Hemingford Grey were probably water-driven. However, Thorney and Ramsey have little falling water for advantage so their mills could very likely have been wind driven.

Isaac Casaubon even writes of seeing a windmill in the area. While touring the area with the Bishop of Ely in 1611, they lost their way and went to a windmill to find direction. One of the horses then reared up and dumped the bishop.

In addition to Ely's waterworks, Elizabethan England also supported a thriving capital- and technology-intensive mining industry. The capital was supplied by the nobility while the milling and mining technology was imported, typically from Germany.


Hammersley, G. (1977). Technique or Economy? The Rise and Decline of the Early English Copper Industry, ca. 1550-1660. In Hermann Kellenbenz (ed.) Schwerpunkte der Kupferproduktion und des Kupferhandels in Europa 1500-1650. Köln, Wien : Böhlau Verlag.

Hills, Richard (1967). Machines, Mills, and Uncountable Costly Necessities. Norwich: Goose and Son.