10 February, 2013

Tilting at Windmills

Windmills have been an integral part of the landscape of rural Australia since the 19th century. The typical windmill as we know it today was the revolutionary design of an American, Daniel Halladay, in 1854. His machine, constructed wood, was "self-governing" meaning it could change its direction to face the prevailing wind and control its own speed. By 1867, the Rev. Leonard H. Wheeler had adapted the design to include a wheel with fixed sails and a vane which turned the wheel to face the wind. Further modifications resulted in geared windmills which needed only very light winds to begin moving and did not turn too fast in high winds.
By 1858, windmills were being produced in Australia and by the 1890s the original timber constructions were being replaced by geared, metal windmills more like those we would recognise today. Windmills were used to pump water either from dams or rivers or from underground bores and naturally the developing farming communities along the banks of the Barwon River were keen to tap water supplies for their stock and crops.

Windmill on the Barwon off Wilsons Road, St Albans Park
It is no real surprise therefore that you do not have to follow the river too far beyond the outskirts of suburban Geelong before windmills start popping up at regular intervals along its banks.  I had noticed the occasional windmill here or there at points outside town where I had been able to access the river but had assumed they were mostly a thing of the past.
Once  on the river itself however, and able to see previously inaccessible farmland, I discovered just how widespread windmills still are even in today's fuel-driven society. This was particularly evident on the section of river between the upper and lower breakwaters. I have not made a formal attempt to count them, but can think of at least half a dozen between the aqueduct and the end of Coppards Road and generally appearing to be in good working order.

Disused windmill on farmland above the Ring Road
Of course there was the odd, sad specimen, consisting mostly of a rusted tower and gearbox, with sails and vane long gone. I saw one such example on the river above Baum's Weir and interestingly, noticed throughout the course of our paddle to Merrawarp Road and back that fuel-operated pumps (which we could often hear running) were much more common along this stretch of the river.

Pump house beneath the Barrabool Hills
Something else I noticed as I was studying the various windmills I was beginning to see was that they were almost exclusively made by the same company: Bryan of Colac. Naturally, I had to know who Bryan - or Bryan Brothers as some of the windmills stated - was.
Once again Google came promptly to my rescue with the website of The Windmill Journal, an Australian site which aims to collect information and photos relating to Australian and New Zealand windmills and their history. Bryan Brothers of Colac I soon discovered was established in 1888 by Australian born brothers Archie Mark Bryan and one of either George or Thomas Pierce Bryan. The company was a foundry which in addition to windmills also made stoves, tanks, tank stands and other items. Like others before them, the Bryan brothers made their own contribution to advancing windmill technology, introducing several changes to the structure of the wheel (as described in the above website).
 The Bryan Brothers company still trades in Colac to the present day. From its establishment, it continued under the ownership of the Bryan family until 1944 when it was sold to R.A. Borch and from 1960 traded as Bryan Bros and Borch, adapting their production methods over the years in response to changes in the market and in environmental standards. In 1987 the Colac Water Supply Specialists purchased the company which became what today is Bryan Windmills Colac. The company still manufactures windmills along with tanks, troughs and tank stands as well as distributing solar pumps and irrigators.
The only exception I have noted so far to the Bryan Bros monopoly, was a rather tall, Southern Cross windmill, peeking above the treetops next to a small lagoon off Wilsons Road. The history of this company is almost as Australian as  Bryan Bros. The Toowoomba Foundry was originally established in 1871 as an ironmonger's shop in that town by English immigrant George Washington Griffiths and his brother-in-law W. Atherton. The Southern Cross line of products including some of Australia's earliest windmills built in 1876, were developed by the foundry which had replaced the shop some two years earlier. These early wooden products were based on the Californian models mentioned above.
Southern Cross Windmill behind trees
The Toowoomba Foundry is still in existence today and still producing windmills, although they no longer constitute a major product line for the company.


  1. Family mythology has it that my Grandfather, Stephen Patrick Wilson, a blacksmith from Port Fairy built the first Windmills in the Western District (earlier than the others from Colac and Geelong).
    But he never patented his designs.
    Also, he never built two the same, so spare parts required a re-build.
    Good Engineer, lousy businessman.
    Denis Wilson

    1. Hi Denis, His father, Richard Hope Wilson, started manufacture of windmills and had his blacksmith shop on the corner of Sackville and Bank Sts. Stephen came into the business. Richard Hope was clever and amongst other things designed a pair of shears that were used at the Zoo etc. I am his great grand daughter

    2. Hi Denis, His father, Richard Hope Wilson, started manufacture of windmills and had his blacksmith shop on the corner of Sackville and Bank Sts. Stephen came into the business. Richard Hope was clever and amongst other things designed a pair of shears that were used at the Zoo etc. I am his great grand daughter

  2. The photo of a disused windmill above the ring road brings back memories. This Southern Cross had a 21ft wheel and supplied water to my parent’s farm near Ceres during the late 1940s. A little downstream an even larger 30ft Southern Cross pumped water to the McCann’s property. This mill had to be removed to make way for the freeway bridge and can now be seen fully restored to new condition towering over the Geelong showground. Again downstream we should remember the old RiversdaleI Flour Mill at Chilwell. Built around 1860 this traditional style flower mill had five canvas covered sails, a round stone tower and domed roof. A fantail kept the mill facing into the wind. What a shame this mill was ever dismantled!

    Yet another remarkable pair of windmills were erected beside the Barwon in 1908 when the Geelong Harbour Trust established their Sparrovale Agricultural College near Marshall. Both mills were built in Ballarat to the patented design of John Abraham. They were unusual in having variable pitch sails of corrugated iron and no tail vane. They automatically faced the wind with the wheel on the leeward side of the tower. The first had an 18ft wheel and drew water from the river for the farms dairy. The second was of greater interest. It had a 23ft wheel and was mounted on a 70ft tower.
    Its role was to provide drainage to 722 acres of river flats by pumping water into the river, from a drainage pit beneath the mill. Three 14 inch pumps, operated by the mill, were claimed to deliver 72,000 gallons per hour. To irrigate the college’s land a steam driven pump was mounted on a barge in the river.
    Re S.P. Wilson. I have an undated sales leaflet for his windmills.

  3. Thanks Hugh for your very welcome comments! I am thrilled to know where the windmill at the showgrounds came from and very happy to find it has a connection to the Barwon. I drive past it regularly so will stop and take a few shots to update this post.

  4. Belated thanks also to Denis. Your story sounds typical of the early windmill makers. The early Southern Cross mills in Queensland were also individually made and I believe this was true in the US too.