‘The mill is never silent while the damsel sings her song’. Nick Weedon explains how an old proverb captures the soundscape of Brixton’s 200-year old windmill
Image: Owen Llewellyn
The damsel, or dansil, is the name given to a small but important component of milling machinery. It is also known as the 'chatterer', which milling lore links to the connection with 'damsel' – the old word for a young unmarried woman. A rather more accurate term which is also sometimes used is 'clatterer', and in some places it is known as the agitator.
There are some striking photographic records of young women working at Brixton Windmill in the early 20th century. However, the damsel that sang her song had been silent for some years by then, having been made redundant in 1902 by a steam engine running a new set of millstones – the same ones that are once more producing flour.
The damsel was all about introducing the grain into the millstones in the most efficient way possible. The grain needs to enter the stones in the centre, since it is the centrifugal force created by the turning of the runner stone that makes it travel outwards from the centre as it gets ground down into a powder.
On its way from the hopper to the stones, the grain comes down a chute, but it needs to be controlled so that it doesn't come through too fast, spill over the top of the stones and go to waste.
Image: Owen Llewellyn
Between the base of the chute and the 'eye' in the centre of the stone is a shallow tray, or 'shoe', set at an adjustable angle to funnel the grain into the middle. At the same time as funnelling, there is also an advantage in spreading the grain evenly across the width of the eye to make the milling as efficient as possible. This is the damsel's job.
The shoe directs the grain to each side of the spinning shaft that drives the runner stone. Where the rotating shaft passes through a hole in the shoe, its square edges nudge the shoe from side to side at high speed, causing the clattering noise and spreading the grain more effectively into the eye.
The millers of old used to listen carefully to the rumbling of the cogwheels, the stones and the chattering of the damsel to check that all was well.
When present-day visitors to Brixton Windmill have a go at using the small hand-driven stones displayed on the ground floor, the grain sometimes gets stuck as it goes down the eye.
While it's quite easy to lift the top stone to clear the blockage, this would be much more difficult in the case of the massive millstones which were driven by the wind. Having the damsel clattering away against the shoe ensured that the grain was always agitated by the vibration, and helped to keep things running smoothly.
During Brixton Windmill's open days, children enjoy turning the hand querns so much that they have to be persuaded to let someone else have a turn. But would they last all day at this task?
Tony Robinson's book The Worst Children's Jobs in History explains that, in earlier times, ‘mill damsel’ girls as young as six years old would work up to ten hours a day at close quarters with the machinery, making sure the grain went into the millstones efficiently. If they allowed the stones to run empty, then sparking could cause the flour dust in the air to explode.
The damsel's lot was far from idle chatter, and the introduction of the 'chatterer' was an important technical advance.