The Rex Wailes Collection: The Power of the Press: How it changed our landscape (with some help from Rex Wailes)
by Mildred Cookson, The Mills Archive Trust, UK
I wrote in the June issue of Milling and Grain that Rex on his return from the USA "discovered that an article in the Daily Mail on June 17th, 1929 entitled 'Our Vanishing Windmills: How you can help save them'. This was to change his life and that of many others."
A hundred years ago, Spanish Flu had infected one third of the world's population and killed 50 million people, more than the recently ended First World War. These two disasters had killed off or incapacitated a disproportionately large number of working-class men. The social impact of this twin cataclysm has been well-documented from the loss of great poets to the gradual empowerment of women.
What can easily be forgotten was the impact on small mills, particularly in rural areas. During the War these, mainly small family businesses, survived with the help of the elderly and the female members of the family and the local community. However, ten years later a lost generation of would-be millers and the increasing needs for repairs meant that many traditional mills had ceased working and were vanishing from England's picturesque landscape. The Daily Mail appeal prompted a national upsurge in interest in windmills and the work of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB).
Rex's collection includes his copy of the original appeal and a carbon copy of his letter a fortnight later offering to help the SPAB. Ten years later The Hertfordshire and Essex Observer carried an extensive article praising Rex Wailes' work. Since 1929, the Society's newly formed Windmill Section had handled 201 cases, repairing 42 mills under Wailes' direction and fundamentally changed the public outlook. The plan to protect the windmills of Great Britain had been transformed "from the most forlorn of lost causes" to be regarded as a normal and reasonable undertaking.
Generous donations from Messrs Spillers and Joseph Rank were acknowledged as making an enormous difference and the increased help given by Local Authorities was seen as a good sign. The day after this optimistic article appeared Britain declared war on Germany.