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Flags on Windmills

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flags from windmill
image contributed by Gareth Hughes, 28 April 2008
original image cropped and resized

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[Editorial Note: the following was received as a question on protocol, however the nature of the information is of significance in a local practice.]

I am chairman of the Mills Section of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the national organisation dedicated to the research, recording and repair of historic wind- and water-mills.

Our newsletter recently contained a letter from one of our members in Kent, concerning the display of the English flag from the sails of a windmill during the football World Cup last year. A local resident, and member of the Flag Institute, had claimed that this was disrespectful both to the flag and to the mill (as a venerable historic building).

I understand that the sails of the mill were stopped in the St. Andrew's cross position, and St. George's flags on short staffs displayed (I think vertically) from the two uppermost sails.

Examination of old photographs in my collection suggests that, despite the complaints of the local resident in Kent, such displays were not uncommon in the past. The methods of display vary:

  1. A flag on a short staff attached to the uppermost sail when stopped in an upright cross position (on a photograph of 1912 of Thornton Mill near Blackpool during a village fete. The Union Flag is shown)
  2. A flag on a longer staff fixed to, and above, the rear of the cap of the mill (several photographs from c1900 of various mills)
  3. Flags on each of two uppermost sails stopped in the St Andrew's cross position (with the exception of the Kentish example mentioned above, I know of this only from the Netherlands, where it forms part of a more elaborate scheme of decoration traditionally used on days of local celebration)
  4. A flag attached to the upper part of the striking chain (the control for the sail shutters), which hangs down below the rear of the cap (on a photograph of Maud Foster Mill, Boston, Lincolnshire about 1935, where the flag appears to be that of the Netherlands); the SPAB's orange/red banner is shown flying in approximately this position on the attached photograph.
  5. Strings of bunting stretched from tip-to-tip of all sails. This seems to be recently widespread and is frequently present when sails are turning.
  6. A flag at the tip of each sail, again when the sails are turning

(5) and (6) seem to be of relatively modern use, and (to me) are the least appropriate, being rather in the nature of a fairground novelty when the sails are turning. (3) seems to be of modern use in the UK but traditional in the Netherlands. (4) clearly has some basis in historic tradition, while (1) and (2) are both quite well-attested by photographic evidence from the turn of the century onwards, and in my view look more appropriate that other forms of display.

I am also aware of examples (from at least 1897) of the Union Flag being painted onto the blades of windmill fantails, together with more general "red, white and blue" colour schemes applied to sails. These seem to relate to Queen Victoria's jubilees.
Gareth Hughes, 28 April 2008