How mechanisation impacted on rural Algarve

In my previous guest post on Noras I mentioned that they did not disappear overnight, because of the ingenuity of mechanics in giving them a new lease of life by being worked by small petrol engines. These could be installed relatively easily, and left the major part of the structure unchanged. However it took a repeat visit to an old windmill in the hills of the Lower Guadiana for us to realise that the same sort of transitional arrangements were in some cases made for corn grinding. And it is this ‘innovation’ I wanted to focus on today.

Let me first recap on the noras though; although traditionally worked by donkeys or mules walking a circular path and transmitting power through bevel gearing, many were latterly modified by the addition of reduction spur gearing to enable small high revolution petrol engines to provide power. Nora in the AlgarveThe actual gearing provided must have been carefully calculated to make sure that the speed of lift of the bucket chain (itself dependent on the depth of the well and size of the buckets) was commensurate with the power of the motor. It would be interesting to know whether this was done by rule of thumb, trial and error, or precisely calculated! My picture shows the sort of spur gearing used, and you can often see the “cogs” over the top of fences around the wells.

Now to windmills! You may recall Becky mentioning how long I disappeared exploring this particular windmill on our first visit, well on our second trip I spent even more time inside this mill. I had been intrigued by the drive shaft to the stones, as it continued into the base of the windmill, and some gearing remained on the vertical drive shaft. I had originally assumed that this was an innovative attempt to do some other agricultural process by utilising wind power (olive/carob crushing came immediately to mind).

However a bit of exploration revealed that a hole had been cut through the wall of the windmill into the room constructed next door, which still contained an oil engine. This obviously drove through the wall by a long belt to power the main drive shaft of the stones from below. The “hole in the wall” for the drive belt can be seen in my next picture.Oil Engine and the 'hole in the wall'

Incidentally I could discern no obvious way that the main shaft to the sails was disconnected, but as the mill was full of rather loud and very large bees I was somewhat hesitant to pursue my researches! Plus I had a photo shoot to attend.

Me with Becky and her Mum

We know from reliable accounts that the introduction of power milling into the Algarve in the middle of the twentieth century, gradually caused the abandonment of most of the windmills. But we also know that many country folk still preferred wheat ground the old way, producing wholemeal flour, and this is probably why the windmills continued a few more years of existence.

The engine house itself if quite substantial, and a large water tank was provided on the roof to enable the engine to dispense with a radiator! Mill with engine room and radiator!But the discovery of this “powered” mill seems to raise more questions than I can answer! Not least the economics of building an engine room, and buying and installing a motor so far up in the hills, when a small self contained powered mill would have seemed to have done the job as well. That there was a demand for the products seems unanswerable, but it would be fascinating to know for how long this local milling lasted before it finally ceased.

So the transition to a mechanised way of life went through two stages of evolution for at least two rural mechanical processes. What would be interesting would be to find a water mill which had been similarly adapted, a good supply of water being even more difficult to guarantee than a good head of wind!

Author: Mr B

An antiquarian bookseller who enjoys spending English winters birding and drinking red wine in Portugal. Also interested in the history of the places we visit, hence the very occasional technical post on Delights of the Algarve.

18 thoughts

  1. Becky B ,we are landing 23 rd may and moving in same day.\Left Uk in middle 70’s and worked and lived in France,and the Netherlands,before,by the help of the Dutch govt.,retired from there in 95.
    Lokking forward to Mr B exposeon tide powered mills,although having looked on the map,there seems to be one between Olhao and Fuseta.
    Power to the fingers on the keyboard.

  2. Hello Mr B. You know that Nora means ‘daughter-in-law’ in Portuguese? According to my teacher, this isn’t linguistic coincidence either!

    1. Ah, Yes! Marry for brawn and not for beauty! I’m sure there’s a short story there……. Interesting the linguistic use. Becky and I always think of Nora Batty (who actually is an exemplar of hard work and a hard life). Hope you’re both well; still not quite sure where I am now we’re back!

  3. Ruined places are dear to me, perhaps because I live in a desert!

  4. I didn’t spot the attribution but it didn’t take me long to work out this wasn’t Becky writing! I think you and my husband would get on very well on walks. He loves poking about in old industrial stuff.

  5. You have more time to look in the Algarve than we do, Robert, so I’ll leave it in your very capable hands. But I will tip you the wink if I strike lucky 🙂 🙂 Welcome ‘home’!

    1. Thanks Jo! Still in a state of shock being back here at the moment!

    2. Interesting,as here on the costa blanca,there is no or little evidence of change to fossil fuel power.They were left,and we have at least 7 in sight,or the tower.
      In the Netherlands,considerable numbers are still working as pumping stations,60 tonnes of water moved per minute in strong winds usually lifted upto 3 meters,and a few as oilseed crushers and wood processing,but they are much larger and are/were homes as well.
      When we get to Olhao and start exploring,sounds another interesting avenue.
      Super site,thanks guys.

      1. This is certainly the only windmill we have seen converted in this way, and as I wrote, the economics of it are still somewhat puzzling to me. Portuguese windmills are relatively primitive compared to English ones of the same period, but this reflects the difficulties of moving heavy materials over a tough terrain. And the less sophisticated the mechanism, the easier to repair and maintain. I have a very nice picture of Dutch windmills, which I may put in a future piece! I have yet to write about tide mills, but his may happen sometime in the future (a great working one in Olhao!)

      2. Fascinating what changes and what doesn’t I think . . . .when do you move to Olhao? Can’t be long now.

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