The Partingtons and their windmill

Partington’s Windmill was one of Tāmaki Makaurau's early lost landmarks, demolished in April 1950. One hundred years before, in 1850, the miller, engineer and entrepreneur Charles Frederick Partington commissioned millwright Henry White to build him a six-storeyed brick windmill on the high ridge above the town, near the intersection of the walking tracks along the Karangahape Road and Symonds Street ridges. Partington started grinding flour and grain there in late 1851.

Image: John Coomer. Partington’s Mill, Mill Lane, Auckland Central, 1890s.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1729-156.

The windmill soon became a well-known navigational landmark for seafarers and a favoured feature for local artists. You can see it on the top-left on the distant ridge beyond Queen Street in Patrick Joseph Hogan’s 1852 lithograph shown below.
Partington’s Windmill was also a good vantage point for photographers to take photos of the surrounding landscape. Here are two of them. 

Image: Samuel George Frith, John Nicol Crombie. Panorama of Auckland, 1860.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1043-070.

Image: Henry Winkelmann. Symonds Street and the Symonds Street Cemetery, 1880s,
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1-W0245.

Up until the late 1860s, uptown commercial Auckland ended near Wellesley Street. Beyond that, farms and wheatfields stretched back across the isthmus to Epsom and the port of Onehunga. Siting the windmill on the windy Karangahape ridge was, for Partington, a commercially shrewd decision, because not only did he have nearby farmers using his mill, but an urban flour market not far away in Auckland. Soon after starting his windmill, Partington began building a factory nearby. By 1856 he was operating a steam biscuit factory there, and soon established a successful business operating as the Victoria Flour Mill and Steam Biscuit Depot. His business further prospered when he won the contract to supply the British troops with biscuits during the Waikato War.

The drawing on the book cover below shows the windmill and biscuit factory during the 1860s and 1870s. Its viewpoint looks down Mill Lane, with Symonds Street in the background.

Image: The cover of 'The story of the old windmill' by George E. Bentley, Auckland, 1898,
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

In 1866, Charles Partington refitted and updated the machinery in his biscuit factory with a conveyer-type ‘travelling oven’ which, reportedly, could bake the travelling biscuits in twenty minutes. But unfortunately, in December that year there was a large fire at the biscuit factory. As the result of this misfortune, Charles seems to have lost interest in the biscuit business and became interested in developing quartz-stamping equipment for the Thames gold rush. In 1874 he sold his biscuit-making plant to a Riverhead biscuit manufacturer.

Charles Partington died in 1877, leaving his land and buildings to his wife, who transferred the windmill and factory to her sons, Charles Frederick and Edward. In 1880 Charles and Edward left the Symonds Street business to lease the Western Mills at Western Springs, after having taken their younger brother Joseph into partnership. However, Charles and Edward kept the title to the Symonds Street windmill, allowing Joseph to use it to grind his new ‘pearled’ wheat.

In December 1881 Joseph Partington used his business capital to purchase and equip the biscuit factory, with the intention of manufacturing health-conscious, wholemeal biscuits made from Partington’s pearled wheat and containing ‘no baking powder, yeast, chemicals, animal fat or inferior butter.’ But to keep his biscuit business operating, Joseph had to enter a series of mortgages whereby he had successive landlords owning the biscuit factory (now called the Victoria Flour Mills), which he then leased back as factory manager.

By 1897 Joseph Partington’s landlord at the factory was James Wilkinson, who had also previously bought the Symonds Street windmill property from Edward Partington’s mortgagee after Edward had been bankrupted at Western Mills. On 20 August 1897 Wilkinson served notice on his tenant Joseph Partington to quit the windmill. But it took a court case in December 1898, when Wilkinson accused George Bentley of libelling him at Partington’s behest (which Wilkinson won; then successfully sued Partington for damages plus costs) for Wilkinson to finally force the now bankrupt Joseph out of his windmill. 

Thus, when the photograph above was taken there was no Partington in the windmill. The photo is date-significant because sometime in the next two years James Wilkinson removed the sails from the windmill with the idea of marketing it as an observation tower for visitors to admire city and harbour views. About 1906 he removed the windmill’s functional cap, replacing it with a belvedere and viewing balcony. Wilkinson’s additions are visible in the 1909 photograph below, which also clearly shows that he had erased Partington’s name from the tower!

Image: Partington’s Mill showing Wilkinson’s addition, 1909, Record Files – Buildings – A, ACC 285 item 117 Box 16, Series ACC 285 Town Clerk’s Office Record Files, Auckland Council Archives.

For some years previously Wilkinson had been advertising his observation tower but could not find a buyer. Except for Joseph; who triumphantly bought his sail-less windmill back in 1910.

By 1914 Joseph had enough money to sail to England, find a condemned windmill in Orston, Nottinghamshire, and arrange to have the windmill’s four sails, ogee-shaped cupola, operating machinery and gasoline engine together with a load of bricks, shipped back to New Zealand. 

Image: C.H. Barton. Painting of Central Auckland, 1910s-1920s. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 929-18.

Back here Joseph extended the Partington’s Windmill tower straight upwards by 20 feet (for extra height over surrounding two or three storey buildings), while the sails were mounted on new operating machinery and topped off with the windmill’s new cupola. Finally, wind power was now supplemented by the gasoline engine. The windmill’s new cupola is visible in the following photograph from 1923. 

Image: Henry Winkelmann. Partington’s Mill, Mill Lane, Auckland Central, 1923,
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 1-W0432.

The advantage of the extra 20 feet on the windmill’s tower (increasing the tower from six to ten storeys) is obvious in the next photograph, taken from Mount Street looking south, showing Liverpool Street going uphill to City Road, with Partington’s Mill in the distance. 
Unfortunately, Joseph’s restoration and modernization of Partington’s Mill was blown away in a terrific gale on 12 May 1925 when one of the windmill’s sails broke off. The windmill’s opposite sail soon had to be removed because it threw the revolving sails out of balance. Partington intended to replace the missing sail but with advancing age he never got round to it. So the forlorn, albeit now gaspower-assisted, windmill was left turning just two sails for the rest of its life. 

Image: James Richardson. Looking east from Liverpool Street down Mill Lane, showing Partington’s Windmill, 1928. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 4-2282.

Disaster struck Partington’s Windmill again on the evening of 16 February 1931, when a major conflagration became a firestorm; with flames reducing the windmill’s sails to skeletons and funnelling upwards inside the tower, incinerating the wooden floors. Miraculously, the heavy milling machinery remained in place and did not tumble down inside the tower. However, the tower’s cupola melted in the fire’s intense heat.

Not long afterwards (nine days in fact) Partington was advertising in the New Zealand Herald to start repairing the wooden floors in the windmill. Later, he also had the tower’s cupola replaced. Some heat-cracks had appeared in the brickwork of the tower’s straight extension added by Partington in 1915, so for the rest of its life the windmill wore reinforcing metal bands and braces which you can see in the 1930s photograph below. 

But it is unclear how long afterwards the windmill was used to grind flour. Partington also soon closed his biscuit factory after a dispute with his staff. Reportedly the disused windmill and factory was a youth hostel then a nightclub during the 1930s. Wandering explorer, Ruth Park, came across a woman named Muriel living inside the derelict windmill whom Partington gave free lodging there in return for doing his bookkeeping. Muriel earned money through casual prostitution. (See Park’s autobiography, 'A Fence Around the Cuckoo'.)

Image: Unknown photographer. Partington’s Mill, Mill Lane, Auckland Central, 1940s.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 957-628.

In 1936 Joseph Partington wrote to Auckland City Council, bequeathing them his Symonds Street property and windmill to be made into Partington Park for the people of Auckland. At the time, the council were duly grateful. But after Joseph died in November 1941 his current will could not be located, so a judge finally ruled in 1943 that he had died intestate. The wartime council, mindful of war austerity and probable financial obligations, chose not to contest the ruling. Members of the extended Partington family quickly sold the land and windmill to the car dealers, Seabrook Fowlds.

Image: Residence of wealthy recluse … with a recent picture of Mr Partington, New Zealand Herald, Vol. 78, Issue 24127, 20 November 1941, Page 6. Retrieved from Papers Past 16 June 2023.

In 1945 the council formed the Old Windmill Preservation Society to try and raise enough money to move the windmill to another site, but it was unsuccessful in gaining public support and funds. Then in 1947 Seabrook Fowlds notified the council that demolition would proceed and offered the council the chance to salvage materials. Some millstones were taken to the pumphouse at MOTAT, while another might now be at Howick Historic Village. But any more than this (Te Ara says on its website) ‘council declined because of the cost and Auckland’s oldest and best-known landmark was destroyed. Its loss was [however] a catalyst for the creation of the National Historic Places Trust Act 1955.’

Image: Demolition of Partington’s Windmill, April 1950,
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 7-A5043.

Author: Christopher Paxton, Heritage Engagement

Further reading

Bush, G.W.A. Decently and in order: the centennial history of Auckland City Council, Auckland, 1971.

Graham, Munroe, The Partingtons and their mills, Auckland, 2022.

Schrader, Ben, ‘Historic Places – Re-inventing historic buildings, 1930s to 1970s’ Te Ara – the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, (accessed 1 June 2023)

‘The Miller’s Tale’

‘The Watcher on the Hill,’ pts 1 and 2, Timespanner,