Designed in Kent, saved by Ramsgate, now a £1M wine-shop (almost)!
In 1857 Sir Moses Montefiore built a Kentish windmill overlooking the Holy City of Jerusalem. Today more than 150 years later, it is alive and kicking though not quite as Sir Moses could have expected! Here’s the story:
In pursuit of his philanthropic activities, Sir Moses Montefiore visited the Holy Land seven times between 1827 and 1874 and endeavoured to bring industry to the area by introducing a printing press and a textile factory. He also helped found several agricultural colonies.
By good fortune, in 1855 he was appointed administrator for a bequest of $50,000 (equivalent today to over $1.5M) that Judah Touro, a phenomenally charitable American philanthropist, had willed for the benefit of the Jews of the Holy Land. In Jerusalem, Sir Moses Montefiore used some of this money, which had been swelled by a further $10,000 from another fund associated with Touro, to purchase land for 1000 Gold English Sovereigns from Ahmed Duzhdar Aga whom he had known for many years, just to the west of the Old City. Initially named Kerem Moshe v’Yehudit (Moses and Judith’s Vineyard), it was later renamed Mishkenot Sha’ananim (Peaceful Dwellings) when Sir Moses built alms-houses for the poor there. In 1892, seven years after his death, adjacent to this area, the Yemin Moshe (Moses’ Righthand) quarter was created and named in his honour. Judah Touro himself does not seem to have been commemorated adequately. Although he is very famous in North America, much of his philanthropy was done quietly, Sir Moses wanted to name the alms-houses after Touro but this did not come about. There is a small plaque in Mishkenot Sha’ananim if you look carefully and there is a Touro Lane in Yemin Moshe. Now in 2020 a children’s picture book is being published entitled “Judah Touro Didn’t Want to be Famous”!
In the mid-19th century, the inhabitants of Jerusalem lived almost entirely within the walls of the Old City and would not remain at night outside for fear of marauders. Half the Jerusalem population then was Jewish, very poor and suffering from appalling sanitary conditions. The Montefiore lodging houses in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, provided a far better environment and were opened to tempt people to take up residence beyond the confines of the old city. They were initially reluctant even though Sir Moses offered them a pound sterling to move in!
Sir Moses also decided to enable the Jews to grind grain and produce their own flour by building a windmill using money from the Touro bequest. The hilly location next to Mishkenot Sha’ananim was ideal; situated on the west side of Jerusalem with a beautiful view over the old walled city and open to the easterly winds necessary to turn the sails of the mill.
In 1855 Sir Moses appointed the specialist mill-wright firm of Holman Brothers of Canterbury, Kent (previously of Ramsgate) to design and build the windmill in the style of Kentish mills for the sum of £1450. For the exterior of the mill they used local Jerusalem stone and local labour. The mechanism and sails however were engineered and constructed in Canterbury and shipped to the port of Jaffa via Beirut in 1857. It needed 40 men with ropes and small boats to transfer the cargo ashore. It then took 4 months to cart the machinery using camels and donkeys the 45 miles from the coast up to the hills of Jerusalem. Construction of the mill tower started and the first stone was laid on 5th May 1857. The mill was completed between 1858-1860 and the work was supervised by Thomas Richard Holman assisted by his two brothers John James and Charles and some Kentish millwrights. Incidentally, Charles later married a Russian lady in Syria and four of their seven children were born in Jerusalem.
Mishkenot Sha’ananim and Windmill 1865 or 1866 Jerusalem Foundation
There being no local experts, in February 1857, an advert was placed in the London “Jewish Chronicle” for a Jewish miller of good moral and religious character who understands how to work a windmill! It’s unclear if anyone replied but two men from Canterbury were given the job until a local Jerusalemite could be trained.
The mill caused some trouble with the locals as until then flour production was an Arab monopoly using horse-powered mills. There are stories that the Arabs put a curse on the mill but it was also reported that the Arabs liked the taste of the oil used for lubricating the mechanism. Before the refining of crude mineral oil, the oil used was probably animal/vegetable based, and it was thought the Arabs drank oil from the reservoir or licked the mill mechanism dry!
The mill operated for about 16 years until it ceased to function around 1876. Various reasons were given such as the unreliability of the wind; mill stones unsuitable for the hard, local grain; non-maintenance/replacement of the mechanism because of the difficulty in transporting parts from England. The most likely explanation is the competition from a steam-powered mill installed by the Templars in the nearby German Colony. Two other local windmills built by the Greek Orthodox Church in the 1850s also similarly stopped operation in the 1870s.
The Jerusalem section of the Baedeker Guide to “Palestine and Syria”, published in 1876, has a map which identifies all these windmills and mentions the Montefiore windmill: as you leave Jerusalem en-route to Bethlehem it states “…and a little further on, we leave the Montefiore institution and a windmill on the hill to the right”.
Until well into the 20th Century the windmill was left abandoned and deteriorating. It was almost destroyed by the British army in the last days of the Mandate in 1948 but was miraculously saved by its Ramsgate connection. Following the decision of the UN to partition Palestine between Jews and Arabs and before the departure of the British, vicious fighting broke out between the two sides with the British in the middle. The Hagana (Jewish defence force) installed a military post with snipers and a machine gun at the top of the mill. The British High Commissioner spotted this and ordered that the mill be blown up. The unit of soldiers given this task were from Ramsgate. When they saw the Montefiore plaques and that he was from Ramsgate they reinterpreted their orders and just blew off the very top of the mill.
Although Montefiore’s mill started as a means of giving Jerusalem Jews access to their own low-cost flour, it has gradually morphed into a valued historical and artistic icon. It features in stories and poetry and provides images for Israeli banknotes, coins, and stamps.
10 Lira (old Israeli pound) banknote depicting Sir Moses and windmill Bank of Israel
In Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon’s novel “Only Yesterday” the main character Balak, a dog, takes refuge in Montefiore’s windmill.
Yehuda Amichai wrote a Hebrew poem entitled (translated as) “The Windmill of Yemin Moshe” in which he poetically claims that, though it never ground flour (poetic licence), it ground holy air and now grinds us to make flour and bread as peace for the future.
Various repairs and reconstruction of the mill’s tower were carried out over the years by the Jerusalem Foundation (which administers the area) and which has also arranged educational activities around the windmill and the Mishkenot Sha’ananim site.
Between 2008- 2012, in association with the Dutch-based “Christians for Israel” (C4I) charity, the Jerusalem Foundation restored the windmill to full working order at a cost, raised mainly by C4I, of 5 Million New Israeli Shekels (ca £1 Million).
To achieve an accurate reconstruction, the Foundation turned to a member of the Holman family and the archives of the Holman Brothers in Kent who found the original design plans. The mechanism was constructed with the help of Vincent Pargeter a windmill expert from England and by expert firms and engineers in Holland including Arjen Lont and Willem Dijkstra and family who moved temporarily to Israel. The completion of the work, with the installation of the sails, took place at a formal ceremony on 25th July 2012 in the presence of some Montefiore family and many dignitaries, including Israel’s prime minister, who spoke movingly about the windmill featuring in their Jerusalem childhood. The mill was re-dedicated in August 2012 and the first sack of “reconstructed” flour produced in May 2013.
Part of the reconstructed mill mechanism R. Gordon
In a way it’s appropriate that a Christian charity has backed this expensive restoration of the windmill since both Sir Moses and Touro were very broad in their philanthropy; spreading their largesse not only to needy Jewish projects but also to Christian and secular ones.
Initially the Jerusalem Foundation planned to operate the reconstructed mill as both an educational resource and a commercial producer of flour and did so from 2012-2017. It employed an Israeli with Dutch windmill family connections, fully trained to run and maintain the mechanism. But then decided to cease the operation for various health, safety and other related reasons. So now via its wholly-owned charity Mishkenot Sha’ananim, it has made the windmill and its site a working attraction by allowing a tourist agency to run various services as a business with a café, a wine-tasting boutique inside the mill, but combined with informative educational activities. The mill’s sails turn for 2 hours daily and there are monthly tours of the interior mechanism which continues to be maintained by Dutch engineers with the aid of C4I. The Foundation have plans for periodic “flour fair festivals” and are developing other ideas.
Mill entrance to visitors’ and wine-tasting centre with Montefiore coat of arms R. Gordon
Although the plan to recreate the original working mill to produce flour reasonably continually has not been achieved, C4I are happy with the current situation and even enthusiastically promote the Jerusalem Wineries visitor centre inside.
There is a strong connection between Kent, Ramsgate and Jerusalem. If you are planning to visit Jerusalem try to see this wonderful site and the windmill. It is a beautiful tribute to Sir Moses with its magnificent view of Jerusalem’s old city and a replica of Montefiore’s carriage. You can have an excellent coffee, buy genuine Jerusalem wine and, if you time it right, see the windmill’s sails turn and think of Sir Moses and Lady Judith Montefiore (not forgetting Judah Touro).
Maybe also get some Kentish-milled flour and remember, the wine-tasting shop is inside a £1million restoration!
Richard Gordon – January 2020
Jerusalem Wine and the mill Jerusalem Foundation
Ades, Audrey Judah Touro Didn’t Want to Be Famous (pub. Spring 2020)
Amichai, Yehuda Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems Bilingual Edition
Baedeker’s guide to “Palestine & Syria” Jerusalem section pub. 1876
Barzilai, Amira Jerusalem Capital of Israel (in Hebrew) Student study book
Christenen voor Israel Montefiore Mill Jerusalem; Landmark Windmill in Jerusalem
Cohn, Helen Israel Days Out – Windmills in Jerusalem Internet Blog
Collins, Larry & Dominique Lapierre O Jerusalem!
Ha’aretz/Nir Hasson Jerusalem’s Iconic Windmill to Spin Its Sails Once Again
Israel Government Tourist Office Israel The Hidden Gems Volume II Centre
Jerusalem Foundation Press Release 23 July 2012, Montefiore’s Windmill; The Historic Windmill Mishkenot Sha’ananim
Jerusalem Post/David Geffen Alas, Mishkenot Sha’ananim has forgotten Judah Touro
millsarchive.org Holman Bros., Millwrights of Canterbury: A History
Nahon, S.U Sir Moses Montefiore (in Hebrew)
Sebag-Montefiore, Simon Jerusalem – The Biography
Times of Israel/Jessica Steinberg A Second Wind for Montefiore’s magnificent Jerusalem Windmill
Wikipedia Montefiore Windmill; Yemin Moshe
- Jerusalem Foundation and its officers for background information and images.
- Jonathan Joaquin for a guided tour of the windmill’s mechanism.
Personal details of Richard Gordon
Retired computer consultant (C.Eng) with a degree in physics and a post-graduate diploma in Jewish Studies from Kings College London. He has a (very underused) blog on the Times of Israel website – “Richard Gordon”. He and his Israeli-wife split their time between UK and Israel where their son and daughter are settled; and 3 grand-daughters.