Back to gallery The Varcoe Windmill. South Australia
"Witches hat" type Varcoe windmill photographed near Naracoorte, South Australia in August 2002 by B. G. Hewitson.

The Varcoe Windmill

Thomas Hornsby VARCOE was born at Mayurra (Millicent), South Australia on 2nd May 1874. He was the fourth child of Thomas VARCOE (1835-1912) and Maria VARCOE nee HORNSBY (1843-1911). On 16th October 1907, at the age of 33, he married Myrtle Elizabeth SHEPHERD in Mt Gambier, South Australia. The couple had 4 children and made their home in Mt Gambier, South Australia. Thomas Hornsby VARCOE died on 24 July 1962 and was buried at Mt Gambier.

Not much is known of VARCOE's early life other than that he worked for W. WILLIAMS & Son at the foundry in Mt Gambier prior to purchasing it from WILLIAMS in September 1911. In 1913 the business, now known as the VARCOE FOUNDRY, moved around the corner from the original premises to Ferrers Street, Mount Gambier. The foundry site was sold in 1979 to the Mt Gambier City Council. Also in 1979 the windmill business was sold to CHAPMAN & SAUNDERS PTY LTD. and they continued production of VARCOE windmills until December 1984 when DEAN & McCABE was set up with the intention of continuing the production of VARCOE windmills. Their address in 2013 is 2 Ramsay Ave, Mt Gambier, South Australia.

The origins of the first Varcoe windmill are vague at best. Some reports say that the first Varcoe mill was produced around 1912, others say it was later, around 1916 - 1920. It is known that the three early types of Varcoe windmills were all oilbaths. It was claimed that he made the first oilbath, direct action mill in the world. Oilbath windmills had been produced in Australia since at least 1912 when James ALSTON was granted Australian patent No. 3534 dated 5th January 1912 for a totally enclosed windmill head with the mechanism lubricated by an oil bath. However, ALSTON's mill was geared. The keyword is "direct action" and so VARCOE's claim may well be true as most other direct action windmills used oil reservoirs, grease cups, or sealed bearings.

There were several different models of windmills produced. VARCOE's first patent for a windmill was Australian Patent No. 11,860 of 21st February 1928. The patent drawings indicate that this invention was for the windmill dubbed "witches hat" due to the shape of the head. It was a direct action, totally enclosed oil bath cast head with a tin helmet. It employed a pipe over a pipe crank driven oil lubricated vertical slide and had cast iron bearings.

The second of the known Varcoe windmill types was dubbed "Turks cap". This was an oil bath single geared windmill that utilised an eccentric drive, connected to a 'walking beam' to achieve reciprocating motion. The helmet or cap was made of heavy cast that was attached to the main casting with a short chain, to hold the cap from falling when it was lifted off the main casting. The windwheel had five single rod spokes with 3 blades to a section. Production dates are not known.

The third type of early Varcoe windmills was dubbed the "pipe cylinder". Like the "witches hat" it was a direct action, totally enclosed oil bath cast head with a cast cover and a steel cap. It had a crank operating between cast bearings and conrod to the crosshead with lubricated cast iron wheels that run up and down in guides cast into the cover. Again, production dates are not known.

In 1978 the two sons of T. H. VARCOE sold the old foundry premises to the City of Mt Gambier to make room for what became the Civic Centre. The original facade of the building was retained and the manufacture of the Varcoe windmill was taken over by Chapman and Saunders Pty Ltd of Clarence Gardens, South Australia. At later dates their premises were at 25 Crouch St, Mt Gambier and 10 Tandara St, Mt Gambier.

The Varcoe Windmill factory, Mt Gambier, South Australia
Early T.H.VARCOE FOUNDRY photograph courtesy of DEAN & McCABE, Mt Gambier, South Australia.

In August 1980 the Varcoe windmill was being made in direct action 6 ft and 7 ft windwheel sizes. These were deemed suitable for a 30 ft to 50 ft lift and were generally supplied with a 15 ft or 20 ft galvanised 4 post tubular steel tower. By comparison the double geared Varcoe windmill was available in 6 ft, 7 ft and 8 ft windwheel sizes. These had a much greater total lift capacity. The 6 ft was rated at 70 ft lift, the 7 ft at 130 ft lift and the 8 ft at 150 ft lift. The geared mill was supplied with the same tower as the direct action mill. The company also sold pump jacks.

In 1983, two of the employees of Chapman & Saunders Pty Ltd resigned from the company and set up their own business at 30 Margaret St, Mt Gambier. They were Richard DEAN, formerly Sales Manager for Chapman & Saunders and Jack McCABE, who had been in charge of windmill manufacture and production. Their new company initially sold Bryan Bros windmills and they offered reconditioning of all other makes of windmills. Then in October 1984 they took over the manufacture of the Varcoe windmill from Chapman and Saunders Pty Ltd. Thus began the next era of the Varcoe windmill under the banner of Dean & McCabe Windmills Pty Ltd.

Sometime after November 1984, Dean & McCabe Windmills Pty Ltd moved from their Margaret St address to new premises at 2 Ramsey Ave, Mt Gambier, South Australia, where they are still located in 2013. They continued to produce the Varcoe windmill and also introduced a couple of new models such as the Varcoe Junior Direct Action windmill and the Varcoe 10 Geared windmill. They also made an ornamental windmill, a miniature version of the well known Varcoe, for home garden decoration.

The Double Geared Varcoe windmill is made with 6 ft, 7 ft and 8 ft windwheels and is based on VARCOE's 1935 design with only minor changes since then. These windwheels are made in five segments of three fan blades each, assembled onto a fully welded and galvanised steel frame to give them rigidity and balance. When the 10 ft geared windmill was introduced in 2001 it used a slightly different method of fan construction. It was modular, consisting of six segments that were bolted to the shaft by means of a spigoted flange. The gears are made of heavy cast iron and the head is fully enclosed to provide protection against dust and the weather. Varcoe towers are of 4-post design and are made of galvanised pipe or angle iron. Tower height for the Varcoe 10 was usually 20 ft, 25 ft or 30 ft. This mill was designed to lift water from a depth of up to 200 ft, making it more powerful than the smaller models, but there are not a lot of sales of it made, as generally the 8 ft Varcoe does the same job at a cheaper price. There is a counterbalance system that can be attached to an 8 ft mill with a 2 1/2 inch pump to enable it to lift water from up to 300 ft. Generally speaking the 6 ft geared mill will lift water from depths up to 70 ft, the 7ft geared mill will lift water from depths up to 130 ft and the 8 ft geared mill will lift water from depths up to 160ft. Tower heights for these size mills start at 15 ft and increase in 5 ft increments to any height, though any higher than 30 ft would be unusual.

The Direct Action Oilbath Varcoe is made in two sizes with 6 ft and 7 ft windwheels. These are based on T. H. VARCOE's original 1938 design and are virtually unchanged. They use two heavily constructed eccentrics connected to a cross-head and guide to produce a smooth and well balanced action. Like the geared mill, the head of the direct action mill is also fully enclosed giving maximum protection from dust and weather. Although the direct action mill pumps from a shallower depth, up to 40 ft for a 6 ft mill and up to 60 ft for a 7 ft mill, it will pump nearly twice as much water as a geared mill due to the much higher pump speed of a direct drive head in low load conditions.

The Varcoe Junior Direct Action windmill was made in 6ft and 7 ft windwheel sizes. It was ideal for use with shallow bores, rivers or dams as it could pump water from depths of up to 40 ft (6 ft windwheel) and 60 ft (7 ft windwheel). It was fully galvanised and used sealed ball bearings and was very cheap to manufacture. However, rising costs of steel, galvanising and labour priced it out of the market and the Junior was discontinued in favour of the Direct Action Oilbath windmill which was a much more substantial mill for not much more money. The last Junior was sold by the company in August 2005, though parts are still readily available for it.

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