The Miller’s House
Three Mill Lane
Bromley by Bow
Thursday 9 June 2016
Since Linda and Mary were both busy, I was delighted to have the company of Roger for this Friends of the British Library special tour.
Three Mill Island is very close to Bromley by Bow Underground Station, and we walked across the bridge onto this man-made island, unaware that we were stepping onto land sitting on medieval timber piles: but we learned that later.
We began with an introductory talk, which told us that at the time of Domesday Book there were eight mills in the West Ham area, and that bread made in Stratford-at-Bow could be sold in London, provided the penny loaf was 2oz heavier than those made by London bakers. I do love the history of restrictive practices.
The history of this site really begins with some Huguenot immigrants in the 18th Century. They bought the site of the Mill to set up a distillery. The produced alcohol, not just for the gin trade, but also for perfumiers like Yardleys.
Later on in the 18th century a different family bought the site and eventually three mills were built, for grinding corn. Two of the mills were tidal and the third was wind powered.
A fire in 1802 meant that the House mill had to be rebuilt (initial fears that the fire was the work of the French were unfounded) and then in October 1940, the mills narrowly escaped another fire when an incendiary bomb hit a bonded warehouse full of alcohol nearby. The last bit of the introduction was about how the Mill was saved and indeed, Grade 1 listed, thanks to local enthusiasts, the EU and English Heritage, whose influence can be seen in the signage all around the Mill. Actually, the cobbles outside are Grade 2 listed, which must be a bit unusual for roadways.
So next we went on our tour, with a very clear and entertaining guide. We started upstairs in what had been the grain bin. Since wheat flour catches fire very easily, mills were made of wood, to avoid sparks; there is no lighting and of course no heating, though that did not bother us on this warm day. We were shown the grain hoists, which function off the water wheels of the mill, and thee holes in the floor through which the grain went down to be mill. The wooden beams all had chisel marks to show the workers putting it all back together after the 1892 fire how it fitted.
We then went downstairs, and out of the Mill into what had been the house: the fireplace demonstrated that! Then it was back into the mill to visit the smutting and dressing room, where fans and brushes were used to get rid of potentially lethal funguses like ergot. Apparently there was a piggery down the road which bought the sweepings: they had a contract to supply pork to the Royal Navy, which tells you something about 19th century defence spending.
This is where we were told about the actual working of a tide mill: this one worked on the ebb not the flow, but since the tide went up the River Lea as far as Lea Bridge Road, there was plenty of power there. The tide works twice every 25 hours, making the shift patterns a little complicated for the workers.
Also on this floor was the pattern room, with light wooden templates for every part of the machinery, so that replacements could be made without delay.
The mill must have shaken with every turn of the great wheels, and so the builders put in the kind of 'knees' which brace the hulls of ships. Some of the wood is native hornbeam, but some is from American softwood, possibly, said our guide, salvaged from a ship not worth repairing. There was also pine from Poland in the mix.
The next floor down is the milling floor, where we saw the great stones, of which the mill had twelve. They are of French quartz. A stone will last for about three hundred hours before it needs to be redressed, that is, have its grooves recut. The bed stone remains still, while the running stone revolves upon it, at 110 revolutions per minute, grinding a ton of wheat in two hours.
Then we went on down, to see the wheels themselves. These are undershot wheels, meaning that the flat paddles of wheel are dragged round by the flowing water, rather than being pushed down as with an overshot wheel. One of the wheels had scoops, but the others were made with flat planks, and we were told that this is not a very efficient use of the water's power. On the other hand, one can be sure that it will keep coming..... A later wheel was an Edwardian one, which was a 'low breast shot' meaning that the water hits the wheel about 2 ft above the base for slightly more efficiency.
The ground floor is, of course, where the grain comes in and the flour goes out. Hoists using the power of the turning wheels unloaded the carts and raised the grain to the top of the building , as well as collecting the flour and sending it out to the transport. There were inspection hatches in the flour chutes, so that the fineness of the milling could be tested by the 'rule of thumb'.
Outside, we saw the metal ties which hold the handsome brick facade onto the wood of the mill itself, and the charming garden. Also the mud flats of the River Lea at ebb, when the grain barges would be unloaded with minimal risk of capsizing.
It was a very interesting tour; how lucky we are that the listing should protect this charming spot from development into riverside apartments. The Clock Mill is now a Free School, but the House Mill should be safe.
It is open on Sundays, should you wish to have a look, and all the details are here.