Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The opening of Albion Flour Mills in 1786 was hailed as a great industrial achievement and attracted curious sightseers and visiting overseas dignitaries. The factory faced onto the river on the south east corner of Blackfriars Bridge.
“It was furnished with a steam engine, contrived by Messrs Boulton and Watt of Birmingham, which turned ten pair of stones, each grinding nine bushels of corn in an hour without intermission, day or night; besides which it gave motion to the various apparatus for hoisting and lowering the corn and flour into and out of the barges, for fanning the corn to keep it free from impurities, and for sifting and dressing the meal, from its first state, till perfectly cleared for the use of the baker.” (Thomas Allen, 1829)
The introduction of steam engines in factories was not however welcomed by everyone and traditional millers looked on fearful for the future of their livelihoods and indeed Albion Mills put many traditional wind and water driven mills out of business. Then five years after opening, the mills together with a large stock of flour and grain were destroyed in a huge fire. The house and offices next door to the main factory escaped due to a wall of double thickness. It was said that part of St James’ Park was covered with half burnt grain from the fire.
At first arson was suspected and the sight of the Albion Mills burning down was certainly looked on with enjoyment and indeed celebrated by many as they watched from Blackfriars Bridge. The owner and the engineer, Samuel Wyatt and John Rennie, believed the fire was started by friction. The Times reported there had been a large quantity of flour ground within the previous 10 days and the machinery had been in constant operation. There had been a small fire the previous evening that had been extinguished, but this warning went unheeded. The fire occurred when the Thames was at low tide and the flames and heat so intense it was impossible for the fire engines to approach from any side.
William Blake lived nearby and it’s said that Albion Mills perhaps inspired the line ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ in Jerusalem. Though the destruction of Albion Mills was greeted with cheering from some quarters and songs written about the disaster, a workforce of nearly 300 lost their jobs. Large parcels of fire damaged grain were sold off cheap as animal food, and the building remained a derelict shell until it was demolished in 1809.