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Posted by Kim Winter, Thursday 8th August, 2019

Brixton Windmill archaeological finds

FoWG visit to MOLA, July 2019

Image: Ann Lee

Penny Steele does some digging on historical artefacts found around Brixton Windmill

Back in 2004 and 2005 there were two community archaeology digs in Windmill Gardens involving local schools, which uncovered pieces of pottery, glass, and other items dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These finds have since been stored by Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) and recently FoWG was contacted by Karen Thomas, Head of Archive at MOLA, to see if we would like them back.

Coincidentally, earlier this year a French drain was dug around the base of the windmill, and Jean Kerrigan, FoWG Chair, asked the workmen to put aside any items they found in case they could illuminate the history of the windmill. This resulted in a large cardboard box of approximately 320 muddy fragments which I cleaned and sorted through.

Ann Lee and I arranged to meet Karen and Nigel Jeffries, Senior Specialist archaeologist at MOLA, to see the finds from the community digs and to show them a selection of the latest pieces from the French drain.

The material held by MOLA includes a copper-alloy finger ring, a knife with a bone handle, a rat bone, and pieces of a water closet and stoneware water pipe. There are also waste items from a stoneware kiln (maybe Doulton’s or another Lambeth pottery), which seem to have been broken up and used as hardcore for ground levelling.

There are a few pieces of clay pipe (for smoking tobacco), but Nigel said there are fewer than would usually be expected on a site of this date – maybe the mill workers didn’t smoke because of the risk of fire and explosion from igniting flour dust.

There are also two pieces of wall tile decorated with a riverside or harbour scene, possibly showing the Tower of London and Tower Bridge.

The pieces from the French drain are mainly different types of pottery but also some glass, an oyster shell, a piece of flint and two fragments of bone. Sadly, there are no complete vessels, but a few pieces join together. Some have marks to help with identification, but most are plain and unmarked.

Many pieces have iron stains where they have been buried with metal objects, and some also have a black tar-like substance stuck to them – could this be the residue of bitumen paint with which the windmill had been painted?

About one third of the pieces are from stoneware jars, bottles, and flagons, which were late 19th and early 20th century packaging for many products such as jam, beer, ginger beer, mineral water and ink. Pieces of one jar have ‘…TLEY LONDON & LIVERPOOL’ and a lighthouse logo moulded into the base: this is a WP Hartley’s jam jar, probably dating from between 1902, when Hartley’s Bermondsey factory opened, and around 1920, when glass jars began to replace stoneware.

Another group of pieces are from moulded pottery mixing bowls, white on the inside and yellowish buff on the outside, of a type which has been made since the early 19th century and is still available today. It’s not possible to tell how old these are, but some pieces have signs of wear and seem to have been well-used. Judging by the differing colours and decoration, there are pieces from at least three bowls. Could these have been used in the mill cottage kitchen or in an on-site bakery?

About half of the pieces are different kinds of plain and patterned earthenware and china – plates, bowls, dishes, jugs, teacups, and saucers that date from the late 19th or early 20th century. Again, it’s not clear if these are from the mill cottage or if they were used by mill workers during their meal breaks.

One anomaly appears to be the piece of a mug printed with a full colour ‘Camp coffee’ print: this seems to date from after the Second World War – maybe it was broken or lost by someone working on or around the windmill in more recent years.

There are also some thicker, heavier pieces of earthenware, and I wasn’t sure what kind of vessels they had come from, but Nigel had the answer – they are most likely pieces of chamber pots or basins and ewers which were used for washing in the days before houses had bathrooms. He also identified pieces of china soap dishes. These, too, could have come from the mill cottage, or maybe some were used for handwashing in the mill, bakery or outhouses.

How can we use these objects? Many can help illustrate how people lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries compared with how we live now. At a time when we are concerned about plastic packaging, stoneware jars, bottles, and flagons show how packaging has changed over the years. Basins, ewers, and chamber pots illustrate how people coped with personal hygiene before houses had modern plumbing.

We hope that these objects will find a home and a new purpose in the Windmill Centre. If anyone can provide us with further information based on the photos, we'd be delighted to hear from you! Just email info@brixtonwindmill.org.uk

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