Brixton Windmill in the 19th century

Brixton Windmill in the 19th century

Until the middle of the 19th century Brixton was agricultural and largely undeveloped. Although located just three miles from Charing Cross, in 1800 Brixton had more in common with the villages of rural Surrey than with London.

In 1802 Christopher Chryssell Hall, a Southwark merchant, purchased land from the Manor of Stockwell. In 1816 he had a tower mill in the “Kentish” design built on one plot of this land.

In 1817, John Ashby of Brixton Hill obtained a 99-year lease for two acres of land to the south of a new road to be called Cornwall Road (now Blenheim Gardens), together with a “brick corn mill” and other buildings.

The windmill was soon surrounded by outbuildings, including a mill cottage (which survived to the 1960s) and an adjacent bake house, where bread was baked and sold to local people.

Brixton Windmill - historic photo
Image: Copyright © London Borough of Lambeth/ Lambeth Archives

Renovations and repairs

Image: Copyright © London Borough of Lambeth/ Lambeth Archives

William Ashby, a millwright from Westerham in Kent, kept ledgers describing the works that he undertook on Brixton Windmill in September 1827.

He converted a pair of spring sails into patent sails by adding a striking rod system so that the amount of wind spilled by the shutters could be adjusted without stopping the mill. 

Soon afterwards, a new wallower wheel was fitted, costing £22, and described as “a new Iron Wollar 3ft. 6in. dim. Pitchd & Trimd with Iron face ring for hoisting sacks etc. – geared with wood”.

So from 1827, Brixton Windmill had two types of sail – one pair of common sails and one pair of patent sails. The patent sails were originally operated by a striking rod that passed through the centre of the cast-iron windshaft, emerging at the rear of the cap. Here, a wheel and chain mechanism let the miller control the sails from a stage that originally encircled the mill on the first floor.

In 1827 the “wind corn mill” was valued at £500, with the machinery in the mill valued at an additional £100. The machinery included “mill stones, mill machines and dressing mills and turning gears”. Other “stock and moveable utensils” (including cloths and sacks) were valued at £250. 

Renovations and repairs continued to be recorded until 1840, when the ledger stops, and it is evident that the mill was kept in good repair by John Ashby.

Development around Brixton Windmill

Mill Cottage, watercolour, artist unknown. Date 1820s
Image: © London Borough of Lambeth/ Lambeth Archives

By 1827 there were already various buildings on the site, which eventually started to resemble a mix of farmyard and industrial premises.

Interestingly, the mill was said to be adjacent to a “small kiln”. When corn or oats were harvested in the variable climate of England, they were often too damp to be successfully processed into flour. Heated drying kilns were introduced to remove the moisture content of the grain.

Nearby was also a millwright’s shop and various outhouses.

The layout of the site is clearly depicted in the Ordnance Survey map of 1870. The circular windmill is shown with the attached buildings, which rise to the first floor, allowing the miller access from the roof to adjust the sails.

Just to the north is Mill Cottage, which at various times in the 19th century was occupied by bakers and their families. (In 1859 Ashby was in business with the Sholl family as ‘cottage bread makers’ in Dulwich Road, Brixton.) 

A little further away, the larger Mill House (a double-fronted Georgian villa) at the end of the lane near Cornwall Road, was where the Ashby family lived.

The grounds surrounding the mill were a combination of gardens, orchards and allotments.

os map of 1870
OS Map of 1870 Image: © Ordnance Survey

Robbed of wind

Printed advertisement card for Ashby & Sons. 1897
Image: © London Borough of Lambeth/ Lambeth Archives

By the beginning of the Victorian age the rural idyll was coming to an end. Development around the windmill was detrimental to the business.

In 1840 the other windmill at Brixton was pulled down. In 1844 John Ashby let half of his land to be developed for housing. Buildings started to impinge on the windmill and its surroundings. 

In 1845 John Ashby died, and the running of Ashby’s Mill passed to his son Aaron Ashby

After the deaths of his brothers, Aaron in 1854 and Amos in 1858, Joshua Ashby took over the mill, and it was he who ran the business until his death in 1888.

In the 1850s Brixton became more urban, with the new houses sheltering Ashby’s Mill from the strong winds needed to drive it. By the 1860s it had become evident to the Ashby family that the suburbanisation of the surrounding area was having a detrimental effect on the efficient functioning of their windmill. It was reputedly said that “the tall Victorian Mansions built around it in the mid-19th century robbed it of wind”.

So in 1862 Joshua Ashby moved the milling business to a watermill at Mitcham in Surrey.

The Ashbys did not dispose of the windmill, partly because their family home was in Mill House at the end of the drive. They also had a smallholding, garden and orchard in Brixton. The mill and yard had easy access to both London and Mitcham and was ideal for storage.

Without a real purpose and being expensive to maintain, the sails were removed from the mill in 1864 and reputedly burned for firewood.