Brixton Windmill in the 20th century

Brixton Windmill in the 20th century

In 1902 the lease on the watermill in Mitcham expired. Joshua John Ashby, son of Joshua Ashby, was in charge of the business at this stage and decided to return to the mill in Brixton.

He installed a new iron-clad modular mill that was driven by steam (and later by gas) on the first floor of the mill, so the lack of windpower was no longer a problem. This is the mill that is once again being used to produce flour at Brixton Windmill!

As the demand for finer flour spread across the country, mills were confronted with the choice of trying to survive producing a lower grade product or investing in roller technology. The new millstones were made of French burrstone, a type of quartz that ground much finer flour than the previous Derbyshire gritstone used for milling. The investment paid off, and the business prospered again. 

A leaflet published in about 1914 showed the types of products produced and sold by Joshua Ashby & Sons Ltd – their own stoneground flour and wheat meal, which was ground on the premises, and poultry foods specially prepared by the family. They also sold many other products, including white flour, self-raising flour, peas, beans, scotch oatmeal, yeast and rice.

Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th bread was baked in a small bakery situated next to Mill Cottage in the mill yard. In 1959, an elderly Brixton resident claimed that the mill performed an extra trade, when people used to take their gleanings from the wheat fields to be crushed so they would have flour for home baking.

At the centenary of the mill in 1917, according to the press, “the conditions of 100 years ago are maintained in this rural spot and it is a relic of an age which is fast becoming a memory. It is approached by a small roadway hedged with privet, over which nods acacias, limes and filberts, lots of fowl.”

In 1925 it was reported that “London still possesses a windmill though it is not now working. It stands in Cornwall Road, Brixton and has had the sails removed, being transformed into a dwelling house to help in making up the shortage of houses.”

This was actually untrue because the gas engine that worked the modular mill continued in use until 1934, when it was said that demand for wholemeal flour was no longer sufficient to keep the mill running. But it is interesting to note that even in 1925 the mill was seen as a curiosity.

At some point a gallery was constructed around the exterior of the tower’s wooden cap, from which a “wonderful view of London” could be obtained – perhaps another source of income.

Image: Owen Llewellyn
Image: Owen Llewellyn
Brixton Windmill, showing the viewing platform. Photo. 1925
Image: © London Borough of Lambeth/ Lambeth Archives
Brixton Windmill, showing the viewing platform. Photo. 1925 Image: © London Borough of Lambeth/ Lambeth Archives

Closing the mill

In 1934 Joshua John Ashby retired and closed the milling business. The Times reported that year that efforts were being made to save the old windmill from destruction. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) stated that it was “the only remaining windmill anywhere near the heart of London”. 

In the same year an examination of the site included an excellent survey of what was there at the time:

“It stands well back from the road, access being obtained by a small carriage way running past the mill cottage and there is a fairly large yard in front of the mill. All old machinery has been removed from the mill and modern machinery installed, but the mill building is in excellent condition … there is a range of outbuildings built around the base of the mill extending up to the level of the first floor. These are very extensive and appear to be in very fair order. The whole place would make a most excellent unemployment centre or club premises … The mill is of great interest as being almost unique in London, and is quite typical of the traditional practice of windmills built at the time of its erection. It would be a great pity if such a landmark of Old Lambeth was destroyed.”

The report concluded that, apart from the gallery around the cap (which had been condemned as unsafe in 1932), the whole mill building could be thoroughly cleaned and put into first-rate order for just £25.

Lambeth Borough Council talked of creating a type of “Kew Gardens” on the site. In 1936 a Mr John Ward wrote to the local press wanting to refurbish the old mill in Cornwall Road and as he said it had been derelict for five years. In fact, the mill had stopped producing flour only in 1934. 

SPAB and Lambeth continued their correspondence about the mill until the outbreak of Second World War – which put a stop to negotiations. 

During the Second World War, the site was used as a timber warehouse and the ground as allotments. The one-storey outbuilding at the base of the mill had been damaged when bombs fell just 50 feet away, and had received a Dangerous Structure notice. 

In 1945 the National Trust expressed an interest in taking on Brixton Windmill and talked with the Ashby trustees, but nothing came of it.

In 1950 the trustees said they would prefer to sell to “a society or local authority that would preserve the property as was the desire of Joshua Ashby”.

At that time the site consisted of “the mill, mill house and garden (the land at present used for an allotment), a cottage in bad repair but let and another cottage also let”. The Ashby trustees were asking £10,000 for the premises.

Listed but not saved yet

The windmill was listed Grade II* in 1951, but despite that recognition it was almost demolished in the early 1950s, when an application was made to build flats on the site. The Evening Standard asked in 1954: “Must a London windmill make way for flats?”

In 1951 SPAB campaigned for Lambeth to make the mill the centrepiece of a new public garden. The Lambeth Civic Society was also active in campaigning to save the windmill during the 1950s.

The creation of Windmill Gardens

Image: Copyright © London Borough of Lambeth/ Lambeth Archives

In 1957, London County Council (LCC) bought the land, the windmill and the associated buildings for £7,845. For a further £11,000, it also acquired Mill House, Mill Cottage and 47 Blenheim Gardens, along with 150 square feet of land from the Metropolitan Water Board.

LCC decided to turn the land into a public open space. At first just three-quarters of an acre of gardens around the mill were laid out, but then the gardens were extended to cover the entire 2.5 acres.

At the time there was debate as to whether it should be called Old Mill Gardens or Ashby Gardens. Eventually Windmill Gardens was chosen.

Buildings demolished

In 1962 The Builder magazine expressed regret that LCC was planning to “demolish the original Mill House, a simple, but elegant, rural Regency cottage of good proportions, and with eaves projecting a good eighteen inches from the walls”. It was hoped that it could be retained and furnished appropriately and kept as a museum of 19th-century domestic life, on the same lines as the Geffrye Museum in Shoreditch.

In fact what they were talking about was Mill Cottage, shown above. Mill House was actually a double-fronted plain brick villa, solidly built and located at the entrance to the complex, slightly detached from the industrial buildings.

Despite this, in the early 1960s the outbuildings, bakery, Mill Cottage and Mill House were all demolished when the site was laid out as public open space.

First restoration of Brixton Windmill

In 1964 Brixton Windmill itself was restored. A Lincolnshire millwright, Mr JE Thompson, restored the mill over four months, using some machinery from a mill at Burgh-le-Marsh in Lincolnshire as well as creating brand new parts. 

Many of the internal beams of the mill were considered to be much older than the mill itself and may have been old ships’ timbers reused during the initial construction in 1816.

New sails were constructed to match those shown in a photo dating from before their removal in 1864. The total cost of this restoration was £5,350.

Open to the public

In 1968 the windmill opened to the public for the first time, and for several years it opened each weekend during the summer.

In 1971 Lambeth Council took over ownership of Brixton Windmill and the adjacent gardens from the Greater London Council. By the mid-1970s, the windmill had fallen into neglect, becoming run down and derelict.

In 1978 the mill was given a facelift costing £1,800, which repaired the sails and windows and repainted the black exterior. But a newspaper report from the 1980s described how vandals had gone on the rampage, daubing football slogans on the outside and smashing through the wall, breaking windows and furniture.

Image: Copyright © London Borough of Lambeth/ Lambeth Archives
Image: Copyright © London Borough of Lambeth/ Lambeth Archives
Image: Copyright © London Borough of Lambeth/ Lambeth Archives
Image: Copyright © London Borough of Lambeth/ Lambeth Archives

Second restoration of Brixton Windmill

Image: June Stillman

In the mid-1980s Lambeth Council instigated a major restoration of the mill, in recognition of its important heritage status.

Millwright David Nicholls set to work, taking off the whole cap and sails, and transporting them back to his workshop. He recalls bringing them back through central London in the middle of the night, with a police escort, as “great fun!”.

Unfortunately, the cycle of restoration and neglect took another turn in the 1990s, when the windmill was closed to the public and again became derelict and vandalised.