Jean Kerrigan continues tracing the Ashby family’s historical records – starting this time with an advertisement which shows the family’s response to the years of rapid development and change
Driven in large part by the development of the railway network, the 1850s and 60s saw rapid urbanisation in Brixton Hill, as in the rest of south London.
London Bridge station had opened in 1836, with trains serving south London, Kent and Sussex. Twelve years later, Waterloo Station opened, with lines reaching out across south-west London. On 1 December 1856, Streatham Station (now Streatham Hill) was opened by the West End of London and Crystal Palace Railway Company. Six years later, the Chatham and Dover Railway opened stations at Clapham, Brixton and Herne Hill, resulting in many more houses being built and occupied by families whose breadwinners could now easily travel to work north of the Thames.
Property development impacted negatively on the Ashby family business. Surrounding buildings reduced windpower and in 1862 John Ashby’s third son, Joshua, who had taken over at Brixton Lower Mill after his father died, decided it was no longer economical to mill by windpower. Ever resourceful, he signed a 40-year lease on a watermill at Mitcham, where he believed the River Wandle offered a much more reliable source of power.
Two years later the sails were removed from the Brixton tower mill, and the family disposed of the wind-driven machinery that was no longer of use.
But the Brixton property was not abandoned. This brightly coloured advertising card of 1897 describes the Ashby business as being based in Brixton Hill and Mitcham. Census returns show that the family were still living and trading at Brixton Hill, probably using the tower mill for storage.
The 1871 census lists Joshua Ashby, born in 1821 at Brixton, as a master miller employing nine men. He is living in the Mill House with his wife Mary and their five children: Ernest (18), described as a miller’s son, and four younger children, all “scholars”. Also living in the Mill House are two domestic servants: Mary Luetchford (37), and Mary Ann Oliver (15).
Next door in the Mill Cottage are Jonathan Luetchford (66), a gardener, his wife Elizabeth and two sons – Joshua, a clerk, and Christopher, a grocer’s assistant. We can assume that most of the nine men employed by Joshua were working at the watermill in Mitcham.
By 1901, the occupants of the Mill Cottage are no longer relatives of the Ashbys, who still live at the Mill House. That year the census lists Mary Ashby as a widow aged 72 (Joshua having died in 1888). She is living with her 46-year-old daughter and sons Bernard (45) a corn dealer, and Joshua John (43) a miller. Although still living in Brixton they are milling flour in Mitcham.
Next door in Mill Cottage are James Tulley, a widowed gardener, his two children, Bessie (19) and James (17), a carpenter, and a nephew (22), a cashier. We can speculate that James Tulley was the Ashby’s gardener, while the two young men could have been employed at the Brixton end of the milling business.
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.
But in 1902 everything changed when the 40-year lease on the Mitcham watermill expired. Joshua John and Bernard Ashby made the decision to return flour milling to Brixton, and to invest in new machinery. They bought a steam engine to drive a pair of French burrstones, and started to mill again at Brixton, still basing their business on stoneground flour.
This was a risky decision. By the beginning of the 20th century, flour was increasingly being produced at roller mills that could cope with imported harder grains and produce whiter flour. In 1885, Joseph Rank had built his first roller mill on Hull’s dockside. Roller mills producing flour on an industrial scale were established at all major ports.
In 1887 the Association of British and Irish Millers had reported that, while the population in Britain rose from 18 million in 1851 to 26 million 30 years later, the number of workers in mills had dramatically fallen from 36,000 to 23,000.
In 1879 there were 10,000 working windmills, but by 1887 only 8,814 remained. During that period 460 new roller mills had been opened. Imported flour was used for 75 per cent of all bread baked in 1887.
Another blow to traditional stoneground milling came in 1914, when the government ruled that flour from windmills was unfit for human consumption due to the very poor standards of cleanliness that could be maintained in them. This left the few remaining windmills producing only animal feed.
In this environment, Ashby & Sons did well to maintain their business right up to 1934, when Joshua John closed it down on his retirement. He had never married, and was living in the Mill House with his housekeeper Marion Johnstone Marshall, who had been with the family since 1901 when, aged 24, the census recorded her as a boarder and companion to Joshua John’s widowed mother. After his death in 1935, it was Marion Marshall who continued to live in the Mill House until 1952, along with Betty Petrie Marshall and other relatives.
Following Joshua John’s death, the Mill Cottage was let first to a family called Buckle then, from 1938 to 1952, to the Holden and Norman families.
When Lambeth Council decided in 1957 to create a public park around the Ashby tower mill, both Mill House and Mill Cottage were demolished, the outbuildings clustered round the tower mill following later.
The Friends of Windmill Gardens have never seen an image of the Mill House, number 49 Blenheim Gardens – described in the Survey of London as “a plain two storey stock brick villa with a central entrance”. If you know of a photograph or drawing, please get in touch (email firstname.lastname@example.org).