Who lives in a house like this? Jean Kerrigan tells the story of the Ashby homes
In all the paintings and historical photographs of Brixton Windmill, a house can be seen on the left of the track leading up to the brick tower mill. This is Mill Cottage, probably built when the windmill was constructed in 1816.
On 13 November 1817, John Ashby (born 1772), the first miller at Brixton Windmill, signed a 99-year lease for two acres of ground on Brixton Hill “with a brick corn-mill and other buildings”.
That lease also gave John shared use of a road running along the north side of the land. The newly built windmill was originally known as Brixton Lower Mill, because from 1799-1844 another windmill stood at the top of Brixton Hill near Bleak Hall Farm, and was called Brixton Upper Mill.
John Ashby leased his land and mill from a Southwark merchant, Christopher Chryssel Hall, who had acquired 62 acres from the Manor of Stockwell in 1802 which he divided into plots and let out. John’s land, plot 84, lay to the south of the newly constructed road off Brixton Hill – Cornwall Road (later renamed Blenheim Gardens).
Corn milling in 1816 was potentially a profitable business. The long wars with France that had brought hunger and bread riots across the country had ended the year before. To protect British grain growers, Parliament introduced the Corn Laws, stopping imports. So the new windmill on Brixton Hill milled only local grain.
In 1922, John Ashby’s grandsons claimed that the brick tower mill, by then known as Ashby’s Mill, had been built in 1816 by their grandfather. This is probably true, as the lease signed in 1817 (at a yearly rent of £31-10s–0d payable quarterly) was “from Christmas day now last past”. It is also probable that John Ashby had drawn on the expertise of his half-brother William (born 1779), who was a mill engineer based in Kent. It’s likely that John arranged for William Ashby to design his new mill, in the style of other tower mills William had designed in Kent. We do know from existing records that in the 1820s William carried out maintenance and development work at the Brixton site.
So who lived in Mill Cottage? And who lived at the more substantial Mill House (25 Cornwall Road), erected as a family residence for the Ashbys before John died in 1845?
The 1841 census records that John, 65, his wife Hannah, 60 (née Luetchford), and three of their children – including Aaron, aged 30, a miller like his father – were all living at Brixton Lower Mill.
Ten years on, the next census shows that Hannah Ashby is a widow and head of the household. Other residents were: John her son (master miller employing four men), a visitor, an apprentice, and Anne Luetchford, aged 16, who was born in Sevenoaks and is listed as a “servant”.
Living “next door” are Samuel Sholl, widow and master baker, and Sarah Ashby, daughter of John and Hannah. Sarah, aged 46, is listed as unmarried, a visitor, and a miller’s daughter. We know that she later married Samuel, who was her brother-in-law – her sister Hannah, Samuel’s first wife, having died some time before 1851. Interestingly, another of John Ashby’s children, his second youngest son Amos, then the miller at Warlingham Mill, had also married into the Sholl family, to Samuel’s sister Rebeckah.
A second family is also listed as “living next door” to the Mill House. The head of this household is Jonathon Lutchford [sic]. With him are his wife Elizabeth and seven children: four sons and three daughters, aged from six months to 19 years. The oldest boy, William, and his father are also described as millers. It is unclear whether there are two families living “next door” in Mill Cottage, or whether those listed with Samuel Sholl are living at the bakery, one of the cluster of buildings on the property described in John’s will of 1845 as “…that built corn mill and 2 messuages or tenements and other premises now standing…”.
At this time, some of the open fields around the Ashby land were used for agriculture, but others had traditionally been used to produce material for local brick works. However, increasingly in the first half of the 19th century some of these fields were being leased for house building, which realised a much quicker profit.
Indeed, two years before he died in 1845, John Ashby agreed to let the eastern half of his property to a local builder, John Muggeridge of Brixton Road. Seven houses fronting Cornwall Road were erected on that piece of land, adding to the growing number of buildings along Brixton Hill and the surrounding streets.
The year after John’s death in 1845 saw the abolition of the restrictions and tariffs on imported wheat known as the Corn Laws, first introduced in 1815. Now foreign wheat began to arrive at British ports – a challenge for local windmills. These new varieties of corn with harder grain could not so easily be ground by their stones. In addition, a new roller mill process had been invented in Hungary in 1834, and by 1848 steel roller mills were running there and in Switzerland. Driven by steam engines, this new technology was to become an increasing threat to England’s corn mills, whether they were powered by wind or water.
Another challenge to Ashby’s Mill was the rapid expansion of London. During the 1850s and 60s, Brixton Hill and the rest of south London changed rapidly from a rural to an urban environment. Property development in the area that reduced the ambient windpower was pretty disastrous for the Ashby family’s business.
But later census returns show that the family continued to live and trade at Brixton Hill. Our next object is an advertising card, showing how the Ashby family managed to adapt and thrive in the turbulent years of rapid urbanisation from the 1850s onwards.