Penny Steele explains how changing technology and power sources link the milling operations of 1816 to the newly thriving flour production of today
The modular mill on the meal floor of Brixton Windmill has been instrumental – not once but twice – in reviving flour milling at Brixton Windmill.
By 1862, milling by windpower was no longer feasible at Brixton because of the wind block caused by building development around the mill. The Ashby family moved their milling operation to a watermill at Mitcham – only to move it back again 40 years later when the lease on the watermill expired.
The self-contained mechanical (or ‘modular’) mill was installed in 1902, when Joshua John Ashby, the third generation of the Ashby family to work the mill, began grinding flour in Brixton again.
There had been many advances in technology since the windmill was built in 1816, and by 1902 both wind and water power were considered unreliable and outmoded. When there was not enough wind or water, millers began installing steam engines to provide power for milling.
In the late 19th century, many millers – including Joshua John’s cousin Francis Ashby, owner of a flour mill in Croydon – switched from stone milling to roller milling, still the main industrial method used today.
Typically, roller milling removes the bran from imported hard wheat and processes the grain into white flour, whereas stone grinding is suited to grinding softer British wheat, and produces wholemeal flour which can then be sieved to produce white flour. Joshua John opted to keep on producing stoneground flour rather than converting to roller milling. To power the stones, he installed a steam engine housed in a building adjoining the mill.
The investment seems to have paid off, as the business prospered. Later on, a gas engine was fitted to replace the steam one, and the modular mill was used until 1934, when the business closed on Joshua John’s retirement.
The cast-iron frame of the modular mill was made by R Waygood & Co. of Newington Iron Works, Falmouth Road, London SE1 – a company which later became part of Otis Elevators.
Unlike the wind-driven machinery, the gears which drive the modular mill are positioned within the frame below the millstones (encased in an iron vat) and the hopper (the large funnel into which the grain is poured). The mill even has a built-in crane to enable the miller or millwright to lift off the runner stone, to enable the ‘harp’ pattern on the grinding surfaces to be ‘dressed’ or sharpened.
The millstones were supplied by Bryan Corcoran of Mark Lane in the City of London, where millwrights and suppliers to the milling and corn trades had premises near the Corn Exchange.
These French burrstones are composed of small pieces of quartz set in plaster and bound together with iron bands. They grind fine quality wholemeal flour, which then goes down a wooden chute to be collected in a sack.
The resulting flour was so fine and well-prized in the early 20th century that Ashby & Sons supplied their flour to Harrods and other London stores, as well as titled patrons in the shires.
By the 1960s, Brixton Windmill was recognised as an important part of local heritage, and extensive restoration work was carried out, during which part of the gas-driven machinery for the modular mill was removed.
It wasn’t until the rehabilitation of the windmill in 2010-11, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and carried out by the historic restoration company Owlsworth IJP, that a new electric motor was fitted and the modular mill began to be brought back into working order.
Following the restoration, the Friends of Windmill Gardens were frequently asked “When will flour be produced again?” and in 2013 an appeal was launched to raise funds for this purpose.
After discussions with other mills and testing of the machinery, November 2014 saw the first dozen volunteers being trained to grind flour using the modular mill, and on Milling Monday, May bank holiday 2015, the meal floor of the windmill once again echoed to the sound of wheels turning and stones grinding, as visitors watched volunteer millers at work.
The Friends of Windmill Gardens have a long-term aim of creating a social enterprise to provide skills training to local people and sell flour produced from local organically sourced wheat. This will provide much-needed funds to support our educational and community activities.
Brixton Windmill’s bicentenary year of 2016 saw the launch of flour sales, with the windmill’s distinctive packaging becoming an increasingly common sight in local shops and other outlets.
Interested in becoming a volunteer miller? Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for information.
Click here for a list of stockists of Brixton Windmill flour.