The Ashby watermill at Mitcham

It’s a well-known part of the story of Brixton windmill that, in 1862, the Ashby family stopped grinding corn by wind power at Brixton and moved their milling operation to a watermill at Mitcham until 1902. But where exactly was the watermill and what is its story? Penny Steele investigates.

The mill, known as Grove Mill, still exists (see image above, taken by Penny Steele), although not in the form when occupied by the Ashbys. It’s located on the north bank of the Wandle river just upstream (east) of Bishopsford Road bridge (also known as Mitcham bridge) and can be glimpsed across the river and through the trees from the Wandle Trail footpath through the Watermeads, a National Trust nature reserve. It stands near the picturesque Fisheries Cottages, which were probably once occupied by mill workers.

Grove Mill

Grove Mill (left) and Fisheries Cottages (right) seen from Mitcham Bridge. Image © Wandle Industrial Museum

It is possible that there had been a watermill on this site or nearby at the time of the Domesday survey (1086), and a number of mills with various names and owners carrying out various processes have been recorded over the years.

Archaeological evidence of mills from the 16th century onwards has been found. The Glover family (two Richards and two Johns) ran a corn mill and other businesses there from the 1770s to the early 1860s.

Aaron Ashby moves to Mitcham

Around 1850, more than a decade before milling by wind power ended at Brixton, Aaron Ashby moved from Brixton to Mitcham to run a mill adjoining the Glovers which, in 1853, was estimated to have a waterwheel capable of producing 20 horsepower.

Aaron was the second son of John Ashby, the first miller at Brixton, and he took over the running of the windmill after his father died in 1845. By the time of the 1851 census Aaron was living in Mitcham, working as a master miller employing four men, while the 1851 and 1855 Post Office directories name Ashby Brothers as millers at Lower Mitcham.

Electoral rolls show that Joshua Ashby, John’s youngest son born in 1821, had an interest in the Mitcham mill by 1852, and by the mid-1850s he was also running Brixton windmill.

Aaron died of cholera in 1854, aged about 43. His younger brother, Amos, born 1816, also a miller, then moved from Warlingham to work at Mitcham but he died in 1858, aged 41. That left Joshua to run both Brixton and Mitcham mills.

Moving milling from Brixton to Mitcham

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

It is assumed that the development of housing around Brixton windmill in the 1850s was robbing it of wind, making it less efficient. Except for periods of flood or drought, water power was much more reliable than wind power, so Joshua must have thought milling only in Mitcham made good business sense.

At some point before 1871 – probably around the time when Joshua took on the 40-year lease in 1862 – the two adjoining cornmills at Mitcham were rebuilt in brick as one three-storey structure. This new building was named Grove Mill after Wandle Grove, the large house nearby which still exists (now called Wandle House).

Grove Mill would have been more spacious and productive than Brixton Windmill. From the traces of grain and flour chutes, it appears that Brixton Windmill had two pairs of stones, but when the lease of Grove Mill was advertised in 1901 it had six pairs. By the time of the 1871 census, Joshua was employing nine men.

The business became Joshua Ashby & Sons, Millers and Corn Merchants of Brixton Hill and Mitcham. Joshua continued to live at the Mill House at Brixton, using the windmill and outbuildings as a warehouse and shop. He died in 1888 and was succeeded by his sons, Ernest, Bernard and Joshua John.

Giving up the lease

When the lease on Grove Mill was due to expire, Bernard and Joshua John (Ernest had died in 1894) decided not to renew. It was advertised in The Miller journal in 1901 as a corn mill equipped with a breast-shot waterwheel, six pairs of grinding stones, dressing machines, and other equipment, to be let from Michaelmas (29 November) 1902. But there were no takers, and hundreds of years of corn milling on the Wandle at Mitcham came to an end.

There are various reasons why the Ashbys may have chosen to not renew the lease. A Joshua Ashby & Sons advertisement in the 1922 Lambeth Guide said the demand for roller ground instead of stoneground flour was the reason for not continuing to mill at Mitcham, and that Brixton Windmill was refitted internally with modern machinery driven by a gas engine. This is supported by the fact that the owners of Grove Mill were unable to find a new tenant for it as a corn mill. However, there is no evidence that a roller mill was installed at Brixton – the Ashbys continued to advertise their stoneground flour milled on the modular mill, which our volunteer millers still use.

Water shortage?

Another reason may have been a problem with water supply. The Wandle is a fast-flowing stream, making it ideal for watermills, and many mills were established along its course – there were two other mills very close to Grove Mill. Sometimes water was diverted or taken out of the river for industrial or domestic purposes, reducing the flow, or industrial processes polluted the water, and this often led to disputes between neighbours.

English Windmills by Donald Smith, published in 1932, says the Ashbys left Grove Mill because ‘the flow of water at Mitcham proved to be insufficient for the power required…’ and he may have learned this from Joshua John Ashby himself. Also, according to the Lea Bridge Heritage website, many parts of London suffered a series of ‘water famines’ in the late 1890s, so the flow of the Wandle may have been reduced by drought.

Grove Mill today

In 1903, Grove Mill was converted to a new use – the manufacture of vegetable-based artificial horsehair used as a filling for upholstery and mattresses – but in 1907 disaster struck, when the building was gutted by fire. It was rebuilt as a two-storey structure, incorporating walls of the 1860s mill into the eastern half of the building. It continued in various industrial uses until 2003 when it was converted to residential use. None of the milling machinery remains.

If you would like to find out more, Wandle Industrial Museum have a history of Grove Mill on their website.

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