Visit to House Mill

Jean Kerrigan reports on a volunteer visit to the House Mill in east London

Eleven Friends who all regularly volunteer as guides and stewards at Brixton Windmill enjoyed a wonderful visit to the Grade 1-listed House Mill in east London last Sunday. The mill – believed to be the largest tidal mill still in existence in the world – was thoroughly explained to us by House Mill trustee and volunteer William Hill.

Built across the River Lea, the House Mill is now owned and managed by the River Lea Tidal Mill Trust. Like our mill at Brixton, it was rescued from destruction in the 1950s, when the site was listed. Also like Brixton, it suffered years of decay before a group of dedicated volunteers campaigned successfully for its restoration. However, the similarities end there.

Tidal mill?
The House mill stands on a man-made island, believed to have been constructed by monks. The present building dates from 1776, but there have been watermills on this spot since before the Domesday Book. In its most recent history it ground grain for the gin trade right up to 1941. During the Second World War the very grand mill house next to the tidal mill was bombed.

The mill is powered by the ebb and flow of the sea and river water trapped behind it at high tide. Four water wheels, each different in design, once powered 12 pairs of French burr stones, of which only six pairs remain.

The two western water wheels are to be restored to generate electricity. This will also involve the introduction of external turbines in the central tide channel of the river, providing a much-needed source of income to secure the long-term future of these historic tidal mills.

Fascinating tour
Brixton Friends were given a very special tour and shown in detail all five floors of the tidal mills. There is a lot to see in this wonderful building, despite the fact that in the 1950s and 60s a lot of the cast-iron machinery was removed.

We were shown a sack hoist about six times larger than the one in Brixton Windmill! We also walked through grain bins as big as a living room – each with a ladder in one corner so millworkers could make a quick escape and avoid being suffocated when the grain poured in.

William showed us the Fairburn “silent machinery” – the stones that ground on an industrial scale for eight hours each day – and he explained the mill’s original system for operating wooden sluice gates to control the water flow to the four water wheels. We also saw the remains of metal gates installed in the 1930s to automatically open and close as the tide rose and fell on the River Lea.

This was a fascinating visit enjoyed by all of us. We were overwhelmed by the size and beauty of the House Mill, and it was a privilege to be taken round by such an expert guide. The discussion on the journey home focused on where we should go on our next volunteer visit.

There are more photos of our visit to the House Mill on our Flickr site.

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