Think of London, and you think of… windmills? Perhaps not! You’re more likely to associate them with Amsterdam. But once you get out of the centre, London contains a surprising number of rather fine windmills. It had many more until comparatively recently. For instance there were mills in Shoreditch, Clerkenwell and even Holborn in the middle ages and Soho had a mill in Rathbone Place as late as 1787. Many of the mills in the nearer suburbs disappeared in the 19th century – Hackney’s mills went in the 1830s and Camberwell’s were gone by 1850. There are still a good few left though.
Ashby’s Mill in Brixton has just reopened to the public after major restoration works. It was built in 1816, and operated as late as the 1930s – though for the last part of its life as an active mill it used an engine, rather than running on wind power. It’s now owned by the local council and is open four or five Sundays a year. The mill is a fine, tall, brick tower, painted in shining black – a strong presence on the Brixton landscape.
Wimbledon Common has a fine windmill too, built in the same year as Ashby’s Mill but quite different in design. It was a hollow post mill, with an octagonal brick base and a conical tower above, looking rather short and stubby where Ashby’s Mill is tall and imposing – though I rather like the way it seems to have tried to look like a ‘gothick’ castle with a windmill on top. In fact this is quite an unusual windmill design for England – it’s much more common in Holland. Now a museum, Wimbledon Windmill is open at weekends from March to October.
Wandsworth Common also has a windmill, a wooden smock mill on a brick base. This was never a working cornmill – its purpose was to drain water from a railway cutting and pump it into an ornamental lake. Unfortunately, without its sails, it cuts a poor figure.
Perhaps the most spectacular of London’s windmills – and the only really good one north of the Thames – is Abraham’s Mill, in Upminster – a fine white-painted, four-storey wooden smock mill. Built in 1803, it drove its first owner into bankruptcy, and was later struck by lightning; but it kept working until 1934. It’s now owned by the council and looked after by the Friends of Upminster Windmill, who open it to the public on summer weekends.
Shirley’s Mill in Croydon is the latest of London’s extant mills; it was built in 1854, replacing an earlier mill that had burnt down. It may well have been the last large windmill ever built in Surrey and is a full five storeys tall. A sign of the times is the way the machinery was adapted to enable the mill to be run by steam power, as an alternative to using the sails. This handsome mill is open for guided tours on the first Sunday of the month from June to October – it also participates in London Open House, in September.
Meanwhile, I can’t resist adding London’s latest adventure in wind power to this article – the Strata building in Elephant and Castle, which has three huge wind turbines fitted at the top of the building (quickly nicknamed ‘the Razor’ by irreverent Londoners). The jury is out on the effectiveness of the turbines – they will only meet 8 percent of the building’s energy needs – but at least, being as high up as they are, they shouldn’t have any trouble catching the wind!
London’s mills are in different nooks and crannies of the city, but it is well worth a detour to check them out.
A guest post by Andrea Kirkby.