It is difficult to believe, but a site at the southern end of Blackfriars Bridge was for a brief period a wonder of the industrial world. Albion Mills was built at the start of the Industrial Revolution by the great engineer Matthew Boulton between 1783 – 1786, helped by James Watt. A five-storey building, it was the world’s first commercial flour mill to be powered by steam engines. Erasmus Darwin called them “the most powerful machines in the world”.
The trendy upper classes liked to drive to Blackfriars in their coaches and gawp at this spectacle of a new age being born – and on this occasion in the south of England, not the north.
Harder eyes saw the enterprise in a different light. Albion Mills was widely resented, especially by local millers and millworkers, whose wind-driven mills were put under sentence of death by the new age of steam. When Albion Mills caught fire at 6.30 a.m. on 2 March 1791 in a spectacular conflagration which the primitive fire service couldn’t adequately deal with, it was widely presumed to be the work of revenging local arsonists.
But a closer inspection by Samuel Wyatt, the architect of the building, and John Rennie (who was later to build Waterloo Bridge and the replacement for the old London Bridge) found that the fire was started accidentally by a problem with grease on a corn machine near a kiln.
Albion Mills was almost certainly the inspiration for William Blake’s “dark satanic mills”, as he and his wife moved to nearby Lambeth in 1790 and would have seen the building, and maybe even the fire, on his walks.
In 1802 William Wordsworth produced his famous sonnet Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802, with its famous opening lines, “Earth has not anything to show more fair.” This was an industry-free poem. The derelict remains of Albion Mills, which was not demolished until 1809, would have still been nearby, as were other mills conveniently lost to the eyeline of Britain’s most prominent romantic poet.
All previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here.