Better together then…. Better together now…. Scotland and England are still perfect partners

16 Sep

Scotland in the late 18th century was one of poorest countries in Europe. Famine and emigration had reduced the nation’s population by 15%, but its leaders believed they had a rescue plan. Seeing the success that England had achieved from its colonies, Scotland sought to establish its very own in Panama in 1698.

But Darien – billed as New Caledonia – quickly fell into disarray and became little more than a humid, fever-ridden swamp. Most of the Scottish settlers that went out to Panama died and for the nation’s economy it was a disaster in that the project consumed nearly a quarter of its liquid capital.

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While England’s protectionist tariffs, which obstructed access to markets, was attributed by some to the collapse of Darien, Scotland’s leaders had little time for playing the blame game. With the financial outlook for the nation darkening by the month it was clear that drastic action would be needed. And so Scotland began formal talks about a union with England in April 1706.

For England’s part, joining with their neighbour in the north made sense as questions remained as to what would happen when Queen Anne passed away. Rather than endorsing a candidate from the Hanoverian dynasty as her successor, the Scots were determined to choose their own monarch. Could this mean the return of Catholic James II? The implications this would have for England’s security greatly worried Westminster given the launch pad for invasion it would provide for France, and other European countries, that opposed the Protestant cause.

By July 1706 agreement was reached on the 25 articles of the Treaty of the Union, providing the substance for the 1707 Act of Union. The English parliament endorsed it by 274 votes to 116 and Scottish parliament by 110 to 67. In the process of establishing the United Kingdom of Great Britain, the Edinburgh parliament was abolished and 45 Scottish MPs joined the 513 English and Welsh MPs in Westminster.

But while Scottish MPs may gave their support to the Union back in 1707, ordinary people were less supportive it seems and widespread protests reportedly broke out on the nation’s streets. Robert Burns also noted there was a hidden agenda in that a share of £20,000 was promised as a sweeter to politicians and others in Scotland (the “Parcel of Rogues”) to force through the legislation.

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Wonderful hiking in the rugged Cairngorms national park.

Security had been one of the key motives for the English for the Union, but in the short-term this was far from quiet. There were uprisings by Jacobites (supporters of James II) in Scotland in 1715 and 1745, and the reign of terror stretched down into the heart of England. The rebellion was only completely crushed at Culloden in 1746 – a battlefield on the outskirts of Inverness in the care of the National Trust for Scotland that I visited just a few weeks ago.

If the story had ended there, you could see why Scots would want to vote for independence in this week’s referendum. People took to the streets following the signing of the Union in 1707 to show disapproval that their voices hadn’t been heard. The reality of course is that much has happened in the last three centuries that has been of benefit for the Scottish nation.

While Scotland kept its own (Presbyterian) church and legal system, it benefited from free trade and access to the colonies. The nation was drawn right to the very heart of the British Empire with soldiers, traders, financiers, engineers, politicians and missionaries all standing to benefit from its riches. Today, the NHS and education systems are devolved giving Scottish people a say in their own affairs.

Scotland thrived in the Union. As Tristram Hunt, the historian and Labour MP wrote in a Sunday Times article (“Faster, higher, stronger together”) on the eve of the Commonwealth Games, Glasgow became the second city of the British Empire. Thanks to access to English imperial markets, the region grew rich on the sugar and tobacco trades, then later engineering – including the export of locomotives to the colonies – and shipbuilding.

“The Scots were the engineers, educators, explorers, doctors, spies and surgeons of empire,” wrote Hunt. “Several governors-general of India were Scottish and more than a quarter of the East India Company’s army officers were Scotsmen… Crucially, the Scots embraced a British identity through the medium of empire. If Great Britain’s primary identity was an imperial one, it allowed for much greater parity between the English and Scots as component nations of the colonial project.”

And it wasn’t just Glasgow that benefitted from the Union, as Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics noted. “There was little trade or industry in Edinburgh before the Union,” he wrote. Only “when the Scottish parliament was no longer assembled in it” did Edinburgh become “a city of some trade and industry.” And for the country as a whole he said “the middling and inferior ranks of people in Scotland gained a complete deliverance from the power of an aristocracy which had always before oppressed them.”

Britain may have lost its Empire, but Scotland still benefits from being part of – and would lose out if it was separated from – the United Kingdom. Jobs could be at risk, particularly in the financial services industry which employs some 200,000 people, if there was a yes vote and companies shift their headquarters south of the border, as has been suggested by a number of big companies. Scotland would also lose its voice on the world stage – and find foreign investment harder to attract – should it break away and lose access to 270 embassies and consulates around the world. Former prime minister John Major has summed up the voices of many by saying: “The UK would be weaker in every international body.”

It’s well documented the nation has a higher level of public spending that the rest of the UK (£11,381 in the UK vs £12,629 in Scotland, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies). With North Sea Oil running out, leaving the Union would be disastrous for Scotland and mean tax rises or cuts in public services. In recent days, supermarket bosses have said there would be a rise in food prices for Scottish people should there be a ‘yes’ vote. And Deutsche Bank, Europe’s biggest investment bank, said independence could result in the worst depression for Scotland since the 1930s.

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Signs point from John O’Groats to all over the world. Scotland lose its international appeal with a ‘yes’ vote.

But why as an Englishman should I care if Scotland decided to go it alone? For me, the answer is simple – we would have lost a unique part of our British identity. Just a few weeks ago on a 10 day road trip from Glasgow – via the Orkney Islands – to Inverness I saw how varied, beautiful and unique the nation’s landscapes are. From walking in the rugged Cairngorms national park to enjoying live traditional music in friendly cities like Inverness, there’s something special about Scotland.

Regular readers of my blog will know how much of a fan I am of many English cities, including London, Manchester and Bristol and rural beauty spots such as the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. Yet despite the diversity and attractions on offer here, losing Scotland would leave a deep hole that would be hard to fill. What would the Union Jack – and the Queen who rules over the United Kingdom – stand for without Scotland?

Just as we joined together to build a powerful British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we can once again work in partnership to create something that is more than a sum of its individual parts. Back then the trades included sugar and tobacco, today they are technology and financial services, but the same principles remain. Three hundred years ago, it was politicians that opted for – without consultation – for Union with England. Now it is the turn of the people to endorse that decision. We were better together then and are still better together now.

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Scottish whisky is shipped all over the world.

Pioneering intercity railway travel at the world’s first passenger station – visiting Liverpool Road, Manchester

11 Sep

“We went like a shot from a gun,” wrote an excited railway passenger in 1835. “No sooner did we come to a field than it was a mile behind us.” Charles Young was travelling on the pioneering Manchester to Liverpool line just five years after its opening and clearly the novelty of fast, intercity journeys had not yet worn off. Then again, speed was something the railway traded off, with the company’s secretary noting: “A saving of time is a saving of money…. the traveller will live double times.”

Within just a few months of opening in 1830, the railway was carrying 1,200 passengers a day. This is particularly remarkable given that stagecoaches had carried just 250 people each day before the line opened. Yes, the railway took business away from stagecoaches (and by 1835 only one daily stage coach service remained), but it also grew the market. Furthermore, it hadn’t been built primarily for passengers; the line was planned to ferry goods (including raw cotton and finished products) to and from the port of Liverpool.

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Liverpool Road station, the world’s first passenger railway station

Railway travel has of course evolved considerably since that first line opened in 1830, with vast sums of money today being invested in improving track, rolling stock and stations. Manchester Victoria, for example, is currently a giant building site with contractors creating a new airy concourse that 21st century passengers will want to use. But our rich railway heritage has, quite rightly, not been forgotten.

The world’s first passenger railway terminal, the site in Manchester where those pioneer travellers set-off from in 1830, was outgrown long ago (it closed in 1844, but remained as a goods yard) and a number of new terminals have opened in the city to satisfy demand. Thankfully though the original station, described by the Railway Companion in 1833 as a “fine stuccoed building, with ample convenience for transacting a business equal to the largest coach-office establishment London” in Liverpool Road survives.

Today, it is quite fittingly, a part of the Museum of Science and Industry (where visitors can also get on board Robert Stephenson’s Planet locomotive which pulled passengers on the line from December 1830). Some imagination is needed though, as modern visitors don’t enter through the front entrance, but through one of the waiting rooms at platform level. Helpfully though I was greeted by the 1837 words of James Cornish, pasted onto one of the walls during my visit:

“We proceed up a flight of stairs and find ourselves in a spacious apartment used by the passengers waiting for any of the trains. It is commonly fitted up for the comfort and convenience.”

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The first-class passenger booking hall at Liverpool Road station

The first class passenger booking halls is today virtually empty, expect for a wooden counter where people would have bought tickets (or picked up boarding passes if they had bought tickets from an agent at a hotel in the centre of Manchester) and has been heavily renovated. In fact, the floors look so shiny that it could be confused with a trendy art gallery in Shoreditch (the room above, the first class passenger waiting, was in fact housing an art exhibition when I visited). Meanwhile, the second class booking hall has few remaining traces from when it was a railway station, but it does have an interesting display of souvenirs (particularly mugs) produced to coincide with the line’s opening.

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Souvenirs produced to celebrate the opening of the Manchester & Liverpool Railway in 1830

Outside the original station entrance, there were major road works in Liverpool Road when I visited so no cars passed, but when passenger trains left from here in the 1830s and 1840s it would have been an extremely busy place. Given it was then considered to be some distance from the centre of Manchester, people arrived here by horsedrawn omnibuses and had their luggage unloaded on the forecourt. This hustle and bustle is captured in several contemporary paintings.

Standing on what was the original platform, it becomes clear that the station wasn’t built in isolation; it formed part of a complex of railway buildings, that included a shopping arcade (which had limited success and were only really used as offices), a station master’s house and storage facilities. Indeed, a structure now used as an exhibition space was the first railway warehouse in the world and dates from 1830. It was used to store everything from coal and cotton to fruit and flour. The sturdy, multi-layered timber framed structure that was pioneered at this site would be replicated elsewhere (including the Great Western Railway, now the main museum building, built 1880), changing not only the skyline of Manchester, but in other countries around the world.

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The ‘1830 warehouse’ – the world’s first railway warehouse, standing next to the Liverpool Road station

Of course, Manchester had been growing for some time when the Liverpool to Manchester Railway opened (I noted last week, for example, how the cotton trade expanded rapidly in the late early 1800s in Ancoats). And the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal which opened in 1761 to move coal from his mines at Wolseley to the city was hugely important. But railways moved things to the next level. Goods could brought in and out of the city much quicker than had been the case by road and canal. Railways quite simply created new markets and made modern Manchester.

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Former platform at Liverpool Road station

“They are called factories” – the story of mills, housing and public institutions in the world’s first industrial suburb

4 Sep

Peter Beuth, a German visitor to Manchester in 1823, wrote of a place where “machinery and buildings can be found commensurate with the miracles of modern times – they are called factories.” Clearly not believing his friend would be familiar with this new type of workplace he felt the need to elaborate:

“Such a barn of a place is eight or nine storeys, up to forty windows long and usually four windows deep…. in addition a forest of steam engine chimneys, so like needles that one cannot comprehend how they stay up, present a wonderful sight from a distance, especially at night when the thousands of windows are brightly illuminated with gas.”

This was Ancoats, on the eastern fringes of Manchester, a place affably known as the world’s first industrial suburb. In just over 50 years from the late 1700s mills, factories and housing sprung up on open fields and newly-built canals criss-crossed the landscape. Indeed, when Frederich Engels visited the area in 1842 he found “the largest mills of Manchester, lining the canals, colossal six and seven storied buildings towering with their slender chimneys far above the low cottages of the workers.” The grid-like pattern that is still evident shows how it was divided into plots for development by individual firms and people.

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McConnel and Kennedy’s mills building – work started in 1797 but Royal Mill was re-built

Today, the mills have long ceased functioning as bustling workplaces where cloth was spun, woven into textiles and exported all over the world. But many of these wonderful, towering buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries survive and are starting to find new uses; as apartments, offices, small workshops and even a coffee shop. The Crown & Kettle pub on the edge of Ancoats is particularly wonderful and is bustling with fine real ales.

But while there has been much progress in the Ancoats conversation area (the protected section where the original mills stand, above Great Ancoats Streets, sandwiched between Oldham Road and the Rochdale Canal) the transformation is far from complete. Many former industrial buildings still lie empty. And some local residents still see Ancoats as a ‘no-go’ area; barely a place they’d want to walk through, let alone a place they’d want to live.

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The boarded-up Cross Keys pub in Ancoats – to many this signifies why the district is a no-go area

It was the arrival of Adam Murray, a Scottish machine-maker, in 1790, and John McConnel and John Kennedy, also Scottish engineers, several years later that brought real transformation to the area. By 1816 these two camps were each running firms with more than 1,000 employees – at a time when the average Manchester mill had 300 workers. All in all, it was a massive leap forward from the scale of production at the world’s first factory at Cromford Mill, Derwent Valley, a place I visited recently. Other mill owners would follow the two firms to Ancoats, leaving the centre of Manchester as an area of warehouses (with showrooms) and other commercial offices.

McConnel and Kennedy began building first, rapidly expanding across plots north of Henry Street and adjacent to the Rochdale Canal, a crucial stretch completed in 1804 which linked to other waterways in the Manchester area. They used powerful Boulton and Watt’s steam engine and were the first to use powered spinning-mules, providing a considerable boost in power compared to Arkwright’s water frame. Royal Mill (built on the site of the original, 1797 mill and re-named following a war-time royal visit in 1942) has now been converted into luxury apartments.

But as McConnel and Kennedy’s original mill was re-built in 1912, the A & G Murray’s (Adam formed a partnership with his brother George) first building stands as the oldest surviving steam-powered mill in the world. Built from 1798, it would have had spinning machines on the upper floors, with preparatory processes such as cleaning and carding carried out on lower levels, as was the case at the mills owned by McConnel and Kennedy. According to an 1811 survey, the Murrays operated 84,000 spindles on their mules, at a time when most spinning firms in Manchester each had fewer than 10,000 (the same research showed that McConnel and Kennedy had 84,000). An off-shoot of the Rochdale canal was rooted underground so that barges could load and unload right underneath the factory meaning that little time was wasted (the basin can be seen behind today behind the former mill complex).

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A & G Murray’s mill complex – the first building here was constructed in 1798, making it the oldest surviving steam-powered mill in the world

While the Murrays’ mill buildings have had some use in recent years, by theatre companies for example, they are today off-limits for visitors who want to marvel at this important industrial heritage. The individual windows are boarded up, the main site fenced off. But through the hoardings you can see in the distance the site’s offices with fine Georgian bay windows, next to it the gate where workers clocked in each day for their gruelling, 12-hour shift. Given that it’s typically cheaper for developers to start from scratch with apartment or office blocks there may be some waiting before any building takes place here.

Cotton mills dominated in this area, but other associated trades, like dye-works, were attracted as well. In addition, glass making, for example, was a prominent industry in Ancoats and by the last quarter of the 19th century it had nine such works. Pieces from one firm, Molineaux, Webb & Co, were exhibited at the 1851 Great Exhibition much to the surprise of the author of the catalogue of seeing “an exhibition of beautiful GLASSWORK emanating from that busy town…. It is not generally known that not less than twenty-five tons of flint-glass are… produced weekly in Manchester.”

The employment opportunities of Ancoats attracted migrants from surrounding rural areas as well as Ireland (where in the 1840s there was a serious potato famine). When the suburb was at its peak in 1861 there was a population of 56,000, putting real pressure of both housing supply and public amenities were slow to develop. Engels wrote in 1845 that “no more injurious and demoralising method of housing the workers has yet been discovered.”

Landlords let and sublet plots of land and constructed housing at the lowest possible cost. Some of the homes were built back-to-back (similar to the design I found in Birmingham) and many residents were forced to live in unsanitary conditions in cellar dwellings. The worst of housing in Ancoats was condemned and demolished long ago, to be replace by public housing developments such as the huge modern Victoria Square – built-between 1894 and 1897 with almost 300 apartments and containing a communal internal courtyard (which when I visited seemed full of community spirit with residents enjoying seemed like a street party).

But ironically many improvements to the area (which also included new public buildings like a school in George Leigh Street in 1912 – curiously with a roof top playground to make best use of space – and swimming baths) also coincided with the start of a long, steady decline of Manchester’s cotton industry. While there was a boom following the Second World War it was short-lived and by the 1960s most spinning in Ancoats ceased, although some smaller businesses remained. To many the closure of Express Printers in 1989 was the end of Ancoats as an industrial suburb.

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Express Printers building – its closure in 1989 was seen by some as the end of Ancoats as an industrial suburb

As Manchester continues to grow, property developers will no doubt be attracted to converting the former mills that currently stand empty into apartments. Other buildings will house more start-up businesses hoping to get a discount on the inner city rents. Pubs, like the boarded-up, eye sore that is Cross Keys, on Jersey Street, will be renovated and re-opened. Even if the power source has changed, one day soon that scene described by Beuth of “at night when the thousands of windows are brightly illuminated with gas light” may largely stand true again.

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Crown & Kettle – top pub on the edge of Ancoats offering fine ales

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An example of a late 19th terrace in Ancoats – today the value of these well-built properties as more people want to live on the edge of Manchester city centre

Rediscovering the Metropolitan Cattle Market in a quiet park in Islington – where once over 15,000 animals were sold daily

21 Aug

For centuries London’s cattle market was Smithfield on the eastern fringes of the City. Drovers brought animals down what is today the A1, which incorporates Holloway Road and Upper Street in Islington, on long journeys from Scotland and the north of England. The animals would then often be fattened up in fields on the outskirts of the urban area of the capital so they could get the highest possible price at market.

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Surviving distinctive clock tower from Metropolitan Cattle Market

As London grew and became more built-up, animals driven through the streets of Islington were regarded as a nuisance. By the Victorian era, with reports of unhygienic conditions and poor treatment of cattle at Smithfield campaigners began to intensify their calls for the livestock market to be re-located outside the city. Thomas Maslen’s view of the market in 1843 is in keeping with the opinions of many at the time:

“Of all the horrid abominations with which London has been cursed, there is not one that can come up to that disgusting place, West Smithfield Market, for cruelty, filth, effluvia, pestilence, impiety, horrid language, danger, disgusting and shuddering sights, and every obnoxious item that can be imagined; and this abomination is suffered to continue year after year, from generation to generation, in the very heart of the most Christian and most polished city in the world.”

Petitions were signed by everyone from bankers and traders to local residents and aldermen. And even Dickens criticised the state of Smithfield in his 1851 essay A Monument of a French Folly.

With the passing of an Act of Parliament in 1852 the decision was taken to construct a new cattle-field on Copenhagen Fields, then distinctly rural, but now a densely populated, residential area off Caledonian Road. The Metropolitan Cattle Market (later known simply as Caledonian Market) was designed by the Corporation’s architect James Bunstone Bunning and opened in 1855 on a 75-acre site. Smithfield would later become a new meat market, rather than a place where live animals were sold.

What made the Islington site particularly attractive was that it was within easy reach of the newly opened Great Northern Railway and North London Railway. Good transport connections were essential given how busy the venture would become. George Birch, wrote in the Descriptive Album of London (c. 1896) that it was “an immense emporium for the sale of sheep, cows, pigs, and calves, formerly held in Smithfield. The market days are Mondays and Thursdays, and great numbers of animals are exhibited for sale, especially on Mondays, when they sometimes number over 15,700.” And as the Morning Chronicle noted in a June 1855 account about the market’s opening day conditions were much improved compared to Smithfield:

“The accommodation for each animal will be much larger, and thus will be removed one of the great defects of the old market – a defect not only tending to deteriorate the quality of the meat we when brought to market, but also to the infliction of the most cruel suffering upon the inoffensive e animals which were subjected to it. In Smithfield there was only a nominal space of from 1 foot 6 inches to 1 foot 8 inches for each bullock; in the new market there will be an actual space of 2 feet for each animal – amply sufficient to allow him to stand easily, and to be handled, though not to lie down.”

Anyone who’s been to this corner of Islington will know that there is no longer a market on Copenhagen Fields; it’s now an attractive park with woodland areas around the edge and, across a road, tennis courts. In the early 20th century, as better storage and refrigeration facilities allowed the trade in live animals to move away from London, a bric-a-brac market was established (which after the Second World War moved to Bermondsey). The markets in Copenhagen Fields finally closed in 1963 after years of considerable decline and later the new park was opened. More recently apartment blocks have been built around the green area. But traces of the old Metropolitan Cattle Market remain, not least a 46-metre high white clock tower which can be seen for miles around and is a listed building.

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Caledonian Park today

Surrounding this structure used to be the offices of the clerk and other officials (where there was an “accurate account of the number of cattle and other stock on sale” posted on the wall, according to the Morning Chronicle), plus the stalls and pens for cattle sheep and pigs. The newspaper also noted that “the whole of the market is surrounded by an exceedingly handsome iron railing; the standards are of a design at once appropriate and elegant, and the shafts are surmounted with the heads of bullocks, in pigs, sheep, or calves, according to the part of the market which the palisades enclose.” While the animal heads have gone, the railings remain.

When the site operated as a market, visitors enjoyed accommodation and entertainment in large public houses at each of the site’s four corners: The Lion, The Lamb, The White Horse and The Black Bull. Today, three of the four buildings remain, although they are no longer licensed premises; they are now used for residential accommodation. Back in the day there was an attempt to control the drunkenness of cattle drovers, as the 1855 Morning Chronicle article noted: “It ought not to be forgotten that the corporation, not unmindful of the change which has of recent years taken place in the habits of these men and of the drovers, has made it an express condition in the leases that coffee as well as intoxicating drinks shall be supplied on reasonable terms.”

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Once a public house used by patrons of Metropolitan Cattle Market

While the market spread across the 75-acre site over the years, a contemporary account also described how it led to the expansion of the general area. What was once rural grew to become somewhere that was much more urban and developed:

“Where before were green meadows, are now houses and inns; and by the erection of this great work, the whole character of the suburb has been changed. Quiet and semi-rural, Kentish Town was heretofore a favourite retreat of the toilworn City clerk or Government employs, who sought here repose and change of scene after his day’s work. It might be taken, if not as the u seat of the aurea mediocrilus on which the Roman is poet dwells so fondly, at least of so much thereof is attainable within a four penny fare from the Bank. But, like all sublunary things, the retirement of Kentish Town is destined to change. Into the midst of its eminently respectable seclusion, streets, evidently destined to the accommodation of the transient drover, are rapidly being intruded, and taverns are fast rising, where ere long the uncouth sounds of hearty northern dialects will mingle with the more subdued southern my tones.”

But while some may have grumbled about the new market, Prince Albert who officially opened it in 1855 was much more positive. In a speech to a distinguished audience he commented it was “a work which lot only deserves admiration in itself on account of the excellence of the arrangements, and the magnificence of the design, but which, will I trust, be found eminently conducive to the comfort and health of the city of London.” He said any opposition “arising from such causes will soon cease, and the farmers will doubtless only learn to appreciate the boon thus conferred upon the by the London Corporation….”

The opening day itself was a lavish affair, with his Royal Highness among 1,700 guests “seated at cross tables, ready to partake of a dejeuner” in a specially erected marquee on what is now the park. During his visit, Prince Albert was also apparently particularly enthused to enter the Electric Telegraph Company offices (which were based in the clock tower) and find the machines were working so he could send a message to the British army in Crimea. “This was accordingly done, and the answer was actually received before his Royal Highness left the hospitable board of the corporation,” reported the Morning Chronicle. The paper described the day:

“From all the new inns, whether in the market itself or in the immediate precincts, flags and banners waved in great profusion, while their windows were crowded d with eager spectators. The two new inns in the market itself were appropriated to the accommodation of ladies, to whom tickets of admission were issued by the civic authorities. As many as 400 of the fairer sex were thus accommodated, nor is it necessary to add that the municipal hospitality was also extended to their provision with suitable a refreshments….. On flagstaffs round the marquee were suspended the heads and horns of beasts and the fleeces of sheep, the arms of each county, and a peaceful trophy, we may call it, of agricultural implements.”

Today, the market lives on but only in name. New Caledonian Market is an antiques market in Bermondsey Square, south of the Thames. The old market site in Islington is now the very pleasant Caledonian Park and sports pitches. Bar the clock tower, railings and surviving public house buildings, there are few reminders of what the site used to be. Sitting on a bench reading the paper on a Saturday morning, with barely another soul in the park, it seems strange to think this was once a bustling enterprise that Prince Albert launched with such a lavish dinner.

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Woodland walks at Caledonian Park

Why market traders could soon be chanting ‘Brixton Flour’. The survival of central London’s last windmill and the story of a middle-class suburb

14 Aug

Market day in Brixton is a noisy affair. The minute you step out of the Tube station and onto the main shopping stretch you are struck by a sea of music and chanting. Gospel choirs, steel drum bands and gig promoters all compete for the attention of passers-by. Around the corner, where traders jostle for business, offering everything from handmade soaps to jerk chicken, it gets more hectic still.

But a mere 20 minute walk away there’s a quiet park that provides a historic reminder of how Brixton used to be. Hidden away at the end of a residential street, off Brixton Hill, and almost missed because of a wall of trees, is central London’s last surviving windmill. When it was built in 1816 the complex, which included various lost outbuildings, would have been surrounded by open farm land for miles around – the neighbouring Brixton prison didn’t open until 1820.

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What’s remarkable about Brixton Windmill is that for its entire service – it operated from 1817 to 1934 (albeit not continuously) – it remained in the hands of the Ashby family, passed down from generation to generation. Now cared for by the Friends of Windmill Gardens, you can climb to virtually the top of this 49 foot brick structure, which has two types of white sails and is covered with tar to shield it from the rain, on open days. Volunteers will accompany you up wooden ladders to the various levels and there are also information panels in the adjoining Windmill Gardens, a green space with play equipment and where children kick footballs around.

Below the ‘dust floor’, was the ‘bin floor’ where John Ashby, an Irish Quaker, and those that followed him as millers at the site hauled sacks of grain or meal ready for the start of the flour producing process. The original sack hoist, with its various ropes and pulleys, and which was used to bring up the raw material through a series of trap doors in the building remains in place today. From the ‘bin floor’ grain moved by gravity through small gaps to the ‘stone floor’ below where the actually milling process took place. One of the original Derbyshire grey mill stones (another is set in grass outside) and cast iron spur wheel which was turned by the winds power remains in the position where it was set at the start of the venture’s operating life.

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Original Derbyshire grey mill stone and spur wheel

The Ashby family transferred their operations to a water mill on the Wandle at Mitcham in 1862 as there wasn’t sufficient wind power at the Brixton site (it was said “the tall Victorian Mansions built around it in the mid-19th century robbed it of wind”). For 50 years the tower at Brixton Mill was used as little more than a store. But when the lease at Mitcham expired in 1902, they returned to the original site. Given the reduced wind power, the Ashby’s installed a completely new, steam-powered engine (later converted to gas) to power the cast iron provender mill. This is also on show today to visitors of the volunteer-led guided tours.

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New steam-powered mill (installed 1902)

When the last miller, Joshua Ashby (grandson of John) closed the mill in 1934, a year before his death at the age of 77, the building faced an uncertain future. The following report provided an overview of what was there at the time:

“It stands well back from the road, access being obtained by a small carriage way running past the mill cottage and there is a fairly large yard in front of the mill. All old machinery has been removed from the mill and modern machinery installed, but the mill building is in excellent condition … there is a range of outbuildings built around the base of the mill extending up to the level of the first floor. These are very extensive and appear to be in very fair order. The whole place would make a most excellent unemployment centre or club premises … The mill is of great interest as being almost unique in London, and is quite typical of the traditional practice of windmills built at the time of its erection. It would be a great pity if such a landmark of Old Lambeth was destroyed.”

There were several attempts to buy the structure and there was even a proposal to build flats on the site. But then in 1957 London County Council bought the property and adjoining land. While the mill house, bakery and other outbuildings were demolished, work soon began to renovate the tower, which included bringing some machinery from derelict mills elsewhere in the country and making new sails. The restoration process has been ongoing for more than 50 years, with a key milestone being the formation of the Friends of Windmill Gardens in 2003. It now seems in very good condition.

But to get a sense of how Brixton developed in the years after the windmill was built you need to return back to the busy shopping streets. While building began on open fields in the wider area in the early 19th century (particularly after the opening of Vauxhall Bridge in 1816 which improved access to central London), progress was slow until the first railway line (the Catham Main Line) arrived in the 1860s. Expensive housing and shops sprung up quickly as a result and within 30 years it was transformed into a bustling middle class suburb. Brixton had the first street in London to be lit by electricity in 1880 – later named Electric Avenue.

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The hustle and bustle of Brixton

Against a backdrop of developers planning new lucrative projects, the Brixton Society is doing a wonderful job fighting to conserve heritage in the area and I was lucky my visit coincided with one of their monthly guided tours. As we weaved around the market streets and under viaducts we saw some of the oldest surviving buildings in Brixton, dating from just after the arrival of the railways (one is now a butcher’s shop). We also took in several pubs from the area’s early history, including the Black Horse pub (c1870 and now a Halifax branch) and the Railway Hotel, built against the railway viaduct and featuring a six-sided clock tower that could be read by passengers of the different lines (it’s been empty for 20 years, but graffiti has recently been removed and there is talk of a new restaurant opening).

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Brixton’s former Railway Hotel

Brixton is recognised for having Britain’s first department store – Bon Marche opened in 1877, a business later bought out by John Lewis. When it closed its doors for the last time in 1976, the lavish structure was empty for some time. Today it’s partially occupied by TK Maxx. Brixton in general was considered an important retail destination by the 1925, with many major stores in the area. Later, in 1928, the country’s first British Home Stores opened on Brixton Road (today the building is occupied by Superdrug). From here it grew to be a major, nationwide retail chain.

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Britain’s first department store – Bon Marche

As discussed at the outset, Brixton is famed for its markets. Street markets have of course seen a resurgence in recent years, with everything from fruit and vegetables to a farmers’ market. And from the 1930s covered markets also emerged. Walking through the biggest of these today – Brixton Village – you could have been forgiven thinking you’ve entered a giant food court. With gentrification, new eateries and trendy coffee shops have sprung up, with many of these staying open late into the evening – long after the clothing and food stalls have packed away. But as our guide pointed out, restrictions are now in place preventing more than 50 per cent of the outlets being used for selling food, thus stopping the traditional traders being completely forced out.

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Inside Brixton Village covered market

While Brixton started out as a middle class suburb, by the early 20th century the make-up of the area changed and there was an influx of working classes. Many large houses built soon after the arrival of the railways were converted into flats and boarded houses. The shopping area grew to be the largest in South London, with plenty of entertainment options such as cinemas, pubs and theatres. Brixton was bombed heavily during the Second World War and in the years that followed in the 1940s and 1950s many immigrants from West Indies settled in the suburb. There have been considerable problems with crime and disorder in the area in recent decades (not least the 1981 riot which some have said involved 5,000 people), but it now feels like somewhere that is on the up. It’s a long way from the rural place of 200 years ago.

Back at Brixton Mill, there was much excitement amongst the volunteers as the day before I visited they had successfully produced flour for the first time for many years. But the giant white sails I saw glistening in the late afternoon sun hadn’t needed to turn; it was powered using the engine installed in 1902 when the Ashby’s returned to mill at the site. Originally steam-powered, the Friends of Windmill Gardens have recently converted it to electricity. More work needs to be done to check the machinery is working safely and it is hoped the project will be complete by the mill’s 200th anniversary in 2016. It may not been long before market traders down the road are chanting the words ‘Brixton Flower.’

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Brixton Prison – as seen from Brixton Windmill

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Brixton Village covered market

“…houses in which our work-people will be able to live and be comfortable…” – living history at Port Sunlight model village

7 Aug

Entrepreneurs will tell you that to succeed in business the political environment needs to be right. For William Hesketh Lever, the son of a wholesale grocer from Bolton, the removal of tax on soap and the government’s desire to promote a clean living agenda amongst working classes created a unique opportunity. Sunlight Soap, the first product made by the manufacturer’s new firm Lever Brothers, not only brought enormous personal wealth but was also the beginnings of the company we now called Unilever.

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Lever House – the first offices at Port Sunlight

With his brother James Darcy Lever (hence the company name) he leased a factory in Warrington and production began in 1886. The ingredients they used were of the highest quality, with no silicate of soda and more vegetable oil than tallow. Thanks partly to efficient marketing and sales – packs were branded with the Lever name from the start, orders flooded in from around the world. Little would the pair have known that what they started would grow into one of world’s biggest consumer goods companies.

Production quickly grew from 20 to 450 tons of soap, but it soon became apparent that it was not going to be possible to extend the Warrington factory and so a new site needed to be found. The firm opted to buy 24 acres of cheap, marshy ground on the Wirral peninsula which they called Port Sunlight (named because the land was conveniently near an offshoot of the River Mersey and also as a result of what they produced there) for the factory and a further 32 acres for the village.

But for Lever the Port Sunlight project was so much more than just about building a factory to handle a bulging order book. He had a social conscience and was determined to create decent housing and amenities for workers on the new site. Given the squalor and cramped living conditions that many would have faced in inner city slums moving to Port Sunlight was quite literally a breadth of fresh air. There had of course been attempts at creating quality accommodation for workers in the past, but this was the first time it was combined with the idea of a garden village. Lever set out his vision for the site at the ceremony of cutting the first sod for the new factory in 1888:

“It is my hope and my brother’s hope … to build houses in which our work-people will be able to live and be comfortable. Semi-detached houses, with gardens back and front, in which they will be able to know more about the science of life than they can in a back slum, and in which they will learn that there is more enjoyment in life than in the mere going to and returning from work, and looking to Saturday night to draw their wages.”

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Cottage homes at Port Sunlight

So as well as creating spacious homes surrounded by plenty of green space and gardens, Lever Brothers built places where workers could enjoy their leisure time. By 1909 there were 28 self-supporting clubs and societies in the village. And the site would grow to 130 acres with some 900 houses and nine public buildings, plus allotments and extensive parks (one of which had an amphitheatre with open air performances).

Arriving at Port Sunlight by train from Liverpool, 125 years after the first factory building was open, it’s just a short walk to the works entrance. Although no longer producing soap bars, Unilever does still manufacture liquids such as detergents here. Of course the commercial buildings have grown considerably since 1888 but the original office block remains – the boardroom in Liver House is meant to be particularly exquisite.

Across the road the Gladstone Theatre is today used by a local performance company (Grease the musical was advertised on one of the billboards when I passed). It was the first assembly and recreation hall on the site, and also served temporarily as canteen for male workers until that function was moved inside the main building. Lever said it was “the most appropriate Village Hall we have. It is simple and unpretentious, admirably adapted for the purpose for which it was designed, and most suitable and appropriate for erection in a village.”

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More homes at Port Sunlight

The name for structure (it was originally Gladstone Hall) is particularly fitting as Gladstone, the British Prime Minister, was greatly respected by Lever, after all abolishing tax on soap and then paper made it possible for companies like his to make soap in large quantities and then advertise it effectively. “…no trade in the country owes so much to yourself as the industry we are engaged in,” said Lever at the opening of Gladstone Hall in 1891. “It was in April 1853 that you removed the duty on soap, and thereby made the manufacture on a large and scientific scale possible. It was in 1861 you removed the duty from paper, and so gave the country its greatest boon; a free and cheap Press. With a duty on paper, a cheap press was impossible, and therefore also a large circulation. Without a large circulation it would be useless to advertise.”

But this was about more than just business kick-backs. Lever shared many of Gladstone views on politics and he became a Liberal Member of Parliament from 1906 to 1909. In the commons he called for the national introduction of old age pensions (he already provided them for his staff by that stage) and in 1907 the Invalidity and Accidents Pensions Act was passed. Lever also campaigned for a shorter working day for factory workers (he introduced the eight hour day at his factories in 1894). He demanded better health and safety at work, and on his own premises was regarded as a pioneer in this movement. And he was one of the first employers to give employees a share of the profits.

Education was very important for Lever and two schools were built at Port Sunlight. Under company rules those aged 14 to 18 had to attend night school to better themselves. There was also a cottage hospital, which has today been converted to a boutique hotel. The care that Lever took of the people did really make a difference. While the average annual death rate in Liverpool was 20/100, in the village it was just 9/100. “The visitor is struck at once by the generally healthy appearance of the people,” noted W. L George in a 1909 account of Port Sunlight. “The appearance of the children is remarkable, for they are usually fat, rosy, and impressibly cheerful.”

Walking through the streets and parks of Port Sunlight is a good way to spend a couple of hours sunny Sunday afternoon. In Lever’s day, strict rules meant tenants were made to keep their homes in good shape (helped of course by the threat of random inspections at any point) and it seems standards have been kept up. Homeowners (representing today about two thirds of the 900 homes) and leaseholders must comply with strict building rules. They wouldn’t be able to put modern PVC windows at the front of their homes for example. The public open spaces are cared for by a team of six gardeners, partly paid for by a nominal £1 maintenance charge collected from each of the homes every year.

Lever loved buildings and personally oversaw the development of Port Sunlight. He employed a team of 30 architects to ensure that the construction styles didn’t become monotonous. The quality (they cost around £250 each to build, far higher than other workers’ houses at the time) and detail in carvings is phenomenal. Although individual, most consisted of three or four bedrooms, with a kitchen, scullery, larder and “each house has the exceptional luxury of a bathroom.”

Just as important for Lever was the space surrounding each home, with him arguing that the “building of ten to twelve houses to acre is the maximum that ought to be allowed…. Houses should be built a minimum of 15 feet from the roadway…. every house should have space available in the rear for a vegetable garden. Open spaces for recreation should be laid out at frequent and convenient centres… A home requires a greensward and garden in front of it, just as much as a cup requires a saucer.”

Perhaps the most impressive view is the long green boulevard stretching from the First World War memorial to the Lady Lever Art Gallery. If it wasn’t for the family homes shaded by trees along either side of the walk, you could think you were in somewhere like outside the White House in Washington. Lever dedicated the gallery to the memory of his wife Elizabeth and it houses the best of the 20,000 items, including furniture, ceramics, textiles and sculpture, he boasted in his personal art collection at his death.

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Stretch leading to Lady Lever Art Gallery

While in his later life Lever travelled the world collecting pieces for personal satisfaction, earlier on he had gained them for business reasons. He bought paintings and added company slogans, encouraging consumers to buy them. “Art has always been to me a stimulating influence; it has always taught me without upbraiding me; elevated me without humbling me; and appealed to me because of the fact that only the best and truest in art survives…. Art can be to everyone an inspiration. It is within the reach of us all,” Lever said at the opening of the gallery in 1922.

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Inside Lady Lever Art Gallery

Opposite the gallery is what was built as the original Girls’ Club. Today the building is a well-laid out museum telling the story of Port Sunlight and it also has a tea room. As we’ve seen, maintenance charges are very low for residents so the Port Sunlight Village Trust, which took over management of the site in 1999, relies on finding additional revenue opportunities, including through letting out luxury holiday cottages.

After building Gladstone Hall, Lever continued building public halls so that residents could enjoy a range of activities. Hulme Hall originally acted as a women’s dining hall, but then became a gallery and later as a hall provided the venue for two early Beatles concerts (one being the first time Ringo Star played with the group). Today, it’s popular with weddings. The Lyceum was built as a school, but was later used as a Sunday school and today is used by the community for meetings and other functions. And he built using red Cheshire sandstone, Christ Church, a nonconformist church.

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Inside Christ Church

Outside, an open air pool was built (today it’s a garden centre) which was heated by power from the factory. And there were separate bowling greens for both men (with accompanying social clubs and both are still in operation today). There really was always plenty going on.

Such was the vision that Lever displayed at the site that at one time 50,000 people (including members of the Royal family) travelled each year from across the world to visit Port Sunlight. Many stayed at the Bridge Inn, an institution which for the first few years of its life was run as a temperance hotel. Despite being a non-drinking nonconformist he decided to let the village to decide what should happen and gave everyone the vote (he hoped the women would vote to keep it dry). But the majority wanted it to serve alcohol and so it became a pub in a modern sense. Today, the exterior remains but the inside has been gutted and it resembles that of any other chain pub (it’s now part of the Sizzling Pub Company Brand).

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The Bridge Inn

While much has changed in this village over the years and it’s lost the connection with the Unilever plant, Lever’s vision still remains on show in the character of the wonderful homes and landscaping. Today, thousands of tourists come to marvel at this example of utopia. But had its architect known how it was going to turn out, there’s a chance it wouldn’t have been built. “I’d never build a second Port Sunlight,” Lever admitted to a colleague towards the end of his life. “It was a mistake, people who live and work together always quarrel.”

“Millers and malt distillers in a very large and extensive way” – unlocking east London history at the oldest and largest surviving tidal mill in the world

31 Jul

London in the first half of the 18th century was a city addicted to gin. Daniel Defoe noted in 1726 that “the Distillers have found out a way to hit the palate of the Poor, by their new fashion’d compound Waters called Geneva….” Ordinary people, added the writer and trader, “seem not to value the French-brandy as usual, and even not to desire it.” Indeed, around 10 million gallons were being distilled in the Capital each year in the 1730s, before being sold in some 7,000 dram shops.

Given that Londoners were estimated to have drunk a staggering 14 gallons of the spirit a year, it wasn’t surprising that the capital suffered from an epidemic of extreme drunkenness. The vice-chamberlain Lord Hervey summed up the problem: “Drunkenness of the common people was universal, the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning till night.” And as I’ve written before, the artist William Hogarth capably captured the impact of the addictive spirit in his popular 1751 print, Gin Lane. In the picture, the poverty and despair of the community was attributed to the evils of gin.

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House Mill – the oldest and largest surviving tidal mill in the world (dating from 1776)

The worst of the so-called ‘Gin Craze’ died down within a few decades of the passing of the 1751 Gin Act which permitted distillers to sell only to licensed retailers (there was also an added incentive to get a license as the cost of obtaining these was reduced). Given, however, that people still drink the spirit today (G&Ts are of course very popular) it’s clear it it didn’t completely die out.

While I’ve toured working distilleries before (and looked at the outside of surviving 18th century buildings used for performing this function), it seems some have forgotten about the sourcing of essential raw ingredients for this process. Gin could not have been produced without milled grain.

Jenever (what Defoe called Geneva) was the Dutch word for juniper, the berries of which were used to produce the lethal spirit which brought debauchery to the streets of London. Shortened to ‘gin’, troops returning from wars in the Netherlands brought the drink to our shores. While it’s been claimed that it was the favourite tipple of William III, the Dutch king of England, it was when it was taken downmarket (following the prohibition of French brandy in 1735) that it made an important imprint in everyday London culture.

In east London, Peter Lefevre bought Three Mills in 1727 and, in partnership with Daniel Bisson and others established a successful gin distilling business. It was passed down through the generations of some of the owners and they described themselves as “millers and malt distillers in a very large and extensive way.” The operations expanded across this man made island, which had been created by Cistercian monks in the 11th century when a mill was first operated at the site. Today, Three Mills can be found at the back of a Tesco car park in Bow in the shadow of both modern apartments and derelict industrial buildings.

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Although there were certainly mills at the time of the Gin Craze and thus fuelling the distilleries that brought debauchery, the oldest surviving structure is from 1776 (remember that the 1751 Gin Act was the beginning of the end of excessive consumption of the spirit). The House Mill, so-called because it was located between homes of the miller and brewers, is remarkable nonetheless in that it’s the oldest standing tidal mill in the country.

Built by Daniel Bisson Senior, the fine Georgian brick façade is deceiving in that it hides a timber frame structure. Today, it is of course no longer an operating mill (it closed for the last time in 1941) but following extensive renovation is now open to the public. Visitors can climb through this building, which retains many original features such as wooden doors, beams and mill stones, and uncover the milling process with a guide.

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Grain was brought to the mill from farms as far afield as Suffolk by barge or cart (lines of granite slabs denote two-hundred-year-old tramways which are Grade II listed). Sacks would then have been hoisted using water power to the top floor of the building. It was then stored in compartments on the third floor before, thanks to gravity, passing through wooden or canvas shoots to move to the second floor for cleaning. The process then continued as the grain moved to the first floor where it passed through millstones.

On the ground floor, hidden away behind large wooden doors, are the water wheels which were powered by the tide going out. Water stored at high tide could be released when the tide was low, providing a constant power through the day. It was on this level that ground grain fell it to sacks, ready for transportation to the distillery. The whole House Mill operation employed 15 people on each shift.

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Water wheel at House Mill

What’s remarkable is the history on the site goes back much further than the 18th century. The Domesday Survey of 1086 notes there were eight tidal watermills (“eight Mills of Hame” – Hame being the name then for Newham) on the River Lea and branches. These were identified by names such as Pudding Mill, Waterworks Mill and, of course, Three Mills which was set-up by the Cistercian monks from the nearby Abbey of St. Mary Stratford Langthorne (today near Abbey Road DLR stop and near where remains of the monastery have been found).

Following a move by Edward III to expand commercial operations in the 14th century in the River Lea area and the subsequent passing of a 1571 Act to improve navigation, by 1588 there were said to be two water mills on the Three Mills island. Expansion continued at the site, with the Clock Mill rebuilt in 1817 (but retaining a 1750s clock tower) replacing a timber-built, weather-boarded mill. The building (which ceased to function as a mill in 1952) survives but is no longer open to the public – it forms part of the 20-acre 3 Mills film and television studios development. There was also once a third mill – a windmill – on the site which survived until around 1840.

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Clock Mill – now part of a 20 acre film and TV studio development

The home on the left of House Mill was completely wiped out by a bomb during the Second World War. The building on the right (once the miller’s house) was also badly damaged and only the façade remained; the visitors’ centre with a fine outside riverside terrace overlooking an expanse of green space is completely new and boasts a friendly café run by volunteers. Rooms in this modern structure are also let out to community groups providing valuable finances for the River Lea Tidal Mill trust which owns the site.

Renovation work continues at House Mill with the intension that one day the original 18th century water wheels will be turning again and visitors can be provided with milling demonstrations. But perhaps the most exciting aspect is that they will be used to generate hydro-electricity and sold to the National Grid, potentially generating £20,000 in funds for the charity each year. The old and the new are creating a bright future for east London while at the same time helping to preserve our rich industrial past.


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