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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.’