London Historians Member, Walter Jahn, writes about our walking tour of the industrial Lea valley, Saturday 19 July.
Who would have thought a walk from Stratford through the industrial area around the river Lea would be enticing to anyone on a hot and sunny Saturday? Thanks to our guide Rob Smith, it was. Did you know, for instance, that there is an impressive cathedral to be seen in this area?
Starting off at Stratford Railway Station we turned into Burford Road passing the grand building of the former “Great Eastern Railway Print Works”. The railway works and depot in Stratford was a major industry since 1840, manufacturing over 1600 locomotives until the 1920s.
Walking along, or rather on top of the old Victorian main sewage pipes we gazed with awe at the “Cathedral of Sewage”, more precisely, the Byzantine style “Abbey Mills Pumping Station”. A rather spectacular building for pumping sewage to a higher level!
Crossing the Three Mills Wall River we reached the 18th century House Mill, the world’s largest tidal mill. We were welcomed by the volunteers of the The River Lea Tidal Mill Trust and first had a good rest at the Miller’s House Café.
Although the present mill was built in 1776, the Domesday Book of 1086 already records eight mills in the area. In medieval times it was known as Three Mills, providing flour for bakeries supplying bread to the City of London.
The guided tour showed us the timber framed House Mill building from top to bottom and how it operated. The heart of the mill is four water wheels, driven by the tidal water flow, originating from the Thames estuary. The water wheels set in motion a well-engineered 18th century grain milling process. Gear wheels and a transmission belt operate a hoist for transporting the grain sacks up to the top floor and to run the millstones. The solid timber work of the building and structures for the milling process is impressive. The milled grain was mainly sent to the adjacent distillery for making gin, which was hugely popular with Londoners, reaching a pinnacle with the Gin Craze during early 18th century followed by the Victorian-era Gin Palaces. The Mill ceased milling after bombing of the site in 1941 during WWII.
The Trust is doing a formidable job in maintaining the site and aspires to get the machinery working again and produce hydroelectricity.
Our walk continued passing the classical cast-iron columns of the Imperial Gas Company’s gas holders built in the 1870’s. The gas works are at the site of the former and early 19th century rocket factory of William Congreve. Did you know, that rockets were deployed in the Napoleonic Wars?
One of the reasons why industries settled on “the other side” of the river Lea was the higher tolerance for industrial pollution in Essex.
Finally, we reached Bow Creek at the Lea estuary, the site of the former Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company known for building the first iron-clad battleship, the HMS Warrior, launched in 1856 and now at Portsmouth.