House Mill at Bromley-by-Bow is the oldest and largest remaining tide mill in the UK. Tide mills, where high water is captured behind a sluice and then released to drive mill wheels, represented state-of-the-art power generation for hundreds of years before the steam age.
House Mill lies on an old artificial island known as Three Mills Island, partially created by driven oak piles. The island builders may have been Cistercian monks. Around are a complex of water courses called the Bow Back Rivers, derived from the River Lea.
Waters flow down into the Thames at Blackwall. Over centuries more channels were created and some canalised, fitted with locks and weirs to aid navigation while still harnessing the upriver push of the tidal Thames to Three Mills Island.
The main purpose of the first mills here was to grind corn for flour, and briefly for gunpowder and linseed oil. Flour production continued until the early 1700s when the site and buildings was acquired by a partnership to launch distilling of spirits. The mills working on the island were supplemented by distillery sheds, granaries, a bonded warehouse and a windmill. Business boomed during the gin craze years.
House Mill was a replacement built in 1776 on arches straddling the tidal Three Mills Wall River. It was gutted by fire in 1802, rebuilt with a timber frame behind the surviving brick front wall, and fitted out with four water wheels, each driving two pairs of millstones through multiple gearing. Two of these wheels remain today, one of them cast iron with wooden paddles, technology in transition. House Mill came under the ownership of the gin magnate William Nicholson and was upgraded again between 1886 and 1900 with the addition of two more large waterwheels, undershot and breast-shot. These wheels also survive. At this time much of the surrounding timber work was replaced by cast iron columns and joists.
Clock Mill was built in 1817, incorporating part of on older building with an elegant clock tower. The main process buildings of the distillery lay behind. Clock Mill, with its conical roofs and cowls, and the tall dignified House Mill, with its many windows, formed an attractive visual partnership.
Three Mills, meanwhile, was drawn into a jagged industrial landscape as London spread eastwards, with railways, pumping stations, factories, gasworks and dock systems. In post-industrial times this is an extraordinary background of Olympic Park sports stadia, Eurostar and Docklands Light Railway stations, distribution warehouses, flyovers and waterways.
Part of the distillery was commandeered during the First World War to save the British war effort when production of cordite, the propellant powering the guns of the army and navy, was collapsing through the shortage of the solvent acetone. Acetone was irreplaceable in explosive production. Biochemist Chaim Weizmann had discovered a laboratory method of converting maize into acetone by applying a bacillus. There was a need was to scale up the process from test tube to large scale production.
At Three Mills the fermentation plant was used to prove that acetone in large volumes could be produced this way. Weizmann, a pioneering Zionist, had won the respect and attention of ministers Lloyd George and Churchill, and gained influence on the Balfour Declaration of 1917 in favour of ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. The same Chaim Weizmann became the first president of the new state of Israel in 1948.
Historians expert in the study of mills estimate that in medieval times the mills here operated for 3-4 hours per tide. By the early 20th century, better technology and improved water flow extended the operation of House Mill to up to 8 hours per tide and the operation remained viable. Steam power had been introduced for certain operations. The mills survived The Blitz, but much damage was inflicted around the island and the bonded warehouse and houses were destroyed. House Mill operated until 1940, Clock Mill until 1951.
Clock Mill has recently housed a school and the distillery site is now 3 Mills Studios for film and television, neither are viewable.
The Three Mills Conservation Area was established by the London Borough of Newham in 1971, and ownership of the House Mill building was assigned to the River Lea Tidal Mill trust. The Miller’s House, badly damaged during the Blitz and demolished in the late 1950s, was reconstructed to house a visitors’ information and education centre. Restoration of the House Mill building was completed in 1997, restoration of the machinery to working order is planned. House Mill is regularly opened to visitors, all tours are guided.
The House Mill, Three Mill Lane, Bromley-by-Bow, E3 3DU, info here.
Main image: The Three-Mills landscape including the Tidal Mills House Mill and Clock Mill The House Mill ©Peter-Dazeley