Chapter 23: The Albion Mills
One of the world’s first coal-powered factories was the Albion Mills, smack-dab in the heart of London. Built by Boulton & Watt, it put the competition out of business. Its eventual destruction was a source of inspiration, not only for a burgeoning labor movement, but for one of Britain’s most important poets – and England’s unofficial national anthem.
Sources for this episode include:
“The Albion Mills Destroyed by Fire.” The Times. (London) March 3, 1791. col A, pg. 3. Accessed via https://www.library.ucdavis.edu/database/times-of-london-digital-archive/
Blake, William. “Albion rose...” 1794-1796. A Large Book of Designs. British Museum. See https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1352233&partId=1
Blake, William. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion. Edited by E.R.D. MacLagan and A.G.B. Russell. A.H. Bullen. 1907.
Blake, William. Milton. Edited by E.R.D. MacLagan and A.G.B. Russell. A.H. Bullen. 1907.
Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. University of Chicago Press. 2010.
Smiles, Samuel. Lives of the Engineers: With an Account of Their Principal Works. Volume IV [Mathew Boulton and James Watt]. John Murray, Albemarle Street. 1865.
Woollard, Richard. “Albion Mill.” The Vauxhall Society. 2012.
I don’t think there’s a more defining moment of British history than the Industrial Revolution. It’s when Britain takes the world stage as the premier global superpower. And yet, the Brits have a very conflicted view of this period, as seen in the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics.
An actor portraying Isambard Kingdom Brunel stands on a hill and reads some Shakespeare. Then the giant tree behind him lifts out of the ground, and dozens of dirty, industrial workers come out of the hill. The sounds of drums pounding echo the noises of early 19th Century steam engines.
The set design of beautiful green pasture is carried away and workers crank gear-spinning handles. As they do, giant, dark, brick, smoking smokestacks rise out of the ground.
This ominous scene stands in stark contrast to the way the opening ceremony began, with peaceful-looking people playing cricket and dancing around a maypole in a happy little hamlet, as children sing the national anthems of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom.
Okay, technically, the national anthem of the four countries is “God Save the Queen” – but they each have unofficial local hymns too. The children in Northern Ireland sing “Danny Boy”. The Scottish kids sing “Flower of Scotland” – the same song that the Scottish women sang during the recent World Cup. The children in Wales sing “Cwm Rhondda.”
And in England…
The song is known as “Jerusalem”. Written by the poet William Blake as “And did those feet in ancient time”, it’s the preface to his epic poem “Milton” written in 1804.
The poem poses this question: While on this Earth, did Jesus Christ set foot in England?
To us, that question sounds ridiculous. But in the Bible there’s a big gap in time between Jesus’ birth and childhood and his baptism, ministry, and final days in Jerusalem. And many Christians over the years have taken to speculating about that gap. Maybe he went to India and learned from eastern spiritual leaders. Maybe he went down to Ethiopia. Or maybe, just maybe, he traversed the entire Roman Empire – long before railroads or steam ships – to visit the tiny, rainy, agriculturally unproductive island of Britannia (on the edge of the known world) to walk around before heading back to Nazareth.
But at the time Blake wrote these words, they didn’t necessarily sound all that crazy.
After the Spanish Armada failed to conquer England and restore it to the Catholic faith in 1588, and then after repeated British victories in the 18th Century, the English started to get the sense that God was on their side.
As my professors explained it to me during my study abroad in London, back in college, the English were increasingly convinced that God Himself was Protestant – and, what’s more, that God was English.
And so, by the time of William Blake, people thought “Why not England? Why couldn’t this have been the place Jesus spent his gap years? Why wouldn’t the son of the English God walk in the beautiful pastures of England?”
Blake put that notion into poetry. But in doing so, he not only asked this question about England’s past, but opened up another question, about England’s future.
And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
To Blake, England’s idyllic, pastoral past was threatened not by Catholicism, but by industrialization. And the story behind this poem is just as interesting.
This is the Industrial Revolutions
Chapter 23: The Albion Mills
When he took control of James Watt’s steam engine business, Matthew Boulton understood that the technology could be applied to much more than the water pumps used to drain coal and copper mines. The rotative motions of the engine could also be used to power mills, without wind or water power. As he wrote to Watt in late 1782, “I think that these mills represent a field that is endless, and that will be more permanent than these transient mines.”
By July 1784, the Boulton & Watt company – with the assistance of engineer William Murdoch – had just about perfected the steam engine. Transformed by a sun-and-planet gear, flywheels, and parallel motion linkages, the Watt steam engine could create the power needed for rotary processes anywhere. Mills would no longer need to be on rivers or windy planes. They could now be built smack-dab in the middle of a dense, urban workforce.
Mill technology was applied to more and more economic pursuits in the lead up to the first Industrial Revolution. The rotation could be used to spin potters’ wheels to form clay pottery, for woodworkers operating lathes, and for spinning that white gold – cotton – into yarn. But going back to antiquity, mills had been used first-and-foremost for grinding wheat into flour.
Seeds (or berries) would be extracted from the harvested heads of raw wheat, then funneled down between two large, circular stones. The water or wind or (now) steam power would rotate the top stone, cracking and grinding the seeds until they become powdery flour – which, of course, is used to bake bread, the primary staple of the traditional European diet.
With the steam engine, Boulton saw a new opportunity, to build a grain mill in Southwark, on the south bank of the River Thames, in the heart of London. As he believed, such a steam-powered mill would be both profitable to him and his investors, and it would demonstrate the power of the Watt engine to other entrepreneurs. The Albion Mills would be the example for future mills going up across the land.
As early as 1783, Boulton began planning the mill. He raised significant capital from bankers in the City, the financial district of London, and hired two project managers – Samuel Wyatt, Britain’s most celebrated architect and a personal friend of Boulton’s, and John Rennie, a Scottish engineer who later built the famous Engine 42B at the Crofton pumping station on the Kennet and Avon Canal.
From the get-go, Boulton’s plans were met with resistance. When he applied to incorporate the Albion Mills Company, in order to raise the funds needed by selling company stocks, the application was denied. The local millers and mealmen had lobbied hard against Boulton’s scheme, arguing the project would put them out of work. The traditional mills that employed them would not be able to compete with the awesome automated power of Boulton’s mill.
At the time Boulton started planning the Albion Mill, there was nothing else like it in existence. The largest flour mill in London at that point had just four pairs of grinding stones. Boulton’s would have thirty, each with a 34-inch cylinder. And while wind power was unreliable and water power at risk during the winters, Boulton’s mill would run and run on three 50-horsepower steam engines.
The rival millers raised other concerns too. Their mills operated on wind power, which did not affect the everyday lives of Londoners. The Albion Mill, though, would operate on steam power, producing constant coal smoke.
Eventually, Boulton gave up trying to argue or accommodate their concerns, observing “the millers are determined to be masters of us and the public.”
Instead, they had to keep the Albion Mills held as a partnership and raise their funds from loans. The site they chose was at the foot of Blackfriars Bridge and, in 1784, they began construction. The brick building would include iron wheels and shafts. Wyatt and Rennie started putting up the brick walls of the massive, five-story building, and Watt built the steam engines.
The building was finally completed in the early months of 1786, but initial trials were unsuccessful. Either Rennie or Watt had failed to fine-tune his designs for the project, and so there were difficulties with the sun-and-planet gear, and the piston rods, and other parts. But by April the problems were fixed and, shortly after, the mill started running. Within months, it was producing 6,000 bushels of flour per week.
By 1789 they had added the second of the three steam engines planned and had 20 pairs of grinding stones in operation. By 1790, every week the mill was producing 16,000 bushels – enough to feed an estimated 150,000 people – and generating over £6,000 in sales.
The Albion Mills was London’s first industrial factory. It symbolized the coming of a new age – an age where steam-powered mills would employ hundreds of workers in dense urban cores, piping black smoke into the air as they created affordable goods for the masses. It put several other London grain mills out of business.
Nevertheless, the mill was never profitable enough to justify the enormous start-up costs. Boulton remained disappointed and tried to make improvements. But he’d never get the chance. Because in early 1791, disaster struck.
In the early morning of March 2nd, 1791, fire broke out at the Albion Mills. Firefighters appeared on the scene and tried to put it out. But within two hours, the inside of the building was completely gutted. The fire also spread to some of the surrounding buildings, causing damage to them as well. The initial property damage estimate was more than £150,000, which comes out to nearly $28 million today. 500 workers found themselves out of a job.
What caused the fire?
According to Rennie and Wyatt, it was most likely an accident in the mill, caused by a lack of grease on a large corn machine in front of the kiln. The newspaper The Times reported that “machinery having been over heated by friction” caused the fire, and it “was certainly accidental.”
But it is much more widely believed that the fire was caused by arson. According to one report, arsonists timed the attack for when the Thames would be in low tide, and they closed a nearby water pump, all to hinder the efforts of firefighters.
As the damage was assessed, celebrations broke out across London, among the traditional millers and mealmen. There’s an image of three mealmen dancing on Blackfriars Bridge as the Albion Mill behind them is engulfed in flames. I’ll share that on social media this week. In the aftermath of the fire, at least six local mills (that Boulton’s had put out of business) started back up.
Matthew Boulton was outraged, and he demanded a full government investigation. A reward was offered for apprehension of the arsonists, but they were never found.
Over the next decade, Boulton took few steps to rebuild. By the turn of the century, it was decided the ruins of the mill would be turned into housing instead, and the building was finally torn down in 1809.
The millers and mealmen weren’t the only ones celebrating the destruction of the industrial factory. Another was a resident of neighboring Lambeth – the poet William Blake. The night the Albion Mills went up in flames, the easterly winds would have carried the smoke to his house. It is very likely that he walked past the hallowed-out building in the years that followed, because woven through his epic poetry are Albion and the miller Satan.
Long before the Industrial Revolution, before the Norman conquest or the Viking raiders, before the Anglo-Saxons showed up and called their lands “England”, before the Romans showed up and called the island “Brettania”, the native Celtic people of Britain called the land “Albion.”
On the image of the three mealmen dancing as the mill burned, one wore an embroidered cloth reading “Success to the mills of Albion, but no Albion Mills.”
To William Blake, the name Albion represented an ancient time and ideal that has been lost. On a design plate he illustrated around 1795, called “Glad Day” or “The Dance of Albion”, a nude male figure stands with his arms open, creating beams of light all around him, while he stands on dark rubble. In the inscription, Blake writes, “Albion rose from where he laboured at the Mill with Slaves / Giving himself for the Nations he danc’d the dance of Eternal Death.”
In the complex mythology Blake builds in his poetry, Albion is the name of a giant – an embodiment of primordial man. In his final epic book, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, the character falls into self-obsession. He banishes Jesus and Jerusalem, the latter representing not only the Holy City but Albion’s female counterpart and human goodness incarnate. In the end, Jerusalem triumphs over the many villains Albion has become.
The mill, meanwhile, becomes the symbol of evil. In Milton, Blake describes Satan as the “Miller of Eternity.”
And of course, Blake’s ideas are best tied together in that opening poem to Milton. Set to music by composer Hubert Parry in 1916, it is better known today by its hymnal name, “Jerusalem.”
The idyllic, pastoral England was lost. Its soul could only be rescued by building Jerusalem.
William Blake was far from the only Englishman who longed for his country’s pure, if apocryphal, past. He feared the ways his country was changing in the Industrial Revolution, and he celebrated the destruction of the machines that seemed to be turning workers into slaves. And he was not alone.
In the years and decades to come, more and more destruction would come along, as workers sought to limit the industrial excesses of the age. A labor movement was forming - next week on the Industrial Revolutions.
Special thanks this week to Karl Larson for helping me track down some research material. A quick reminder to leave a 5-star rating and a quick review if you’re enjoying this podcast. Be sure to follow along with the podcast @IndRevPod – that’s @ I-N-D – R-E-V – P-O-D – on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Thank you.