The Albion Mill was London’s first great wonder of the industrial age. The industrial revolution was already well underway in Britain by the time the construction of the mill began in the early 1780s and yet it had made comparatively little impact on the capital itself. The opening of the mill in 1786 changed all this at stroke, temporarily catapulting London to the forefront of the nation’s industrial development.
Albion Mill was called into existence by the pioneering engineering firm of Boulton & Watt to address London’s insatiable appetite for bread. The city’s population had grown prodigiously during the second half of the eighteenth-century, rising from just under three-quarters of a million in the 1760s to well over a million by the time of the first census in 1801. This was an age in which bread and beer were the staple foodstuffs of the working man and consequently the demand for fresh quantities of corn and flour had almost continually outstripped the level of supply. Albion Mill was designed to change all that. By harnessing the revolutionary power of steam, its creators reasoned, it would be able to process unprecedented quantities of corn and drive the price of bread down to lower and more sustainable levels.
It was a spectacle from the very outset. A few weeks after construction began on the site overlooking the southern end of Blackfriars Bridge, a large crowd watched in silence as the gigantic arms and condensers of the mill’s steam engines were slowly winched into place. The building that grew up around them also became the talk of the metropolis, as the architect and co-owner James Wyatt had determined that the modernity of the mill’s interior should be reflected in an external facade that conformed to the very heights of architectural fashion. The frontage was therefore executed in an elegant neo-classical style, complete with huge Venetian windows, that made the mill appear more like a well-appointed country manor than a major industrial complex.
But not everyone in London was impressed by this bold statement of scientific progress. The city’s millers had looked on in horror as this bulky five-storey titan rose slowly out of the mud of the south bank to loom over the rooftops of Southwark. They were well aware of Boulton & Watt’s highly publicised claims about the mill’s productive capacity and knew that the finished mill would be able to produce as much flour in a month as their own mills could in an entire year. The economies of scale associated with production on such a vast scale also meant that they could not hope to compete with the price of Albion milled flour. The situation seemed hopeless and many a miller must have spent their nights praying for some form of divine intervention to carry away this diabolical new threat to their livelihoods forever.
Their prayers were finally answered late on the evening of 2nd March 1791. Pedestrians crossing Blackfriars Bridge reported seeing the dull orange glow of flames flickering through the mill’s darkened windows. The fire took hold rapidly and within half an hour the building was entirely consumed by flames. Fire engines were brought up in the streets and on barges moored on the Thames, but the building was already beyond salvation. The final death throws of the mill came when the burning roof crashed in on itself, sending a jet of flame shooting into the night’s sky above London and hurling debris as far off as St James’s Park. The blaze was finally extinguished at daybreak and London awoke to find the mighty Albion Mill had been reduced to a smouldering shell of badly charred masonry.
Foul play was suspected almost immediately, not least because of the reaction with which the London mob had greeted the fire. The poet Robert Southey had walked among the crowds that lined Blackfriars Bridge to watch the conflagration and noted that there were groups of millers dancing with joy by the light of the flames. Shouts of acclamation had gone up with each new sign of the mill’s impending destruction and some sections of the crowd had refused to respond to the fire wardens pleas for help in tackling the blaze. The sudden appearance of placards bearing slogans such as “success to the mills of ALBION but no Albion Mills”, also gave the gathering a sinister, more politicised, edge. This was early 1791 and affluent Britons, aware of events unfolding just across the Channel in France, were already nervously looking about them for signs that the working classes at home were preparing to rise up and overturn the economic and social status quo. Many now began to speculate whether the fire was actually the work of machine-breaking radicals, determined to use force to roll back the tide of industrialisation.
As always, London’s printsellers and publishers were quick to capitalise on any piece of news that captured the public’s imagination. Indeed, Southey’s account suggests that printed ballads celebrating the mill’s destruction were being hawked among the crowds on Blackfriars Bridge by daybreak on the morning after the fire. The Baker’s Glory, Or, The Conflagration give us some indication of what these items would have looked like. They were crudely illustrated with recycled woodcuts taken from older pamphlets and almanacs, accompanied by rhymes reflecting common criticisms of the mill and its owners. A number of caricatures were also produced in the weeks following the fire. Some of these, such as S.W. Fores’ A bon fire for the poor or the shame of Albion exposed, continued to reflect the populist image of the mill as a destroyer of jobs and tool of capitalist oppression. Fores’ image shows demons leaping amid the flames, while the barge-loads of maize and potash waiting to be unloaded near the building’s river-gate constitute an accusation that the Albion Mill’s success was built on the criminal practice of adulteration.
Satirists catering for a more educated audience tended to take an opposing view. The artist Samuel Collings produced a caricature plate for the magazine Attic Miscellany entitled Conflagration! Or the merry mealmongers, which shows a group of grotesquely caricatured rustics capering about as the mill burns behind them. One man carries a miniature windmill symbolising his rigid adherence to out-dated and inefficient production methods, while his mate clutches a fistful of radical balladsheets whose hyperbolic titled foretell the downfall of capitalism. It is an image which drips with class-based prejudice and seeks to castigate those who had so frivolously celebrated the destruction of new technology.
Eventually, it was proved that this new and untested technology was in fact responsible for the mill’s undoing. The young Scottish engineer John Rennie, who had worked as technical supervisor at the site since 1788, conducted an investigation into the fire and found it had been caused by an overheating baring. It transpired that the owners claims about the profitability of the mill had been somewhat optimistic and in an effort to claw back his investment, James Wyatt had insisted on increasing both the length and rate of production. The strain pushed the mill’s engines to breaking point and in the building’s highly flammable atmosphere it had taken just a single spark to from the overheating machinery to spark a cataclysmic blaze.
The destruction of Albion Mill lived on in the collective memory of Londoners for years to come. Rowlandson and Pugin were commissioned to engrave an image of the fire for Rudolph Ackermann’s Microcosms of London (1808-1810), and the finished plate suggests that the passage of almost twenty years had done little to diminish the sense of sublime awfulness the inferno inspired. But if the name of Albion Mill is remembered at all today it is thanks entirely to the poet William Blake. Blake lived less than ten minutes walk from the mill and may even have witnessed the conflagration in person. Even if he did not, he would certainly have been familiar with the hulking and blackened ruins of the building, as his trade took him across Blackfriars Bridge and into the City on an almost continual basis. The otherworldly power of the mill’s machinery and the destructive force of the fire it unleashed held dark, infernal, connotations for the evangelical Blake. A number of the poet’s biographers have suggested that the memory of the fire would eventually inspire Blake to question whether the kingdom of God could ever be established among the “dark Satanic mills” spawned by the industrial revolution.