Puppydog tails — 05 April 2019

Food producers adulterating our food is a recurring problem and the practice has gone on for centuries.

When the Albion Flour Mills opened the traditional millers – who feared the factory would drive their wind and water mills out of business – had for a long time been spreading rumours that flour from the factory was adulterated with all manner of unpleasant substances.

Since bread was the main diet of the poor millers were often portrayed as the greedy cheating baddie. At times of high wheat prices bakers and millers would be the target of rioters, often accused along with farmers and landowners of hoarding to jack up prices. Bread riots could involve the whole community, though they were often led by women, rioters would often seize bread and force bakers to it at a price they thought fair.

The Albion Mill was the first significant factory built in London. It was situated east side of Blackfriars Road on the approach to Blackfriars Bridge close by the Thames. Inside this modern wonder of its day, vast steam engines powered mill wheels which ground the flour on a huge scale.

Before the fire grinding 10 bushels of wheat per hour, by 20 pairs of 150 horsepower millstones, the Mills were the industrial wonder of the time, quickly becoming a fashionable sight of the London scene, they were regarded as the most powerful machines in the world. The trendy middle and upper classes had liked to drive to Blackfriars in their coaches and gawp at the new industrial age being born.

But in 1791 the factory dramatically burned to the ground in very suspicious circumstances.

The Mills stood in Blackfriars, an area together with neighbouring Southwark long notorious for its rebellious poor and for artisan and early working class political organisation. At one time the Thames bank at Lambeth was littered with windmills – eventually they were all put out of business by steam power. When the Albion opened London millers feared ruin.

It was hardly surprising that when mill was an inferno, they made their joy immediately apparent. A huge crowd gathered and made no effort to save the Mills, but stood around watching in grim satisfaction. Later in the day locals and mill workers danced around the smoking ruins, ballads of rejoicing were printed and sung on the spot and millers waved placards which read ‘Success to the mills of ALBION but no Albion Mills.’

After a soldier and a constable got into a row, a fight broke out leading to a mini-riot; but firemen turned their hoses on crowd thus the first recorded use of early water cannon. To further make their point, the millers labelled the factory Satanic.

William Blake lived a short distance from the factory and it is thought the event inspired the line ‘Dark Satanic mills’ in his poem And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time, later made famous as the hymn Jerusalem.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 19th March 2013

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