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The power of steam

In 1902 the Ashby and Sons decided to use the mill in Brixton once more but in a less conventional manner, by firstly installing a steam and then a gas engine to drive the millstones rather than using sails. The steam and gas engines were installed to drive the cast iron provender mill dating from 1902.

The reason for the family’s return to Brixton was because the River Wandle, which flowed beneath the Mitcham waterwheel temporarily failed at the beginning of the 20th century.1 The Ashby family removed all the machinery associated with their milling operations back to Brixton. In the 1930s a former employee who was with the firm at the time stated ‘The interior was reconstructed on the compulsory closing down of the watermill at Mitcham as a result of demand for the roller system of manufacturing flour’.2 As the demand for finer flour spread across the country, mills were confronted with the choice of trying to survive producing a lower grade product or investing in roller technology. But at Brixton the investment paid off and the business prospered again and vans delivered wholemeal and wheat meal flours and bread daily to the neighbourhood until 1934 when the public’s desire for ‘white’ flour and modern baking methods forced the production to cease.

A leaflet published about 1914 showed the types of products produced and sold by Joshua Ashby & Sons Ltd – their own stone-ground flour and wheat meal which was ground on the premises and poultry foods specially prepared by the family. They also sold many other products including white flour, self-raising flour, peas, beans, scotch oatmeal, yeast and rice.3 Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th bread was baked in a small bakery situated next to the mill cottage in the mill yard, which at various times in the 19th century was occupied by bakers and their families. In 1859 Ashby was in business with the Sholl family as ‘cottage bread makers’ in Dulwich Road, Brixton.4 In 1959, an elderly Brixton resident reported that the mill performed an extra trade, when people used to take their gleanings from the wheat fields to be crushed so they would have flour for home baking.5

At the time of the centenary of the mill in 1917, the press reported that ‘the conditions of 100 years ago are maintained in this rural spot and it is a relic of an age which is fast becoming a memory’. It is approached by a small roadway hedged with privet, over which nods acacias, limes and filberts, lots of fowl.6

In 1925 it was reported that ‘London still possesses a windmill though it is not now working. It stands in Cornwall Road, Brixton and has had the sails removed, being transformed into a dwelling house to help in making up the shortage of houses’.7 This press report was untrue because the gas engine that worked the Provender Mill continued in use until 1934, when it was said that demand for whole meal flour was no longer sufficient to keep the mill running. But it is interesting to note that even in 1925 the mill was seen as a curiosity.

References

  1.  The Times, 12 Oct 1934
  2.  Cuttings in the Mills Archive; This is a somewhat confusing statement as the roller system was associated with the production of fine white flour and Ashby & Sons continued to produce as an advert from 1914 stated ‘Flour and Wheat Meal are produced by the stone process, which is advised and recommended by the most eminent medical men of the day’.
  3.  Michael Short, Windmills in Lambeth, (1971) p. 64
  4.  Articles in Wilfred Ashby’s scrapbook by kind permission of Catherine Black, descendant of the Ashby family
  5.  The News, 11th December 1959
  6.  Daily Chronicle, 27th August 1913; LB Lambeth, cuttings collection
  7.  C. News, 1st August 1925