Tide of support to save Bow’s Three Mills Island

Three Mills Island Bow Lon 180813 © david.altheer@gmail.com
Three Mills Island Bow London 2013 © david.altheer@gmail.com
Wave to go: waterwheel at Bow

SQUATTING self-importantly by the River Lea is one of the glories of northeast London. No, this article is about not the London Olympics but a threat to the bulky magnificence of Three Mills Island in Bow, East London.

The complex of late-1700s industrial buildings includes what is believed to be  the world’s biggest surviving tidal mill. Yes, wave power was being harnessed from the Lea as the Thames into which it flows made the water level rise and fell.

Centuries later wave power is seen as an energy source of the future but it was the power  for an important London plant that milled flour and later the more-profitable gin.

The buildings sit on hundreds of wooden poles jammed deep into the mud of the Lea, Amsterdam-style. Despite suffering years of dereliction, the structures are in surprisingly good condition, although in the five-floor, timber-frame House Mill, where the flour was ground, the equipment has suffered the depredations of squatters and metal thieves, a far cry from the era when grain could be ground in two sessions for a total 16 hours every day.

The volunteer-run River Lea Tidal Mill Trust was formed in 1986. It wants to see the four waterwheels and other machinery restored to make the mill a working exhibit.

With the addition of hydro-electric power, some solar panels and other eco-installations, the bill is likely to be £4.8 million. The Heritage Lottery Fund will cough up £2.4 million if the trust raises the same amount. Several hundred thousand pounds is still needed — by early next year 2014.

Three Mills Island Bow London 180813 © david.altheer@gmail.com
Grandeur: towers on Three Mills Island

The Domesday Book shows windmills on the site in Norman times providing flour for the bakeries of Stratford-atte-Bow or Stratford-le-Bow — either is more romantic than E15.

That was 1086. Almost 900 years later a multinational supermarket applied for planning permission to demolish House Mill for a car park — which was decidedly unromantic. For once, decency prevailed and, worse, for the history-hating grocer, English Heritage became interested — and listed the building.

Hamish Scott 050913

Three Mills Island Bow London 2013 © david.altheer@gmail.com
Well-rounded: ship-like interior of what’s termed the world’s biggest surviving tidal mill

* Expert-led tours, tickets £3, are held on Sundays at the House Mill, in Three Mill Lane, Bromley-by-Bow E3 3DU, which includes a café with a traditional English garden and good disabled access.  If you want to make a donation or volunteer to help to the trust, press this link.

This watercolour is probably of the mills in the 1850s, although the Hackney council calendar that reproduced it said it shows Lea Bridge Mills
This watercolour is probably of the Bow mills in the 1850s, although the 1986 Hackney council calendar that reproduced it said it shows Lea Bridge Mills

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