The East End of London started life as a predominantly rural area. However, its proximity to the edge of the city and its easy access to water soon turned it into the capital’s industrial heart. If you are interested in learning more about the city’s milling heritage, then make a visit to the House Mill. Located close to the Olympic Park, in the heart of the East End, the mill is the oldest and largest tidal mill in the country.
The history of the House Mill
The area known as Three Mills Island is a stretch of land surrounded by three channels of the ancient River Lea. There have been mills in this area for many centuries – according to the Domesday Survey, there were at least eight mills here at that point in time. Over time, wind power was used to drive mills with the addition of windmills. But, this area remains, perhaps, best known for its tidal mills. It was to become the home of the biggest tidal mill in the world.
The mills on this site were historically able to take advantage of the tidal flow of the river up to the Thames Estuary and the local Bow Creek. During its heyday, the mills here could work for up to eight hours in each tide, allowing them to become major producers in London.
In medieval times, Three Mills was the main producer of flour for local bakers who baked bread for the city. The mills here also had other uses, however, and at least one was a gunpowder mill. The site was largely developed in the 1720s when it was purchased by a group of local residents, including Peter Lefevre, a Huguenot refugee from France.
In the 1770s, the owners built the current House Mill building. Its name was derived from its location between two houses for staff who worked on the site as millers. The second of the mills, the Clock Mill, was constructed in 1817 and the third was a windmill. This site was a thriving concern in the 18th century. As well as the mills that worked on site, the owners also ran a distillery and piggery and employed many local people.
The House Mill was damaged by a fire in 1802 and needed to be partly rebuilt. Bombing during the Second World War effectively closed the site down in terms of milling production. The last of the mills to be in operation was the House Mill itself, which was ultimately shut down in 1941. This building now has a Grade I listing.
The redevelopment of the House Mill
The site fell into disrepair after the Second World War until the threat of demolishing it to build a car park in the 1970s kick-started a campaign to save it for the future. This campaign was initially led by the Passmore Edwards Museum and the London Borough of Newham. The museum’s trust took over the mill with the aim of making restoration works and opening the site as a museum at some point in the future. This scheme did not go exactly according to plan due to funding problems.
The site is now managed by the River Lea Tidal Mill Trust. It has redeveloped the House Mill and the site since the late 1980s. It also reconstructed the Miller’s House on site. This had been demolished in the 1950s. The Miller’s House is now the site’s visitor information and education centre and is home to the mill’s café. As part of the redevelopment, the garden has been laid out to incorporate traditional kitchen garden plants and a herb garden.
Visiting the House Mill on Three Mills Island
You cannot look around the House Mill buildings alone and must go round as part of an escorted guided tour. There is a small charge for this for adults, however children are free – tours last around 45 minutes. There are no set tour times as guides start them on an ad hoc basis according to visitor numbers. The House Mill is only open on Sundays. From May to October, you can visit between 11am and 4pm. During March, April and December, the site is open on the first Sunday in the month. The Miller’s House café is open to the public and to visitors to the House Mill whenever the mill site itself is open.
You can still see a few of the original wheels and millstones if you visit House Mill today. The site’s distillery is now a film and TV studio, the 3 Mills Studio. This is the largest facility of its kind in London – you may recognise it as the location for some of the Big Brother TV series. Other film and TV credits include Brick Lane, the Corpse Bride, Prime Suspect and The Mighty Boosh.