The Central Granary on the west side of Millwall Inner Dock was huge, but – oddly – I didn’t really notice it until it was gone. It’s not as if it was hidden away; you could clearly see it from many places on the Island, and you walked in its shadow if you crossed the Glass Bridge (other varieties of Glengall Bridge were available to older generations). Perhaps it was because I was a kid, and was so used to all the industrial buildings around me that there was nothing exceptional about it in my young mind?
But now, if I look at the photos of the building, and read about its design and capacity, I am impressed and humbled by this giant of a complex just a few hundred yards away from our home.
In 1900, the Millwall Dock Company (this was a few years before the creation of the PLA with responsibility for all docks in the Port of London) invited various engineers and architects to submit designs for a new granary; one which would have a large capacity and a fast grain handling capacity.
It was constructed with fire-proof walls and floors, and the grain elevators were external to the building. This latter requirement was also to reduce the risk of fire and “dust explosion”:
A dust explosion is the rapid combustion of fine particles suspended in the air, often but not always in an enclosed location. Dust explosions can occur where any dispersed powdered combustible material is present in high enough concentrations in the atmosphere or other oxidizing gaseous medium such as oxygen.
Dust explosions are a frequent hazard in coal mines, grain elevators, flour mills and silos (such as those of McDougall,close to the granary) and other industrial environments. As recently as July 2015, a dust explosion in the Bosley Wood flour mill in Macclesfield killed 4.
On the other hand, they are also commonly used by special effects artists, filmmakers, and pyrotechnicians, given their spectacular appearance and ability to be safely contained under certain carefully controlled conditions. As a kid, I’d heard of this effect, perhaps having heard of it from someone’s dad, and was sometimes to be found throwing bags of flour in the air, in the forlorn hope it would explode. Meanwhile, back in 1900….
Dock engineer Frederick Duckham (yes, him again, mentioned in a previous post) designed a novel pneumatic grain elevator for the granary; novel in that it used a pneumatic suction effect, grain was sucked out of ships’ holds instead of the usual method of scooping with cranes. This revolutionized the speed of unloading – doubling it to a capacity of 550 tons per hour. A local firm, the East Ferry Road Engineering Works (who used to be diagonally opposite the George pub) built the pneumatic machinery.
The granary was first used in 1903. Some facts (from Survey of Britain):
The building itself was a shell of three million bricks with 7½ acres of floor space. It was 259ft by 103ft and 95ft tall in eleven storeys, ten for storage in five firewalled divisions, with delivery on the ground floor.
Each steel-plated pneumatic grain elevator tower comprised a 20ft-tall vacuum chamber under which patent airlocks transferred the grain to weighing hoppers. There were two boilers driving the vertical compound steam engine and four pairs of air-exhauster pumps. Girder bridges carried conveyor belts from the dolphin to the quay.
At the top of the elevators the grain was shot off on to conveyors running under the steel-framed and corrugated-iron-clad roof. Travelling trippers then threw it into 10in.— diameter cast-iron delivery pipes (in 1,980 storey-height sections) that fed the 50 housing sections of the building, where bulking boards separated different consignments.
The delivery pipes had sleeves at the top of each storey, dropped to admit grain, and floor-level sliding doors, operated by remote levers, for the discharge of grain to sacks on the ground floor, for delivery to barge, road or rail.
The south end elevator towers were cased with corrugated iron below a fifth-floor conveyor gantry to form auxiliary storage garners, to prevent delay if grain could not pass to the top. The steel transit silos — supplied by the local firm of Samuel Cutler & Sons — each had ten cells, served by bucket elevators and delivery chutes, to hold grain for short-term storage and transmission to railway wagons passing beneath. The steel-framed and corrugated-sheet roof over the quay was 311ft long with a 56ft span.
The Central Granary remained the principal granary in the Port and a vital part of London’s grain trade until 1969, when the opening of the Tilbury Grain Terminal made it redundant. It was demolished in 1970.
I’ve merged the Central Granary with the modern building on the spot. It doesn’t look that huge at all any more.