It’s well known that Millwall thanks its name to the windmills that were on the river embankment – or ‘wall’ – down the west side of the Island. Why only the west side, you might ask? Or perhaps not, but I’m telling you anyway. Because that’s where the prevailing winds come from – the British climate is largely as it is because of stuff blowing in from over the pond. The Island was, and remains, a particularly windy place by London standards, because of the open expanse of water on the west side. No other area of London could boast of having so many windmills – most other windmills were on high spots, and were few and far between.
The first mention of a windmill on the Island dates from the second half of the twelfth century, on 80 acres of Island land owned by the Norman lord, William of Pontefract (who also built a chapel, later the site of Chapel House Farm, after which Chapel House Street is named).
The earliest depiction of windmills on the Island of which I am aware is in a sheet belonging to Gascoyne’s 1703 ‘An actuall Survey of the Parish of St. Dunstan, Stepney, alias Stebonheath’ (Factoid: Stebondale Street’s name was fancifully derived from the notion of it being the valley of Stebonheath).
The windmills in the map are named after their owners: Brown, Smith (three mills), Baker, Chinn (whose actual name was Chinnall) and Ward. Seven mills in total, hence the name of the contemporary primary school, although more would be built later – there would be twelve in total by 1750, most of which survived until the end of the 18th century.
Nearly all the mills were of the same type (with circular or polygonal bases) and were used mostly for corn-grinding to begin with, followed by oil-seed crushing. Most were – brace yourself, Islanders – owned by millers from the other side of the water. Robert Smith, for example, owner of three Island mills was from Rotherhithe, although he would later be known as ‘Robert Smith Sr. of Poplar’. Nicholas Baker was also a resident of Rotherhithe.
From 1800, virtually all the mills were in disuse, and many were decrepit. However, one or two seemed to keep going, as this 1811 etching indicates (described as Millwall Dry Dock, but the only Millwall Dry Dock I am aware of was in the still-to-be-built Millwall Docks – possibly it was Regents Dry Dock at the end of Byng St).
This 1830 sketch shows a surviving windmill (St. Alfege’s Church and the Royal Observatory are visible in the background).
As late as 1843 there was a pub, known as the Windmill or the Windmill Arms, on the wall at the end of Claude Street. It’s difficult to read, but the sign indicates it was a Truman’s pub.
By 1880, the windmill was long gone – burned down I believe – but the pub was still there. It had quite a reputation, serving the residents of mostly Irish descent in Crews St, Gaverick St and Claude St up to as late as World War II. It was their extended living room and not too many ‘outsiders’ cared to visit it (as a good local should be 🙂 ).