Gunpowder Island

On the river Lea in East London stands a human-made island. This is home to a gorgeously atmospheric collection of crooked buildings, huddled together on cobbled lanes like a tiny Georgian Village: this is Three Mills Island. The original Windmill is long demolished, but the ancient cogs and bells of The Clock Mill still turn and the vast House Mill sits in state, its machinery and oak-timbers still intact.

The timber-framed House Mill was built in 1776 by Daniel Bisson, a French Huguenot fleeing persecution in Catholic France. He set the mill up for flour grinding but soon realised he was in the wrong business – Londoners had a far more common staple diet than bread – GIN!

Working alongside Nicholson’s distillery, also on Three Mill Island, Daniel Bisson’s main enemy was a literal GIN CRAZE: mental illness brought on by toxins in unshelled grain. A meticulous process called smutting (yes really!) was employed to strip grain of its shells before distilling.

Insanity was the least of Bisson’s worries however, as the sheer power of the water driven turbines he designed (they had to be specially engineered by shipbuilders!) caused the entire Mill to start shaking itself to pieces and the medieval artificial island to sway precariously on its supports over the river Lea. The Bisson family had to employ rivet boys to run through the mill, standing on each other’s shoulders to constantly hammer in rivets to desperately keep the building intact. Miraculously surviving in this manner for several generations (and thousands of metal rivets) the Mill was saved from itself with the introduction of William Fairbairn’s ‘Silent’ Mill machinery; implementing a far smoother ride. By this time the Mill had abandoned Gin production in favour of grinding gunpowder (please do not get the two confused)!

Coming full circle again in the 20th century, the House Mill once more ground flour until it ceased operation in 1941 due to Blitz bombing devastating the local industries.

Since then Three Mill Island has seen a renaissance: The beautiful clock mill is an office complex and the outbuildings have become London’s largest film and television studios providing facilities and evocative locations for Sherlock Holmes, 28 Days Later, Attack the Block and Lesbian Vampire Killers.

The House Mill itself provides a café, tour and souvenir stand. Most excitingly it has received a 2.65 million grant for its machinery to be restored. Soon the vast waterwheels will be turning once more as this remarkable mill begins production again: the product this time? ENERGY! The electricity generated by The House mill is to be sold to the national grid!


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