Burning of the Albion Mills 1791

Historical Background

"Albion Mills on Fire" could serve as a metaphor for British society at the end of the 18th century. The demand for food was growing rapidly with the population (which rose from about 5 million in 1750 to about 10 million in 1801); Britain was still in the Little Ice Age (1650-1850) that shortened the growing season by up to two months; and harvests were poor. The result was an absolute shortage of food and an inevitable rise in prices. Food riots were frequent and poachers fought bloody battles with gamekeepers.

Into this already volatile situation, came the steam engine. The company of Boulton and Watt had, by combining technical inventiveness with ruthless exploitation of the patent laws, come to dominate the manufacture of steam engines. By the 1780s, production of engines was in full stride and people were beginning to notice their effect.

The millers of London were among the first to feel the hot breath of steam. In 1786, two Boulton and Watt engines were installed at The Albion Mills, in London. The new mill could grind 10 bushels of wheat per hour, dramatically more than windmills, from which could be expected six bushels per hour when the wind was steady [i] and, of course, less than that, or none at all when the wind was erratic or too light. Wind-millers feared ruin and their fears were soon realised. They were all eventually put out of business by steam power.

In March 1791 the Albion Mills, in London, burned down. The cause was never officially discovered, but it was widely believed to be arson: it was reported that "the main cock of the water cistern was fastened, the hour of low tide was chosen" (when river water was hardest to get). Millers or millworkers were suspected; Millers waved placards which read "Success to the mills of ALBION but no Albion Mills." Local people and mill workers danced around the flames "and before the engines had ceased to play upon the smoking ruins, ballads of rejoicing were printed and sung on the spot" (Southey).

Bread was truly the staff of life to most people and fire was a danger to all who lived nearby yet Robert Southey reported that "The mob, who on all such occasions bestir themselves to extinguish a fire with that ready and disinterested activity which characterizes the English, stood by now as willing spectators of the conflagration..."; [ii] on the face of it, a surprising reaction. The explanation lies in the deep distrust for those involved in the supply of bread. The life and death importance of bread made people sensitive to its price and quality. Millers, flour merchants, and bakers were suspected (with good cause) of adulterating flour to increase profits.

The baker will swear all his bread's made of flour,
But just mention alum, you'll make him turn sour;
His ground bones and pebbles turn men skin and bone:
We ask for bread and he gives us a stone

From London Adulterations {Roud V4507} [iii]

Albion Mills was not an isolated incident; a steam powered mill in Birmingham was attacked during the Bread Riots of 1795 but working people did not object to steam-mills in principle. Between 1759 and 1820, 46 or more community flour and bread societies were established in England and Scotland. They were self-help organisations set up in response to rising bread and flour prices and to the perceived malpractices of intermediaries in the corn market.

Members of the community flour and bread schemes had concluded that if they were to "drink little tea and no whiskey at all, But patiently wait and the prices will fall" then they were in for a long wait. The cooperatives sold 'pure' flour and bread to members at 'prime cost'. Most societies could not afford the capital investment needed for a steam powered mill but a few managed it. The first was the Union Mill built by the Birmingham Bread and Flour Company in 1796/7. That mill was not attacked but it was the subject of an unsuccessful legal action brought by millers fearful of the damage that steam power would inflict on their business.

The Songs:

Both songs express hope that the destruction of the mills will bring down the price of bread and benefit other millers.

Bar009~Albion Mills on Fire is for the most part a description of the event but shows no sympathy for the mill's owners

Bar508~ Baker's Glory emphasises that the fire was welcomed by the suppliers, who were objecting to the threat that steam power posed to their business; and also by consumers, who seized an opportunity to take a swipe at millers in general.

References:

[i] http://www.solarnavigator.net/windmill_history.htm

[ii] http://www.alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/albionmills.html

[iii] Bodleian Library Harding B 25(1130)