Anniversary article

On 8th September is the 200th anniversary of an industrial accident on the Greenwich riverside – so – there were lots of those – but this one had consequences beyond the immediate ones, and it involved one of the heroes of steam technology – Richard Trevithick.


A plaque on the wall of the public house on the Peninsula, reads ‘New East Greenwich’[1] and that may have been what was intended in 1803 -a new development away from the main industrial town of Greenwich.  Development on the Peninsula is not something new – in 1800 the developer was George Russell, the site’s owner[2]  Russell had made a fortune from soap manufacture, founding the old Barge House Soap works[3] on the west side of Blackfriars Bridge and he died at his home at Longlands, Sidcup in 1804.[4]    Since developments, including the landscaping of the area, as part of the Dome site it is very difficult to find the area where this incident took place. Most people will remember that the courtyard now in front of the Pilot used to extend to the riverside as Riverway.  On the northern side stood the Blackwall Point Power Station – and this is roughly the site of the tide mill under construction in 1803. Ceylon Place, the cottages alongside the Pilot, were built to house the workers.

The Tide Mill

This mill was constructed by the leading millwrighting business of John Lloyd.  Lloyd was based at Brewers Green in Westminster[5] but within two years had moved to Nelson Square in Southwark[6] as a partner in Lloyd and Ostell.[7] The company were government contractors and were to install the equipment at Waltham Abbey Gunpowder Works[8] and a number of other important sites.  They represent a point at which water powered mill wrighting was at a peak; a few years later such a big industrial installation would have chosen steam power with little consideration of any alternative.

The mill was apparently also the work of a little known engineer, William Johnson. Johnson seems to have come from Bromley, where he gave his address as Widmore House. He had approached Morden College several times during the previous couple of years for a site where he could construct a ‘water corn mill’ – but exactly what his relationship was with George Russell and John Lloyd is not clear.   By 1802 he had moved to Montpelier Row in Blackheath and was asking the City of London Thames Conservators for permission to open the river bank for the mill race – and following a visit from their inspector a Mr. Hollingsworth was employed do the work.   At the same time George Russell received a licence for the causeway into the river, which people will remember was used by the yacht club until riverbank reconstruction by English Partnerships.

One day in 1802 Olinthus Gregory, Professor of Mathematics at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich,[9]walked along the riverside from Woolwich, chatted to the foreman and recorded what he found on site.[10]  It is from him that we have most of the details of this important mill.

The Explosion

Steam power was available on site: a high pressure engine built by Richard Trevithick was in use, apparently for building work. Trevithick had recently come to London to advertise his work – this had included the previous year the demonstrations of the locomotive Catch-as-Catch-can at Euston.

It had an 8 inch cylinder and worked without an expansive cock. Trevithick himself said that it was ‘too light a load to do good duty’ and ‘on a bad construction .. the fly wheel was loaded on one side, so as to divide the power of the double engine’. It was reported that the fire ‘in contain with the cast iron’ had heated the boiler red hot and burnt all the joints.[11]

Eels congregated under the mill and on Thursday, 8th September 1803, an apprentice, left to look after the steam engine, went to catch them. ‘Impatient to finish the work he had put a piece of timber between the top and the safety value and bent it down so that it could not rise to allow the steam to escape’[12] he boiler blew up, killing three men on site. At the remote riverside a wherry was called and the injured taken by river to St. Thomas’s Hospital which was then at London Bridge.[13] Despite the efforts of the surgeon, Mr. Bingham, one man, Thomas Nailor, died a few days later; his head and neck had been covered in boiling water.[14]  Interestingly Nailor had not been a Greenwich resident, but had lived north of the river, in Poplar. Another man was deafened, but the boy, the cause of the trouble, although injured, recovered.[15]

Trevithick feared that Boulton and Watt, as rival engine manufactures, would be quick to point out the dangers involved.[16] The Times in reporting the incident said that ‘Mr. Watt’s engines would not explode in his way’ and that the accident ‘should be a warning to engineers to construct their safety valves so that common workmen cannot stop them at their pleasure’. It was said that customers ‘would not patronise high pressure engines .. from apprehensions that the boiler might explode as that at Woolwich had done’[17] although the cause of the explosion had been negligence.

It seems that there was some sort of enquiry after the accident – it is the sort of thing which ought to have happened. The only clue to this is found in a register of expenses submitted to the Court of Chancery after George Russell’s death.  One item concerns expenses for   Daniel Vaux and Mr. Johnson for attending as a witness in a case respecting the steam engine in Greenwich marsh in 1803 9/7/1808’  – what was this case? Was it about insurance? I have been totally unable to find out and some knowledge of this case and its proceedings might throw a whole new light on the matter.

The mill lived on – it had a number of operators and became part of Frank Hills’ chemical works in the 1840s and was still there in 1890.  After Frank Hills death some of the area was bought for what became Blackwall Point Power Station and the rest, including I think the mill, became the Phoenix Chemical works attached to the gas works.  In 1927 the insurance based Goad plan for the area still shows some of the mill ponds with a causeway leading to them from the area  of the tidal intake – is there anyone who still remembers those ponds? What were they used for? When were they drained?  It is almost impossible now, given the landscaping undertaken by English Partnerships, to trace the site of the mill or the ponds.

[1] W. V.Bartlett in “The River and the Marsh at East Greenwich. The History and Development” (Trans. Greenwich & Lewisham Antiquarian Soc. Vol 7, No.2. 1964-5 pp 68-85) reads the plaque as ‘New Pier Greenwich’ and it is, of course, possible that the plaque has been changed.

[2] George Russell has not been identified although he was a local landowner in the period. He may have been the George Russell was lived at Longlands near Sidcup in the 1830s (cf. Pigot’s Directory 1839). He may have made money which he wanted to invest in retirement and perhaps the name of ‘Ceylon Place’ points to a fortune made in tea

[3] Old Barge House soap works have been associated with the Hawes family see Mary Mills ‘Obscure Gas Works of East London’ GLIAS Newsletter 154 October 1994

[4] Gentlemans Magazine May 1804 p.480 Obituary to George Russell.

[5].Johnsons Street Directory 1804

[6] Pigot 1806.

[7] Kent’s London Directory 1815

[8] see for ie. A.E.Robinson & J.G.L.Burnby Guns and Gunpowder in Enfield Edmonton Hundred Historical Society No.50.

[9] DNB

[10] Olinthus Gregory, A Treatise on Mechanics G.Kearnsley, London, 1806.

[11] Letter from Richard Trevithick 1st October 1803 quoted by Francis Trevithick Life of Richard Trevithick Spon, London 1872.

[12] London Journal 1803 vol.16 p.372

[13] This was of course St.Thomas’s Hospital on its old site near London Bridge.

[14] Southwark inquests  City of London Record Office. It has not proved possible to trace inquests for those who died on site. Greenwich inquests from this period are missing.

[15] Trevithick op cit.

[16] Trevithick op cit.

[17] John Farey A Treatise on Steam Engines. – clearly Farey thought east Greenwich was in Woolwich

Return to New East Greenwich and the Tide Mill

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